Are Catholics obliged to believe in Marian apparitions?
Catholics are obligated in faith to accept all general or public revelation, but they are not guilty of sin if they decline to believe in particular private revelations, even if those private revelations really occurred. If you find the evidence for a particular apparition unconvincing, you’re free to disbelieve in it. In fact, you should disbelieve in it, because you’d do yourself a disservice if you believed in something you think didn’t occur.
Marian apparitions and apparitions of other saints are examples of what we call private revelations. They are given to individuals in private. General or public revelation is given to the whole Church, is enshrined in Scripture and sacred Tradition, and ended with the death of the last apostle. General revelation is binding on all Christians, but private revelations are binding only on their recipients. If you ever receive a private revelation in the form of an apparition and are convinced the revelation is from God or from one of his saints on his behalf, in conscience you are obliged to believe in its authenticity and to act on its message. If someone else claims to see an apparition, you’re free to ignore it, even if it’s authentic.
Belief in the authenticity of a particular apparition is never necessary for salvation. If someone says you can’t be saved unless you believe in a particular apparition, you can be sure the person doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
Why do Catholics believe in this or that apparition? The reasons vary. Some are intrinsically stronger than others. Some people believe because they approve of the message. Others believe because they approve of other people who believe in the apparition, or they believe the testimony of the visionaries who claim to have received the apparition. Some folks are impressed with the spiritual signs or effects attributed to applying the message of the apparition. Still others believe because of miracles associated with the apparition. Often several reasons converge in the mind to form a moral certitude of the authenticity of the apparition and its message.
Let’s limit ourselves to the issue of miracles as proof, and let’s consider Fatima and Lourdes. At Fatima, on October 13, 1917, 70,000 people witnessed what has become known as the Miracle of the Sun. Even the anticlerical Portuguese newspapers reported the zigzagging of the sun and the remarkable drying up of the ground and of the witnesses’ rain-soaked clothes. It had been raining hard the previous night and into the morning. A few people who were present at Fatima and saw these occurrences are still alive. Not one has come out, after a long lifetime, to say the whole thing was a hoax. Some commentators, then and now, claim the Miracle of the Sun was an example of mass hallucination, but hallucination is a solitary phenomenon. In medical literature, there are no records of even two people having the same hallucination at the same time, so how can 70,000 see the same thing, especially when some of them — such as governmental authorities who were atheists — were predisposed to disbelieve in anything smacking of the miraculous?
KARL KEATING is the founder of Catholic Answers. This column is reprinted with permission from his book What Catholics Really Believe — Setting the Record Straight: 52 Answers to Common Misconceptions About the Catholic Faith, page 63 (Ignatius Press, San Francisco 1995).
“Throughout the ages, there have been so-called ‘private’ revelations, some of which have been recognized by the authority of the Church. They do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith. It is not their role to improve or complete Christ’s definitive Revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history. Guided by the Magisterium of the Church, the sensus fidelium knows how to discern and welcome in these revelations whatever constitutes an authentic call of Christ or his saints to the Church.”