Leading religion scholars, both Catholic and Protestant, are openly questioning recent official Catholic interpretations of the controversial Third Secret of Fatima, a famous Marian apparition. Three Portuguese children claimed that the Virgin Mary appeared to them on six different occasions between May 13 and Oct. 17, 1917, at Fatima, 70 miles north of Lisbon. One of the trio, Lucia dos Santos, is now a Carmelite nun. Her cousins, Francisco and Jacinta Marto, have since died. Pope John Paul II presided at a beatification ceremony May 13 for the Martos. Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Pope's secretary of state, announced that the famous Third Secret of Fatima prophesied the attempted assassination of John Paul II, which occurred on May 13, 1981. The Vatican released the text of the Third Secret on June 26, along with a commentary by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, led by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.

Interpretations differ

The Third Secret and the ensuing controversy provide a window into Catholic devotion to Mary and how some Catholics are at odds with their church's official statements. Hans Kong, the German theologian and longtime Vatican critic, tells Christianity Today he considers the Fatima revelations "pious projections of the children, especially of the eldest sister, Lucia." Kong believes the Vatican's interpretation is a posteriori (reasoning from effects to causes), "which does not contribute to its plausibility."Richard McBrien, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame and general editor of The Encyclopedia of Catholicism, tells CT that he believes in neither Marian apparitions nor the Pope's recent interpretation. "The Third Secret speaks of a bishop in white dying. The Pope was only wounded. None of the other details of the secret correspond with the shooting incident in Saint Peter's Square."Even some Marian organizations oppose the Pope's exegesis. Paul Kramer of the Fatima Center in Ft. Erie, Ontario, one of the largest Marian organizations, called the Vatican interpretation a "whitewash," adding that it has been sullied by church politics.Cardinal Sodano said the Third Secret foretold a Pope who made his way in a ruined city "with great effort towards the cross amid the corpses of those who were martyred." The Pope then "falls to the ground, apparently dead, under a burst of gunfire." The relevant part of the primary text says that while the Pope was "on his knees at the foot of the big cross, he was killed by a group of soldiers who fired bullets and arrows at him."Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things, tells CT he sees no dichotomy between the Pope's "devotional expression and the Vatican's theological explanation." He says Catholics should have no problem believing in the message of Fatima."God works in all kinds of mysterious ways, but Catholics should not confuse such apparitions with the doctrinal structure of the Christian faith," Neuhaus says.Neuhaus does not expect the Pope's interpretation of Fatima to dull end-times speculation. Individual Catholic priests, he says, are free to disagree with the Pope on issues involving no doctrine or dogma."The apparitions of Fatima are not heretical in the classical sense, but are outside the realm that most evangelicals embrace," says Ralph MacKenzie, coauthor (with Norman Geisler) of Roman Catholics and Evangelicals. "There seems to be a discrepancy between the text and the Pope's interpretation. Some creativity will be necessary to reconcile the differences."

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Distorting the gospel?

The recent debate about Fatima "opens a window on Catholic policy and shows the Vatican's very delicate dance with extreme elements in the Catholic Church," says Paul Carden, executive director of the Centers for Apologetics Research in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. Carden believes most evangelicals do not realize the significance of Marian piety. "It is virtually inevitable that a focus on Mary distorts the gospel," he says. Carden spent six years in Brazil and said he has seen firsthand how obsession with Marian visions "generates movements that descend into cultism."The Pope's explanation of Fatima has been accepted by Lucia dos Santos, who turned over her handwritten account to the Vatican in 1957. Cardinal Ratzinger believes John Paul II was drawn to the suffering images of Fatima as he thought about the attempt on his life. "Was it not inevitable," Ratzinger asked, "that he should see in it his own fate?"

The text of the third Fatima secret is available at the Vatican 's Web site and the BBC .Previous Christianity Today stories that discuss relations between Roman Catholics and evangelicals include:Does the Gift of Salvation Sell Out the Reformation? | Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals thinks so. (Apr. 27, 1998) Groups Battle over Catholic Outreach | Expanding dialogue hindered by conservatives on both sides. (Mar. 2, 1998) Evangelicals, Catholics Issue Salvation Accord | Document draws mixed reactions from evangelical leaders. (Jan 12, 1998) Evangelicals and Catholics Together--Improved | "The Gift of Salvation" a remarkable statement on what we mean by the gospel. (Dec.8, 1997) Betraying the Reformation? | An evangelical response and a Catholic response. (Oct. 7, 1996)Stories from the secular press that discuss the third Fatima prophecy include:3rd Secret Spurs More Questions -- The Washington Post (July 1, 2000) Fatima 'snapshot of martyrs of past century' -- The Irish Times (June 27, 2000) Vatican Reveals Fatima Secret -- BBC (June 26, 2000) Vatican Issues Text of Third Secret of Fatima -- The New York Times (June 26, 2000) Text of 3rd Fatima Secret Released -- The Washington Post (June 26, 2000) Revelations: The Third Secret Raises More Questions -- The New York Times (May 21, 2000) Vatican Ends Mystery of the Third Prophecy of Fatima -- CNN (May 13, 2000) Pope to Beatify Two Children of Fatima Today -- The Irish Times (May 13, 2000)

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