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.
The stubborn persistence of the planet is the best argument against apocalyptic prophecy. End-times predictions have a 0% success rate, and often when doomsday doesn’t come, their prophets lose all credibility. Everyone laughs at the mention of Paul Ehrlich’s name, for example, ever he assumed the robes of secular sage and predicted overpopulation and mass starvation in the 1970s and 1980s.
Horrifying signs that seem to herald the downfall of civilization haven’t brought an apocalypse. Stalinism, for example, came and went. ABC’s The View has aired for fifteen years without drawing down fire from Heaven.
Christians are also specifically warned about end-times predictions. “No one knows about that day or hour,” says Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, “not even the angels in Heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” He didn’t add, “Except for that one time I accidentally let it slip to a bunch of Mesoamerican pagans that practiced human sacrifice. My bad on that one.”
So why do people keep making these predictions? And why do we believe them?
Probably for the unglamorous reason that we feel small. For all the boisterous claims of modern science, we really don’t understand very much about the universe, other than that we owe our existence to an enormous and seemingly impossible act of creation by either God or nature. It’s not hard to believe that an equivalent act of destruction could occur. And when it does, we want it to have meaning. Better yet, we want to know it’s happening before anyone else.
Skeptics like to sneer that prophecy seekers are delusional. Are they? The world’s major nations have nuclear weapons pointed at each other. Nature is a consistently lethal force that’s beyond our control. At least ten genocides that killed 1 million people or more took place last century. If you accept that humanity is capable of incredible destruction, wondering about the end of the world doesn't seem all that crazy.
Which brings us back to Malachy. Some of his pope descriptions seem alarmingly accurate. John Paul I, listed as “From the midst of the moon,” died after one month, or moon cycle, in office. John Paul II, “From the labor of the sun,” was both born and laid to rest on days when solar eclipses occurred. Even Benedict XVI, “Glory of the olive,” derives his namesake from St. Benedict, the crest of whose order contains an olive branch. And Pope Benedict is seen as a unifier of the Church, extending olive branches to the Eastern Orthodox and the Society of Pope Pius X.
So are we all doomed? That, as President Obama would say about everything except speechifying, is above my pay grade. I’ll fall back on the Church’s skepticism over the Prophecy of the Popes, and take solace in the apocalypse’s 0% attendance rating.
But I still have that quintessentially human tight stomach. It’s hard not to worry…just a little bit.
Photo courtesy Patricia Drury.