The Papal Nuncio's Letter on Medjugorje

The Beginning of the End for the Alleged Apparitions?

A letter from Carlo Maria Viganò, the papal nuncio to the United States, caused quite a stir when it was made public on November 6, 2013. Addressed to Monsignor Ronny Jenkins, the general secretary of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), and through him to the bishops of the United States, the letter concerns the "phenomenon of Medjogurje" (sic; Medjugorje is consistently misspelled throughout the letter.)

While the letter has prompted speculation that the Vatican is "tipping its hand as to what the final judgment on Medjugorje will be," the reality is more complex—and possibly more disturbing.

Nothing Has Changed: The State of the Alleged Apparitions at Medjugorje

The occasion of the letter was a tour of parishes in the United States by "one of the so-called visionaries of Medjogurje, Mr. Ivan Dragičević." Dragičević has made a number of such tours, and on the basis of that history, the papal nuncio writes that "It is anticipated . . . that Mr. Dragičević will be receiving 'apparitions' during these scheduled appearances."

The papal nuncio notes that he is writing at the request of "the Most Reverend Gerhard Ludwig Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith" (CDF), and that this is the second time he has done so on this matter (the first being on February 27, 2013). The rest of the letter reiterates the current status of the alleged apparitions:

the Congregation has affirmed that, with regard to the credibility of the "apparitions" in question, all should accept the declaration, dated 10 April 1991, from the Bishops of the former Republic of Yugoslavia, which asserts: "On the basis of the research that has been done, it is not possible to state that there were apparitions or supernatural revelations."

The nuncio then notes that

It follows, therefore, that clerics and the faithful are not permitted to participate in meetings, conferences or public celebrations during which the credibility of such "apparitions" would be taken for granted.

The traditionalist website Rorate Caeli, which was one of the first outlets to publish the leaked letter, notes that Dragičević's tour has been canceled in the wake of the revelation of the letter. (Interestingly, though the letter was dated October 21, 2013, and received by the Office of the General Secretary of the USCCB on October 23, the tour wasn't canceled until the letter was made public.)

The CDF's Special Commission on Medjugorje

So far, there's really no news here. As the letter makes clear, the status of the apparitions within the Church hasn't changed in 22-and-a-half years. While the CDF convened a special commission in March 2010 to investigate the situation at Medjugorje, unless and until the commission returns its findings to the CDF, and the CDF chooses to act upon those findings, the declaration of the Yugoslav bishops' conference, that they are non constat de supernaturalitate (not confirmed to be of supernatural origin), stands, as do restrictions on pilgrimages to the site.

But what of the special commission? Here is where the letter gets interesting.

On March 17, 2010, the Vatican confirmed that the commission had been convened by issuing the following statement:

Under the auspices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under the presidency of Cardinal Camillo Ruini, an international commission of investigation on Medjugorje has been constituted. Said Commission, composed of cardinals, bishops and experts will work in a reserved manner, subjecting the results of their studies to the authority of the Dicastery.

In the three-and-a-half years since then no additional official statement about the commission has been made.

The Real Bombshell: "Doctrinal and Disciplinary Aspects" of the Alleged Apparitions

Which makes one sentence in the papal nuncio's letter seem rather striking.

Addressing Monsignor Jenkins, the secretary general of the USCCB, the nuncio writes:

As you are well aware, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is in the process of investigating certain doctrinal and disciplinary aspects of the phenomenon.

" . . . certain doctrinal and disciplinary aspects . . . "? While the "disciplinary" element is no surprise to anyone familiar with the situation in Medjugorje, where certain clergy who have supported the apparitions over the past 30 years have been in more or less open rebellion against their bishops, nothing in the official statement of March 17, 2010, indicated that the CDF was considering "disciplinary aspects."

Even more interesting is the question of "doctrinal . . . aspects," which would go beyond a mere consideration of whether the alleged apparitions are of supernatural origin. The nuncio's statement seems to indicate that questions have been raised about the substance of the "messages" delivered during the alleged apparitions.

Most supporters of the validity of Medjugorje take great pains to claim that the messages are simply a call to repentance and prayer, and that no Catholic should find anything disturbing in them. (See An Exorcist Looks at Medjugorje for one example.) But the papal nuncio's letter would indicate that the commission is apparently considering whether that claim is really true.

How Might the Commission Rule?

There are two reasons why the commission might approach the matter this way. First, if there is doubt about the supernatural origins of the alleged apparitions, doctrinal errors in the messages would be a big red flag. But the second reason is more disturbing: The commission may have decided that there is reason to believe that the alleged apparitions are indeed of supernatural origin, in which case doctrinal errors would indicate that they are not worthy of belief, because the supernatural origin could not be of God.

Either reason may explain why the commission was convened in 2010. Normally, investigations into the validity of apparitions only take place beyond the diocesan level once the alleged apparitions have ended.

In the case of Medjugorje, however, the alleged apparitions have continued for 30 years, with no end in sight, which has led the Church to approach the phenomenon with caution.

If, however, the CDF has serious reason—such as doctrinal errors in the substance of the messages—to believe that the alleged apparitions are either fake or of demonic origin, a definitive ruling may come before the alleged apparitions draw to a close. But such a definitive ruling could only be negative; a positive ruling would still be possible only once the alleged apparitions have ceased.