Rorate Caeli

A Conspicuous Omission in the New DDF Document on Private Revelation - Guest Article

The following article is by Gene Zannetti.

How often have we heard, concerning supernatural phenomena: “The faithful are not obliged to give an assent of faith to them,” or concerning a private revelation: “Its use is not obligatory”?

Such language, taken from the recent document “Listening to the Spirit Who Works in the Faithful People of God” released by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, May 17, 2024, is no doubt familiar.

While I am no dissenter from the authoritative teaching of the Church, and I accept the DDF document as magisterial, I am nonetheless concerned that an important aspect of our Catholic Tradition is harmfully overlooked in it.

Is it true that all private revelations and prophecies are always merely optional? Can a private revelation ever impose a moral obligation on one or more Catholics?

As the DDF document rightly points out, “no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Certainly we’ve heard this before—the Deposit of Faith was closed at the death of the last Apostle. But does this mean that no private revelation is ever obligatory?

Was not the Bishop of Guadalupe under some moral obligation when he was instructed by Our Lady, by way of St Juan Diego, to build a church?

Was not the King of France under some moral obligation when he was instructed by Our Lord, by way of St. Margaret Mary, to consecrate his country to the Sacred Heart?

Are not we, the faithful, under some moral obligation to fulfill Our Lady of Fatima’s requests after we were instructed by the three shepherd children?

As I thought about this, it seemed to violate my basic Catholic sensibilities to think that a person is at liberty to ignore a request from heaven, especially when that request has been vindicated by miracles and formally approved by the Church (often repeatedly). The new DDF document does not say, of course, that we should deny God or His requests. Quite the contrary, the document says:

God is present and active in our history…[the new norms] are not intended to control or (even less) stifle the Spirit… the Diocesan Bishop is encouraged to appreciate the pastoral value of the spiritual proposal and even to promote its spread…

Yet in spite of these important points, something is missing. How are we to respond when heaven makes an authentic request of us?

Is this merely a matter of human faith and prudence or could it be a matter of moral obligation? I understand the new document is not meant to be an exhaustive catechesis on all mystical phenomena. But this seems to happen so frequently when private revelation is spoken of—amounting to a disregard for these rare but real cases which we have seen throughout the history of the Church.

The DDF mentions Cardinal Ratzinger in the 2000 CDF document on the “Message of Fatima” and I see the same conspicuous absence in that document. It would seem that there, too, private revelation is presented as not capable of obliging the faithful. Cardinal Ratzinger wrote:

Cardinal Prospero Lambertini, the future Pope Benedict XIV, says in his classic treatise, which later became normative for beatifications and canonizations: “An assent of Catholic faith is not due to revelations approved in this way; it is not even possible. These revelations seek rather an assent of human faith in keeping with the requirements of prudence, which puts them before us as probable and credible to piety.”

Cardinal Ratzinger quoted the second paragraph of Cardinal Lambertini’s Volume 3, Chapter XIV, #14. Yet the Cardinal did not include the first paragraph of #14 in the CDF document, which gets the heart of my concern. In the first paragraph, Cardinal Lambertini wrote:

Cardinal de Lugo teaches that he to whom that private revelation is proposed and announced, ought to believe and obey the command or message of God, if it be proposed to him on sufficient evidence; for God speaks to him, at least by means of another, and therefore requires him to believe; hence it is, that he is bound to believe God, Who requires him to do so. Arauxo agrees with him, provided those arguments only be considered sufficient, of which we have spoken above.

Did Cardinal Ratzinger commit an error in the CDF document? I would answer no, but his explanation is fatally incomplete—as is the new DDF document’s. Theologians have taught that in the rare cases mentioned above, an assent of Divine Faith (distinct from Catholic Faith or Divine-Catholic faith) is required, as well as a moral obligation to act. This does not mean that private revelation is somehow elevated to becoming part of the deposit of faith. Nor does it mean one loses one’s Catholicity if one does not believe and respond. But neither is a Catholic simpy free to ignore—much less deny or deride—an authentic message from heaven which is directed at him. To do so would, in fact, be sinful.

Below is a list of quotations that illustrate the consistency of the saints, theologians, and manualists on this topic throughout the years, in perfect alignment with Cardinal Lambertini’s classic treatise. Note that these quotations do not contradict the new DDF or the CDF of 2000, but rather complete these documents’ explication of private revelation by underscoring the importance and even urgency of responding to an authentic revelation that is directed to a person or persons.

The first distinction is made to avoid confusion between authentic and non-authentic private revelation in Session 11a in the Fifth Lateran Council (1516):

If the Lord reveals to certain of them, by some inspiration, some future events in the church of God, as he promises by the prophet Amos and as the apostle Paul, the chief of preachers, says, Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying, we have no wish for them to be counted with the other group of story-tellers and liars or to be otherwise hindered. For, as Ambrose bears witness, the grace of the Spirit himself is being extinguished if fervor in those beginning to speak is quietened by contradiction. In that case, a wrong is certainly done to the Holy Spirit.

In the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas reminds us that the entire purpose of prophecy is, “for the direction of human acts.” If heaven intervenes to direct our acts, can these directions be merely optional?

St. Alphonsus in Twelve Steps to Holiness writes:

If Our Lord came in person and charged you with some office or some particular work, would you hesitate a moment to obey? Would you begin to excuse yourself and oppose obstacles to the fulfillment of His command? But, says St. Bernard, whether it is God Himself or one who takes His place that gives the command, you must render the same prompt and cheerful obedience.

Fr. Marin in The Theology of Christian Perfection (1954) and Fr. Auman in Spiritual Theology (1980) both write:

If, after a prudent judgment, it is determined that a given revelation is authentic, the one who has received the revelation should accept it in the spirit of faith. It is disputed among the theologians whether this act of faith is an act of divine faith; it seems to us that it is. Moreover, if a private revelation contains a message for others and it has been accepted as an authentic revelation, those persons also have an obligation to accept the truth of the revelation and act upon it.

These theological points are reiterated by the manualists.

In 1895, Fr. Hunter in Outlines of Dogmatic Theology Volume 1 says:

Divine faith is due to a private Revelation from God, if such a Revelation come to be known with certitude by any person, which is possible perhaps, but happens very rarely, if at all. At the same time it would be rash and presumptuous of any one to speak or think contemptuously of all such Revelations, especially of such as are widely received among the faithful and are circulated with the sanction, express or tacit, of the Church.

In 1925, Fr. Slater in A Manual of Moral Theology: “It is not heresy, though sinful, to reject what is known to have been revealed by God in a private revelation.”

In 1929, Frs. McHugh and Callan in Moral Theology Volume 1:

An error opposed to what one held to be a genuine private revelation, or to the public revelation, especially when dogmatically defined by the Church, is heretical… The Saints who received special private revelations from Christ with proofs of their genuineness would have been guilty of heresy, had they refused to believe.

In 1930, Fr. Tanquerey in The Spiritual Life:

Many theologians are of the opinion that the persons themselves to whom such revelations are made and those for whom they are destined may believe in them with real Faith, provided they have had clear proof of their authenticity.

In 1952, Fr. Connell in Outlines of Moral Theology:

A private revelation must be believed by those individuals for whom it is intended. However, no one is obliged to believe the statement of another that a private revelation has been made for him unless good assurance has been given that it is really from God. Usually such assurance is given through evident miracles. Persons for whom the revelation is not intended are not bound to accept it as a divine message, although they would do wrong if they positively denied it or derided it when there is good evidence that it came from God.

In 1959, Fr. Tanquerey in A Manual of Dogmatic Theology:

Private Revelation are directed to private persons for their benefit or for the benefit of others; they may be for the good of the whole Church.
       (A) Private revelations can be the object of divine faith. This is commonly taught in opposition to the opinions of the Salmanticenses. For these revelations can be believed because of the authority of God revealing; speaking to one man He is equally all-knowing and truthful as He is when He reveals to all.
       (B) Private revelations should be believed by those to whom they occur, or by those for whom they take place, provided they are certainly established; they can be believed by those to whom they are directed, provided they are set forth by satisfactory arguments.

In 1961, Msgr. Van Noort in Dogmatic Theology Volume III:

It seems indisputable that even a private revelation—at least if it is concerned with matters bearing some relationship to God as our goal—can be believed by the same virtue of faith by which we believe a truth publicly revealed… Granting that the divine origin of the revelation can be established with certainty, the question arises whether such revelations not only can be believed but ought to be believed. Briefly we think the answer is this: such a revelation ought to be believed both by the one who receives it and by those for whom it is destined: the rest of the faithful cannot outrightly deny it without some sort of sin.

All of these witnesses taken together highlight the conspicuous absence not only in the latest magisterial document, but in virtually all discussions regarding authentic private revelation.

Clearly, not all private revelations are merely optional. Clearly, private revelations can potentially impose a moral obligation on a person or persons. Again, my purpose here is not to dissent from the new DDF document, but rather to emphasize a conspicuous absence in theological discussions on private revelation—an absence unfortunately found in this document too.