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To Obey, or Not to Obey… ?

A Concerned Catholic

Many people in our culture consider, "obedience," to be a four-letter-word. After all, Americans like to think they are free to do as they please, within the limits of the law. Some would also like to be free to do as they please whenever the authorities aren't looking.

Since the Archdiocese of Baltimore suppressed the Thursday evening prayer meetings at St. Joseph's Church in Emmitsburg in September of 2000, the issue of obedience has been a crucial one for the followers of Mrs. Gianna Talone-Sullivan. On Sept. 13, 2000, the archdiocesan newspaper, the Catholic Review, published the decree which had been read at all Masses at St. Joseph's in Emmitsburg on September 9 and 10. The communication listed three basic points as well as four paragraphs of commentary. First, the three points:

  1. Following a careful examination of recently available information relative to the alleged apparitions, the Archdiocese of Baltimore finds no basis for them.
  2. The Archdiocese of Baltimore has directed that the Thursday night prayer group meetings held at St. Joseph Church in Emmitsburg, Maryland be discontinued at this time.
  3. The Archdiocese of Baltimore is unable to support the message of the video "Unbridled Mercy" and has asked that sales of the video be discontinued immediately.

After recounting Mrs. Sullivan's relocation from the Phoenix Diocese to the Archdiocese of Baltimore, the decree pointed out that there were then some thirty Eucharistic or Marian prayer groups meeting in the Archdiocese. Some of these included the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The decree continued,

The Thursday prayer services at St. Joseph's had combined these elements. More importantly, however, they had primarily become a platform for promoting Mrs. Sullivan's alleged apparitions in a setting which suggests Church approval of both their authenticity and theological content.

This action by the Archdiocese comes after a review of several months by Archdiocesan officials and theologians. Although the Archdiocese does not intend to detail a point-by-point theological analysis of the content of any of the messages Mrs. Sullivan claims to have received, it finds elements in them that cannot be reconciled with the teaching of the Church, including material that deals with predictions for the future and visions of an apocalyptic nature. Additional information presented in a video by and about Mrs. Sullivan entitled "Unbridled Mercy" played a significant role in this review and its result.

For the first time since moving to Fairfield, Pennsylvania from Arizona, Mrs. Sullivan now found herself without a public platform for what she claimed were her supernatural experiences. Not one to shrink from the limelight, she and her husband appeared at the Steel City Marian Conference in Pittsburgh, May 5, 2001. Much of their talk consisted of an analysis of the messages that had preceded the suppression of the Thursday night prayer group. They also interpreted those messages that they suspected had played a role in the suppression, qualifying them and nuancing them in ways that OLOE had never done.

After complaining that the Archdiocese had not taken testimony from various individuals who considered his wife's mystical phenomena valid, Dr. Michael Sullivan then reminded the listeners that his wife had not been forbidden to publish her messages or to write or speak of her experiences. As for the prayer meetings themselves, he stated there was,

  • no restriction on continuing the Prayer Group in some place other than in a Catholic Church (although out of respect for the Church we have chosen not to do this)
  • no restriction on continuing distribution of new public messages from Our Lady for the world (although until now Our Lady has chosen not to do this out of respect for her Church.)

Dr. Michael Sullivan then continued with his explanation of why the great "sign" that OLOE had foretold for October 2000, had not come to pass. Some followers thought that Pope John Paul's consecration of the world to Mary in October had been the "sign," while others were unconvinced. Some pointed to the Sullivan's unscheduled meeting with the pope, while on pilgrimage in Italy, thinking that this was somehow the great sign to the nations. In any case, Dr. Michael Sullivan continued,

Those who understand how Our Lady has worked throughout history might recognize that she always bows in obedience to the Church and that she would not overtly embarrass the Church following its actions taken on September 8.

For the rest of 2001 and the first half of 2002, OLOE continued to keep mum with any more messages "to the world." Mrs. Sullivan continued to assert all the while that OLOE was appearing to her privately every day of the week except Friday. Then, on August 5, 2002, Mrs. Sullivan's followers were alerted to a resumption of the public messages. In light of Dr. Michael Sullivan's earlier remark that OLOE was keeping quiet so as not to embarrass the Church, one might conclude that OLOE now thought the Church and Cardinal Keeler were finally worthy of a little embarrassment.

Ten months later, on June 7, 2003, after two years of study and deliberation, the Archdiocese of Baltimore finally released its official decree on Mrs. Sullivan's phenomena. Cardinal Keeler's statement was short and to the point.

Having received reports of alleged locutions and visions said to have taken place in St. Joseph Church, Emmitsburg, Maryland, in the Archdiocese of Baltimore;

and having studied these reports most attentively through the work of a commission of recognized experts in theology, canon law, and the behavioral sciences;

and having shared with the Holy See the report of the Commission and received from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the appropriate authorization;

I hereby declare that in this case, constat de non supernaturalitate. Accordingly, there is to be no public activity in the churches, oratories and other properties of the Archdiocese of Baltimore relating to the alleged apparitions and locutions.

The "respect for the Church" that the Sullivans felt in 2001, which kept them from holding their prayer meetings in some other venue, vanished completely by 2004. In that year, they started holding such gatherings in a barn belonging to some of Mrs. Sullivan's followers, - meetings that were replete with the customary "messages." Then in the middle of 2005, they moved the event to the Lynfield Event Complex north of Frederick, Maryland. They fixed the meetings on the first Sunday of the month, ostensibly to make it easier for the devotees to plan on attending.

In spite of the 2003 verdict pronounced by Cardinal Keeler, specifying that Mrs. Sullivan was seeing nothing supernatural, she and her followers behaved as though nothing had changed. She had been barred from using any Catholic properties in the Archdiocese of Baltimore as a venue for her events - a stipulation that she would observe with great scrupulosity. But as concerns the verdict that she was not seeing anything supernatural, she and her advisers showed complete contempt for the teaching of the local archbishop.

This lesson was not lost on at least some of the devotees who continued to flock to her meetings. Discounting the formal conclusions of local Church authorities, and implying that Gianna need only submit to Rome, "OLOE" announced to the crowd on February 5, 2006, that Rome had never said anything on paper about the Emmitsburg phenomena. Far from showing respect to the Church's lawful pastors, "OLOE" was also calling Cardinal Keeler a liar. The cardinal had earlier claimed authorization from Rome to declare Mrs. Sullivan's phenomena not to be of supernatural origin.

Even the subsequent verbatim publication of the Roman correspondence, signed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger - presently Pope Benedict XVI - did nothing to dissuade Mrs. Sullivan's defenders. Cardinal Ratzinger had written,

After a careful examination of the contents of the report and having taken into consideration all the aspects of the present case, this Congregation commends the work done by the commission and considers that Your Eminence is in a position to conclude the matter with a decree of "constat de non supernaturalitate" in reference to the phenomena in question.

Mrs. Sullivan's defenders would have us believe that Cardinal Ratzinger merely pointed out something Cardinal Keeler should have known all along: that as local bishop, he has the canonical right to judge of the validity of apparitions. In contrast, Cardinal Ratzinger went out of his way to praise the work done by the archdiocesan commission. He was not saying, "Hey dummy, didn't you know you could do this without bothering me?" Rather, he congratulated the commission on the thoroughness of their work, and he concurred in their findings.

Not to be dissuaded, Mrs. Sullivan's defenders asserted that the commission's work had been shoddy, and that Cardinal Ratzinger had been hoodwinked. Yet another claimed that, since bishops are not infallible, we are free to ignore what they teach. One defender, an ordained priest, likened the situation to a president of the United States reviewing the work of a governor and verifying that the governor had acted within the law. This ordained priest should have known better than make such a comparison. A Catholic bishop who maintains communion of faith with the Bishop of Rome is able to teach his people authoritatively in Jesus' name. The assembled bishops at Vatican II taught,

Among the principal duties of bishops, the preaching of the Gospel occupies an eminent place. For bishops are preachers of the faith, who lead new disciples to Christ, and they are authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach to the people committed to them the faith they must believe and put into practice, and by the light of the Holy Spirit illustrate that faith. They bring forth from the treasury of Revelation new things and old, making it bear fruit and vigilantly warding off any errors that threaten their flock. Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent.

Furthermore, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states,

Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a "definitive manner," they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful "are to adhere to it with religious assent" which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it. (CCC, 892)

The Catechism makes it very clear that, even in cases when infallibility is not invoked, the faithful have an obligation to give "religious assent" to their lawful bishops when those bishops teach in matters of faith and morals, and when the bishops maintain communion of faith with the bishop of Rome. The teaching of the local bishop in matters of faith and morals simply cannot be ignored.

So, what is this "religious assent" (obsequium religiosum) which the individual Catholic owes to the pope and to the bishop of his or her diocese, when these men teach authoritatively in matters of faith and morals? The theologian William May, notes that individual Catholics might find it difficult to give internal assent to a given teaching.

The Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has addressed this matter. It recognized that theologians (and others) might question not only the form but even the substantive content of some authoritatively proposed magisterial teachings. It held that it is permissible in such instances to withhold assent, to raise questions (and present them to the magisterium), to discuss the issues with other theologians (and be humble enough to accept criticism of one's own views by them). Theologians (and others) can propose their views as hypotheses to be considered and tested by other theologians and ultimately to be judged by those who have, within the Church, the solemn obligation of settling disputes and speaking the mind of Christ.

But it taught one is not giving a true obsequium religiosum if one dissents from magisterial teaching and proposes one's own position as a position that the faithful are at liberty to follow, substituting it for the teaching of the magisterium. But this is precisely what has been occurring. Dissent of this kind is not compatible with the obsequium religiosum.

Dissent is not compatible with the religious assent that we owe to our bishops, but dissent is exactly what Mrs. Sullivan and her backers have been serving up to her pious flock. If, just for the sake of argument, the cardinal archbishop of Baltimore had been in error when he judged Mrs. Sullivan's apparitions, she and her backers still did not have the right to beat the drum on behalf of the apparitions, found their own movement, and assert that it is authentically Catholic - doing so after the local bishop had stated on two separate occasions that it is NOT authentically Catholic. The OLOE movement employs pious Catholic practices, and wastes no opportunity to portray itself as part of the Catholic mainstream, but its very existence constitutes a calculated act of rebellion against the Catholic Church.

But what about her principal defenders? If one or more priests believe that Mrs. Sullivan is seeing the Mother of God, does that not constitute some sort of Church approval? Quite simply, it shows nothing of the kind. Church approval can only be pronounced by a bishop. Open up any book of prayers, or a book of theology carrying a Church approval. The approval comes from a bishop. You will never see such an approval coming from a priest. If a priest's name is mentioned at all, it is as the censor librorum - a trustworthy individual who has been delegated by the bishop to read the work and make an official report. At the end of the day, though, it is the bishop who gives the approval, and lacking the bishop's signature, the "approval" is no approval at all.

So what Church standing do Mrs. Sullivan's priest backers enjoy in order validate her experiences? The answer: Absolutely none. Even if they are ordained, unless they have received lawful delegation from a bishop, and unless the bishop has ratified their conclusions, their opinions carry no more weight than those of some random citizen on the sidewalk. Several of these backers have made repeated reference to scientific tests to which Mrs. Sullivan submitted herself in the past, and which showed that her state of mind is genuinely altered during her ecstasies. This argument is a prime example of non-sequitur. In other words, the conclusion does not flow logically from the premise. Someone in an altered state of mind could certainly be seeing a person from heaven, but they could also be in a self-induced trance, or they could be seeing something "dark." All the electro-encephalogram shows is that something odd is going on in the person's head. It cannot establish who - or what - the person is "seeing." And it cannot establish if the "who" or "what" is supernatural. Only a bishop can make that sort of pronouncement after careful study, and do so officially in the name of the Church.

When accused of disobedience over the last years, Mrs. Sullivan and her defenders have quickly pointed to the fact that they are not conducting services on Church property. They claim in the same breath that this is the only injunction ever placed upon Mrs. Sullivan by Church authority. But they ignore the religious assent that Mrs. Sullivan owes to the archbishops of Baltimore, in whose archdiocese Mrs. Sullivan conducts her events. In terms of religious assent, Mrs. Sullivan and her backers are guilty of the grossest disobedience. Their behavior resembles that of the dissidents in 1968, who not only took issue with the encyclical of Pope Paul VI on artificial birth control, but actively tried to rally the troops against the pope. While it is true that no one can coerce a person's conscience, or force someone to believe something against his or her will, it is also true that no Catholic can mount a campaign of public disobedience and still call himself or herself a, "good Catholic."

Rather than being quiet and working behind the scenes, hoping to overturn a decision they consider unjust, Mrs. Sullivan and her backers have in effect founded their own church. Its temple consists of rented space at the Lynfield Event Complex. Its single sacrament is the First Sunday of the Month prayer meeting, where unique "graces" are bestowed by the "apparition" upon those in attendance. Its high priestess is Gianna Talone Sullivan, who serves as a portal to the beyond Her messages and experiences are validated by a handful of clergy who speak in no one's name but their own. Her movement recognizes no Catholic Church authority unless that authority is willing to validate her claims.

Mrs. Sullivan is playing a very dangerous game with the souls of her followers. Either she is the anointed of God, and the earth's inhabitants must heed the noises inside her head if they ever want to get to heaven - or else Jesus established His Church to lead His People to their heavenly goal. The members of the Gianna Movement cannot have it both ways.

"No one can go off and start up his own church and call it Roman Catholic."

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