Response to Various Criticisms of Approved Apparitions

Fr. Karl Rahner in his book Visions and Prophecies seems to want to categorise most visions or apparitions, including the Marian apparitions, as “imaginative,” that is as the “interior” type of visions usually granted to the saints. But even he admits that this hypothesis runs into trouble when we consider apparitions seen by more than one person, and which are apparently perceived in the normal way.

Evidence from those who have experienced apparitions themselves, such as St. Catherine Labouré and St. Bernadette, strongly suggests they really did see Mary with their bodily eyes, rather than in an “imaginary” interior fashion.

Fr. Rahner himself cites the following two sayings of the above saints, but seems to imagine they made a “false judgement.” After the apparitions at Lourdes Bernadette exclaimed, “I saw her with my own eyes,” while Catherine Labouré spoke to another sister, who doubted the bodily reality of the apparitions, in the following manner, “My child, the Sister who saw the Blessed Virgin, saw her in flesh and blood.”

We also have, for example, that part of the Guadalupe account where Mary rearranged the flowers in Juan Diego’s Tilma with her own hands: obviously “imaginary” visions do not do such things. When this testimony is added to the report of Catherine Labouré, that she put her hands on Mary’s lap and looked into her eyes, it would seem that we are definitely not dealing with purely imaginative visions as Fr. Rahner maintains.

This is the view of the Marian writer Fr. Frederick M. Jelly, O.P., on this point: “The accounts of the Marian apparitions, such as those at Lourdes and Fatima, … indicate that the visionaries perceived something corporeal and physical. The imaginative type may apply in certain cases, but a purely intellectual apparition appears unlikely. The senses usually occupy a significant role in Marian apparitions.”

Further unfounded criticisms

Fr. Rahner also deals with an experiment conducted by the writer Carlos Staehlin on six youths aged between fifteen and eighteen, who were told to imagine that a battle between medieval warriors was going on above a tree. Two apparently saw or heard nothing, two saw the battle and the last two both saw and heard it, with their reports apparently agreeing.

This point is taken up by Hilda Graef in her Mary: A History Of Doctrine and Devotion, as a possible psychological explanation for Marian apparitions. She feels that the results of Staehlin’s experiment can be applied to apparitions such as those at La Salette, Fatima and Beauraing, and mean that there is some justification for those who want to doubt the authenticity of these Church approved apparitions, or at least reserve judgement until their psychological background is more fully investigated.

However, Staehlin’s experiment and the approved Marian apparitions are totally different. He deliberately encouraged the youths to fantasise in what could be a psychologically dangerous manner, to say nothing of inviting a possible diabolical intervention; whereas in dealing with genuine apparitions the children involved really did claim to see something supernatural.

As such Staehlin’s experiment tells us very little, even if there was some agreement between the children involved, and it was actually a dangerous and foolish thing to do. Comparisons with experiments with “Ouija” boards, and all the hazards involved in such matters, come to mind.

Sources: Fr. Frederick M. Jelly, OP, “Discerning the Miraculous: Norms for Judging Apparitions and Private Revelations,” in Marian Studies 44, 1993; Fr. Karl Rahner, SJ. Visions and Prophecies, (Burns & Oates, London, 1963); Hilda Graef, Mary: A History of Doctrine and Devotion, Part 2, (Sheed & Ward, London, 1994)