Why do you Catholics believe in private revelation? Only Scripture can be trusted to contain the revelation of God; anything else is from the Devil. After all, does’t Jesus tell us that only a wicked generation seeks signs and wonders?
There’s a lot packed in that little question. Let’s start by pointing out the commonalities Catholics have with our Protestant brethren: we both agree that public revelation ceased with the Ascension of Christ. God, having given us His very self in His son, has nothing more to reveal. And we both agree that scripture contains written testimony to that public revelation. Here, however, commonality ceases, for Protestants do not recognize the deposit of Sacred Tradition (Oral Scripture) as likewise revealed of God, despite the fact that Paul admonishes his followers to hold fast to whatever he taught them whether in writing or orally–and the fact that John ends his Gospel pointing out that there were so many other things Jesus did (and thus revealed) that all the books in the world could not contain them. So Catholics are already comfortable with the idea that not everything of importance to the Christian life is contained in the pages of the Biblical canon. We are not a sola scriptura faith.
So what’s with this private revelation business? Catholic life is full of the products of private revelation: the rosary, the devotion to the Sacred Heart, the writing of the mystics…sometimes these things seem so tightly woven into the fabric of Catholic life it’s easy to forget what the Church actually teaches about them. Let the Catechism speak for itself:
66 “The Christian economy, therefore, since it is the new and definitive Covenant, will never pass away; and no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Yet even if Revelation is already complete, it has not been made completely explicit; it remains for Christian faith gradually to grasp its full significance over the course of the centuries.
67 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.
Christian faith cannot accept “revelations” that claim to surpass or correct the Revelation of which Christ is the fulfillment, as is the case in certain non-Christian religions and also in certain recent sects which base themselves on such “revelations.”
So there you have it: public revelation has ended until the Second Coming, when Christ again reveals Himself to the world. No private revelation, from the gift of the rosary to the Marian apparitions, is or can be part of the deposit of faith. No Catholic has to believe them. But most of us do accept–to one degree or another– those private revelations that, over time, have come to be deemed worthy of faith by the Church, because they have proved such a source of grace and assistance in trying to live out our Catholic lives.
But it is worth looking a bit more closely at your objections to private revelation. Few of us have mystical experiences like St. Bernadette or Saint Juan Diego. Most of us Christians–and this includes Protestants–have had an experience in which we felt strongly that God was calling us to one thing or another, or making something known to us in some mysterious way. While this does not rise to the level of private revelation it affirms that we Christians believe that God continues to work with each of us individually in this world, and not just through the scriptures.
There are a number of reasons Protestants have trouble with the idea of private revelation, perhaps the most significant being that the private revelations of the 1500 years prior to the Reformation affirmed the Church and her teachings. Once Protestants broke with the Church, it was no longer possible to affirm those private revelations and eventually, Protestant thought discarded the very notion as incompatible with the Christian faith. As a result, Protestants lost the distinction between public revelation binding on all Christians, and private revelation, a gift of grace given to particular individuals in particular times and binding only on the one who receives it. Consequently, the very word revelation to a Protestant means something that is binding on all Christians–even though Catholics use the term very differently. recognizing the distinction between general or public revelation and private..
Another reason that there is skepticism about private revelation is that Protestant denominations do not, as a rule, have a strong mystical tradition. The Protestant Reformation was very much a product of the enlightenment, relying on reason and intellect as the way of knowing God; consequently, there are few Protestant mystics and even these are not well known or necessarily accepted. Couple that with the modern experience with charlatans who claim all sorts of absurdities–and the modern tendency to explain anything mystical as arising from mental imbalance– it is no wonder that modern Protestant thought is generally skeptical of private revelation.
While no one is obliged to accept any private revelation, the Church does designate some as worthy of belief–and the Church is more skeptical of private revelation than anyone. A brief glance at the history of the mystics demonstrates just that: every private revelation is met initially with disbelief by the Church, for she too knows that demons can work wonders. But if one remembers that the Church is the in some real and mystical way truly the Body of Christ, with Him as her head, it’s also reasonable that she is able to discern the divine from the demonic. Private revelation that has been deemed worth of belief has also proved to be a great source of spiritual strength to the faithful. The miracles at Lourdes, the great conversion of Mexico following the appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the visions of St. Faustina and the devotion to Divine Mercy: each in its own way serve to edify the faithful and stir them to action in the life of faith.
It’s also worth noting that private revelation cannot contradict public revelation; authentic private revelation worthy of belief never does. It cannot add to the faith–a private revelation that there are four persons in the Trinity, for example, would obviously be false.
Your question suggests that those who receive revelations seek them; generally this isn’t the case. God grants these revelations as He wills and when He wills and often, the ones who receive it sometimes suffer greatly because of it, often at the hands of a skeptical clergy. But it’s another sign of authentic revelation that it increases the humility of the recipient, who sometimes has to to bear great injustice because of the gift. A wicked generation indeed seeks signs and wonders, but a stiff-necked and proud one rejects the very idea that they can still happen. It is as great an error to accept every claim of private revelation as true as it is to deny that the possibility even exists.
That being said, there are without question overzealous Catholics whose devotion to private revelation is excessive, even superstitious–just a there are Protestants who follow a particular preacher more closely than they follow Christ. Even so the teaching of the Church is clear, both as to the place of private revelation and its value in living the Christian life: Yet even if Revelation is already complete, it has not been made completely explicit; it remains for Christian faith gradually to grasp its full significance over the course of the centuries. Properly understood and embraced, private revelation does just that–it helps us to grasp the deep mysteries of the faith that become more explicit over time, God’s and our own.