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Response to Colin B. Donovan
By Davide A. Bianchini
* [
in-line responses added in blue]

Before responding to Mr. Donovan's article, this author would like to note from outset his respect for Colin as a competent apologist and theologian, perhaps the brightest EWTN offers. As an apologist, it is his job to "know a little about a lot", in order to provide concise answers to a broad range of inquiries. This author does not claim to be an apologist, but one advantage afforded to me is the luxury of time; to know a lot about one thing only; this topic. And the more I examined Mr. Donovan's arguments, the more I realized the crux of what led Colin to his conclusions, that is; a poor english translation of certain Church documents (more to come on this below). With that said, let us now examine Mr. Donovan's article;

"In 1959 when the "Poem" was put on the Index of Forbidden Books, it was described as "a badly fictionalized life of Christ" (L'Osservatore Romano, quoted by Cardinal Ratzinger in a letter to Cardinal Siri, 31 January 1985).

In Mr. Donovan's opening sentence, readers may get the impression that the phrase "badly fictionalized life of Jesus" originated from Cardinal Ratzinger himself. It is important to be clear that it did not (as indicated by the modifier; "quoted by "). The origin of the phrase actually comes from the title of an [anonymous] article published in L'Osservatore Romano, on the same page as the condemnation [the full contents of the article may be read here]. Little needs to be said to refute this article, as a cursory examination of it will demonstrate its own nonconformity to the Church's criterion for judging alleged apparitions.

Nevertheless, one may be compelled to ask : If this article has no credibility of its own, then why does Cardinal Ratzinger quote its title? Does this not give credence to the article? This question may be readily addressed by noting the context from which the Cardinal quoted it. If one reads Cardinal Ratzinger's letter in its entirety [see Appendix I], it becomes immediately evident that he avoids passing judgment—either positively or negatively—by restating a history of events (more to come on this later).

Catholics were warned that it was not to be considered as revealed by God, and in fact, under the rules of the Index, no one, not even a priest, could read the volumes without a serious reason (e.g. to refute its errors) and the permission of the bishop or religious superior. Despite Roman judgments against the work its promoters have continued on their merry way, publishing and promoting it without interruption.

It is easy to scare people by saying; "The Church banned the book. Stay away!" We live in a culture of sound bytes, which affords little patience for understanding historical context or explanations that require more words. Yes, the Poem was placed on the Index. But what is often omitted, is the fact that it was placed on the Index due to a legal principle--Canon 1385--which required private revelations to have an Imprimatur (this Canon was later abrogated by Pope Paul VI, at the same time the Index was abolished). It is also interesting to note Mr. Donovan's attempt to caricature promoters of the Poem, "continuing on their merry way"... While there have always been overzealous followers in all apparitions--including approved apparitions (Fatima, Lourdes, La Salette, etc.)--this has no relevancy in determining authenticity. The Church's norms deal solely with the content of the messages and the character of visionary, not its followers.

In 1966 when the Index was abolished many thought this meant the works listed on it could be read. Cardinal Ratzinger addressed this issue with respect to the "Poem of the Man-God," in the aforementioned Letter saying,

"After the dissolution of the Index, when some people thought the printing and distribution of the work was permitted, people were reminded again in 'LOsservatore Romano' (June 15, 1966) that, as was published in the 'Acta Apostolicae Sedis' (1966), the Index retains its moral force despite its dissolution. A decision against distributing and recommending a work, which has not been condemned lightly, may be reversed, but only after profound changes that neutralize the harm which such a publication could bring forth among the ordinary faithful." [emphasis mine]

While the above paragraph sounds definitive, few people may realize that this English translation of Cardinal Ratzinger's letter contains substantial errors. It is not clear where this English translation came from, but it undoubtedly paints a more negative image than what Ratzinger actually said. His original letter was written in German and Italian [to view this document, please click here]. One can verify both original texts to confirm the errors noted here. The following translation was verified by two independent professional translators of ecclesial documents;

"Since some have subsequently held that after the abrogation of the Index, the printing and diffusion of the Work in question is licit, L'Osservatore Romano (15 June 1966) had presented what was published in A.A.S. (1966) [Acta Apostolicae Sedis]: that, although abolished, the "Index" retained "all its moral value," for which [reason] the diffusion and recommendation of a Work is not held to be opportune when its condemnation was not taken superficially, but after weighing its purposes, to the end of neutralizing the damages which such a publication could bring to the more unprepared faithful.

"Not held to be opportune" is a statement of prudential counsel (Webster Dictionary defines opportune; "suitable or convenient for a particular occurrence"). This is far from an authoritative "decision against distributing", as the previous translation states. Notice also that Cardinal Ratzinger mentions nothing of "profound changes" required for publication. Furthermore, he limits the scope of the censure to the "more unprepared [or inexperienced] faithful" (fedeli piu sprovveduti), rather than the more sweeping; "ordinary faithful".

In 1993 Bishop Boland of Birmingham, AL wrote the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith about "Poem" on behalf of an inquirer. Cardinal Ratzinger responded by letter, which the bishop then quoted in his response to the person, who shared it with us. [emphasis mine] The response noted that because of continuing interest in the books the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had requested the Italian Bishops Conference to ask the publisher (who as I noted never in the past has complied with Roman decisions) to have a disclaimer printed in the volumes that "clearly indicated from the very first page that the 'visions' and 'dictations' referred to in it are simply the literary forms used by the author to narrate in her own way the life of Jesus. They cannot be considered supernatural in origin." Whether this has been done I don't know.

It is important to note the chain of events emphasized above. Unfortunately, there exists no copy of the original letter written by Cardinal Ratzinger, and it cannot be viewed because it has not been made available to the public. The faithful are compelled to rely on Bishop Boland's summary of Cardinal Ratzinger's letter [see Appendix II]. For the sake for argument, however, let us presume the account is credible and not colored in any way. First, we might note that the letter gives full permission to publish, so long as the above disclaimer is included. This is equivalent to saying, "catholics may read, promote and distribute the book, as long as it is not regarded as supernatural in origin". This is monumental, because it is a further refutation of the often-repeated argument by critics; "It was on the Index! You are forbidden!". This is yet one step closer to a full recognition of this visionary. But let us also examine the part of this disclaimer that must write; "They cannot be considered supernatural in origin". At first glance, this English translation may seem like a definitive negative statement. But is it really? As Mr. Donovan is aware, the Church has a very precise terminology for judging apparitions. According to the norms of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, alleged apparitions are classified in one of three categories;
                1. Constat de supernaturalitate -- It is certain/confirmed of supernatural origin.
                2. Constat de non supernaturalitate -- It is certain/confirmed of no supernatural origin.
                3. Non-constat de supernaturalitate -- It is not (or cannot be) certain/confirmed of supernatural origin.

    If one examines Cardinal Ratzinger's letter carefully, they will see that he classifies the Poem into the third category (non-constat de supernaturalitate). What has been translated into English to read; "cannot be considered supernatural origin" simply means that the events have not yet been confirmed by the Church to be of supernatural origin. The Cardinal was only ordering the publishers at the time to tell their readers that they cannot yet consider it a proven fact that the Poem is of supernatural origin (which the publishers complied with, posting it on the back cover of the 1993 edition).
     In light of historical context, we find the statement to make sense too, considering the Holy Office never initiated an investigation into the life of the visionary. Without an investigation, it could neither positively confirm supernatural origin, nor negatively disprove supernatural origin (as outlined by the norms for investigating alleged apparitions). Thus, since neither classification #1 or #2 apply, then by default we must conclude; "it cannot be confirmed supernatural", classification #3. As a final note, it may also be worth mentioning that the same Cardinal who was responsible for condemning the Poem, was also responsible for including Saint Faustina's diary on the Index, and also banned Pare Pio from exercising his priestly faculties.

So, quite apart from any supposed value that these writings have for helping the faith of Catholics is the promotion of the tendency to self-judgment in areas already judged by the hierarchical authority of the Church. Since the duty of submission to the Magisterium is part of the divine constitution of the Church and necessary for salvation, whereas, private revelations (even authentic ones, which this is not) cannot oblige in faith, it should be an easy call what the loyal Catholic should do. Is it forbidden? In the strict canonical sense (legal prohibition and sanctions for violating), no. Is it grossly imprudent to read things which the Church has discouraged in the strongest terms? Yes. Is it a bad use of time when there are writings of the Magisterium, of the saints and the Catechism that are not being read? Absolutely.

But people claim that never have they understood Scripture as when they have read "Poem." Understood in a certain way, as explained by Maria Valtorta! But this way the Church has said is not according to its mind. Catholics do well to follow the Holy See in this.

Mr. Donovan's concluding remarks are what one would expect from an honest person with a faulty source document (the erroneous english translation noted previously). Perhaps one day Colin will decide to revisit this topic, in order to correct the record which so many lay faithful have been misled by.