Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Vatican Gag Order
This is a bit off topic, but relevant nonetheless. According to this UPI report: “The Vatican plans to release a handbook to help Roman Catholic bishops investigate claims of heavenly visions of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.” Regular readers know that Madonna of the Toast is only about the visual manifestations of Jesus and the Virgin Mary (among other recognizable icons), and while they happen frequently enough to keep this blog somewhat lively, if I relayed every story about “heavenly visions” – like statues crying blood and individuals channeling Jesus – it would be a full-time job.
Some of the news stories about this pending Vatican report tread on being sensationalistic, but I did find an even keeled analysis of this development by John L. Allen Jr. on the National Catholic Reporter. All of the perspectives seem to agree that this is a power play. In Allen’s words: “[I]n the Catholic system the only ‘licensed’ spokespersons for God, so to speak, are the ordained. The eruption of alternative channels of revelation, especially among laity, thus has the potential to make officialdom nervous.”
I’ll say, according to these articles, upon any report of such a vision, the seer will be thoroughly investigated and vetted by church officials. Psychiatrists, theologians, spiritual experts and even exorcists will examine the individual in question. During the examination he or she must stay out of the limelight, since seeking publicity comes off as dubious. The person must also turn over their computer in order for investigators to see if the “suspect” – though this really sounds like guilty until proven innocent – had been researching suspicious topics.
In talking to people and reading quite a bit about people seeing Jesus -- whether as an animated apparition or an oil stain -- the general consensus about them is that they are just having a bit of fun, a crafty entrepreneur looking to make a quick buck on eBay or a crackpot. What then does the church have to worry about?
That there is what you call one of them rhetorical questions. If you find spiritual solace outside of a church, then you won’t go to a church, and this is what worries the Vatican. Allen dubs it “quality control” which strikes me as incredibly impersonal, mechanical even. But I guess dogma is kind of like a conveyor belt, it keeps coming and there’s not much you can do about it . . .
Okay, maybe not like a conveyor belt exactly, but the spiritual should be personal. If a visit to the woman speaking to Mary puts your mind at ease, or lighting a candle for a shrine set up by a telephone poll resembling Jesus on the cross slakes your worries, do it. If the faithful were jumping ship to worship American Idol winners, I could kind of understand this, but what the Vatican is reacting to is a result of its proselytizing -- the church has taught people to look for Jesus for help. Lots of people need help so it should come as no surprise that Jesus and Mary get seen all over the place.
This isn’t new actually. Allen explains that this report is more of an update of a 1978 document compiled by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that was sent to bishop’s all over the world “outlining the procedure to be followed in cases of reports of supernatural happenings.” Then there was the Vatican’s 2003 condemnation of New Age, urging people not to seek spiritual fulfillment in pursuits like yoga and feng shui and shamanism (though all three are quite a bit older than Christianity). (This is the Vatican’s official stance on New Age.) The Vatican's goal is to keep Catholics in line with Catholic doctrine and these personalized spiritual beliefs can’t be contained because they are different for everyone.
As more and more people react to seeing Jesus and Mary in ordinary places I guess the Vatican will dedicate lots of time to digging through people’s internet search histories. Maybe they’ll stumble across this blog!
Update: Speaking of holy visions and the pilgrimages they inspire, The Economist’s January 15 “Correspondent’s Diary”: “Pilgrims in Rhineland” describes a journey through Catholic pilgrimage sites in Germany and the author sites Madonna of the Toast as a “lively book” that documents these stories. How about that!