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There are two kinds of revelations: (1) universal revelations, which are contained in the Bible or in the depositum of Apostolic tradition transmitted by the Church. These ended with the preaching of the Apostles and must be believed by all; (2) particular or private revelations which are constantly occurring among Christians (see CONTEMPLATION). When the Church approves private revelations, she declares only that there is nothing in them contrary faith or good morals, and that they may be read without danger or even with profit; no obligation is thereby imposed on the faithful to believe them. Speaking of such revelations as (e.g.) those of St. Hildegard (approved in part by Eugenius III), St. Bridget (by Boniface IX), and St. Catherine of Siena (by Gregory XI) Benedict XIV says: "It is not obligatory nor even possible to give them the assent of Catholic faith, but only of human faith, in conformity with the dictates of prudence, which presents them to us as probable and worthy of pius belief)" (De canon., III, liii, xxii, II).
Illusions connected with private revelations have been explained in the article CONTEMPLATION. Some of them are at first thought surprising. Thus a vision of an historical scene (e.g., of the life or death of Christ) is often only approximately accurate, although the visionary may be unaware of this fact, and he may be misled, if he believes in its absolute historical fidelity. This error is quite natural, being based on the assumption that, if the vision comes from God, all its details (the landscape, dress, words, actions, etc.) should be a faithful reproduction of the historical past. This assumption is not justified, for accuracy in secondary details is not necessary; the main point is that the fact, event, or communication revealed be strictly true. It may be objected that the Bible contains historical books, and that thus God may sometimes wish to reveal certain facts in religious history to us exactly. That doubtless is true, when there is question of facts which are necessary or useful as a basis for religion, in which case the revelation is accompanied by proofs that guarantee its accuracy. A vision need not guarantee its accuracy in every detail. One should thus beware of concluding without examination that revelations are to be rejected; the prudent course is neither to believe nor to deny them unless there is sufficient reason for so doing. Much less should one suspect that the saints have been always, or very often deceived in their vision. On the contrary, such deception is rare, and as a rule in unimportant matters only.
There are cases in which we can be certain that a revelation is Divine. (1) God can give this certainty to the person who receives the revelation (at least during it), by granting an insight and an evidence so compelling as to exclude all possibility of doubt. We can find an analogy in the natural order: our senses are subject to many illusions, and yet we frequently perceive clearly that we have not been deceived. (2) At times others can be equally certain of the revelation thus vouchsafed. For instance, the Prophets of the Old Testament gave indubitable signs of their mission; otherwise they would not have been believed. There were always false prophets, who deceived some of the people but, inasmuch as the faithful were counselled by Holy Writ to distinguish the false from the true, it was possible so to distinguish. One incontrovertible proof is the working of a miracle, if it be wrought for this purpose and circumstances show this to be so. A prophecy realized is equally convincing, when it is precise and cannot be the result of chance or of a conjecture of the evil spirit.
Besides these rather rare means of forming an opinion, there is another, but longer and more intricate method: to discuss the reasons for and against. Practically, this examination will often give only a probability more or less great. It may be also that the revelation can be regarded as Divine in its broad outlines, but doubtful in minor details. Concerning the revelations of Marie de Agreda and Anne Catherine Emmerich, for example, contradictory opinions have been expressed: some believe unhesitatingly everything they contain, and are annoyed when anyone does not share their confidence; others give the revelations no credence whatsoever (generally on a priori grounds); finally there are many who are sympathetic, but do not know what to reply when asked what degree of credibility is to be attributed to the writings of these two ecstatics. The truth seems to be between the two extreme opinions indicated first. If there is question of a particular fact related in these books and not mentioned elsewhere, we cannot be certain that it is true, especially in minor details. In particular instances, these visionaries have been mistaken: thus Marie de Agreda teaches, like her contemporaries, the existence of crystal heavens, and declares that one must believe everything she says, although such an obligation exists only in the case of the Holy Scripture. In 1771 Clement XIV forbade the continuation of her process of beatification "on account of the book". Catherine Emmerich has likewise given expression to false or unlikely opinions: she regards the writings of the pseudo-Dionysius as due to the Areopagite, and says strange things about the terrestrial Paradise, which, according to her, exists on an inaccessible Mountain towards Tibet. If there be question of the general statement of facts given in these works, we can admit with probability that many of them are true. For these two visionaries led lives that were regarded as very holy. Competent authorities have judged their ecstasies as divine. It is therefore prudent to admit that they received a special assistance from God, preserving them not absolutely, but in the main, from error.
In judging of revelations or visions we may proceed in this manner: (1) get detailed information about the person who believes himself thus favored; (2) also about the fact of the revelation and the circumstances attending it. To prove that a revelation is Divine (at least in its general outlines), the method of exclusion is sometimes employed. It consists in proving that neither the demon nor the ecstatic's own ideas have interfered (at least on important points) with God's action, and that no one has retouched the revelation after its occurrence. This method differs from the preceding one only in the manner of arranging the information obtained, but it is not so convenient. To judge revelations or visions, we must be acquainted with the character of the person favoured with them from a triple point of view: natural, ascetical, and mystical. (For those who have been beatified or canonized, this inquiry has been already made by the Church.) Our inquiry into the visionary's character might be pursued as follows:
Our information concerning a revelation considered in itself or concerning the circumstances that accompanied it might be secured as follows:
As regards the rules of conduct, the two principal have been explained in the article on CONTEMPLATION, namely
As regards inspirations ordinarily, those who have not passed the period of tranquility or a complete union, must beware of the idea that they hear supernatural words; unless the evidence is irresistible, they should attribute them to the activity of their own imaginations. But they may at least experience inspirations or impulses more or less strong, which seem to point out to them how to act in difficult circumstances. This is a minor form of revelation. The same line of conduct should be followed as in the latter case. We must not accept them blindly and against the dictates of reason, but weigh the reasons for and against, consult a prudent director, and decide only after applying the rules for the discernment of spirits. The attitude of reserve that has just been laid down does not apply to the simple, sudden and illuminating views of faith, which enables one to understand in a higher manner not novelties, but the truths admitted by the Church. Such enlightenment cannot have any evil result. It is on the contrary a very precious grace, which should be very carefully welcomed and utilized.
Consult the writings of ST. TERESA AND ST. JOHN OF THE CROSS, passim; PHILIP OF THE BLESSED TRINITY, Summa theologica mysticae (Lyons, 1656), pt. II, tr. iii; DE VALLGORNERA, Mystica Theologia (Barcelona, 1662), Q. ii, disp. 5; LOPEZ DE EZQUERRA, Lucerna Mystica (Venice, 1692), tr. v; AMORT, De revelationibus (Augsburg, 1744); BENEDICT XIV, De servorum Dei canonizatione (Rome, 1767), l.III, c. liii; SCARAMELLI, Direttorio mistico (Venice, 1754), tr.iv; SCHRAM, Institutiones theologicae mysticae (Augsburg, 1777), pt. II, c. iv; ST. LIGUORI, Homo apostolicus (Venice, 1782), append.i, n. 19; RIBET, La mystique divine, II (Paris, 1879); POULAIN, Des graces d'oraison (5th ed., Paris, 1909), tr. The Graces of Interior Prayer (London, 1910).
APA citation. (1912). Private Revelations. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13005a.htm
MLA citation. "Private Revelations." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 13. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13005a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Tom McGovern.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. February 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, D.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
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