Wednesday, December 27, 2017

"Our Lady of Fatima"

About 10 years ago I did a long post on Fatima, with special reference to the "miracle of the sun":

Now I'd like to revisit the issue of Fatima, with special reference to the purported Marian apparitions:

i) I don't have antecedent objections to angelic apparitions, apparitions of the dead, or visions of Jesus in church history. In a sense I don't object to "saintly apparitions". However, by that I mean, not individuals canonized by the church of Rome, by crisis apparitions in which a departed Christian might appear to a friend or relative who's going through an ordeal to lend strategic, timely encouragement at a critical juncture in his life. 

ii) I don't have antecedent objections to children experiencing God in miraculous ways. But by the same token, children are less reliable witnesses than adults. Children are suggestible, impressionable. Less able to distinguish imagination from reality. 

iii) In addition, there's a difference between firsthand experience and secondhand information. Suppose you say you had a private supernatural experience. If in fact you did, then you're warranted in believing what happened to you. But an outside observer can't vouch for your purported experience, even if it happened, since he didn't experience what you did. 

Mind you, we rightly believe many things on the basis of secondhand information. I'm not suggesting there's anything wrong with that. And sometimes secondhand information from multiple independent sources is more reliable than one firsthand experience. 

But in general, I don't have the same epistemic duty to believe your reported observation than I have to believe my own observations. I'm not necessarily obligated to believe you. 

Indeed, there are situations in which I'm obligated not to believe a secondhand account. For instance, Muhammad, Swedenborg, Joseph Smith, and Lucia dos Santos all report supernatural encounters, yet they can't all be right, although they can all be wrong.  

iv) I admit that I rule out Marian apparitions as a matter of principle. I don't think Mary would appear to people because that usurps devotion to Jesus. Indeed, the Fatima cult is a classic example of Mary supplanting Jesus in the hearts of Catholic devotees. 

A Catholic might object that I suffer from unfalsifiable skepticism regarding Marian apparitions. No kind of evidence would convince me otherwise.

In a sense that's true, but keep in mind that there's conflicting prima facie evidence. I can't be equally and simultaneously open to the reputed revelations Muhammad, Swedenborg, Joseph Smith, and Lucia dos Santos. Even if I wanted to believe all these reports, they involve contradictory messages by competing religious claimants. I can't be equally and simultaneously open to contrary lines of prima facie evidence. At the level of opposing reports, unfalsifiable skepticism is inevitable because it isn't even possible to credit all of them. 

Of course, that doesn't mean we should discount all reports of supernatural encounters. But it does mean we must bring certain criteria to bear when sifting the putative evidence. And that includes theological criteria (e.g. Deut 13:1-5). 

v) In my experience, Catholic apologists treat Fatima as a package. Now, from what I've read, the "miracle of the sun" was a well-attested event. I'm prepared to credit that event. Of course, there's still the question of how to interpret that phenomenon. 

By contrasted, the purported angelic and Marian apparitions which preceded that event are not nearly so well-attested. I believe the primary source material consists of newspaper reports, interviews with Lucia and her two cousins, and Lucia's memoirs. And from what I've read, Lucia's memoirs contain key details that are missing from recorded interviews and newspaper reports.

But in that event, some of the central claims narrow down to a single conduit: the testimony of Lucia. To my knowledge, there's no independent corroboration for many of her claims. 

vi) In addition, she wrote this down years after the fact. Yet the claims include Marian prophecies. Oracles of doom. 

But even if Mary actually spoke to Lucia, unless Lucia was blessed with verbatim recall, what we're getting isn't a statement in Mary's own words, but in Lucia's own words. Suppose Lucia remembered the gist of what Mary said. Yet when reporting what Mary told her, Lucia must put that in her own words, paraphrasing the ideas. That's even assuming Mary actually appeared to the three children.

vii) There's also the vexed question of how you'd verify a Marian apparition even if you had direct experience of a putative Marian apparition. Suppose you have an encounter that's unmistakably supernatural. An apparition that's recognizably the Mary of traditional Catholic art. As if she stepped right out of a Raphael painting. Suppose she has a nimbic aura and identifies herself as the mother of Jesus.

But once we grant the realm of the supernatural, there are other candidates who could presumably impersonate Mary. What about a malevolent ghost or fallen angel? Catholics might regard that as sacrilegious, but once again, reported numinous encounters are hardly confined to Mary. How do Catholics assess the claims of Muhammad, Swedenborg, and Joseph Smith? 

viii) It's interesting to compare purported Marian apparitions with purported dominican apparitions in that regard. Unlike Mary, Jesus, by virtue of his divine mind, as direct telepathic access to whoever he might appear to. He can make his identity known in a way that Mary cannot.

ix) If we take the reports at face value, Mary is quite the linguist. She speaks so many different foreign languages, depending on the audience. Does she speak foreign languages with an Aramaic accent? 

You don't have the same issue in the case of purported dominical apparitions, since Jesus, by virtue of his divine mind, is fluent in every dead and living language. Indeed, the Son knew all those languages before any humans spoke them. 

x) By the same token, why are major Marian apparitions confined to Catholic witnesses? Compare that dreams and visions of Jesus by Muslim and Jewish recipients? 


  1. Hi, I would like to say that there is a new book, called Fátima, milagre ou construção, wrote by a Portuguese journalist, unfortunately only in Portuguese, that have a lot of information and primary sources.

    Some things are that the narratives of Lucyia were childish when she was a child, but after the cloister she wrote elaborated narratives, with elaborated language. When she was a child she said that the lady said that Francisco had to "pray his continhas ", continhas being a popular way to call the rosary. After the cloister the narratives were with more deep language, and some events were added, like say that happened torture in the kidnapping made by the mayor of the city.

    Other things: all the prophecies were divulgated after the event. The prophecy about urss was divulgated after the Russian revolution, and the prophecy about the ww2 in 11942. The only prophecy made before the fact was wrong, when, after the last apparition, Jacinta said that the ww1 would finished in days, but the war continued for a year.
    Other things: in the beginning the apparition, according to the children, had a skirt in the knees. That made the priest worried, and he changed the vision, and now the apparition has a long, to the foot skirt.
    There were other sun miracles and apparition in Portugal at the time, and some before Fatima, almost all by children, and after that with adults believing. But, after Fatima, the Church dismissed those apparitions.

  2. I haven't researched Swedenborg, but I think Joseph Smith was an utter fraud and made the whole thing up, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if the same were true of Mohammad.

    1. I don't know if Swedenborg was psychotic or possessed.