The modern world is dense with people who claim to be receiving messages from heaven. These messages include biblical interpretations, previously unknown doctrines, and warnings about future events. Many of these self-proclaimed prophets are predicting opposing things, which means that at least some them must be false. So, what is a person to do? How are we to discern the authentic from the fraudulent? And should we even care?
Catholic teaching on the subject is clear. Simply put, as a matter of salvation, Catholics are to accept all that constitutes public revelation – namely, all that is revealed in Holy Scripture and more fully expounded in Sacred Tradition and defined by the magisterium. In other words, we are to embrace all that is taught in the Bible and the Catechism. This body of teachings – called the “deposit of faith” – has been given to us directly by Jesus Christ, delivered to the Apostles, and passed down through the ages. It is the duty of the Church to guard every iota of this precious treasury of truth, and to expound and defend it throughout the ages, even as religious fads come and go and theological fashions rise and fall.
The fullness of public revelation, as found in Scripture and Tradition, is precisely what provides for our salvation; it is complete, and nothing necessary to our salvation is lacking in it. On the other hand, no Catholic must accept that which constitutes private revelation, even those appearances which the Church has affirmed, such as Fatima, La Sallette, and Lourdes. Even if true, these do not and cannot add doctrinal or moral teachings to the faith, as if something necessary had been lacking. For the salvific work of Jesus Christ is perfect and all-sufficient, and its potential for forming, guiding, and sanctifying souls could never be exhausted.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) teaches,
“Throughout the ages, there have been so-called ‘private’ revelations, some of which have been recognized by the authority of the Church. They do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith. It is not their role to improve or complete Christ’s definitive Revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history. Guided by the magisterium of the Church, the sensus fidelium knows how to discern and welcome in these revelations whatever constitutes an authentic call of Christ or his saints to the Church.”
In light of this, it’s easy to see how authentic private revelations serve in the larger picture of God’s plan of salvation. For example, the Divine Mercy revelation to Saint Faustina only emphasizes the Gospel call to repent and believe. It is a devotional way in which God underlines His mercy by calling to the lost with renewed appeals of forgiveness. But it is not an easy escape from God’s justice, nor a turn to moral relativism, as if God was revealing that He is now indifferent towards our sins. By no means. For even in Saint Faustina’s Diary, one can sense a frightful urgency and a sober concern that the mercy and grace of God can be rejected, to the eternal loss of souls. Hence, Saint Faustina was shown a vision of hell.
My present concern is not with those private revelations that have been recognized by the Church (which, by the way, I fully accept), but with those that have not been recognized. These can pose a grave threat to the faith and health of souls. They have the potential of drawing the faithful away from the Church to a sort of pseudo-magisterium of the alleged seer; they can produce a type of gnostic elitism for offering supposedly secret knowledge to a select few; they can draw people into an unhealthy curiosity about the minute details of the life of our Lord or our Lady; they can pollute peoples’ faith with doctrinal errors and corrupt them with either moral laxity or scrupulosity; they can cause undue fear about the future and a lack of trust in divine providence ; they can distract people from the ordinary duties that follow from Church and family life; and they can induce a sort of human devotion that should be rendered to God and God alone. No one should offer an irrational and absolute submission of head and heart to another human being, such as is often encouraged by alleged prophets.
Holy Scripture offers many warnings about following alleged prophets. Matthew 7:15 says,
“Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”
Unfortunately, there is no official false prophet uniform that makes such a person easily recognizable. But perhaps the most popular look today is that of the ordinary Joe six-pack. This disarming appearance is meant to inspire trust. “Ralph is just an ordinary hard-working guy like you and me. We can trust him.” The American infatuation with the hyper-informal “ordinary guy” is a golden opportunity for false prophets and other demagogues.
1 Thessalonians 5:19-21 warns,
“Do not extinguish the Spirit. Do not despise prophecy. But test all things; hold fast to that which is good.”
This passage instructs us not to be overly skeptical about the possibility of genuine prophecy. It does exist. But do not to be gullible either. Rather, test all things that claim to be prophetic. Hold them to a standard. Judge them by the truths of public revelation as found in Scripture and Tradition, and submit to the authority of the magisterium of the Church. Compare that which is uncertain with that which is certain.
Perhaps the most valuable piece of practical advice on this subject is found in the Old Testament. It offers a fool-proof test for discerning the authentic from the fraudulent. Deuteronomy 18:21-22 says,
“If you say to yourselves, ‘How can we recognize an oracle which the Lord has spoken?’, know that even though a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if his oracle is not fulfilled or verified, it is an oracle which the Lord did not speak. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously, and you shall have no fear of him.”
It’s very simple. If an alleged prophet utters an alleged prophecy, we must test it by waiting to see what happens. If the prophecy comes true, then maybe he or she is legitimate. But if the prophecy does not come true, then we must never listen to that egomaniac again. Never! Their threats and warnings can safely be ignored, for God has exposed them.
Practically speaking, we should listen for a specific prediction, something concrete and date-related. Write down that prediction word for word, and then wait and see what happens. A notorious anti-Catholic end times “Prophet of God” that I regularly hear on the radio has pompously declared that Jesus Christ will return before he – the alleged prophet – will die. I heard him say it myself, and I’m awaiting the outcome. And I’ll be additionally interested to see how his subjects react to his unexpected pre-parousia death. Not that I would, even for a moment, consider this man to be a true prophet. But having a concrete event by which he can be judged is precisely what the passage from Deuteronomy has counseled.
Since the passage in Deuteronomy is presumably familiar to every false prophet, we should beware of their learned shrewdness. They’ve figured out that a certain vagueness can help them out of even the most embarrassing false prophecies. Hence, they may introduce various conditions that can change. For example, in wrongly predicting the Second Coming of Christ, some have appealed to the old oops-we-made-a-miscalculation excuse. Remember Harold Camping? This allows them to continue making future predictions while retaining their followers, even though they’ve erred in a very important matter. Another clever technique is to make a prediction, but then qualify it by adding, “This prophecy is almost certain to come true, unless so-and-so happens.” This allows the individual to appear correct, almost regardless of what happens. Yet another method is to claim, “The end will come in your lifetime.” Brilliant. The only way you can expose this last trickster is by dying.
False prophecy is an immense industry. It is the religious field of egomaniacs who obviously lack the fear of God and the love of others as well. It can destroy the lives of countless persons, both here and hereafter. It also gives religion in general a bad name and provides critics with ample material for their mockery.
My own practice is to remain thoroughly skeptical of any self-proclaimed prophet, and to apply the test of Deuteronomy with the strictest standard. I intend to guard my faith, my soul, and my salvation with the most acute solicitude and vigilance. For false prophets, preachers, and wonder-workers are everywhere preying on the faithful today, and with minimal resistance in this age of religious ignorance, superstition, unbelief, and leaderlessness.