Bishop Victor Manuel Fernandez. Photo: Archbishopric of La Plata

The norms for discernment of alleged supernatural phenomena explained by the Prefect for the Dicastery of the Faith

These new Norms are but one way in which the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith places itself at the service of the pastors of the Church in docile listening to the Spirit at work in the faithful People of God.

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Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández

(ZENIT News / Vatican City, 05.17.2024).- God is present and active in our history. The Holy Spirit, who flows from the heart of the risen Christ, works in the Church with divine freedom and offers us many valuable gifts that aid us on the path of life and encourage our spiritual growth in fidelity to the Gospel. This action of the Holy Spirit can also reach our hearts through certain supernatural occurrences, such as apparitions or visions of Christ or the Blessed Virgin, and other phenomena.

Many times, these events have led to a great richness of spiritual fruits, growth in faith, devotion, fraternity, and service. In some cases, they have given rise to shrines throughout the world that are at the heart of many people’s popular piety today. What life and beauty the Lord sows beyond our human understanding and procedures! For this reason, the Norms for Proceeding in the Discernment of Alleged Supernatural Phenomena that we now present here are not intended to control or (even less) stifle the Spirit. In fact, in the best cases involving events of alleged supernatural origin, “the Diocesan Bishop is encouraged to appreciate the pastoral value of this spiritual proposal, and even to promote its spread” (I, par. 17).

St. John of the Cross recognized “the lowliness, deficiency, and inadequacy of all the terms and words used in this life to deal with divine things.”[1] Indeed, no one can fully express God’s inscrutable ways: “The saintly doctors, no matter how much they have said or will say, can never furnish an exhaustive explanation of these figures and comparisons, since the abundant meanings of the Holy Spirit cannot be caught in words.”[2] For “the way to God is as hidden and secret to the senses of the soul as are the footsteps of one walking on water imperceptible to the senses of the body.”[3] Indeed, “since he is the supernatural artificer, he will construct supernaturally in each soul the edifice he desires.”[4]

At the same time, in some events of alleged supernatural origin, there are serious critical issues that are detrimental to the faithful; in these situations, the Church must respond with utmost pastoral solicitude. In particular, I am thinking of the use of such phenomenon to gain “profit, power, fame, social recognition, or other personal interest” (II, Art. 15, 4°)—even possibly extending to the commission of gravely immoral acts (cf. II, Art.15, 5°) or the use of these phenomena “as a means of or pretext for exerting control over people or carrying out abuses” (II, Art. 16).

When considering such events, one should not overlook, for example, the possibility of doctrinal errors, an oversimplification of the Gospel message, or the spread of a sectarian mentality. Finally, there is the possibility of believers being misled by an event that is attributed to a divine initiative but is merely the product of someone’s imagination, desire for novelty, tendency to fabricate falsehoods (mythomania), or inclination toward lying.

Therefore, in its discernment in this area, the Church needs clear procedures. The Norms Regarding the Manner of Proceeding in the Discernment of Presumed Apparitions or Revelations, in use until now, were approved by Pope St. Paul VI in 1978, more than four decades ago. They remained confidential until they were officially published in 2011, thirty-three years later.

The Recent Revision 

After the 1978 Norms were put into practice, however, it became evident that decisions took an excessively long time, sometimes spanning several decades. In this way, the necessary ecclesiastical discernment often came too late. 

The revision of the 1978 Norms began in 2019 and involved various consultations envisioned by the then Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Congresso, Consulta, Feria IV, and Plenaria). During the subsequent five years, several proposals for revision were made, but all were considered inadequate.

In the Congresso of the Dicastery on 16 November 2023, it was acknowledged that a comprehensive and radical revision of the existing draft was needed. With this, the Dicastery prepared a new and entirely reconsidered draft that clarified the roles of the Diocesan Bishop and the Dicastery.

The new draft underwent review in a Consulta Ristretta on 4 March 2024. Overall, the experts had a favorable opinion of the text, though they made some suggestions for improvement, which were subsequently incorporated into the document.

The text was then studied in the Dicastery’s Feria IV of 17 April 2024, during which the Cardinal and Bishop Members gave it their approval. Finally, on 4 May 2024, the new Norms were presented to the Holy Father, who approved them and ordered their publication. He established that these Norms will take effect on 19 May 2024, the Solemnity of Pentecost.

Reasons for the New Norms 

In the Preface to the 2011 publication of the 1978 Norms, the then Prefect, His Eminence, William Cardinal Levada, clarified that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has the competence to examine cases of alleged “apparitions, visions and messages attributed to supernatural sources.” Indeed, the 1978 Norms had also established that “it is up to the Sacred Congregation to judge and approve the Ordinary’s way of proceeding” or “to initiate a new examination” (IV, 2).

In the past, the Holy See seemed to accept that Bishops would make statements such as, “ Les fidèles sont fondés à la croire indubitable et certaine”: Decree of the Bishop of Grenoble, 19 September 1851) and “one cannot doubt the reality of the tears” (Decree of the Bishops of Sicily, 12 December 1953). However, these expressions conflicted with the Church’s own conviction that the faithful did not have to accept the authenticity of these events. Therefore, a few months after the latter case, the Holy Office explained that it had “not yet made any decision regarding the Madonna delle Lacrime” ([Syracuse, Sicily] 2 October 1954). More recently, in reference to Fatima, the then Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith explained that ecclesiastical approval of a private revelation highlights that “the message contains nothing contrary to faith or morals” (26 June 2000). Despite this clear stance, the actual procedures followed by the Dicastery, even in recent times, were still inclined toward the Bishop making a declaration that the event was “supernatural” or “not supernatural”—so much so that some Bishops insisted on being able to make a positive declaration of this type. Even recently, some Bishops have wanted to make statements such as, “I confirm the absolute truth of the facts” and “the faithful must undoubtedly consider as true…”. These expressions effectively oriented the faithful to think they had to believe in these phenomena, which sometimes were valued more than the Gospel itself.

In dealing with such cases, and especially when preparing an official statement, some Bishops sought the necessary prior authorization from the Dicastery. Then, when granted that permission, Bishops were asked not to mention the Dicastery in their statement. This was the case, for example, in the rare instances that concluded in recent decades, in which the Dicastery included provisions such as “Sans impliquer notre Congrégation,” Letter to the Bishop of Gap [France], 3 August 2007) or “the Dicastery shall not be involved in such a pronouncement” (Congresso of 11 May 2001, regarding a request from the Bishop of Gikongoro [Rwanda]). In these situations, the Bishop could not even mention that the Dicastery had given its approval. Meanwhile, other Bishops, whose Dioceses were also affected by these phenomena, were also seeking an authoritative opinion from the Dicastery to attain greater clarity. 

This way of proceeding, which has caused considerable confusion, shows how the 1978 Norms are no longer adequate to guide the actions of the Bishops and the Dicastery. This has become even more of a problem today since phenomena rarely remain within the boundaries of one city or Diocese. This concern was already noted during the 1974 Plenary Assembly of the then Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where the members acknowledged that an event of alleged supernatural origin often “inevitably extends beyond the limits of a Diocese and even of a Nation and […] the case automatically reaches proportions that can justify intervention by the supreme Authority of the Church.” Meanwhile, the 1978 Norms recognized that it had become “more difficult, if not almost impossible, to achieve with the required speed the judgments that in the past concluded the investigation of such matters (constat de supernaturalitate, non constat de supernaturalitate)” (Preliminary Note).

The expectation of receiving a declaration about the supernatural nature of the event resulted in very few cases ever reaching a clear determination. In fact, since 1950, no more than six cases have been officially resolved, even though such phenomena have often increased without clear guidance and with the involvement of people from many Dioceses. Therefore, one can assume that many other cases were either handled differently or just not handled at all.

To prevent any further delays in the resolution of a specific case involving an event of alleged supernatural origin, the Dicastery recently proposed to the Holy Father the idea of concluding the discernment process not with a declaration of “de supernaturalitate” but with a “Nihil obstat,” which would allow the Bishop to draw pastoral benefit from the spiritual phenomenon. The idea of concluding with a declaration of “Nihil obstat” was reached after assessing the various spiritual and pastoral fruits of the event and finding no substantial negative elements in it. The Holy Father considered this proposal to be a “right solution.”

New Aspects 

Based on the factors mentioned above, with the new Norms, we are proposing a procedure that is different from the past but is also richer as it involves six possible prudential conclusions that can guide pastoral work surrounding events of alleged supernatural origin (cf. I, pars. 17-22). These six possible determinations allow the Dicastery and the Bishops to handle in a suitable manner the issues that arise in connection with the diverse cases they encounter.

As a rule, these potential conclusions do not include the possibility of declaring that the phenomenon under discernment is of supernatural origin—that is, affirming with moral certainty that it originates from a decision willed by God in a direct way.Instead, as Pope Benedict XVI explained, granting a Nihil obstat simply indicates that the faithful “are authorized to give [the phenomenon] their adhesion in a prudent manner.” Since a Nihil obstat does not declare the events in question to be supernatural, it becomes even more apparent—as Pope Benedict XVI also said— how the phenomenon is only “a help which is proffered, but its use is not obligatory.”[5] At the same time, this response naturally leaves open the possibility that, in monitoring how the devotion develops, a different response may be required in the future.

Moreover, it should be noted that reaching a declaration affirming the “supernaturalness” of an event, by its very nature, not only requires a suitable amount of time to carry out the analysis but it can also lead to the possibility that a judgment of “supernatural” today might become a judgment of “not supernatural” years later—and precisely this has happened. An example worth recalling is a case involving alleged apparitions from the 1950s. In 1956, the Bishop issued a final judgment of “not supernatural,” and the following year, the Holy Office approved the Bishop’s decision. Then, the approval of that veneration was sought again. In 1974, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared the alleged apparitions to be “constat de non supernaturalitate.” Thereafter, in 1996, the local Bishop positively recognized the devotion, and in 2002, another Bishop from the same place recognized the “supernatural origin” of the apparitions, leading to the spread of the devotion to other countries. Finally, in 2020, at the request of the Congregation, a new Bishop reiterated the Congregation’s earlier “negative judgment,” requiring the cessation of any public disclosures regarding the alleged apparitions and revelations. Thus, it took about seventy excruciating years to bring the whole matter to a conclusion.

Today, we have come to the conviction that such complicated situations, which create confusion among the faithful, should always be avoided. This can be accomplished by ensuring a quicker and clearer involvement of this Dicastery and by preventing the impression that the discernment process would be directed toward a declaration of “supernaturalness” (which carries high expectations, anxieties, and even pressures). Instead, as a rule, such declarations of “supernaturalness” are replaced either by a Nihil obstat, which authorizes positive pastoral work, or by another determination that is suited to the specific situation.

The procedures outlined in the new Norms, which offer six possible final prudential decisions, make it possible to reach a decision in a more reasonable period, helping the Bishop to manage a situation involving events of alleged supernatural origin before such occurrences— without a necessary ecclesial discernment—acquire very problematic dimensions. 

Nevertheless, the possibility always remains that the Holy Father may intervene exceptionally by authorizing a procedure that includes the possibility of declaring the supernaturalness of the events. Yet, this is an exception that has been made only rarely in recent centuries.

At the same time, as stipulated in the new Norms, the possibility of declaring an event as “not supernatural” remains, but only when there are objective signs that clearly indicate manipulation at the basis of the phenomenon. For instance, this might occur when an alleged visionary admits to having lied or when evidence shows that the blood on a crucifix belongs to the alleged visionary.

Recognizing an Action of the Holy Spirit 

Most of the shrines that today are privileged places of popular piety for the People of God have never had an official declaration of the supernatural nature of the events that led to the devotion expressed there. Rather, the sensus fidelium intuited the activity of the Holy Spirit there, and no major problems have arisen that required an intervention from the pastors of the Church.

Often, the presence of the Bishop and priests at certain times—such as during pilgrimages or celebrating certain Masses—has served as an implicit acknowledgment that there are no serious objections and that the spiritual experience had a positive influence on the lives of the faithful.

Nevertheless, a Nihil obstat allows the pastors of the Church to act confidently and promptly to stand among the People of God in welcoming the Holy Spirit’s gifts that may emerge “in the midst of” these events. The phrase “in the midst of”—used in the new Norms—clarifies that even if the event itself is not declared to be of supernatural origin, there is still a recognition of the signs of the Holy Spirit’s supernatural action in the midst of what is occurring. 

However, in some cases, alongside this recognition of the signs of the Holy Spirit’s action, there is also a need for certain clarifications or purifications. It may happen that the Holy Spirit’s action in a specific situation—which can be rightly appreciated—might appear to be mixed with purely human elements (such as personal desires, memories, and sometimes obsessive thoughts), or with “some error of a natural order, not due to bad intentions, but to the subjective perception of the phenomenon” (II, Art. 15, 2°). After all, “an experience alleged to be a vision simply cannot compel one either to accept it as accurate in every detail or to reject it altogether as a human or diabolical illusion or fraud.”[6]

The Involvement and Accompaniment of the Dicastery 

It is important to understand that the new Norms clarify a significant point about the competence of this Dicastery. On the one hand, they affirm that discernment in this area remains the task of the Diocesan Bishop. On the other hand, recognizing that, now more than ever, these phenomena involve many people from various Dioceses and spread rapidly across different regions and even countries, the new Norms establish that the Dicastery must always be consulted and give final approval to what the Bishop decides before he announces a determination on an event of alleged supernatural origin. While previously the Dicastery had intervened but the Bishop was asked not to mention it, today, the Dicastery openly manifests its involvement and accompanies the Bishop in reaching a final determination. Now, when the Bishop makes his decision public, it will be stated as “in agreement with the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.” 

At the same time, as already envisioned in the 1978 Norms (IV, 1 b), the new Norms also indicate that, in some instances, the Dicastery may intervene motu proprio (II, Art. 26). Once a clear determination is made, the new Norms specify that “the Dicastery, in any case, reserves the right to intervene again depending on the development of the phenomenon in question” (II, Art. 22, § 3) and request the Bishop to continue “to watch over the phenomenon” (II, Art. 24) for the good of the faithful.

God is always present in human history and never stops bestowing his gifts of grace upon us through the workings of the Holy Spirit, daily renewing our faith in Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world. It is the responsibility of the pastors of the Church to keep their faithful always attentive to this loving presence of the Most Holy Trinity in our midst, as it is also their duty to protect the faithful from all deception. These new Norms are but one way in which the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith places itself at the service of the pastors of the Church in docile listening to the Spirit at work in the faithful People of God. 

* The author is the Prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.


[1] John of the Cross, The Dark Night II, 17, 6, in in Id., The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, ICS Publications, Washington, D.C. 20173, pp. 437-438.

[2] Id., The Spiritual Canticle B, prol., 1, in op. cit., p. 470.

[3] Id., The Dark Night II, 17, 8, in op. cit., p. 438.

[4] Id., The Living Flame of Love B III, 47, in op. cit., p. 692.

[5] Benedict XVI, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini (30 September 2010), no. 14: AAS 102 (2010), p. 696.

[6] K. Rahner, Visions and Prophecies, Burns & Oates, London 1963, p. 73. Emphasis added. [7] Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum (18 November 1965), no. 4: AAS 58 (1966), p. 819.

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