The abundance of alleged messages and revelations in the past thirty years makes ever more necessary the traditional caution and discernment of spirits. In today's confusion and spiritual wasteland, many Catholics are seeking contact with the supernatural via new private revelations, regardless of whether or not they have been approved, or even whether or not they are in accordance with the Faith.
God may, and sometimes does, grant revelations to private individuals. Those who receive them, and are perfectly certain that they come from God, are bound to believe them. But the Church never imposes on Catholics the obligation of believing anyone's private revelations, even those of the great saints. The Church gives her approval to them only when she is satisfied after rigorous examination of their spiritual utility and of the evidence on which they depend.
The Catechism at #67 says private revelations "do not belong to the deposit of faith. It is not their role to 'improve' or 'complete' Christ's definitive Revelation, but to furnish help so that it may be more fully applied to life in a certain period of history." (See St Thomas, Summa II-II, q.174, art.6, ad 3). Christian faith cannot accept revelations which claim to correct the teaching of the Church or enjoin disobedience to the lawful directives of her pastors.
Catholics ought be very cautious in giving credence to visions and messages before they have received approbation from the Church, as they may distract people from genuine private revelations; lead them into exercises not blessed as such by God; bring private revelations into complete disrepute; and, worst of all, subtly lead some people out of the Church altogether.
The devil rejoices when Catholics reject the tried and true means of spiritual growth to chase after the extraordinary and the unapproved. The Church is extremely careful before approving a private revelation, for she knows how "even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light" (2 Cor 11:14). She must avoid both credulity and unfounded scepticism. "Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying, but test everything," directs St Paul (1 Thess 5:19-21). And St John warns, "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God" (1 Jn 4:1). Some spirits are quite easy to discern; others very difficult.
Priests in particular must be examples of prudence and obedience in this area. Very few people are aware of the devil's full powers, and his ability to deceive. Many Catholics think that as soon as any prodigy occurs, it must be the work of God. But messages and prodigies can issue from three sources ultimately: God, man, or the devil. It is the work of discernment to identify who is at work in a given case.
It is forbidden, as well as sinful, to propagate private revelations which have received a negative judgement from the local bishop, the conference of bishops, or the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The authority to rule on the genuineness of a private revelation rests first with the local bishop.
Some people say, "Well I'm going to follow it until the Pope says it's false." This is a useless guide for action in this matter: very rarely does the Pope himself make a pronouncement for or against a revelation. The Popes may choose to show their approval of certain revelations, after the decision of a local bishop or conference of bishops, by speaking of them, or by placing a new feast in the liturgical calendar, or by visiting the places intrinsically connected with them (e.g., Guadalupe, Paray-le-Monial, Rue de Bac, Lourdes, Knock, Fatima, Beauraing, Banneux).
Even should the local bishop mistakenly disapprove of a genuine revelation, obedience to the Church remains paramount. In some cases, it is a sin to propagate a private revelation, but it can never be a sin not to propagate one. This applies both to claimed seers and to followers. In fact, if an alleged visionary disobeys a legitimate order from the bishop, this is a sure sign that the message is not from God. Even if a genuine private revelation has been given, not even God Himself would want or command a seer to spread it against a lawful decree of a bishop to desist.
After error itself, the mark of a false mystic is wilfulness and disobedience. Blessed Faustina Kowalska wrote, "Satan can even clothe himself in a cloak of humility, but he does not know how to wear the cloak of obedience" (Diary, par. 939). Genuine mystics, like Blessed Padre Pio, are models of obedience. They never pretend to set up Christ against His Church.
It is knowledge of diabolical trickery which makes the Church cautious here. The following section on the power of the demons is taken from Jordan Aumann OP, Spiritual Theology, pp.420-1. I strongly recommend his book's last chapter detailing what devils can and cannot do.
The devils cannot do the following: (1) Produce any kind of truly supernatural phenomenon. (2) Create a substance, since only God can create. (3) Bring a dead person back to life, although they could produce the illusion of doing so. (4) Make truly prophetic predictions, since only God knows the future absolutely, and those to whom He chooses to reveal a portion of it. However, the devil's intelligent conjecture about the future might appear to mere mortals a prophecy. (5) Know the secrets of a person's mind and heart. However, their shrewd intelligence and observation may enable them to deduce many things about a person.
The devils can do the following: (1) Produce corporeal or imaginative visions. (2) Falsify ecstasy. (3) Instantaneously cure sicknesses that have been caused by diabolical influence. (4) Produce the stigmata. (5) Simulate miracles and the phenomena of levitation and bilocation. (6) Make people or objects seem to disappear by interfering with a person's sight or line of vision. (7) Cause a person to hear sounds or voices. (8) Cause a person to speak in tongues. (9) Declare a fact which is hidden or distant.
Nature and science
Whatever nature or science can cause, the devils too are able to cause, according to what God may permit. The Book of Exodus describes how the magicians and sorcerers of Pharaoh were able to accomplish some of the prodigies wrought by Moses and Aaron (Ex 7:11-12; 7:22; 8:7; 8:18-19; 9:11).
Close to 200 AD, Tertullian writes, "first of all, they [the demons] make you ill; then to get a miracle out of it, they prescribe remedies either completely novel, or contrary to those in use, and thereupon withdrawing hurtful influence, they are supposed to have wrought a cure" (Apology of the Christian Religion, 22).
In the face of the fallen angels' power to deceive, it is no wonder that the Church is always very slow to declare a miracle or message authentic. It is easier to pronounce against visionaries than in their favour. Some individuals have been pronounced against by name, e.g., Vassula Ryden and the Little Pebble, William Kamm. Vassula has been condemned twice by the Holy Office, on the grounds that her revelations do not come from God, and because they contain errors against the Faith. "But her writings are so spiritual and so beautiful!"
I agree; possibly 99% of Vassula's messages are in conformity with the Catholic Faith; but that is just how the devil operates to deceive pious Catholics. It is the 1% that does harm. A poisoned apple is mostly good apple; but will harm you nevertheless. The devil knows he cannot mislead devout Catholics with outright heresy, but he can appeal to their piety and then subtly plant errors within.
The simple fact is that most claimed revelations are false. It is extremely foolish, therefore, to devote oneself to propagating a disapproved or dubious message, which might actually come from the Father of Lies. If one day you see its falsity for yourself, you will regret it enormously, and be unable to undo the harm done to others. On the other hand, there are more than enough approved messages to spread. It is better to keep to what is countenanced by the Church, than to go it alone and risk being a dupe of the devil.
Fr Peter Joseph is vice-rector of Vianney College seminary of Wagga Wagga, and the editor of a revised edition of Archbishop Sheehan's 'Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine'.