Rules for Storytelling

  • Vatican updates rules for identifying miracles;
  • Some conservative Christians, dealing with gender wars and their own kids identifying as gay, are bowing to reality.

If storytelling, more than we realize, drives the human experience — if people understand only through ‘narratives,’ or perceived causes and effects — then it’s significant when rules for storytelling explicitly change. Two items today.

NY Times, 17 May 2024: As Supernatural Claims Spread Online, Vatican Updates Its Rules on Them, subtitled “People have long claimed sightings of the Virgin Mary or bleeding crucifixes, and some endorsed by the Roman Catholic Church have become hugely popular pilgrimage destinations.”

To those of us outside “the” faith, the Catholic religion has always seemed remarkably credulous, willing to validate every supernatural claim that comes along, willing to venerate into sainthood anyone who treated someone kindly, no matter the historical mix of evidence about the good and bad things they did (e.g. Mother Teresa, about whom see Christopher Hitchens). (The saints are rather like the pantheon of Greek and Roman gods, where each one had a specialty… but there are over 10,000 Roman Catholic saints.) Now what with social media, claims of the supernatural occur more and more frequently. Is every one of them a sign from God, or Jesus, or Mary? Is every person present when a patient spontaneously recovers from a disease (this never seems to happen with, say, severed limbs), thereby a saint? What to do?

The Roman Catholic Church has long been vigilant when it comes to supernatural apparitions like professed sightings of the Virgin Mary, weeping Madonnas or bleeding crucifixes. Over the centuries, it has endorsed only a small percentage of the thousands that have been claimed, in an effort to protect the faithful from charlatans, doctrinal errors or attempts to profit.

Yet the age of social media has accelerated the spread of unverified claims, leaving the Vatican fearful that such phenomena can easily spin out of hand and out of its control.

So on Friday, the Vatican unveiled new, comprehensive guidelines for evaluating visions of the Virgin Mary and other supernatural faith-based phenomena in a document that offers detailed instructions to bishops, who have been responsible for evaluating reported claims.

What are those instructions? Are they anything at all like scientific procedures, involving, say, repeatable tests, verified evidence, and so on? No; the article does not list them. It only gives examples.

Most significant, the church will no longer issue declarations that accept the supernatural origin of a phenomenon. Instead, “after assessing the various spiritual and pastoral fruits of the event and finding no substantial negative elements in it,” the church can issue a citation that essentially says that nothing should stand in the way of allowing “the bishop to draw pastoral benefit from the spiritual phenomenon,” even promoting its spread.

All very wishy-washy.

“But on the other hand,” he added, “we have to be very careful, because if something turns out to be false or not supernatural, then you can disappoint a lot of people and leave them wondering why the Vatican has taken so long to pronounce on an apparition.”

Believers need to believe.

Joe also covers it, quoting NBC News: Vatican Issues New Guidance On Supposed Miracles, and quoting several reactions on Twitter.

Comments. Yes, I know, we’re all supposed to be very polite about not challenging religious beliefs, especially not those of friends or family. But I can do so here. If we really did live in a world saturated with spirits and angels and whatnot, wouldn’t their presence be much more obvious? Why wouldn’t they be unambiguous? (Why does God only communicate through tornadoes and earthquakes?) Why all this dicey ‘evidence’ that looks, to most of us, more like coincidence, misinterpretation, and wishful thinking? What is a statue crying tears supposed to convey? The limitations of what angels can do? It’s all absurd.


Also from NY Times. From today’s front page.

NY Times, 17 May 2024: Some Conservative Christians Are Stepping Away From the Gender Wars, subtitled “Far from the shouting, Christian therapists, writers, parents and their trans children are trying to create a space within conservative circles to acknowledge differences in how people experience gender.”

I would file this under: religious stories giving way to the reality of the world. No matter how parents try to shield their children from the real world, e.g., some of those children turn out gay anyway. It’s part of human nature. What struck me is in this second paragraph.

Andrew and Debbie James are evangelical Christians. Born in England, the couple moved to Denver years ago and raised their children there. Mrs. James had a profound religious conversion experience early in parenthood, and their large nondenominational church quickly became the focal point of their lives. They used to say that if the doors were open, they were there.

“We always joked that we had this perfect little scenario,” Mrs. James said. “We had our boy, then we had our girl, and they were two years apart and they were just perfect.” They were strict parents — too strict, they say in hindsight, with the goal to “shield them from absolutely everything.”

Thus the motivations of home-schoolers, and Jewish Orthodox schools: shield kids from everything that might interfere with their propagating the next generation, and the story of their tribe, about how they are special people who deserve to rule over all.

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