End-of-the-week ruminations on the end of the world.
Pope Benedict XVI, a man of energetic intellect who worked to unite the Church’s theological sects and keep at bay the forces of relativism, was a true servant of God and will be sorely missed by Catholics.
But let me ding the Holy Father on one thing: his timing. And not just because the Church is adrift and needs his leadership.
The end of Benedict’s papacy was always going to mean another round of tittering over the end of the world. Now not only do we have to start worrying again, we have to do it just as we were starting to unpack the Poland Spring pallets from our Mayan survival bunkers. Shouldn’t we be granted at least a few years to unwind between apocalyptic prophecies?
The prophecy in question is the aptly named Prophecy of the Popes, allegedly written by St. Malachy in 1139. His predictions come in the form of 112 short Latin phrases, each of which is supposed to foretell a single pope, starting with Celestine II in 1143.
All of this seems pretty innocuous; pope predicting is a neat trick, if nothing else. But Malachy ends his list after “Glory of the Olive,” which corresponds with the soon-to-abdicate Benedict XVI. Following this is a postscript: “Peter the Roman, who will nourish the sheep in many tribulations; when they are finished, the city of the seven hills will be destroyed, and the dreadful judge will judge his people.” Malachy adds rather glibly, “The end.”
Before we proceed any further, let me add the pile of hedges required when discussing prophecy. The Church has discounted the Prophecy of the Popes. Many theologians believe it’s a forgery. The prophecies weren’t published until 1595. The descriptions of popes before 1595 are generally more specific than afterwards. Even granting their accuracy, there could be additional popes between Benedict and Peter the Roman.
In his book When Time Shall Be No More, Paul Boyer draws three concentric circles of prophecy believers. The first is a core group obsessed with the apocalypse and trying to determine its exact sequence. The second contains those who aren’t obsessed but still believe the Bible contains clues. The third encircles Christians who think of the future in secular terms, but are still subconsciously shaped by belief in prophecy.
I fall into the third group, and I’d wager most other Catholics do too. My people tend to be skeptical about apocalyptic ruminations, partially because certain Protestants keep coming to the conclusion that our pope is the Antichrist, and partially because we usually interpret parts of the Bible as symbolic rather than literal. Throw a stone over the Vatican walls, and chances are you’ll hit someone who thinks the Book of Revelation was merely an allegory for Nero’s persecution of the Christians.
Yet my stomach tightened when I learned Benedict was abdicating, and I Googled the Prophecy of the Popes a few minutes later. I’m hardly alone; many Catholics have started murmuring about Malachy.
There’s even a book, published last year, called Petrus Romanus, or “Peter the Roman.” “For more than 800 years scholars have pointed to the dark augury having to do with ‘the last Pope,’” begins its Amazon description, before devolving into conspiratorial warnings of “inevitable danger rising from within the ranks of Catholicism as a result of secret satanic ‘Illuminati-Masonic’ influences.” Petrus Romanus is currently the 23rd most popular book on Amazon.com, ahead of the 50 Shades of Grey boxed trilogy and Jillian Michaels’ latest paginated shoutings.
So when my stomach tightens, it doesn’t tighten alone. Apocalyptic predictions are dreary things, yet clearly they strike a chord, drawing in my fellow third-circlers when times seem bad.
And they always have. Only a year before the Mayan misfire, there was Harold Camping, the Family Radio oracle who predicted the world would end on May 21, 2011. When the world refused to cooperate, he recalculated to October 16, 2011. Camping quickly became a punch line in the media, but for his followers, estimated to number between 50,000 and 1 million, his prophecies were very real, and yielded very serious consequences when they didn’t pan out.
Camping’s flock supported him with $80 million in donations between 2005 and 2009. Money is a common theme among some apocalyptic writers, who build media empires by destroying the world. Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth was the biggest non-fiction bestseller of the 1970s, selling 35 million copies. Lindsey wrote two sequels, one of which declared, “The decade of the 1980s could very well be the last decade of history as we know it.” Instead we got Ronald Reagan and Billy Idol.
It’s hard to mention apocalyptic prophecy anymore without hearing the scoffs of secularists. But end-times theology isn’t limited to the religious. Consider that right now much of our federal government is in the grips of a deranged cult that believes in an impending climate apocalypse. This doomsday can only be prevented by repentance for our polluting ways and the purchase of alternative-energy and offset indulgences. Harold Camping was a lousy prophet, but at least he never tried to pass an international treaty forcing his beliefs on others.
And that’s an important distinction to make. Prophecy, like most things, becomes destructive when it’s adopted as policy by governments. Such was the case of the German city of Munster, which was taken over by an apocalyptic Anabaptist cult in 1534. Its leader, Jan Matthys, proclaimed it the New Jerusalem. To prepare for the end times, he confiscated all property and declared war on Munster’s former bishop. Within a year, Munster’s citizens were reduced to poverty and starvation. The world went on.
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