Question: I have been challenged by a Catholic regarding the supposed miracle of "Our Lady of Guadalupe" and the image of the Virgin Mary that appeared on the cape of the peasant Juan Diego. They said that the endurance of this account and Diego's canonization by John Paul II (July 31, 2002) is evidence enough of the truth of this story. What do you say?
Response: Even those described as devout Catholics have long questioned "Our Lady of Guadalupe." The head of the Spanish Colony's Franciscans, Francisco de Bustamante read a sermon in 1556 before the Spanish Viceroy and the Royal Audience. Bustamante disparaged the origins of the image and contradicted Archbishop Alonso de Montúfar's previous sermon of two days earlier. Bustamante stated: "The devotion that has been growing in a chapel dedicated to Our Lady, called of Guadalupe, in this city is greatly harmful for the natives, because it makes them believe that the image painted by Marcos the Indian is in any way miraculous" (Stafford Poole, Our Lady of Guadalupe:The Origins and Sources of a Mexican National Symbol, 1531-1797. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1997). The name "Marcos" may have meant Marcos Cipac de Aquino, an Aztec painter active in Mexico when the icon first appeared.
The fourth viceroy of Mexico, Martín de León, a Dominican, condemned the "cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe" in 1611 as a syncretized worship of the Aztec goddess Tonantzin (Ibid.). Catholic missionary and anthropologist Bernardino de Sahagún agreed with de León's judgment, writing that the Tepeyac shrine, although popular, remained a concern because shrine visitors called the Virgin of Guadalupe, "Tonantzin." Sahagún recognized that some worshipers believed "Tonantzin" meant "Mother of God" in the native Nauatl language, but he pointed out this was simply not true (http://hispanic.cc/la_reina_de_mexico.htm).
The existence of Juan Diego (the Spanish equivalent of "John Doe") is also suspect. During the 1800s, Mexico City Bishop Labastida appointed historian Joaquin Garcia Icazbalceta, another devout Catholic, to investigate. Icazbalceta's confidential bishop's report clearly doubted the existence of Juan Diego (Joaquin Garcia Icazbalceta, "Juan Diego y las Apariciones del Tepeyac," Mexico City: Publicaciones para el Estudio Cientifico de las Religiones, 2002, pages 3-8). David Brading of Cambridge University (among others) points out that the image of the virgin was supposed to have been miraculously imprinted on Juan Diego's cape in 1531 (Steinfels, "Beliefs: As sainthood approaches for Juan Diego, some scholars call his story a 'pious fiction,''' New York Times, July 20, 2002). Nevertheless, the first recorded mention of the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe doesn't appear until 1555 or 1556.
Further, Stafford Poole of Los Angeles, another Catholic historian/priest, points out that Juan Diego himself doesn't appear in any account until 1648 (Stevenson, "Canonization Of First Indian Saint Draws Questions In Mexico," Associated Press, 7/1/02), the date when Miguel Sanchez, a Spanish theological writer in Mexico, mentions Diego in his book The Apparitions of the Virgin Mary.
Father Poole stated in Commonweal, a Catholic biweekly, "More than forty documents are said to attest to the reality of Juan Diego, yet not one of them can withstand serious historical criticism'' (Vol. 129, June 14, 2002).