Recently, someone asked me about Marian apparitions. What are we to make of all the reported instances? By way of reply:
I've not made a special study of the subject. Maybe I should. On Marian apparitions in particular, I think those have to be judged on a case-by-case basis. Different explanations are applicable to different cases.
1. The fact that apparitions of the BVM appear to be confined to Catholics in Catholic lands is cause for considerable suspicion.
2. Some witnesses are simply liars, looking for publicity.
3. Other witnesses may be sincere, but we know from "repressed memories" and other suchlike that many people are highly suggestible, especially if they are culturally predisposed to believe certain things or interpret certain phenomenon in light of their preexisting religious categories.
I realize that this sort of explanation is often used to explain away biblical miracles. However, biblical miracles are attested by multiple lines of evidence. In addition, some witnesses are more credible than others.
4. The Christian worldview is, of course, open to paranormal phenomena. But a paranormal event can issue from the dark side. Marian apparitions fall under the general category of necromancy or trafficking with the dead. Since this is condemned in Scripture, I find it hard to credit the phenomenon as heaven-sent.
That explanation might strike some a special-pleading, but I don't think so. If the event is at all authentic, then this is a supernatural event. According to Catholic interpretation, it's a supernatural event. But if we're already moving in the realm of the supernatural, then there is no antecedent reason why we should offer a positive rather than negative interpretation of its supernatural origins. It could issue from below as well as above.
5. I have no a priori reason to deny that a Roman Catholic may have a miraculous experience. I believe that Calvinism offers a more accurate description of the experience of grace, but this doesn't mean that Calvinism has a monopoly on the experience itself--whether in its ordinary or extraordinary manifestations.
At the same time, the witness will interpret the event in light of his prior expectations and preexisting categories, which may place a more specific and sectarian construction on the event than the event itself presented to the witness.
What, for example, are we to make of someone like Teresa of Avila? Maybe she was a liar, but she doesn't strike me as the type. Maybe she was self-deluded, but she doesn't strike me as the type. At the same time, her explanations would be "redshifted" to the Catholic end of the spectrum, since that's all she knew.
Allow me to use a personal example. Back in my 20s, I had a series of "encounters" which, at the time, struck me as both paranormal and diabolical. Years later, when I was doing research, I stumbled across a well-documented phenomenon called Old-Hag syndrome (it goes by other names as well). This was a perfect description of my experience.
And I found, in reading about it, that there is a tie-in between Old-Hag syndrome and ufology, viz., alien abductions. Now, before I studied this, I had dismissed ufology along the usual psycho-sociological lines. And I think that analysis is still valid in many cases.
But I can now see how someone who had an experience of Old-Hag syndrome could reinterpret that experience according to categories supplied by ufology. Indeed, this can be self-reinforcing. We've all been raised on SF. So someone has an experience. He construes his experience according to ufology. That's how it gets started. Over time, this interpretive grid becomes canonical, so that others with the same experience automatically construe their "encounter" the same way since that is the nearest available interpretation offered them when they do online research and stumble across ufology support groups.
There may be a genuine paranormal phenomenon underlying this "encounter," but the particular construction they put on their experience is underdetermined by the phenomenon itself, and is, instead, provided by the pop culture and their fellow "abductees." In former times, they would have construed the same experience as diabolical rather than extraterrestrial. And I suspect that many "Marian" apparitions operate the same way.