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Pope Francis cracks down on the supernatural

The Pope presides over Palm Sunday Mass earlier this year. Credit: Getty

May 18, 2024 - 1:00pm

In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor observed that post-Christian society has not created a void of faith but instead a “spiritual supernova”, a nebulous plurality of belief systems from which individuals are free to choose. Without organised religion, ideas of transcendence simply mutate into other forms, be it New Age spirituality, WitchTok, paranormal experiences or UFOs. As their popularity surges, it would seem we have moved beyond rationalism and towards a greater receptivity to the supernatural — a receptivity, perhaps, to “re-enchantment”.

Some will welcome any resurgence of the sacred. But is all re-enchantment good? In traditional religious societies, it was believed that not all spiritual experiences were legitimate — in fact, some were thought to be deceptive or even demonic. The problem with a postmodern “supernova”, at least from a theological perspective, is that there are no longer any criteria upon which to judge an otherworldly encounter. With the decline of traditional religion has come the decline of clear distinctions between true and false enchantment.

It is against this backdrop of spiritual confusion that Pope Francis yesterday published a series of guidelines for “the discernment of alleged supernatural phenomena”. The Vatican document is based on a previous statement given by Pope Paul VI in 1978, but has been updated for 2024 in response to a rise in alleged “apparitions, visions and messages attributed to supernatural sources”. It would seem, then, that crises of authenticity are as much of a concern within the Church as outside of it.

One of the reasons for this, the Pope suggests, is technology. “With the advent of modern means of communication”, he says, “these phenomena can attract the attention of many believers or cause confusion among them.” The result is an increased danger of believers “being misled by an event that is attributed to a divine initiative but is merely the product of someone’s imagination, desire for novelty, tendency to fabricate falsehoods (mythomania), or inclination toward lying”.

He urges that priests ought to apply caution towards claims of mystical experiences where there are “manifest errors”; doctrinal contradictions caused by the adding of “purely human elements”; a “sectarian spirit”; motivations of “profit, power, fame, social recognition, or other personal interest closely linked to the event”; immoral actions accompanying them; or “psychological alterations or psychopathic tendencies in the person”. Also under consideration are “any psychosis, collective hysteria, and other elements traceable to a pathological context”.

The statement is, in effect, the Pope’s attempt to reassert religious boundaries between authentic and inauthentic supernatural encounters — between, in a sense, true and false enchantment. The need to distinguish between the two goes back to the time of Christ himself, as the Bible abounds with references to false prophets and spiritual forces which must be carefully discerned. Such “discernment of spirits” took on an even greater significance with the rise of mediaeval mysticism, with clerical suspicion especially towards female visionaries increasing in the 15th century.

These fears did not recede with the Reformation. One only has to think of Edmund Spenser’s 16th-century Protestant poem The Faerie Queene — whose protagonist is constantly battling against the false enchantments of witches disguised as beautiful women — to see how deeply a vigilance towards the supernatural has been ingrained within the Western imagination.

The same is true of Eastern Orthodoxy, which has its own specific term for spiritual deception: “prelest”. According to the Orthodox theologian Seraphim Rose, such illusions are rife in a modern world which presents us with an ambiguous plurality of belief systems, the true character of which can be difficult to discern. In fact, he explicitly cited alternative spiritualities and the UFO craze as means through which prelest permeates contemporary society. For Rose, the “spiritual supernova” is worse than materialism because it is suffused with such false enchantments.

Especially in a technological age of simulacra and illusion, the lines of legitimate spiritual experience have become harder to draw than ever. The Pope’s statement can perhaps be read as a response to this strange new world — one in which the modern subject is left adrift in the supernova, lacking the means to navigate its many beguiling forces.


Esmé Partridge is an MPhil candidate at the University of Cambridge who works at the intersection of religion, politics and culture.

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David Lindsay
David Lindsay
1 month ago

Consider Bambie Thug. Honestly, Ireland, we get it. You have changed. Now grow up and enter My Lovely Horse next year. Changed from what, anyway? Yeats and Synge put on record the Ireland the Catholic topcoat of which was very ancient, but was nevertheless that, a lick of paint on a profoundly pagan culture. Catholic Ireland as most people think of it did not begin to emerge until about 1870, or reach its fullest form, never complete, until 1890 or thereabouts. From then, it did not last 100 years. It never produced a Catholic intellectual of any international importance. There is no Irish Newman; in fact, he briefly spent the least successful period of his life there. All in awe of him, and therefore with a strong sense of England as a bastion of the Faith, priests from the Church’s new heartlands of the Global South are often unaware that Ireland was ever considered anything special in Her life. Perhaps it never was?

But Saint Paul’s elemental spirits, which are Saint John’s fallen angels, are real, and they are what the human race worships in the absence of Abrahamic monotheism, not as worthy of worship, which they are not, but as deserving of fear, which to an extent they are. The startlingly similar accounts and depictions of demons on different sides of the world arise from different people’s and different peoples’ encounters with the same ones. They are always there, remaining prominent in Ireland, as anywhere, for many centuries until the Faith reached its zenith, and returning to the fore, as anywhere, now that it is in retreat.

Peadar Laighléis
Peadar Laighléis
1 month ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

And why is Ireland the first thing to come to mind on reading this particular article? First of all Bambie Thug is not entirely a product of Ireland given her father was Swedish, as her actual name would confirm. The legend of Celtic mysticism in Ireland is attractive to some, perhaps many, but it is as illusory as the perception of the admantine Catholicism. Newman was handicapped by the Ultramontane Irish bishops at the time who wanted to create a Catholic professional class and they obstructed him. Since then the focus of the Irish Church, at home and overseas, has been administrative and technical rather than intellectual. In regard to the Global South, I am surprised at this coming up due to the work of Irish missionaries throughout the former British Empire and far beyond, as the output of Irish missionaries was not exceeded by many Catholic nations – France, Belgium and the Netherlands come to mind, all of which had a higher Catholic population. On the other hand a figure like Archbishop Mannix of Melbourne could dominate the Australian Church in his time and correspond with influential Fathers of the Second Vatican Council in perfect Latin at the age of 99 as he was too frail to travel to Rome himself. Someone like Frank Duff could be invited to attend the same Council as a lay observer because of his work in the Legion of Mary, greatly promoted by Cardinal Suenens and other continental prelates. A disproportionate number of the hierarchy of the US Church too have be Irish or Irish American – the figures of Spelman and Cushing come to mind (and there is no shortage of Irish names among Catholic Bishops serving in England, Scotland or Wales).
Of course, none of this is really relevant to the article above, but very pertinent to that answer.

Pip G
Pip G
1 month ago

When considering the spiritual realm, we can prove nothing. That is why we have ‘faith’: being sure of what we hope for and certain of what is unseen.
Christianity has lasted for 2000 years and going strong. This alone suggests ‘There may be something in it’, while we have the benefit of 2000 years of careful thought by Acquinas & others and the Councils.
In contrast, the pick & mix new age philosophies have had little or no self criticism or agreed doctrines.
The problem is the (very understandable) loss of credibility in the Church and unwillingness by people to embrace obligation as well as benefit. For centuries the Church has been prone to superstition. Added to the inherent difficulty in ‘discerning the spirits’ we have repeated stories of ‘miracles’ of a type which are trivial have no part in upbuilding of faith. As such Pope Francis has performed a service in trying to guide us.
More important than miracles is how the Church recovers its unadorned mission of spreading the Good News and proclaiming who is Jesus Christ. We have a long way to go.

Martin Tuite
Martin Tuite
30 days ago
Reply to  Pip G

“The best data we have concerning the big bang are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the five books of Moses, the Psalms, the Bible as a whole.” The Nobel laureate Arno Penzias, who did crucial work in discovering cosmic microwave background radiation.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
1 month ago

And of course… the old fraud himself knows better than anyone how to dissemble and confuse, so it’s only natural he’d want to warn others about challenging the papal right to promote bull…

Andrew D
Andrew D
1 month ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

No, that would be a Papal Bull, these are guidelines

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
1 month ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Good to hear there’s different shades of bull….
It all smells the same.

Citizen Diversity
Citizen Diversity
1 month ago

False enchantment sounds like Mr Starmer looking like a rectangular piece of Victorian brown furniture. Not an attractive buy of you want to furnish a modern apartment, but a necessity if you want to enter a radically different world.
Though the enchantment of Labour trying to win a US-style presidential election campaign, projecting Mr Starmer’s charisma though the television, might prove a false hope; even leading to the miraculous saving of the Tory Party.

Citizen Diversity
Citizen Diversity
1 month ago

As C S Lewis wrote in one of his interplanetary novels, even good angels are not good company for good men.

AC Harper
AC Harper
1 month ago

It’s noteworthy how you can read Mr Bergoglio’s series of guidelines as a pushback against ‘disinformation’. Just like many established political parties complain about ‘disinformation’.
Could there be a common social cause? Maybe people recognise that the default respect for authority (religious or political, or for that matter ‘famous brands’) is no longer worthwhile to the individual?

Colorado UnHerd
Colorado UnHerd
1 month ago

The headline writer gets points for prompting laughter, if not accurately reflecting the story. No human — not even the Pope — can “crack down on the supernatural.” As Partridge reports, he is, rather, cracking down on manmade fabrications that purport to be supernatural, as well he should. (People are commonly duped, if not commonly visited by angels.)
Oh, and copy editors, “Pope Jean Paul I” is interesting, but what you want is Pope John Paul I, clearly a boy.

Micael Gustavsson
Micael Gustavsson
1 month ago

Well, it is Jean Paul in french. Just as it is Juan Pablo in spanish and Jaan Pavel in chech. Etc etc.

Colorado UnHerd
Colorado UnHerd
1 month ago

Good point. I was assuming the Pope’s name would be in English, like the rest of the article. However, if I should stand corrected, I most humbly do.

Micael Gustavsson
Micael Gustavsson
1 month ago

Most likely it was spellcheck set on a non English language; it happens to me all the time.

Colorado UnHerd
Colorado UnHerd
22 days ago

Never thought of that. Thanks for expanding my (purposefully constricted) tech horizons.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
1 month ago

Do ghostly or paranormal phenomena have root causes in the material world, which could be investigated by science, or are all such phenomena explicable as subjective illusions, or psychological phenomena?
It might be naive to overestimate the scope of our current scientific knowledge, while also dismissing all experiences outside of commonly defined scientific regularities as being merely subjective mistakes, or secular displacements of spiritual longing.

Mike Tiernan
Mike Tiernan
28 days ago

A very open minded comment, pertinent to the central question of whether spirituality of any sort is just a deep seated, wishful thinking trait of humanity or whether there is any substance to it. A question not often mentioned by mainstream religions. The first commenter above (Pip G) says that we can prove nothing about the spiritual realm, hence the role for ”faith”. In fact we can prove very, very little but we can prove something, even to an open minded sceptic who genuinely wants to know. We cannot prove the existence of a deity or such ideas as reincarnation. The religion whose raison d’etre is the provision of a specifically limited but highly significant proof does not proselytise, it does not purposely put its head above an increasingly bullet-scarred parapet, but operates on a ”seek and you shall find approach”. Unfortunately at least one Christian denomination in the UK actively discourages seekers by strong but vaguely worded warnings online. Scientific discussions of Near Death Experience are a largely irrelevant distraction from the evidentially verifiable post permanent death communication from a human consciousness/soul facilitated by a professionally trained (often gifted and definitely ”non-charlatan”) Spiritualist medium. Britain’s National Spiritualist Union has a world renowned training centre in Essex. An offshoot of the University of Arizona has conducted experiments showing that communication with a deceased person’s soul/consciousness is a real phenomenon. Although most mainstream Christians largely ignore Spiritualism there is in the UK an association which acknowledges and explores the validity of such phenomena – the Churches Fellowship for Psychical and Spiritual Studies. The very early Christian Church did not discourage mediumship and mysticism, but this changed as it began to cement its dogma and semi-secular power base, with tragic consequences which provide ready ready arguments for proactive atheists.

Neiltoo .
Neiltoo .
1 month ago

If they are not our mystical experiences then you must have imagined them!