The Catholic Church and Private Revelation

A friend tells me it is Saturday already in Japan, and no one is reporting the rapture. Of course there is still some time to go before Saturday, May 21, 2011 comes and goes completely, but I’m planning a homily for Sunday morning…

I’m so grateful for the authority of the Catholic Church–which provides a check and balance against private revelation. If a Catholic priest starts spouting about dates for the end of the world, or some peasant girl reports seeing the Blessed Virgin Mary, or a baker sees the face of Mother Teresa in a bagel the Catholic response is really very pleasing.

The Catholic authorities treat all such claims with admirable forbearance and good manners. “You have seen the face of Jesus in a burned marshmallow and he said to you, ‘have s’more’ and you interpreted this to be a sign and message from heaven? How interesting. Well, certainly supernatural occurrences are possible, and we wouldn’t want to discount it immediately, but let’s investigate it shall we? and when we’ve looked into the whole matter we’ll decide whether you have heard a voice from heaven and had a vision from God or not. Is that alright with you? Very good. Don’t call us. We’ll call you. Next?”

What is delightful about this response is that it does not reject the visionary or mystic with cynicism or ridicule. Catholics believe that strange things do happen. We believe that saints levitate, dead bodies remain incorrupt, that apparitions occur and the Holy Spirit supernaturally guides the church, and that one of the ways he may do this is through personal insights, new understandings and mystical experiences.

So the Catholic Church weighs it all up, checks sacred Scripture, checks the new revelation or mystical experience against the 2000 year tradition of the church and says ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Lest people think that the Catholic Church always says ‘No’, consider the acceptance of the Divine Mercy devotion given to St Faustina, the acceptance of the Sacred Heart devotion given to St Margaret Mary, the acceptance of the various approved Marian apparitions, the acceptance of the new set of mysteries for the Holy Rosary, etc.

What interests me specifically about the recent high profile prediction of the Rapture is that I was brought up in a fundamentalist church where dispensationalism was the interpretative key. We had an awful lot of sermons on Bible prophecy and the ‘end times’. We were taught that the Rapture was just around the corner, and although our pastor never set a date he always taught that it was ‘just about to happen.’ Other Christian teachers may correct this misinterpretation of the Bible and correct the theological errors or show the logic to be flawed, but it is really only the 2000 year, living tradition of the Catholic Church which can put such teaching into its true and rightful perspective.

Which brings me to a larger question of private revelation and private interpretation. Mr Camping and his followers are, no doubt, a sincere group of Christian believers who have come to the real and genuine belief that Jesus will come again on May 21. They believe it so much that they have invested in an advertising campaign, given up their jobs to spread the news and they believe it is God’s will with all their heart. They are out to convince all who will hear.

Now, how is this, from a philosophical point of view, any different than any other Protestant group passionately embracing some innovation, new belief or practice? How is it different, for example, from the Anglican Church deciding to ordain women to the priesthood? Like Mr Camping and his followers, the Anglicans are a very sincere and well meaning group of Christian believers who really, honestly and truly do believe that the Holy Spirit is leading the Church to ordain women as priests and bishops. They have their Bible verses all lined up. They have their arguments in place and they are just as passionately and firmly convinced about the rightness of women’s ordination to the priesthood as Mr Camping and his followers are of the imminent return of the Lord tomorrow.

“Whoa!” you can’t really compare Anglicans to the Camping-ites surely?!” I am the first to admit that most of the Anglicans arguing for womens ordination to the priesthood are more articulate and educated than Mr Camping and his cohorts, and many might say that the proposal to have women ordained to the priesthood is much more sane, much more eminently sensible than Mr Camping’s outrageous predictions and prognostications. Furthermore, the Anglicans are probably more amenable, urbane and reasonable. Women’s ordination may seem far more rational than the rapture (although others would argue that such a novelty is even more preposterous) Be that as it may, my point is that underlying both Mr Camping’s bizarre prophecies and women’s ordination is the same quicksand of private interpretation and private revelation.

A group of Christian individuals becomes sincerely and truly convinced of a particular belief or a particular devotion or a particular practice, and what authority on earth is able to make the call as to whether they are right or wrong?

Either there is such an authority or there is not. If there is not, then anything goes, and whatever your sincere opinion is about religion, it is nothing more than a sincere opinion and yours is really just as valid as the next person’s. The Camping-ites or Mennonites, Anglicans or Adventists, Mormons or Methodists, Lutherans or Snake Handlers, Church of God or Assemblies of God or Church of Christ or Disciples of Christ or Christian Disciples or the Four Square Worldwide Church of God or Christian Science or….

Or then there is the Catholic Church.

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