Sunday, August 1, 2010

Medjugorje: II. Weak Objections Against Authenticity

Weak Objections against Authenticity. There are a number of reasons given by Medjugorje sceptics against the veracity of the apparitions that I either do not personally see much merit in, or believe are quite fuzzy or equivocal and thus do not set out to prove the case they intend such reasons to do. The problem with making much out of such things is that it either leaves the impression or even indicates that sceptics of Medjugorje are not being fair and balanced, and thus we will use anything to argue against the authenticity of the apparitions. Therefore, anything that is “unique” to Medjugorje vis-a-vis approved apparitions or anything that is “problematic” or seemingly contradictory or “strange” in the actions of the seers or their testimonies or interviews is automatically interpreted as meaning it must be a false apparition. When we do this, those on the other side of the argument perceive that our minds are already made up (which is often a correct perception), and that among our good and valid objections, we will also “grasp at straws” in an attempt to “strengthen our case” by multiplying our reasons for not believing. However, in doing so, we paradoxically weaken the overall argument, the thesis. Every time a weak objection is given as “proof”, it “confirms” to those on the other side that our bias may be tainting our view of all the evidence, and as a result, all our “reasons” are held in suspicion. The saying “one bad apple spoils the bunch” is applicable here.

The Six Objections. Among the many such objections I would place in this category, six stand out in my mind. First, the number of the apparitions, which now total over 40,000. Second, certain issues concerning disobedience and the sinful or scandalous behaviour among many of the priests and religious associated with Medjugorje. Third, various problematic statements or contradictory testimony given by the seers, many of them pointed out by the last two Bishops of Mostar, who have given numerous reasons for their incredulity on phenomenon Medjugorje.. Fourth, the alleged “false” or “heretical” teachings – especially the statements that all religions are “equal”. Fifth, the many mentally “unstable” or emotionally “troubled” people that have embraced Medjugorje or have become heavily involved or associated with it, including various “false seers” whose “apparitions” seem to have “spun off” from Medjugorje, and others who have developed depression and even committed suicide. And Sixth, that Medjugorje distracts from Fatima and keeps the Fatima message from being followed and implemented, thus casting suspicion on the idea that Medjugorje is authentic. I will respond to each of these in turn.

1. The Number of Apparitions. The argument is that since in all previous approved Marian apparitions Mary appears only a small number of times within a short span, Medjugorje must be false due to the fact that it is not Mary’s modus operandi to appear daily for almost thirty years, as we see at Medjugorje. Personally, I believe there is some merit to this argument, and this fact does make me suspicious as well. However, this fact alone proves nothing to me. Though certainly unprecedented, there is no reason why for motives hitherto unknown for certainty by us, God has decided to send Mary daily to the seers of Medjugorje for such an extended period of time. Apologists for Medjugorje, such as Dr. Mark Miravalle, have pointed out various reasons which I think are quite sensible. Dr. Miravalle has also pointed out some precedents for ongoing “visions” (if not apparitions) to Saints that extended over a long period of time and were frequent if not daily. (http://www.medjugorje.ws/en/articles/medjugorje-real/) Thus, I would consider the argument “neutral” – one that could go either way. As a sceptic of Medjugorje, I take this as one more thing that confirms my position. But of itself, I believe it proves nothing.

2A. Disobedience and Lives of the Priests and Religious. It has been alleged that a number of the Franciscan priests who have embraced the seers of Medjugorje and come to believe in the apparitions have also been disobedient to their superiors, including the Bishop of Mostar and even the Holy Father. The disobedience apparently consists of priests whose faculties have been removed but who have continued to offer the sacraments illicitly despite this, and who have refused to “turn over” parishes that they previously occupied and ran to the diocese when ordered. (a) Unfortunately, this is one of those many issues where both sides disagree on whether or not much or even most of this is even true. (b) However, believers in Medjugorje will generally acknowledge that some Franciscans have been disobedient to some degree and in some sense, though the believers usually side with the Franciscans in their actions, believing the Bishop of Mostar to have been in the wrong and the Pope to have been duped into taking the side of the Bishop due to misinformation provided by him.

Let us grant simply for the sake of the argument that many Franciscans have been as disobedient as the sceptics of Medjugorje allege. To me, the disobedience that may have been exhibited before the apparitions began in 1981 are largely irrelevant. Yes, the Franciscans by and large embraced phenomenon Medjugorje and rallied behind the seers, but that does not disprove the apparitions. It is not unthinkable that disobedient priests would come to believe in an authentic apparition and support it, and at best be converted by it, and at worst, capitalize on it by using it to achieve their own ends. I will set aside for now the issue of alleged disobedience that has occurred after 1981.

B. (a) Related though not identical to the issue of disobedience is that of the lives and sins of the priests. At least three priests, Fr. Ivica Vego, Fr. Jozo Zovko, and Fr. Tomislav Vlasic, have been disciplined following scandalous behaviour, including the violation of their vows of celibacy. Fr. Vego took a nun as mistress and later left to marry her, Fr. Zovko was stripped of his faculties yet continued to offer the sacraments, and Fr. Tomislav Vlasic impregnated a nun and continued a pattern of sinful and odd behaviour even after the apparitions. However, the same responses to the issue of disobedience also apply to the issue of sinfulness. We must also note that the seers, over time, distanced themselves from Fr. Vlasic (who was, if our hypothesis was correct, obviously one of those who tried to “benefit” from the apparitions and the seers), and disapproved of the actions of Fr. Vego. (b) Medjugorje believers often point out the fact that Judas was one of the Twelve, and that this is a parallel. Though I do not believe it is a direct parallel, and would qualify the comparison, I would agree with them to enough of a degree that I dismiss this too as being a weak objection, and would submit that this is another issue which is more “neutral”.

D. It should also be said that among the seers themselves, there are no clear and convincing evidence that they have been disobedient. Once again, this is a case where both sides disagree, but since I have granted Medjugorje believers the benefit of the doubt on all issues, I have dismissed this charge from consideration.

3. Statements from and Testimony of Seers. Medjugorje sceptics – chief among them being the former bishop of Mostar, Bishop Zanic – regard certain statements made by the seers as problematic for a number of reasons. Bishop Zanic, in his work The Truth About Medjugorje, focuses heavily on the seventeen tape recordings of the interviews Fr. Zovko and two other Franciscan priests conducted with the seers from June 27-30, 1981, shortly after the apparitions began. The bishop pointed out many inconsistencies, contradictions, and seemingly bizarre comments, which were enough to make even Fr. Zovko doubt the apparitions at the time. He also pointed out various lies he caught the seers in, contradictions between later interviews given to others and the initial interviews from those first few days, and false predictions and alleged healings that turned out to be false. (http://www.newjerusalem.com/bishop-truth.htm)

Now, the many charges of Bishop Zanic can be divided into two categories: those that the bishop alleges but that he cannot prove, and those that the bishop can prove or give evidence for. (a) Regarding the first group, believers in Medjugorje will often respond by speaking about Bishop Zanic’s ulterior motives and reasons for his opposition to the apparitions. This is a valid argument, as it is entirely possible for a bishop to “tailor” the evidence to suit his purposes – in fact, this is not an uncommon thing! (b) However, the second category is more problematic, as some of the explanations given in defense of the seers, though plausible, are stretches (and we will revisit these later).

(a) Nonetheless, a prominent apologist for Medjugorje, Ronald L. Conte, Jr., makes a good point when he says that “the visionaries sometimes don't remember details of events, or remember them differently, because they are honest witnesses. Also, they were mere children when these events began, but now many years have passed and they are adults. They cannot be expected to remember or to understand every event since their childhood.” (b) He also admits that “a few of the accusations have some merit, such as that one of the visionaries lied”. (http://catholicplanet.com/apparitions/reply08a.htm) (c) It should also be called to mind that other seers and mystics, as well as various Saints, have made some bizarre statements. We expect seers, mystics, and Saints to be beyond that, but as fallible and imperfect human beings, it does happen.

In the end, I believe this could just be another case of “he said, she said”, and a body of evidence which is “interpreted” differently based on the side one finds himself on, and therefore, it becomes a weak reason to deny the authenticity of the apparitions.

4A. The “False” or “Heretical” Teachings. Some Medjugorje sceptics point out at least three “false teachings” that have come from the seers in their interviews. I will point out the main one, because I believe the others that are used are much weaker. Vicka, when asked “Is the Blessed Mother calling all people to be Catholic”, responded, “No. The Blessed Mother says all religions are dear to her son”. [Janice T. Connell, The Visions of the Children, New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1997; p. 119] This, say some sceptics, shows the apparition advocates religious indifferentism.

B. (a) I have never actually found this statement all that problematic. Fr. Laurentin and others (Dr. Miravalle, Professor Ralph Martin, and other believers) have rightly pointed out how this and other statements are in line with what Vatican II taught concerning the operation of grace and the possibility of salvation outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church. It is true that “all are accepted by her Son” because all are children of God; it is true that people of all religions are “equal before God” because all are His children and any distinction is based on grace and not upon religious affiliation (although it is easier to be saved while practicing the Catholic Christian faith); it is true that “you on earth have made the divisions”, because fallen man is responsible for all disunity; it is true that “God presides over all religions as a king controls his subjects, through his priests and ministers”, because from the Mass offered by priests flows all grace, and the Bishops are the true leaders and rulers of all in their territory – including all other leaders of other religions who happen to reside in his diocese. It can also be true that “the holiest woman in the village is a Muslim”, because it is possible for non-Catholics to be saved if they cooperate with what little they are given and for Catholics to be damned if they fail to take advantage of the much they have received. (b) As for Vicka’s statement, the fact that she answered “no” to the question, “Does Mary want all to be Catholic” is problematic. However, she was not necessarily denying this was true – in fact, it is stated elsewhere in the book that if Catholics all truly lived their faith, the whole world would be Catholic. In conversations, it is common for one to begin his answer with an unintentional “no” or “yes” when responding to a question. This is because we sometimes respond not to the immediate question but to the overall position that our questioner or conversation partner is trying to make in his series of questions or overall argument. For instance, if someone is trying to argue that baseball is the greatest sport, and says, “isn’t it slow and doesn’t it drag compared to basketball?”, it is conceivable that one may begin his response with “no” to disagree with the implication – namely, that baseball is not as great a sport because it is slower – rather than the actual question. The interviewer in this case was playing “devil’s advocate” in arguing for a more traditional, stricter view of salvation in which those who were not card-carrying Catholics could not be saved, or could be saved only with great difficulty. Vicka was responding to this attitude rather than the specific question being asked. I have done this many times – and usually I correct myself right away (because I usually realize immediately that I just contradicted myself), but sometimes I do not, because I know my partner in conversation realizes what my position really is, and why I just said what I said. (c) It should also be noted that Professor Ralph Martin – who has long warned about taking too liberal a view on the salvation of non-Catholics and in fact has criticized certain statements of our last two Popes for statements which seemed to hold out hope for the possibility of the salvation of the high majority if not all [See his STL Thesis or his booklet, Will Many Be Saved?] – is a Medjugorje believer in spite of these statements, holding them to be reconcilable with his views and not at all in contradiction to the Church’s teaching.

C. Some of the other apparent “false teachings” were never attributed to Mary, but were stated by the seers. It is certainly possible that teenage seers might be fuzzy on certain points of Catholic dogma – unless the Blessed Virgin was giving them a comprehensive catechesis on the Catholic faith throughout her visits.

D. As for apparent heretical statements from the Blessed Virgin herself, such as her denying, in her August 31, 1982 message, that she is the Mediatrix of all graces as the Church has outlined in Her teachings, by saying “I do not dispose of all graces. I receive from God what I obtain through prayer”, (http://www.medjugorje.org/msg82.htm) it must be admitted by sceptics of Medjugorje that there are statements in the Bible itself that seem on the surface like more of a contradiction and more heretical than this statement, necessitating an even greater effort at attempting to reconcile them. Here, there is really no issue – Mary is not denying that she is the Mediatrix, but is rather responding to the idea that we can just pray to her and not actually do the hard work that the Lord would have us do ourselves in order to be holy. “I do not distribute all graces” here means that, from Mary’s perspective, “The fact that I am the Mediatrix does not mean nobody on earth has to lift a finger to do anything”. It is arguments like this that make believers in Medjugorje think the sceptics are just grasping at straws and using any little thing that seems a bit “off” to make their case – and in this instance, I completely agree with that assessment. Such sceptics have bent over backwards much further to explain difficult or problematic Catholic statements in response to Protestant objections (especially concerning statements we have made on Mary and Marian devotion). If they would have put in just as much effort with this statement, they would have been able to resolve the apparent difficulty – as many believers in Medjugorje have.

5A. The Unstable and Troubled Devotees. (a) One of the criticisms has been the fact that a number of people began having their own “apparitions” or “visions” or “locutions” shortly after visiting Medjugorje. Now many of these have already been rightly denounced or condemned (due to heretical messages, confirmed false mysticism, or irregular finances and other unscrupulous practices and operations) following official and proper investigations by their local bishops. (b) Furthermore, there have been many people with mental health issues or emotional problems that have become heavily involved in Medjugorje – sometimes to the point that it consumes their lives – who have either “gone to extremes” with their devotion to it and even developed a certain “addiction” to it (ie. spending most of their days reading about it or discussing it, doing excessive penances, etc.) or who have developed serious cases of depression, psychosis, had mental breakdowns, and even attempted or committed suicide, and/or have lost their faith entirely.

B. (a) However, these facts do not disprove the apparitions, because similar problems have occurred at other authentic and approved apparitions sites. After Lourdes, there were over 150 other people in France alone that reported “apparitions” within a year of Bernadette’s. (b) And one does not have to examine other apparitions sites to find mentally or emotionally unstable or unhealthy people – such people can be found in any Catholic group (including groups which are approved and even endorsed by the bishop or even the Pope). The fact is that many people with mental or emotional problems are understandably attracted to God and thus to the Church, and especially to various groups and movements which have been established in it. The Charismatic Renewal and the various schools imbibed by its spirit (ie. Franciscan University of Steubenville), the Latin Mass communities, and of course, other groups that have grown out of authentic apparitions sites (ie. Fr. Robert Fox’s “Fatima Family Apostolate International”), are but a few examples of authentic and approved organizations or movements which have attracted some unstable and troubled people. However, all of these groups have something else in common with Medjugorje – they are composed largely of people who are mentally balanced and emotionally healthy. There will always be a “mixed bag” in the Church – even the episcopal college and the Vatican have their fair share of disturbed individuals!

C. We should also keep in mind that among legitimate seers, visionaries, and mystics, there are many errors as well. For instance, the devil’s advocate in the canonization process of St. Catherine of Siena pointed out how her editors excised from her Dialogues a statement in which she attributed words to the Blessed Mother in which she denied that she was immaculately conceived. [Fr. Benedict Groeschel, A Still Small Voice, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993; pp. 67-68] Fr. William Most has pointed out a number of reasons that could account for such errors, which include: faulty interpretation of visions by the recipient; human action mingling with the divine action; true revelations being involuntarily altered by the recipient; and alteration by secretaries unintentionally. (http://www.catholic-pages.com/bvm/private_revelations.asp) Most of the statements from Medjugorje can be put into one or more of these categories.

6A. Distraction from and Neglect of Fatima and its Message. Those who make this argument hold that Medjugorje was orchestrated by Satan in order to pull us away from Fatima – which, they say, was the chief apparition for our time, and whose message is still essential in order to bring about “the Triumph of the Immaculate Heart”. The degree to which we abandon Fatima for Medjugorje is the degree to which we will hinder this end, they say.

B. However, I disagree with this for at least three reasons. (a) First of all, Dr. Miravalle rightly shows how all of the Marian apparitions beginning with Guadalupe have followed a certain trajectory, and that the message given in each is similar – the only difference being that there is a deepening of and greater specificity in the message, just as what we see in the development of dogma. [See Dr. Miravalle’s lecture notes from the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Distance Learning course, “Mary in the Modern World”, lectures # 34 and 35] Thus, there is an “organic development”, and although Dr. Miravalle holds that Medjugorje is the “full flowering” of it, he also disagrees that Fatima (or Guadalupe, or Rue du Bac, or any other approved apparitions) is no longer relevant or can be dispensed with as a result. (b) Secondly – and this is a consequence of the first – most of the believers and followers of Medjugorje that I have encountered are also devotees of Fatima, and embrace and live its message as well. Even those who have made Medjugorje the practical center of their spirituality continue to faithfully practice the First Saturdays devotion to the Immaculate Heart (as well as the First Fridays devotion to the Sacred Heart, not to mention others). Though I believe there is some merit in this argument (which I will briefly return to later), in practice, there does not seem to be much truth to the theory that people are neglecting Fatima because of Medjugorje. (c) Third and finally, we must remember that all private revelations are not binding on any Catholic, and thus, to pit one thing not binding against another thing not binding has both logical and theological problems. Unfortunately, this position needs a greater explanation, but this is not the place for a discussion of either private revelations and their place in the Church or certain theological difficulties concerning the implications that derive from the devotions which have been given through Marian apparitions. For now, it might be best to stick with the first two objections only.

7. There are many other objections that could be mentioned, such as the fact that Maria Valtorta’s Poem of the Man-God was endorsed by the seers despite the fact it used to be on the Index of Prohibited Books, or the revelation that Mary’s true birthday was August 5th rather than September 8th and the celebrations that are held on the former date as a result. These are debatable, and good arguments can be made by either side. Others could be mentioned as well, but the six listed above are the main ones, and the others either fall more or less underneath these or are related closely enough to them that some of the explanations given for the others can be applied to them as well.