Amid Growing Legitimacy Challenges from its Right and Left, Vatican Seizes Control of the Supernatural — to Prevent ‘Abuses’

Statue of Mary reported to have wept "blood" in Argentina. Image: Twitter/@Arguments

On May 17, the Vatican overhauled its process for evaluating and verifying supernatural phenomena, from apparitions of the Virgin Mary to her statues weeping tears or blood. The guidance released by the Vatican’s Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith cracks down on the flurry of miracles shared on social media which, the Church argues, are exploiting and leading its members astray. But with this new spiritual power play, the Church is also consolidating its leadership just as modern miracles from both the hierarchy’s Right and Left challenge its authority. 

As of May 19, the Feast of Pentecost, neither local bishops nor the Vatican has the authority to declare whether a reported experience is supernatural. Instead, they can assign each phenomenon one of six outcomes along a spectrum, ranging, according to the New York Times “from outright rejection to more nuanced reasonings” (declaring, in other words, whether or not a Catholic is permitted to devote themselves to it or whether it challenges or contradicts the Roman Catholic faith). Those promoting the validity of a rejected event could face penalties from the Church. 

Of course, this isn’t the first time the Church has pulled rank. According to a series of apparitions in Amsterdam from 1945-1959, Mary herself requested the Church issue a new dogma. The Vatican later intervened in 1974 stating there was no evidence of anything supernatural, and four years later released norms for the approval of supernatural phenomena. These same apparitions were revisited in Dr. Daniel Galassini’s new book Mary: Fourth Person in the Trinity?

Galassini’s book centers on whether the Mother of God should be called the “co-redeemer” or “co-redemptrix,” the dogma Mary herself proposed, according to those who reported the Amsterdam apparitions. Galassini warns readers that these, along with some of the most popular apparitions, are falsely identifying themselves as Mary and that this deception is a sign of the End Times. The book, distributed by Trilogy Christian Publishing (a publishing arm of evangelical media powerhouse Trinity Broadcasting Network), builds on mounting fear among Catholic leaders about Marian devotions in the 21st century. 

The Vatican’s latest guidance, released, ironically, just four days after the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima, which honors one of the most well-known and celebrated Marian apparitions in Church history, enables Church hierarchy to gain even greater leverage against growing extra-Church movements centering Mary, like folk Catholicism, Catholic mysticism, and Catholic witchcraft, all of which are popular among those who’ve been cast out or abandoned by the Church and its exclusionary positions on the role of women, LGBTQ people, and others. These positions were cemented this past week when Francis shut down the possibility of women deacons and used a queerphobic slur behind closed doors (for which he later apologized). 

Francis is currently fighting the tide of sedevacantism, a largely right-wing belief that the last valid pope predates the Second Vatican Council and that the current papal seat either remains empty or is occupied by an invalid pope. In fact, the updated Vatican guidance comes just three months after San Antonio priest Father John Mary Foster claimed he received three prophetic messages directly from God stating that Francis is a “usurper,” and that left-leaning Church leadership is a sign, as Galassini argues, of the End Times. 

In God’s second message, titled Time to Join My ArmyA Call to Priests and Bishops, God told Foster that:

You have not only let the smoke of Satan infiltrate into My Sanctuary; but you have allowed a whole army of demons to take your places [in Church leadership]. And you have allowed the usurper to sit on the chair of My Peter [the Pope]he who is carrying out the Great Treason that will leave My Church desolate. [12:06]      

Foster published this second message on the Mission of Divine Mercy’s website on March 6. Less than a week later, in response to a request from Archbishop García-Siller that the messages be taken down, Foster released a 17-page document arguing that, “If it is true that a usurper, intended to subvert the faith, is on the throne of Peter, are we to obey him and those under his dominion when they command unjust actions?” 

Just three days later, Archbishop García-Siller released a letter, in line with this new Vatican guidance, clarifying that these messages contained false teachings. García-Siller then stripped the Mission of Divine Mercy of its apostolate status in the archdiocese and removed Foster’s faculties for public ministry. Further, the Archbishop noted that he made this decision to avoid confusion among Catholics in San Antonio and around the world. 

And this is not an isolated incident. Most recently, the Spanish Poor Clares community left the Church. In a letter, Sister Isabel of the Trinity, the superior of the Spanish Poor Clares, announced that the sisters are leaving the Catholic Church and will be placed under the jurisdiction of a self-proclaimed bishop who was excommunicated in 2019 for performing sacraments without approval. 

From the Throne of Peter we have been receiving contradiction, confusion, doublespeak, ambiguity, lack of clear doctrine, which is all the more necessary in stormy times, to hold the rudder more firmly. During this time the sisters, each in her own style, way and rhythm, have been contemplating a question, a doubt about the one who steers the Barque of Peter [i.e. The Pope], and his closest collaborators.

The Vatican’s new guidance seeks to seize control of the battle of miracles, in which groups with competing agendas seek to invalidate one another’s supernatural experiences. Bishop Donald Sanborn, for example, rector of the Sedevacantist Most Holy Trinity Seminary, cast doubt on Eucharistic miracles occurring in modern post-Vatican II masses this past November. At the same time, while the Vatican’s new guidance deeply affects sectarian traditionalist groups that believe Church leadership is illegitimate, it can also be used to fend off populist Catholic movements, including folk Catholics, Catholic mystics, and Catholic witches, that challenge the need for institutional leadership at all. 

These largely feminist traditions are among the first to question why their experiences need to be regulated and validated by the hierarchy, and to point out that these same institutional figures have historically gate-kept or whitewashed figures like Mary for their own colonial, anti-feminist objectives. 

And the authority to allow or disallow millions of Catholics to devote themselves to the miracle is as much an economic one as a political or spiritual one. The decision is worth millions of dollars, as Marian apparition sites in Lourdes, Fatima, and Guadalupe draw pilgrims each year, and Sedevancantist communities spread (taking their tithe money with them). These rulings even ripple down to jewelry companies like Awe Inspired whose Virgin Mary jewelry could be considered invalid by the Church.

At a recent press conference, head of the Dicastery, Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez, argued for these new guidelines because experiences that were created and shared with the goal of “profit, power, fame, social recognition, or other personal interest” may harm members of the Church by, “exerting control over people or carrying out abuses.” While at first Fernandez appears to call out influencers who exploit spiritual encounters and prophetic guidance for likes, shares, and money, or radical Catholic factions using apparitions to bolster their cause, his warnings may be just as relevant to the Church itself.