Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Beware of Private Revelation

Thomas More and Joan of Arc. They are the two saints who inspired me most to become a Catholic. Then, a year after I was received into the Church, a tough question occurred to me.

Before he ran afoul of Henry VIII, More, an English judge, sentenced several heretics to burn at the stake. About 100 years before More himself was beheaded for high treason (1535) Joan, a French maid, was burned at the stake (1431), allegedly for heresy. Condemning her was an English-backed court led by a corrupt French bishop in league with the English.

If More had lived a century earlier, might he have sentenced Joan to death? The question is disturbing. Could one saint condemn another? If so, wouldn’t that imply a fatal contradiction in Church teaching?

I suspect the question may seem heretical to some Catholics, but it is the sort of question that we should never shy away from if we are looking our faith full in the face. I think the answer is given by today’s paragraph from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It instructs and also cautions us about private revelation. Here’s paragraph 67.

Throughout the ages, there have been so-called “privaterevelations, some of which have been recognized by the authority of the Church. They do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith. It is not their role to improve or complete Christ’s definitive Revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history. Guided by the magisterium of the Church, the sensus fidelium knows how to discern and welcome in these revelations whatever constitutes an authentic call of Christ or his saints to the Church.

Christian faith cannot accept “revelations” that claim to surpass or correct the Revelation of which Christ is the fulfillment, as is the case in certain non-Christian religions and also in certain recent sects which based themselves on such “revelations.”

Joan’s revelations were private. Just like those in Fatima and in Medjugorje. Alone in her village of Domremy in eastern France, she saw and heard St. Michael, St. Margaret, and St. Catherine telling her to help the discredited French prince, or dauphin, drive the English army out of France. And she did so. Then she was tried for “heresy,” allegedly because her revelations were not “recognized by the authority of the Church.” (Those at Fatima have been so recognized; at Medjugorje not yet.) 

Joan never tried to “improve or complete Christ’s definitive Revelation.” Her testimony before the court was sometimes cheeky but never less than faithful. She appealed to the Pope (effectively the Magisterium) as her final authority, but the politically motivated (English) court said the Pope needn’t be involved. Which is sort of like Henry VIII, who said a century later that the Pope had no authority over the Church in England. Leading to the Church of England. And leading More to the block.

I am no historian and my knowledge of Joan’s trial is rusty. Furthermore, I have no detailed understanding of More’s career as a “burning judge.” (He is “credited” with sending about six heretics to the stake before he went to the scaffold.)

Unquestionably, both stories—Joan’s and Thomas’s—were complicated by politics, or by politicians meddling in religion. The lesson here, then, for me is not that there is a contradiction in Church teaching but that there is a problem when religion becomes politicized and is not allowed to operate free of state control.

Which brings us to today.

The photo at the top of this post is from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent film “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928) starring Renée Jeanne (“Maria”) Falconetti as Joan.

Question for further study: What is meant by sensus fidelium in the paragraph from the CCC?

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