“Two different worlds, we live in …”

I don’t get it. I really don’t. It’s like we’re talking two different languages. The words look like English, but they make no sense to me.

I’ve written about this kind of thing before, but I can’t help myself. So here comes one more Doubting Thomas piece, compliments of the diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Some people — oh, all right, many, many people — live in a world in which the need for empirical evidence has no pride of place, no purchase, no purport. Here’s the latest example, as reported in the New York Times, December 23rd:

CHAMPION, Wis. — In France, the shrine at Lourdes is surrounded by hundreds of hotels and has received as many as 45,000 pilgrims in a single day. Our Lady of Guadalupe, in Mexico, draws millions of fervent worshipers a year.

Now, a little chapel among the dairy farms here, called Our Lady of Good Help, has joined that august company in terms of religious status, if not global fame. This month, it became one of only about a dozen sites worldwide, and the first in the United States, where apparitions of the Virgin Mary have been officially validated by the Roman Catholic Church.

“Officially validated by the Roman Catholic Church” — sure sounds impressive, doesn’t it? After two thousand years of practice, the Catholic Church must have some damn good methods of confirming that a miraculous apparition really happened. They’ve got to have investigative experience in spades, right?

Wrong. Here’s the “evidence”:

In 1859 … a Belgian immigrant here named Adele Brise said she was visited three times by Mary, who hovered between two trees in a bright light, clothed in dazzling white with a yellow sash around her waist and a crown of stars above her flowing blond locks. …

On Dec. 8, after a two-year investigation by theologians who found no evidence of fraud or heresy and a long history of shrine-related conversions, cures and other signs of divine intervention, Bishop David L. Ricken of Green Bay declared “with moral certainty” that Ms. Brise did indeed have encounters “of a supernatural character” that are “worthy of belief.”

Flowing blond locks? That must have caused quite a fashion stir in ancient Israel! One hearsay report, and — a century and a half later, no less — an inquiry that found no proof that Adele had lied, identified no unacceptable inconsistency with church doctrine, and heard about lots of other things people have claimed happened there. She seemed like a good girl, she didn’t say anything we didn’t like, and other people were inspired by her story to see and feel things, too. So much for investigative methodology.

And what great message to a suffering world did Mary bring? She instructed Ms. Brise to lead a life of Christian devotion. No cure for cancer, no formula for world peace — be a good Catholic girl, Adele. Has anyone else noticed how none of the apparitious visitors ever has anything much to say? One could almost believe that the messages are constrained by the limits of the imaginations of the visited.

Other critics have noted how these holy visitations tend to happen to rural, uneducated people, often in impoverished areas in need of a boost from religious tourism.

In Wisconsin’s case, there is a pending priestly child abuse lawsuit. The bishop assures us that there’s no connection, but if the victims get some comfort from the apparition’s validation, that would be a nice bonus, in his opinion.

As someone wrote to me not long ago, “you’ve got to be kidding!”

There’s more:

Bishop Ricken said that his panel of three theological specialists had considered a host of indirect factors in concluding that her sighting was credible, following guidelines set by the Vatican in 1978.

By all reports, he said, Ms. Brise was humble and honest and faithfully carried out Mary’s mandate to serve the church throughout her life. In one striking sign of a divine presence, he said, the shrine’s grounds and the terrified crowd who gathered there were spared the flames of the Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871, which devoured the surrounding lands and homes and caused more than 1,200 deaths. Her account of Mary’s apparition and message was consistent with accepted cases.

The Bishop’s panel “considered a host of indirect factors,” since there wasn’t any direct proof to deal with. In the absence of any physical evidence at all, they accepted other kinds of “truth” in its place.

Here are a few of the official Catholic guidelines for the evaluation of “Marian apparitions”:

Positive Criteria

  • evaluation of the content of the revelations themselves (that they do not disagree with faith and morals of the Church, freedom from theological errors)
  • the revelation results in healthy devotion and spiritual fruits in people’s lives (greater prayer, greater conversion of heart, works of charity that result, etc.)


Negative Criteria

  • glaring errors in regard to the facts
  • doctrinal errors attributed to God, the Blessed Virgin Mary, or to the Holy Spirit in how they appear
  • any pursuit of financial gain in relation to the alleged event
The most striking characteristic of the criteria is the emphasis on the need for the claimed apparition to conform to already-accepted church doctrine. In other words, if Mary were to come down to Grand Central Station at rush hour and proclaim on YouTube, with all the Heavenly Host as backup singers, that the Catholic Church has gotten it all wrong and that the Gnostics had been right after all, the contradiction of official dogma would be prima faciereason to reject the authenticity of the apparition. You can’t have a miracle that isn’t in line with Church teaching, apparently.Speaking of miracles, notice that the survival of a group of citizens near the shrine during the 1871 fire is counted as miraculous evidence of Mary’s presence. And the 1,200 people who died? Was this tragic loss of life not miraculous, too?

What about the financial gain rule? If a divine vision were truly to happen and someone were to market “Mary Speaks!” T-shirts, that would invalidate the vision? It is, however, rather reassuring to know that the modern Church firmly disapproves of for-profit indulgences.

The final point in favour of the apparition is that its character was “consistent with accepted cases.” The Church seems to think that precedent tradition is some kind of proof.

I’m sorry, it’s not nice to be snarky and sarcastic, I know that, but in cases as silly as this one, I just can’t help it. I don’t understand this kind of magical thinking, not at all.

Even though it’s what I grew up with, what I was taught to believe, I’m a big boy now, and there’s a real world out there, full of wonders that have the advantage of actually existing, which gives them a decided edge for me over an image of Jesus in a piece of burned toast in a roadside diner in rural Georgia.

That’s another world, one in which I don’t live — and one in which I have no desire to live.