Section 4: The Church's Discernment Of Fatima
The Word Of God Vs. The Lady Of Fatima's Words
Five years after the apparitions at Fatima, Bishop Dom Jose' Correia da Silva formed a Theological Commission of investigation which made a nine-year study of the testimony of Lucia, other people of the diocese, and ecclesiastical authorities. Following his own study of the commission's favorable report, the Bishop announced on October 13, 1930:
". . . we have the pleasure:
"First, to declare as worthy of credence the visions of the children in Cova da Iria, parish of Fatima, of this Diocese on the days of 13th May to October, 1917;
Secondly, to permit officially the devotion of Our Lady of Fatima"(1; italics removed).
The Bishop's reasons for his approval were outlined in a Pastoral Letter sent to the parish priests of the Diocese of Leiria (See Appendix for the entire text). Discernment of the apparitions was based, according to this document, on four broad categories of investigation: the children themselves, the effects of the appearances, the supernatural aspects, and the fact that the children's account of the apparitions contained nothing against faith and morals.
Concerning the children, the Bishop noted that they were "humble creatures," with no "self-interest or spirit of vanity"(2). Neither the children nor their families profited in any way from the apparitions, and the little ones continued to tell the truth about what they'd seen and heard even when threatened by the authorities.
The credibility of the children was an important factor in the investigation, as the Lady was seen only by Lucia, Francisco and Jacinta. Only the two girls heard the Lady speak during her appearances, and they related the Fatima messages to those who questioned them. Certainly the Bishop's Commission proved that the children were truthful in their accounts; just as certainly, the Bishop and his committee knew that this fact alone was insufficient evidence of a visitation from heaven.
The effects of the apparitions on the children, the people of the diocese, and the pilgrims who made their way to the site was another area studied by the commission. The little children, in obedience to the Lady's requests, spent many hours doing penance for the sins of the world and reciting the Rosary for world peace. In the eyes of the Bishop and his commission, these actions were laudable and in accord with the traditional devotional life of the Church. The rapid spread of devotion to Our Lady of Fatima and the influx of pilgrims to the shrine was seen as another proof of authenticity, as was the return by many to "the faith of their fathers"(3). As these effects were judged to be worthy because of their conformity to Catholic belief, it's important to understand the source of that belief. The Fathers of Vatican II wrote:
Hence there exist a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end. For sacred Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit. To the successors of the apostles, sacred tradition hands on in its full purity God's word, which was entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. Thus, led by the light of the Spirit of truth, these successors can in their preaching preserve this word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known. Consequently, it is not from sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred tradition and sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of devotion and reverence"(4).
In discernment of spiritual matters, particularly those involving supernatural phenomena, great care must be taken that the standard for discernment is pure. If the standard is even slightly adulterated, resulting judgments are bound to be affected. Scripture, according to Vatican II, is truly the written word of God:
"For, inspired by God and committed once and for all to writing, they [the Scriptures] impart the word of God Himself without change, and make the voice of the Holy Spirit resound in the words of the prophets and apostles. Therefore, like the Christian religion itself, all the preaching of the Church must be nourished and ruled by the sacred Scriptures"(5).
Judgment or discernment based on Scripture, the written, unchanging word of God, has a verifiable, truthful, strong foundation. Using the standard of Scripture alone, spiritual experiences, including apparitions, messages, and changes in conduct or lives, can be discerned by any number of Christians, in any place, in any century, with the same results. The circumstances of time and culture have little or no effect on the judgment. Discernment by Scripture plus tradition, however, may not always result in the same judgment. The Documents of Vatican II inform us that there is a development of tradition:
This tradition which comes from the apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (cf. Luke 2:19,51), through the intimate understanding of spiritual things they experience, and through the preaching of those who received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For, as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her"(6).
Because of this "development," the tradition of the Church of the twentieth century is different from the Church of the tenth (or any other) century. Growth in understanding can serve a good purpose: some of our fundamental dogmas, such as the concept of the Trinity, were formulated after the Scriptures were set down. But in discernment of spiritual experience, using Scripture plus tradition as the standard for judgment adulterates the purity of that verifiable, truthful and strong foundation of Scripture alone. The judgment of a particular experience would necessarily vary from century to century and culture to culture.
Discernment of the apparitions of Fatima, for instance, was done according to Scripture plus the European Church tradition of 1917-1930, and most probably would not have brought forth the same conclusion in another period of history. Because the Marian traditions are post-biblical, and Marian doctrines were promulgated centuries apart, Theological Commissions of the second, tenth, or fifteenth centuries would certainly have come to various other judgments on the Lady and her message(7). In his study of the effects of the apparitions, the Bishop of Fatima happily noted in 1917 that devotion had spread "to all parts of the world" and that "multitudes . . . coming from all corners of the country . . . hasten to Fatima." But one can imagine a second century Theological Commission, surrounded by the worship of Greek and Roman goddesses, recoiling at the idea of thousands of Christians flocking to the site of the supernatural appearance of a Lady.
The development of tradition is one of the arguments against the use of tradition for discernment. Another area of concern lies in the fact that even the Fathers of Vatican II were not in agreement on the treatment of Scripture and tradition as sources of divine revelation. Commenting on Article 7 of the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, biblical scholar R.A.F. Mac Kenzie writes:
". . . . as sources from which we may learn what God has in the past revealed, can Scripture and tradition be treated separately, or must they always be taken together?
"The prevailing view since the Council of Trent has been that they may be treated separately, and statements of revealed truth (dogmas) may be gathered from tradition alone, though they are in no way contained in Scripture.
"The other opinion, recently revived, which claims to be the pre-Tridentine teaching, maintains that all Christian revelation is contained in Scripture, not necessarily in explicit terms sufficient to 'prove' it, but at least by implication, which can be made explicit in the light of tradition.
"The question was much debated in the Council, and the majority of the Fathers preferred not to decide it one way or another"(8).
Returning to the Church's discernment of Fatima, the third category of investigation was the supernatural aspect. The Bishop wrote:
". . . . thousands of persons . . . saw a column of mist, which used to envelop the tree during the apparitions.
". . . . the thousands who had assembled at the hour of the final Apparition (October 13, 1917), witnessed all the manifestations of the sun, paying, as it were, homage to the Queen of Heaven and earth. . . .
"How many marvelous cures have not been wrought there through the intervention of the Virgin most holy?"(9).
Paranormal manifestations alone are no proof of the working of God. Scripture and Church history are filled with accounts of supernatural visions, voices, and manipulations of natural forces, only some of which originated with God. Healings, too, are not necessarily miraculous gifts from heaven. Those familiar with modern occultism know that healings have been brought about through Spiritualists.
These facts underline again the value of Scripture as the only standard for discernment. Once an unusual occurrence has been determined to be supernatural, the source of that manifestation must be investigated, because spiritual lives depend on it. The revelation of Jesus is God's good news to man, and all of God's dealings with man are for the purpose of personally communicating His own holiness and love through Jesus. Because of this, God's unchanging word, which centers on Jesus, must be the plumbline by which supernatural phenomena is measured. Each component of any manifestation must witness to Jesus and His work. Were the Christians involved drawn closer to Jesus? Did others come to realize their sinful nature and recognize Jesus as their only Savior? If the "miracle" accompanied a message, were the words wholly in accord with God's written revelation, or do they line up only with a mixture of Scripture plus tradition?
Our last question leads to a fourth category investigated by the Bishop's Commission. The three children, wrote the Bishop,
". . . . said nothing against faith and morals, according to the word of the Apostle: 'No man speaking by the Spirit of God saith anathema to Jesus'"(10).
The "faith" that was not transgressed by the children of Fatima is the twentieth-century faith of the Catholic Church built on Scripture and the tradition that developed over the centuries. But, as Msgr. Mac Kenzie pointed out, "The prevailing view since the Council of Trent has been that [Scripture and tradition] may be treated separately, and statements of revealed truth (dogmas) may be gathered from tradition alone, though they are in no way contained in Scripture." In other words, there is no guarantee that every tradition of the "faith" is in accord with the whole written word of God. The good news of the gospel is the salvation of mankind (for those who believe) through the blood of Jesus, but some of the Catholic Church's traditions are "in no way contained in Scripture," and may therefore contradict, to various degrees, even the Scriptural view of salvation. Contradiction of the word of God is a door the devil always looks for in order to twist or lessen the power of God's revealed word.
(1) Robert Bergin, "This Apocalyptic Age: A commentary of prophecies relating to these times . . . AND THEIR PORTENTS," First U.S. ed., rev. and enlarged (Richmond, VA: Fatima International, 1973), p. 151.
(2) Ibid., p. 148.
(3) Ibid., p. 151.
(4) "THE DOCUMENTS OF VATICAN II: Al Sixteen Official Texts Promulgated by the Ecumenical Council 1963-1965, Translated From the Latin," gen. ed., Walter M. Abbot, S.J., trans. ed., Very Rev, Msgr. Joseph gallagher (American Press, Association Press), Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation," Art. 9, p. 117.
(5) Ibid., Art. 21, p. 125.
(6) Ibid., Art. 8, p. 116.
(7) 431 A.D. - Council of Ephesus: Mary is truly the Mother of God;
649 A.D. - Lateran Synod: Mary was a Virgin before, during and after the birth of Jesus;
1854 A.D. - Papal Bull "Ineffibilis": Mary was conceived without the stain of original sin;
1854 A.D. - Papal Bull "Ineffibilis": The Mediatorship of Mary;
1950 A.D. - Apostolic Constitution "Munficentissimus Deus": Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven.
(8) "THE DOCUMENTS OF VATICAN II," footnote 15, p. 115.
(9) Bergin, pp. 149-151.
(10) Bergin, p. 149.