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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  • Old Bob

    Superb post, Father! Thank you!

  • Suburbanbanshee

    The Pope's calling up the Endeavour astronauts tomorrow, btw.

  • Nick

    Thanks be to God He completed Divine Revelation in Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, and closed Public Revelation with the death of the last Apostle.

  • Sara

    I'm torn. There will no doubt be attractive opportunities for looting tomorrow.On the other hand, this is the Saturday when I'm scheduled to go to Confession.Decisions, decisions.Good post, Father.

  • Annie

    Great post, Father. Lots of opportunistic swindlers out there too. Did you know that someone is selling pet insurance so if you are one of the elect not left behind, your pets will be taken care of? So far, 600 buyers and counting.

  • Elizabeth from Sussex


  • George

    Before I began my current spiritual journey I used to cherry pick certain beliefs held by the Church- "oh, I could never believe that" or "that makes no sense, it just can't be so". Now that I've received a little more enlightenment I have realized- thousands of people far smarter than I, far more spiritual than I, have formulated these beliefs and teachings over the course of the centuries and I am going to dismiss them out of hand because they don't make sense to my small, ignorant mind? Yes, thank God for Mother Church, the only place where the fullness of the faith may be found and not just a splinter.

  • Stuart eChurch

    Raptural science – Raptureology – will never get off the ground ;-)

  • Lucerna

    My sentiments exactly. I was once deeply tempted to leave the Catholic Church, because most people I knew who acted like Christians were Protestants. But after getting to know lots of Protestant Christians, it seemed to me that they agreed on very little. The authority of the Church to discern these things is one of the reasons I didn't leave. I'm so grateful for this gift.

  • Paul

    I really feel sorry/pitty, I really do, for these poor desperate people following this guy. They are setting themselves up for such a huge let down and the results will no doubt be a blow to their participation in religion and their faith in Christ in general. I hope we as Catholics, can and do reach out to them and offer them the comfort of being part of the REAL Body of Christ, The One True Apostolic Catholic Church. Help them understand that Christ does not follow the whims of personal revelation nor can He be determined by someone’s calculator ‘cooking the books’ of Time. I hope we can take this opportunity to invite them to make their home here, on the Rock and never worry about the buffeting wind and the rain again. We love fools, after all, as the Foolishness of God is beyond the wisdom of men, no matter how clever they are or how powerful their calculators. Unfortunately, Steven Hawkins and Richard Dawkins will associate these people with all ‘Christians’ and use it against God; as they always do. I wish more people understood that their actions have implications and often do more damage to what they claim to love than they realize: Christianity in this case. Christ gave us His Church to protect us from this confusion and darkness, why so many seem to think they know better than Christ/God and refuse to take shelter in this bulwark and pillar of strength I’ll never understand. I guess they like the darkness and confusion. Let’s make sure we Catholics have our hands out to them in the True Spirit of Christ. While others ridicule and scoff, let our hand reflect to mercy of Jesus.

  • Theoden

    Beautiful post, Fr. Dwight.

  • Tap

    I love your article, Father. My daughter called last night said she was saying her rosary. She was saying the rosary for all her online 'friends' who feel they won't make it if the rapture really did happen! She was astonded at the 'lack of belief' among them. If nothing else Camping opened my daughters eyes to who she has as friends. I told her the filter of the deceiver is so thick people don't even realize they are being deceived anymore its 'all good'. I thank Mr Camping for opening my daughters eyes to this lack of faith in her pals. She can pray for them and maybe not even want to hang around them anymore. Maybe my novenas to open my children's eyes to their faith is working? Thank you Lord!

  • Catholic Poet

    As a convert, it saddens me that Catholics born and raised in the faith often don't seem to realize what a blessing they have in the unshakeable teaching of the church.

  • Howard

    The comparison between private revelation and theological speculation is only attractive because they can both be outlandish. It's worth remembering that Camping did not claim that an angel or saint revealed this to him, but that he worked it out on his own.The comparison with the women's ordination crowd is more apt. 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."Many" might say that. "Many" call the Catholic Church the Whore of Babylon. What of it? In fact, the proposal of ordaining women is not more "sane" or "eminently sensible" than Camping's nonsense. Furthermore, a doctor of divinity should be more ashamed of entertaining foolish heresies than a B.S. in civil engineering.

  • flyingvic

    Nicely written, Father; but what makes me feel UNcomfortable about this view of 'authority' is the inherent danger that it can be TOO comfortable. It might lead some to choose only ever the safest of options. It might lead some to turn their backs on the possibility of new life in the Spirit because of the weight of 'tradition'. It might even lead some to be insufferably smug and patronising.Why should anyone attempt, like St Peter, to walk on the water for Christ when tradition suggests that it is far safer to stay on board ship? Where is there the space and freedom to let the wind of the Spirit blow where it will? Why should St Paul instruct his readers to work out their own salvation in fear and trembling when the 'authority' and 'tradition' of 'the Church' can do it for them?Very few individuals, I suspect, out of the millions of men and women across the world who bear the name and sign of Christ, took seriously the 'rapture' prophecies for this weekend, despite the attempts in some quarters to lump all Protestants together as feckless and credulous fools. Yet it might be possible, even in the midst of transient foolishness, to see evidence that the Word of God is still a living Word, cutting more keenly than any two-edged sword. Never forget that, despite the presence in Israel of many widows, Elijah was sent to one who lived in Sidon; and, despite there being many lepers in Israel, Elisha healed just one from Syria: so God's activity is not to be confined to his chosen people or to his church, nor is it to be defined by the 'tradition' of that church.The God of 'tradition' is, perhaps, too small.

  • Howard

    @FlyingvicOne has to distinguish between tradition and Tradition. A good example of a small-"t" tradition was, "Only an Italian may be Pope." That was certainly the practice for several hundred years, and it may well have unnecessarily excluded some good candidates from consideration. No one, however, ever thought this was a part of Sacred Tradition, and of course there had been non-Italian Popes earlier in history, including a guy named Peter. On the other hand, "Only a man may be a priest" is indeed a part of Sacred Tradition (and now also Magisterium), which is itself a part of Divine Revelation. There is no sense in worrying that the "God of Sacred Tradition" is too small; if He contradicted Himself, He would only be "smaller", or rather, not God at all.

  • Fr Longenecker

    I agree with you Vic, and that's why I was careful to show some of the more recent examples of how the Catholic Church has accepted new customs, new ideas and devotions which some felt 'went against the tradition'.I could name quite a few more innovations that the Catholic Church has accepted as 'led by the Spirit'–the Anglican Ordinariate, the Mass in the vernacular, all the new saints and their writings, the re establishment of the permanent diaconate, a multitude of new ecclesial movements, religious communities etc.Of course, there is the danger of being smug or too comfortable, but that is a danger in any church no?

  • Reversion Story

    I don't think I'll ever see a s'more and not laugh now. Thanks.

  • nath99

    Did anyone see this rather strong Open Message to Pope Benedict ? It says that the Vatican was supposed to have released the 3rd Secret of Fatima 50 years ago. Its on an audio at :

  • New Covenant Journal

    This is another great post, Father. Yes, without a central authority, anyone and interpret spiritual matters in whichever way he or she wishes. This is very dangerous. I pray that you may continue to illuminate the teachings of the faith so we can appreciate the faith better. God bless.