Tuesday, 13 April 2021

How Private Revelations Have Influenced the Church- Part I

A fascinating two part article. Part II will be posted at 12.00. 

From Catholic Stand

By Edward Benet

A Catholic is expected to consent firmly to the articles of the Creed – the Trinitarian nature of God, the incarnation of Jesus, his passion, death and resurrection, the establishment of the Church, the second coming, and the final judgment. In contrast to public revelation, the faithful are not bound to accept private revelations, even those, such as Lourdes or Fatima, that have been officially approved. In other words, Catholics are free to hold the opinion that St Bernadette was hallucinating in Massabielle, but they cannot claim that they are still Catholic whilst denying the virginal birth of Christ.

This sounds like a nice clear distinction: a Catholic must adhere to the content of public revelation but can make up his own mind on private revelations. The distinction is genuine, but the waters get muddied somewhat when we consider the many instances of Church teachings, pastoral practices, and liturgical devotions that would not have seen the light of day if it were not for the impetus given to them by revelations of a private sort.

Private Revelations Influence the “How” But Not the “What”

The process of the development of doctrine is a beautiful manifestation of the life of the Spirit in the Church. At the Last Supper, Jesus said, “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14, 25-26) In the case of certain teachings, it took the Spirit many centuries to clarify doctrines and have them defined formally. This activity took place through the discussions of theologians, in the appeals of the ordinary faithful for the matter to be defined, and by means of key decisions of the successors of Peter. But the Spirit was also active through crucial private revelations that shaped the formulation of Church teaching.

Or to state all of this differently: The Second Vatican Council reaffirms the Church’s ancient teaching that Christ is the definitive revelation of God. After Christ, nothing new can be added to the deposit of faith. This means that the Church will never define new dogmas that are not already, at least implicitly, contained in Scripture and Tradition. Having said that, it is also true that private revelations have influenced and shaped – sometimes in a decisive manner – the way in which the Church has developed its doctrines and presented its teachings, even if the content of those teachings remains ultimately dependent on Scripture and Tradition.

How Doctrines Typically Develop

Given the protestant suspicion of alleged Catholic “additions” that are supposedly not found in the Bible, it is ironic that a former protestant, St. John Henry Newman, became the theologian who best clarified how authentic doctrines develop over time.  Typically, there are three stages in the Church’s progressive elaboration of a truth implicitly contained in revelation.

In the first stage, the Church possesses the truth in a tranquil and non-self-conscious manner. In the second stage, there is a period of discussion and controversy as theologians seek to clarify the matter and understand its relationship to other established doctrines. In the final stage, the teaching is received by the entire Church through a formal definition by the successor of Peter, or through a magisterial document promulgated by an ecumenical council of the Church.

The Immaculate Conception of Mary

The most dramatic example of Catholic development of doctrine is that of the Immaculate Conception. Those who claim that the doctrine is without a Scriptural foundation do not know their Bible. In recent decades, both Catholic and protestant scholars have established that the expression used by St Luke to translate the words spoken to Mary by Gabriel – “full of grace” – kecharitomene in Greek, is a unique expression that appears nowhere else in the sacred or secular Greek literature of the time. It is a word invented by Luke to try to express what the angel said to Mary. However, the meaning of the word is clear. It refers to she who has been made perfect by the grace of God, in other words, an implicit reference to the Immaculate Conception. (Read this beautiful article on the Greek expression and how it is, effectively, God’s own name for Mary.)

What is written in Scripture, however, still needs interpretation by the Church. That fact has become acutely clear in the five hundred years since the Reformation. Even relatively clear-cut expressions such as “my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink” (John 6,55) can be interpreted in diametrically opposed ways by different denominations.

On the matter of the Immaculate Conception, in the first centuries, there was a general acceptance of the unique privileges of Mary, her divine maternity, her perpetual virginity, and her sinless life. In the second phase, there was a heated discussion among Scholastic theologians, some of whom could not see how Mary would have needed redemption by Christ if she was already immaculately conceived some decades before he wrought salvation by his passion, death, and resurrection.

These same theologians, however, still believed that her unique position as Mother of God meant it was appropriate for her to be free from personal sin. The question remained: was she also free from original sin? (incidentally, the tone of the debate between these Scholastic theologians was very different from the tone of the modern debate on this subject between Catholics and protestants. Both sides of the medieval debate were fervent champions of Our Lady).

The controversy would eventually be resolved (many centuries after his death) by the work of Franciscan Duns Scotus (d. 1308). He argued that Mary was preserved free from sin by the foreseen merits of Christ. Thus, like everyone else, Mary was redeemed by her son, but in a more noble way, since it is more wonderful to preserve someone from sin than to forgive them their guilt after they have fallen into it.

With the theological obstacle removed, the majority of theologians adhered to the belief in the Immaculate Conception by the middle of the fifteenth century. However, it would take a private revelation and pressure from the faithful before the Church finally defined the dogma. In 1830, Our Lady appeared to Catherine Labouré at the Daughters of Charity in Paris. Our Lady asked Catherine to organise the distribution of the miraculous medal, which bore the words, “O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee”.

The stunning popularity of the medal among the faithful prompted many French, Spanish and Italian bishops to ask the Holy Father that the Immaculate Conception be defined as an article of faith. Pope Pius IX thus decided to petition the bishops of the world for their consent. Thus, a dogma that was contained in Scripture and which crystallised through the life of the Church was only finally defined on the heels of a private revelation to a simple nun in Paris. Marvellously, just four years after the definition, the correctness of the dogma was confirmed when Our Lady appeared to an illiterate girl in Lourdes and revealed her very name to be “the Immaculate Conception”.

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