In my last column, I remarked that the surprise for many Evangelical converts to the Catholic faith is how much smaller Mary is to the Catholic than she is to the Evangelical. For the Evangelical, “the Catholic Mary” looms large as a kind of ur-goddess. The fear that pre-occupies the Evangelical imagination is that, say what Catholics will, once the convert is safely inside the Church, the priest will produce the brain chip implant and you will be reprogrammed to adore and worship Mary by the Vatican’s Mind Control Laser Platform in Geosynchronous Orbit above North America.
But the reality, when you finally get past the irrational terror of Mary and enter the Church is that nobody thinks she’s another God, as you feared. Instead, you find that a small minority of Catholics think she’s another Pope.
It’s funny really. Each religious tradition has its own genius and its own pathologies. On the pathology side of Evangelicalism, particularly charismatic flavors, one sees (in a peculiar minority of Evangelicals) a frequent anointing of “prophets” who have the End Times mapped out in one way or another. Usually, this involves heavy doses of Daniel, Ezekiel and Revelation, as well as ingenious interpretations of events in Israel, bar codes, and numerical evaluations of some world leader’s name.
But lest Catholics clap themselves on the back too much, it must be noted that the convert is tempted to mutter “different religion, same pathologies” when he enters the Catholic communion only to be greeted by a small but earnest cadre of apocalypse-minded Catholics who center exactly the same sort of prognosticating, not around Daniel, Ezekiel and Revelation-after all, we’re Catholics, we don’t read the Bible more than we have to-but around some alleged revelation of Mary involving chastisements, asteroid impacts, Three Days of Darkness, and weird commands issued to the Pope or the bishops of the world.
The queer thing about this particular subculture in the Church is that it appears to hold to the notion of “Church Governance by Apparition”. A certain sort of Catholic can get the notion in his head that the Church is governed, not by the bishops in succession from the Apostles and in union with the Pope, but by a series of private revelations from Mary. Such Catholics are often not particularly cautious about distinguishing between public and private revelation, still less about whether a Marian apparition has been approved by the Church. Indeed, the creepier and more apocalyptic the “revelation” the more such a Catholic will be certain that its rejection by the Church is a sign of apostasy and imminent judgment on the Sinister Masonic/New Age/Jewish conspiracy at work in the hierarchy. So if an alleged Marian apparition starts claiming that the Pope must define this or that teaching as dogma, or starts telling Catholics to save up beeswax candles to prepare themselves for the Three Days of Darkness that are just around the corner, the apparition enthusiast will often regard it as a judgment on the Pope–not on the reality of the “vision”–if the Pope does not salute smartly and do whatever the latest visionary is demanding.
This is, however, to fundamentally fail to grasp what the Church has always taught with the authority of Christ. A Marian private revelation is no more binding on the Pope than it is binding on any other Catholic. The governance of the Church remains the task of the Church’s Christ-appointed governors, the bishops. Mary does not supercede them in their proper and Christ-appointed role and authentic Marian apparitions never try to do so. If the Magisterium judges a Marian revelation to be authentic, the Holy Father or the bishops may well act in obedience to it (as, for instance, when Our Lady of Guadalupe requested the building of a Church and Our Lady of Fatima requested the consecration of Russia to her Immaculate Heart). But in such cases, the Magisterium is still left to act in freedom. It is not obliged to practice government-by-apparition and apparition enthusiasts overstep their bounds when they declare a Pope or bishop “apostate” if they fail to live up to the apparitionist’s level of enthusiasm.
This basic counsel to trust the Holy Spirit in leading the Church comes hard for many people. The spectrum can be wide in such matters. Some people are the type who immediately rush off to start praying the Rosary and light candles to water stains on a highway underpass in Crawfordsville, Indiana. Others don’t find even Church-approved apparitions and private revelations particularly helpful to them and therefore don’t bother with them much. That’s their right (the Church doesn’t say you must have a devotion to, say, Our Lady of Fatima or Guadalupe, just that you may) but the sensible thing to do is to trust the Holy Spirit to guide the Church as he promised he would. Otherwise, we can find that our passions become so engaged in defending our views that, should the Church rule against us, we end up placing our view of private revelation over the Church’s and condemning the Church for its “erroneous” approval or disapproval.