“The remembrance of death, like all other blessings, is a gift of God: otherwise how is it that often when we are by the very tombs, we are left tearless and hard?”
—St. John of the Ladder

More than 20 years ago, I was counseled by an orthodox Roman Catholic professor at UNC-Chapel Hill to cool my teenage zeal for ferreting out heresies among the higher and lower clergy. “You will find quite enough trouble within the elastic bounds of orthodoxy, Mr. Barbour,” he wisely told me. He advised me not to worry about the sad legion of the heterodox: They would do themselves in—and everyone else a great favor—even before the magisterium of the Church got around to the happy task. The real trouble in the Church would begin with the bewildered orthodox reaction to an almost unbridled heterodoxy and heteropraxis. In those days, I could not have imagined how prophetic his words were. (Note to those affected by higher criticism: “Prophetic” means “He knew they would come true.”)

Back in the mid-70’s, there was no organized, robust movement of reaction to post-conciliar modernism. To be sure, there were the Wanderer and CUF, but the orthodox household had not yet burgeoned into the great mass of colleges, new religious institutes, publishers and publications, movements, etc., which exists today. “The elastic bounds of orthodoxy” are stretching wider and wider and are ready to snap. Today’s “orthodox” Roman Catholic can be anything from a “traditionalist” (and this title includes both the uniate Lefebvrist and semi-Origenist aestheticist), to a neoconservative, ex-60’s leftist turned Wall Street Journal personalist, to an intellectually irritable, but resigned, ex-Anglican Thomist, to an ex-five-point Calvinist biblical apologist who still believes in limited atonement, to a slain-in-the-spirit charismatic with a pending double annulment case. When one considers that this list is not exhaustive, and that its characterizations are not adequately distinct, then the number of possible combinations and variations is daunting, e.g., a charismatic mother superior in full-wimpled habit who enjoys an occasional Tridentine Mass and now admires Madeleine Albright since Vaclav Havel does. (“They say he likes the Holy Father!” she gushes, which for her is an abbreviated syllogism. Mother Enthymenie, we can call her, or “Men” for short.)

Today’s orthodox Catholics, of paleo-, neo-, charismatico-, or whatever stripe are surely as right as right can be about the necessity of doctrinal fidelity. What they have not understood, and what has led to the intellectually indigestible silliness of much of what is served up and sold as right-believing Catholicism—worse, to the much less publicized moral failings of its proponents—is amply, if unevenly, demonstrated in E. Michael Jones’ The Medjugorje Deception. In the Medjugorje movement, my old professor’s prediction comes true with a vengeance. Jones has done us all a favor in narrating, though not exactly documenting, its fulfillment on a grand scale.

The Medjugorje Deception teaches the reader that it is not enough to be orthodox. It is not enough to be an enthusiast for the papacy, Eucharistic and Marian devotion, and the pro-life cau.se to be a guaranteed channel of grace and truth. Since orthodoxy seems so beleaguered and rare, and yet so necessary, it can, when found in a robust form, seem like a maximum of Catholicity, when it is in fact only a mere minimum. Thus the orthodox believer begins to take on a certain rash confidence in his own judgment during a time of great confusion because, in comparison to the spiritual desert around him (usually identified with the local chancery office or major seminary), he has an abundance. He becomes amazingly self-assured in fields where previously all lay and most clerical angels feared to tread, e.g., the outer reaches of extraordinary mystical phenomena, the theological significance of liturgical rubrics, current events in a biblical perspective, and a Christian approach to psychotherapy.

The Fathers of the Egyptian Desert would have recognized the problem right away: illusion. A self-conscious “orthodoxy,” especially with all its hyphenations, is no guarantee against spiritual delusions. In fact, in today’s Church, it may become a proximate occasion of this sin. Perhaps a more precise, and therefore more charitable, title for this book would have been The Medjugorje Illusion. The seers and their promoters are not necessarily engaging in deliberate deception, but are rather the victims of their own illusions. This is, in fact, one of Jones’ suggested explanations. The Medjugorje seers have been seeing something, but they are under the illusion that it is from heaven, when its origin may be merely, albeit ominously, preternatural.

In 1981, the Blessed Virgin is alleged to have appeared to some teenagers on a hill by a village in Bosnia, beginning a movement which is still continuing, along with its apparitions, and which has had a tremendous impact on many Roman Catholic faithful in the United States. The parish church of Medjugorje is the focus of numerous pilgrimages, and the movement which promotes the messages of the apparitions is found in practically every parish in our country. Conversions, souls returning to the sacraments and to a fervent life of prayer are attributed to the experiences undergone as a result of contact with the messages of Our Lady, the “Queen of Peace.” A serious Catholic would not reject these apparitions out of hand, given their “fruits” and the orthodoxy of their message of prayer and penance. E. Michael Jones shows us why they should be rejected, even though it is unlikely that he will convince anyone who does not already tend to agree with him.

What is it that made a series of adolescent group experiences into an international religious phenomenon of nearly two decades’ standing? There is, of course, an ecclesiological explanation: on this, more later. But Jones’ explanation of the Medjugorje movement has several angles of approach. There are political, economic, and sociological causes, seen in the light of the historical onera of the Ustasa, communism, and the dubious alliances of the Cold War. I will not comment on this aspect of Jones’ analysis, except to point out that the book’s way of treating these matters is what will make it in large part a rhetorical failure. The audience which most needs the insights of The Medjugorje Deception (the kind of pan-orthodox Catholics who subscribed to Jones’ Fidelity magazine until he questioned Medjugorje) will not be able to follow the ramblings of Jones’ powerful journalistic intuitions. He is preaching to the saved (perhaps a Serbian Orthodox hieromonk, or that aforementioned—and undersigned—intellectually irritable ex-Anglican Thomist), the sort of reader who is a devotee of Chronicles and occasionally glances at the New American. Jones’ insights are worthy of the former, but, alas, his prose and editorial acumen are more akin to the latter. He should have written a work in which the political analysis was as distinct as possible from the ecclesiological. As the book is written, it will allow the Medjugorje follower to discount his analysis of the apparitions as politically motivated, or as unrelated to their strictly religious aspect. An enthusiast can hardly be expected to abstract from the geopolitical aspects in order to see the point for his own spiritual life.

As any examination of various apparitions since the 17th century will bear out, both authentic and spurious apparitions can have significant political connotations: for instance, the banners and badges of the Sacred Heart in the Vendee in revolutionary France, or the travels of the Pilgrim Virgin of Fatima throughout South Vietnam in the early 70’s. Indeed, unless one is a Freemason, it is hard to see what is wrong with heavenly realities mixing with history and politics. As an intensely devout Catholic, Jones would surely agree. The political manipulation of the Medjugorje apparitions in favor of Croatian nationalism or a papal strategy for destabilizing communism would not in itself prove that the apparitions are fake, unless those political ends inferred from the apparitions are evil in themselves, and this, of course, Jones does not intend to say. To attack manifestations of supernatural religion as false because they have the effect of promoting political as well as religious ends is a typically leftist, secularist approach.

The strength of Jones’ argument lies in the accumulation of evidence of a state of spiritual illusion afflicting the seers, devotees, and promoters of the apparitions. He gives the general key to understanding a certain disposition for delusion on the part of orthodox Roman Catholic faithful when he remarks that every time the bishops neglect to discipline a single pro-abortion nun, they send a planeload of pilgrims to Medjugorje. The followers of Medjugorje, when push comes to shove (as it literally did in the case of the violent abduction of the bishop of Mostar, an opponent of the apparitions and the ordinary of Medjugorje), do not trust the authority of bishops, since the bishops do next-to-nothing to hinder the widespread doctrinal abuses in the Church. They are far more likely to believe some seers who seem to be reaffirming central verities of Catholic faith and practice. Bishops and priests are judged by their acceptance of the apparitions, rather than the converse. This leaves the right-believing faithful open to every kind of fakery, as long as it is “orthodox.” Jones chronicles numerous examples of this from within the Medjugorje orbit with entertainingly savage clarity. His descriptions of the faded virago Vassula Ryden, of the “seer from Wendy’s,” or of the Assembly of God archimandrite seeking work in the Philippines do not disappoint as a sort of working-class Firbankian church satire in the so-funny-I-forgot-to-laugh category.

At times, Jones seems bewildered by the inaction of Church authorities in regard to the numerous irregularities connected with the Medjugorje movement. The local bishop’s flat condemnation of the apparitions is not supported, it seems, by his brother bishops or the Holy See. Yet the explanation should be clear enough. Church authorities, faced with massive dissent from Catholic teaching and practice (and being unable or unwilling to do anything about it), are only too ready to content themselves with the thought that at least the faithful are praying and having recourse to the sacraments, and supporting the Church in general as a result of their involvement in the apparitions. They can overlook, or even benefit from, the instrumentalization of the faithful’s piety for the ends of ecclesiastical or secular politics, as long as the faith of the people is strengthened or at least not disturbed. This, too, is a spiritual illusion which leads one to wonder if such prelates and pastors got their notions of the cura animarum from Plato’s Republic rather than from the Holy Gospels. These clerics undermine their own authority by increasing the influence of the pan-orthodox, anything-goes-as-long-as-I’m-not-a-modernist minimalism in contemporary Catholic life. Jones has been combating this attitude for some time, so it is surprising that he does not categorically indicate it as the fundamental “permissive cause” of the Medjugorje mess. For most of the book, he only hints at it. Perhaps he does so out of a certain deference for authority, especially that of the Holy See. Only on the very last page does he make the point with any cogency, and then it is by way of a sledgehammer memento mori directed at the Pope, who I doubt would be offended by Jones’ words: John Paul II is, after all, the personalist Pope of dialogue. Yet the Pope is not as much to blame as his admiring minions are: The neo-orthodox love to take the name of John Paul II in vain. To use an expression drawn from one of Jones’ early Fidelity articles on the Marian apparitions movement, the Holy Father, just like the Blessed Virgin, “takes a beating from his friends.” In the 18 years since the first apparitions, the Pope has said nothing publicly about them, although the promoters of Medjugorje eagerly repeat things he has allegedly said in private, as though these nullify the official, public teaching of the local bishop and of the former Yugoslav Episcopal Conference. Such shoddy reasoning, found in irresponsible books like Medjugorje: What does the Church Say? (Santa Barbara: Queenship Publishing, 1998), is an example of the wildly imprudent outlook of those who think they are infallible because they love the Pope as a media personality, while they ignore his teaching on the office of bishops. As any Catholic knows, the Pope’s privately expressed opinions are not a locus theologicus.

To be sure, E. Michael Jones is no skeptic. His preferred theory of the real nature of the events of Medjugorje, at least in the beginning, is that the souls of some 600 Serbs, among them a community of Orthodox monks thrown to their deaths on the other side of Medjugorje’s apparition hill in 1941, returned to ask for prayers and reconciliation. According to Jones, there is some circumstantial evidence that this could have been the case before the apparitions were derailed by being moved to the parish church and placed under the direction of clergy at odds both with their bishop and their religious order superiors. Here, at least, would be a message worthy of the Queen of Peace and the Mother of Sorrows venerated by both Serbs and Croats, an effective reminder and remedy indeed against exaggerated nationalism or internationalism: Pray for the dead. As the Desert Fathers teach, compunction is the sure cure for illusion.

But perhaps the best message is that of Blessed Aloysius Cardinal Stepinac. Responding to an inquiry about Marian apparitions during his confinement at his Croatian hometown of Krasic in 1956, he wrote: “No one needs to look for pretexts for more of them. Even if some look for a sign from heaven, one isn’t necessary.” No illusions here, just faith.


[The Medjugorje Deception, by E. Michael Jones (South Bend, IN: Fidelity Press) 385 pp., $19.95]