The Vatican’s new study commission is conducting its research behind the scenes, but an open theological debate continues, mostly in Europe, regarding the alleged apparitions and supernatural messages of Medjugorje. Here at Catholic Light, I’ve been covering some of the discussion from the German Catholic press.
In his latest contribution, Fr. Manfred Hauke, a professor in the Catholic theology faculty in
Lugano (Switzerland), has followed up on arguments by Medjugorje defenders Dcn. Thomas Müller and Dr. Christian Stelzer, who disputed some of Hauke’s historical points. He offers a response with information from two experts:
- Medical expert Dr. Thilo Buchmüller explained that the reported healing of three-year-old Daniel Setka in 1981 was not proof of a miracle.
- Anthropologist Mart Bax responded to complaints about name discrepancies in his writings about ethnic violence near Medjugorje.
A third Medjugorje supporter, Fr. Ivan Dugandzic, OFM, a member of one of the previous commissions, offered his own defense which appeals to the theories of Karl Rahner. Professor Hauke responds to Dugandzic’s argument as well. The article follows.
The events of Medjugorje under the magnifying glass
Fr. Hauke responds to Dr. Stelzer and Fr. Dugandzic
My interview about the “Medjugorje phenomenon” (Die Tagespost, February 2, 2010) found three rebuttals on the pages of kath.net, by Thomas Müller, deacon of the Cologne archdiocese (2/18), Christian Stelzer, M.D. (“Oasis of Peace”, Vienna) (2/22), and Professor Ivan Dugandzic, OFM (2/22). I addressed the critique by Thomas Müller with a response published February 22, upon which Müller offered an apology (2/25). I was very happy to see his apology as well as his greater objectivity in argumentation. Thomas Müller took notice of my response, but thinks that in regard to two points I have “unintentionally repeated untruths from others… without sufficient examination”, namely in relation to the “little war” with 140 dead, described by Dutch anthropologist Mart Bax, and also in relation to the “healing” of Daniel Setka announced by the “Gospa”. Müller points to the contribution of Dr. Stelzer in support of both points. Therefore, I would be happy to return to these two topics, and also to the considerations of Fr. Dugandzic.
- I did not have any second thoughts in relation to the data reported by Mart Bax, a professor of political anthropology at Amsterdam, because in the relevant international literature the author is considered a specialist on the political events in Bosnia-Herzegovina and I was not aware of any contrary representations. The investigation, mentioned by Dr. Stelzer, in a Croatian newspaper, which was repeated in the summer of 2008 in the Austrian newspaper Der Standard and in the Frankfurter Rundschau, was not known to me at the time of the interview in the Tagespost. In general, I do not make a claim to know “everything” about Medjugorje, but I do make an effort to carefully provide a basis for the assertions I make. The statements made in the newspaper reports and the information from Dr. Stelzer simply have not convinced me. Dr. Stelzer has apparently not consulted the book by Bax, but only the newspaper reports: otherwise he would have had to notice that the author (in order to protect himself and his sources) changed all the names of persons:
My informants in Bosnia, Hercegovina, and various Croatian communities abroad provided hospitality and multifarious help. For reasons of safety I will not mention them by name. Many of them are also personae dramatis in this book; therefore, I use fictitious names only” (M. Bax, Medjugorje: Religion, Politics, and Violence in Rural Bosnia, Amsterdam 1995, XI).
Therefore, it does not make sense when Dr. Stelzer matches the pseudonym “Ljerka Sivric” with a lady in Medjugorje who by chance bears the same name and talks about a possible lawsuit. That would be more or less as if a person named James Bond in New York were to undertake a suit against the movie industry for depicting him as a killer and womanizer. In regard to the numerous atrocities committed in Bosnia-Herzegovina, it may be interesting to consult the homepage of the tribunal for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, based in The Hague. The relevant reports can be retrieved in multiple languages, and using the site’s search function, the word “Medjugorje” brings up many results (www.icty.org). To look into them would be a job for a state’s attorney, but not a theologian. In order to chase down the information about the “little war” as precisely as possible, I turned, with the help of a Dutch priest, to Mart Bax, and, through a Croatian acquaintance, to the Chancellor of the Mostar diocese. From Mostar came the answer that in Herzegovina the “little war” in Medjugorje described by Bax was not known. From Bax himself I received the following answer, which I reproduce here by the permission of the author (Bax’s text is from 2/16):
Reactions of this sort [he is referring to Dr. Stelzer’s letter to the editor in the Tagespost on 2/11] to the roughly two decades of work behind me, are not completely unknown to me. They almost always come from people who are interested in the area for some reason other than scholarly interest: e.g., religious, ‘believers’. Motivated (actually handicapped) by such a one-sided outlook on reality, they are not willing to accept another perspective. Outraged, they reject it with designations such as “untrue”, “lie”, etc. And they think they can justify this with empirical proof that “it is not true”. The names of people, families, places, events are incorrect. A fruitful exchange of ideas with such people – and there are many of them! – is difficult. Every discussion threatens to run aground in a “partisan war”, which is discouraging. I remember the comment of an older colleague about such situations: “Never ask questions about dirty laundry: they just deny it”. I am aware that in my work there are mistakes and gaps; they happen to every researcher, because of false information and/or skewed interpretation. Besides that, it is common in anthropological circles to intentionally make some changes in the reality described at times, in order to protect oneself and above all one’s informants. Unfortunately, my health makes it impossible for me to take part in any further discussion at this time. I ask your forgiveness.
With this answer from Prof. Bax the historical question is not clarified beyond all doubt, but in any case in the future I will not make use of the statements he made about the “little war” in Medjugorje.
- The situation in relation to the alleged miraculous healing of Daniel Setka, which was announced by the “Gospa” (June 29, 1981) is another matter. When I spoke of the healing that did not happen, this referred to a miraculous healing, which takes place all at once and completely. There is an interview about this event by the Franciscan Father Svetozar Kraljevic, who argues for the authenticity of the “apparitions”, with the boy’s parents; several medical documents from the years 1978, 1980, and 1981 are also provided. (S. Kraljevic, The Apparitions of Our Lady at Medjugorje, 1981-1983: An Historical Account with Interviews, Franciscan Herald Press, Chicago 1984, 181-185). This interview speaks only of a partial healing, which does not fulfill the criteria for miraculous healings of the Lourdes Medical Bureau. “In order that a healing be recognized as a miracle, these criteria require that the illness be unambiguously diagnosed, that it be organic, severe, and life-threatening, and that the healing happen suddenly and be complete and lasting” (T.H. Buchmüller, „Wunderheilungen als Zeugnis für die Marienerscheinungen in Lourdes”: Forum Katholische Theologie 25, 3-2009, 218-223, cf. 221). I conveyed the information reported in Kraljevic to Dr. Thilo Buchmüller, who gave a presentation on miraculous healings from a medical point of view at the Mariological World Congress at Lourdes in 2008 (since published in the work just cited). Dr. Buchmüller writes to me:
I have the following information:
- birth of a boy on 9/21/1978 at the Mostar hospital
- at four days, shortness of breath and convulsions
- a one-month stay at the Mostar hospital
- diagnosis according to the discharge letter #1344/c of 10/20/1978: sepsis with convulsions, anemia, and hypoglycemia
- discharge and baptism
- visits of various physicians
- a one-month stay in West Germany without treatment (?!), only with exercises (!!)
- diagnosis from 5/6/1981, Sarajevo: suspected epilepsy, spastic hemiparesis [weakness on one side of the body] on the right side, CT and EEG with hospitalization recommended
- then two distinct reports follow about an improvement in movement with the appearance of independent speech by the boy at a restaurant
- and improved walking on level ground
- then further improvement of his mobility to the point of playing with a football
If I had received this patient report without any reference to Medjugorje, the course of the illness fits with a natural healing of this unfortunately very common illness profile through physical therapy (the most effective therapy for this illness profile). The age of the boy at the time of the healing would also be important.
In a hemiparesis on the right side, the left half of the brain is affected (probably occasioned by a post-natal infection or hypoglycemia), and because the motor speech center for right-handed people is located on the left side, an improvement of mobility on the right side of the body can also explain an improvement of motor speech. The difference between this and the miraculous healings in Lourdes is healing without any recovery time.
- The contribution of Dr. Stelzer has apparently not yet taken notice of my reply to Thomas Müller, to which I shall refer for most points. He calls into question my observation on the negative consequences of the “apparitions” in relation to two Franciscans who, citing the “Gospa”, set themselves against t
he canonically legitimate directives of the local Ordinary in relation to their pastoral activity. Stelzer writes: “Yet it is a fact that the 1982 judgment against both Franciscan fathers was lifted by the Apostolic Signatura, the highest court of the Holy See, in March 1993.” It is correct that the 1982 judgment against both Franciscan fathers was lifted by the Apostolic Signatura in March 1993, but only due to a procedural error. The disobedience by both Fathers at the time is not justified by this. Later one of the two Franciscan fathers got married. The disobedience against the legitimate directives of the bishop is unequivocally a negative sign in relation to the authenticity of the apparitions.
Dr. Stelzer asks me why I have not contacted the “seers” directly. Well, there are tape-recording transcripts of the statements of the “seers” from the first days of the “apparitions”, in which the young people speak for themselves. These earliest historical witnesses, in which the whole problematics of the phenomenon clearly come to expression, are more important than later statements, but are ignored by most supporters of the “apparitions”. In addition, some of the seers have demonstrably lied (Vicka Ivankovic, Marija Pavlovic, Ivan Dragicevic), which does not exactly encourage me to question them personally. Even a long-time Medjugorje apologist such as Rene Laurentin freely admits the repeated lying and as justification, cites a prelate with these words: “I have lied many times in my life, but always for the good of the Church” (Dernières nouvelles 17, 1998, S. 64, cited in R. Franken, Eine Reise nach Medjugorje, Venlo-Antwerpen 2000, 118). I do not believe that lying can be reconciled with a commitment to Christ, the Truth in person.
- The contribution of Fr. Dugandzic laudably goes into the theological problematics of the messages, of which he is obviously well aware, through his knowledge of the source materials from Sivric. Yet he does not present a single concrete example, but appeals to the well-known fact that a heavenly revelation is presented by a human subject in a way corresponding to his or her personal assumptions. But are the content-related questions about the “messages” of the “Gospa” resolved by this?
Fr. Dugandzic is certainly aware as a biblical scholar of the criteria that are given in Sacred Scripture for the authenticity of prophetic words. Among them is the fulfillment of predictions: “How can we recognize a word that the Lord has not spoken? Thus you will know: when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord and his word is not fulfilled and is not confirmed, then it is a word that the Lord did not speak” (Dt. 18:22). An example which I mentioned in my interview addresses the announcement by the “Gospa” on June 30, 1981, that the “apparitions” would be over in three days. This statement by the “seers” was even confirmed in the tape-recording transcripts by both of the social-workers who had taken a ride with the young people that morning and were witnesses of how the “seers” repeated the words “three more times” after the vision (cf. the presentation of utterances in the source question of a Medjugorje supporter, Daria Klanac, Aux sources de Medjugorje, Montréal 1998, 174.184; see also I. Sivric, The Hidden Side of Medjugorje, Saint-François-du-Lac (Québec) 1989, 361.371). This utterance therefore apparently goes back to the visionary experience itself of the “Gospa”. But is the entity making this announcement really the Mother of God? Would the Virgin Mary make a false prediction? Herein comes the contradiction between the utterance “three more days” and the “Gospa’s” answer to the question posed the preceding day, how long she wanted to stay “with us”: “As long as you want, as long as you wish!” (cf. Klanac, 135; Sivric, Hidden Side, 319). Is it worthy of belief that the Mother of God is making the duration of her apparitions dependent on the wishes of the seers? Could it be that the “seers” have let themselves be deceived by a spirit that is not the Virgin Mary?
There is furthermore the problematics of various messages attributed to the Mother of God. Kath.net published a beautiful piece on March 7, which rightly emphasizes, “The religions are not equal.” But what did the Gospa say on October 1, 1981 to the question, “Are all religions good?” “All the religions are equal before God.” Rene Laurentin himself has great difficulties with this utterance; he struggles for six pages to bend it so that it becomes acceptable, but can do nothing more than to call it “ambiguous” (cf. R. Laurentin, Message et pédagogie de Marie à Medjugorje. Corpus chronologique des messages, Paris, 1988, 156.317-322). The Mostar Diocese published further examples [here in Italian] [here in an unofficial English translation] from the official chronicle of the “Apparitions” on its web site and related them to a statement by Cardinal Schönborn, according to which there were open questions about Medjugorje.
Fr. Dugandzic apparently sees a way to get out of such problems in the views of Karl Rahner, which lead to a radical subjectivizing of the content-bearing utterances and of what is seen. Dugandzic reproaches Sivric for “theological naïveté”, on the ground that he is ignorant of Rahner’s relevant book. Has it remained hidden from Dugandzic that Sivric goes into Rahner extensively? (cf. Sivric, Hidden Side, 384-388). I personally consider Rahner’s contribution insufficient (cf. my handbook: Introduzione alla Mariologia, Lugano, 2008, 311f.) If Marian apparitions only present the “God-wrought” subjectivity of the seer and not any objectively valid content, then they are at base superfluous.
- Discussion of the Medjugorje phenomenon should objectively present the entire problematics from a Catholic point of view, without thereby setting up prohibitions to thought or reacting allergically to critical voices. Not only does the statement mentioned above from Cardinal Schönborn indicate that there are problems (“there are open questions”), but also an Italian interview with René Laurentin from 2008, in which the best-known theological promoter of the “Marian apparitions” of Medjugorje emphasizes, to the great astonishment of the journalist, that he had never asserted that the apparitions were genuine (“non ho mai espresso giudizi sull’autenticità o meno delle apparizioni” [English version available here.]).
According to reports, a Commission is being prepared by the Holy See, which should deal more closely with the Medjugorje phenomenon. If this Commission should come to the conclusion that the visionary experiences are not supernatural, then such a result need not disturb Catholic Christians. The Catholic faith does not stand and fall with the authenticity of disputed Marian apparitions. The investigation of the relevant problems could also lead to dignify the authentic Marian apparitions (such as at Guadalupe, Lourdes, and Fatima) with greater thankfulness.