The Long View: The Last Pope

This is the kind of thing that encourages my more excitable Catholic friends, but here it is anyway: the Prophecies of St. Malachi. These, along with the prophecies of Nostradamus and witch burning, are precisely what James Franklin means when he discusses the Renaissance Myth.  The Renaissance was an intellectual dead-end for Western Civilization. Many of the most popular ideas that even the best and brightest devoted their lives to were all for naught. We did get some great art from this period, but almost everything else was a wash.

By the by, according to this popular legend, Pope Francis would be the last pope before the end times.

The Last Pope: The Decline and Fall of the Church of Rome

The Prophecies of St. Malachy for the New Millennium

by John Hogue

Element Books, 2000(First Published 1998)

402 Pages, US$19.95 (Softcover)

ISBN 1-86204-732-4

Inferiae. (Latin.) Among the Greeks and Romans, sacrifices for propitiation of the “Dii Manes,” or souls of dead heroes; for the pious ancients could not invent enough gods to satisfy their spiritual needs, and had to have a number of makeshift deities, or as a sailor might say, jury-gods, which they made out of the most unpromising materials. It was while sacrificing a bullock to the spirit of Agamemnon that Laiaides, a priest of Aulis, was favored with an audience of that illustrious warrior’s shade, who prophetically recounted to him the birth of Christ and the triumph of Christianity, giving him also a rapid but tolerably complete review of events down to the reign of Saint Louis. The narrative ended abruptly at that point, owing to the inconsiderate crowing of a cock, which compelled the ghosted King of Men to scamper back to Hades. There is a fine medieval flavor to this story, and as it has not been traced back further than Père Brateille, a pious but obscure writer at the court of Saint Louis, we shall probably not err on the side of presumption in considering it apocryphal, though Monsignor Capel’s judgment of the matter might be different, and to that I bow—wow.”


Ambrose Bierce

The Devil’s Dictionary

Introduction & Condemnation

The Papal Prophecies of St. Malachy are worth examining in a little detail. For one thing, the prophecies have great historical interest. For another, it’s a good bet that they will get another public airing during the next papal conclave. We will get to the prophecies in a moment. First, though, I must make a general disendorsement of this book.

A short passage of time can be cruel to prophecy in unexpected ways. It was only in early 1998 that John Hogue, best known for his interpretations of Nostradamus, completed this study of the famous papal prophecies attributed to St. Malachy. In “The Last Pope,” Hogue mines Nostradamus and Malachy for dramatic predictions of events occurring well into the 21st century, but makes rather pedestrian and conditional forecasts for the next few years. Still, by the summer of 2001, even his most plausible prophecies had failed. John Paul II did not die around the time of the great eclipse of the summer of 1999, for one thing. Yasser Arafat, another predicted goner for the year 2000, is also still with us at this writing. If you are looking for detailed information about the future, it’s pretty clear that this book is not a good place to start.

The chief problem with “The Last Pope,” however, is that it is mostly tendentious filler. Hogue does give the prophecies, and maybe fifty pages of useful supplementary material. However, the book as a whole is relentlessly anti-Catholic. The bulk of the text consists of short outlines of the careers of the popes to whom the prophecies allegedly refer. Hogue goes to the trouble to actively despise even the most obscure of them. If he can’t find something bad to say about their policies or personal lives, he makes allusions to their body lice.

The list of points on which Hogue is untrustworthy is catholic with a small “c.” No, the 18th century bull, “Unigenitus,” did not forbid Catholic laymen to read the Bible. No, the Third Secret of Fatima did not hint at Masons in high places. The text of that other famous prophecy appeared after “The Last Pope” was published, of course, but a discrete prophet would have known better than to endorse sensational rumors.

More generally, the author seems singularly incurious about his favorite themes. The Inquisition was a class of ecclesiastical court, staffed by judges who used procedures unremarkable for the time. A lot of research has been done into what the various Inquisitions actually did. There were episodes when Inquisitions were used in campaigns of extraordinary repression, but the same can be said of all judicial systems. An Inquisition was, for instance, less likely to conduct witch-hunts than were civil courts. In Latin America, the Inquisition was often the preferred venue for some types of action, rather as federal courts are in the US. You’ll get none of that from Hogue. For him, any connection of a pope with a court called an “Inquisition” is an unanswerable condemnation.

The same might be said of Hogue’s repeated allusions to the Jewish ghettos in the Papal States and elsewhere. Nowhere are we told that, to a large extent, they were segregated from the inside, as we see with some Hasidic communities today. When popes made regulations concerning the ghettos, they were usually regularizing a situation that would otherwise be left to the arbitrary oppression of local officials and the violence of the mob. The popes may not have had the ghetto dwellers best interest at heart, but they were often acting in the interests of civil peace. It was a complicated situation that lasted a very long time. “The Last Pope” does not burden us with real history, however. Hogue finds it much more telling to call the ghettos “concentration camps.”

Hogue ends the book by suggesting that the Catholic Church will face a persecution in the 21st century that will destroy it, and that this will be a good thing. That part of the book at least holds some interest, in a horror-story kind of way. Almost all the rest is a bile-burger.


History & Criticism

Now for the fun part.

St. Malachy (1094-1148), born Maelmhaedhoc O’Morgair, was a notable reformer of the church in Ireland during the generation before the Anglo-Norman invasion. He visited Rome, and became the friend of the famous St. Bernard, Abbott of Clairvaux, who wrote a biography of him. Among Malachy’s other virtues, both tradition and contemporary report attribute the gift of prophecy to him. However, the prophecies for which he is most famous are unlikely to be his.

According to Bernard McGinn in his study of medieval apocalyptic, “Visions of the End,” a fashion arose in the fourteenth century for prophetic lists of future popes. The lists gave allegorical names or other designations that were supposed to hint at the nature of their reigns. The example seems to have been prophetic lists of future Byzantine emperors, who were expected to play a major role in the events of the Endtime. This genre was adapted for the uses of Latin Christendom by Fraticelli, radical Franciscans who were influenced by the eschatological model of history developed by Joachim of Fiore (1132-1202), a Cistercian monk and founder of a monastery in Calabria. Abbot Joachim is one of the most ambiguous figures in intellectual history, chiefly because over-eager interpreters have twisted his ideas out of shape for 800 years. Hogue continues the ancient tradition in this book.

There was never any consensus scenario about the future role of the papacy, but there were common ideas. They were often mutually exclusive: an Antichrist pope, an Angelic Pope working alone against the Antichrist, an Angelic Pope working in conjunction with the Emperor of the Last Days. Sometimes Rome was destroyed. Gog and Magog might roar in from Nether Asia, if the writer was interested in things like that. None of this colorful stuff was ever actually part of Catholic theology. Catholic endtime dogma takes up all of five pages in the Catechism (sections 668-682), and remains pretty much were St. Augustine left it 1,500 years ago. Rather, these hypothetical popes were part of the bag of notions that the West had about the future, not just in the late Middle Ages, but also through the Reformation and into early modern times. That was when St. Malachy was probably put into the bag.

As Hogue tells us, the prophecies were first published in 1595. They appeared in a long work, “Lignum Vitae,” by the Benedictine historian, Arnold Wion (or Arnold de Wyon). Dom Arnold claimed to have discovered them in archival research. No one else, contemporary with either him or St. Malachy, had ever seen fit to commit mention of the prophecies to paper, or at least to any paper that has survived. Apparently, however, rumors of the prophecies were current at the time of publication, and reasonable people might surmise that the prophecies had been created to influence either the conclave of 1592 (which elected Clement VIII) or in anticipation of the next one, which occurred 1605 (and which elected Leo XI).

Hogue cites us some of the skeptical literature about the prophecies, which began to appear soon after their publication. We might simply leave the matter there, as an exercise in critical technique, were it not for three points. The first is that the prophecies have become part of Catholic legend. Like the prophecies of Nostradamus, which appeared about 40 years before Malachy’s and to which they bear a family resemblance, they just are not going to go away. The second is that some elements of the Malachy prophecies do present prima facie evidence of prescience, at least enough to require comment. The third is that, quite aside from whatever relationship the prophecies might have to the future, they still leave us with the question of what their author thought about the future.

Malachy’s Mottos

The nature of the prophecies is well known. They consist of  111 mottos in Latin, plus a concluding epigraph. These items pertain to each of the popes (and apparently some of the antipopes) in a sequence stretching from Malachy’s time until Judgment Day. The mottos might refer to a pope’s name, whether his personal name, his family name, or the name he takes as pope. The motto might hint at elements of his family crest. It might refer to his birthplace, his nationality, or to some other geographical location associated with him. On a higher level of abstraction, it might refer to his character, the events of his papacy, or to his chief nemesis or outside influence. This is an awfully wide field in which to look for a successful prophecy; in fact, it is hard to see how a prophecy could be conclusively judged wrong. The principle of falsification, we must remember, is a 20th century invention.

Nonetheless, some of the mottos seem to be pointed and specific enough to give even Karl Popper pause. For instance, motto 46, “cubus de mixtione,” “the square of mixture,” pretty clearly refers to the family coat of arms of Boniface IX (1389-1404), which bears a diagonal checkerboard three columns in width. Motto 21, “Hierusalem Campaniae,” at least looks like “Jerusalem of Champagne,” and so is a plausible fit for Urban IV (1261-1264), who was born in the Champagne district of France and would later become Patriarch of Jerusalem. On the other hand, some are just obscure. Motto 49, “flagellum solis,” “scourge of the sun,” is in the right place to refer to Alexander V, an antipope during the great schism (though there is some argument about whether his pontificate may actually have been legitimate). Nothing in his history clearly merits the motto; his coat of arms features what might be a sun, though it looks more like a star.

The chief argument that the prophecies were composed in the late 16th century is that the nature of the successes claimed for the mottos changes after their publication. We get far fewer obvious match ups with personal names and coats of arms. We get more claims of matches with the events of a papacy or of personal character. 

Consider two relatively recent popes. Motto 96, “Peregrinus Apostolicus,” “an apostolic wanderer,” would correspond to the papacy of Pius VI (1775-1799). In a medallion struck in 1782, he uses the term himself, referring to a trip he made to Vienna to confer with the emperor. Later, of course, he would be taken from Rome by French troops in the wars following the French Revolution. He died in captivity. In this instance, the motto has an apparent application, though there is also some likelihood that Pius was familiar with the prophecy and sought to fulfill it in some fashion. In contrast, possibly the least helpful motto in the whole list is number 99, “vir religiosus,” “a religious man,” which is in the place that would correspond to the papacy of Pius VIII (1829-1830). Still, the mottos for the last two centuries do offer what seem to be a few tantalizing correspondences.

There is an obvious reason for this. In the view of the author of the prophecies, the end of the age draws near with the end of the list. Therefore, the cast of characters from Catholic legend about the Endtime make their appearance. Meanwhile, in the real world, the papacies in question overlap with high modernity, which is an unusually dramatic period. Hogue notes the acceleration of history and its rough fit with the end of the prophecy list. His argument is not helped, however, by his invocation of the approach of the Age of Aquarius, if for no other reason than that the point at which that age begins seems infinitely flexible. (He begins to see its influence in the Renaissance.)

The tale of mottos corresponding to papacies beginning in the 20th century runs like this:

Number 103, “ignis ardens,” “burning fire,” corresponds to the papacy of St. Pius X (1903-1914), who himself had more than one well-reported apocalyptic vision. Paul Johnson, in his “History of Christianity,” characterized this Pius as both the last of the great reactionary popes and the first of the populist ones. Like his contemporary, US President Theodore Roosevelt, he turned what had long been a rather staid and formal office into a permanent spectacle. Pius X’s record runs from the suppression of theological modernism to the beginning of the long project of reforming the liturgy. For those in need of a surfeit of wonders, Halley’s Comet put on a spectacular show in 1912, thus providing all the burning fire a reasonable man could ask for.

Number 104, “religio depopulata,” “religion depopulated,” is the motto Hogue ascribes to Benedict XV (1914-1922), who had the bad luck to be the pope during the First World War. For someone seeking to apply the motto to Benedict’s papacy, the key point might not be the considerable demographic effects of the war on Europe, or even the fact that a large slice of Christendom declared itself atheist on his watch. Rather, it might be that, for the first time since antiquity, the cultural life of educated Europeans was no longer predominately Christian. Although Pius tried to arrange a negotiated end to the war almost as soon as it started, Hogue spends several pages criticizing him for not seeking to end it in some dramatic fashion. He says the pope should have marched with his the college of cardinals into Flanders and come between the opposing armies. Some of the strange ideas in “The Last Pope” are beyond even the power of prophecy to explain.

Number 105, “fides intrepida,” “intrepid faith,” belongs to Pius XI (1922-1939). This is the pope who finally came to terms with the Italian government (in the form of the Mussolini regime) about the status of Vatican City. He also signed a concordat with Hitler’s new government in 1933. Neither of these acts was extraordinary at the time: Mussolini was a respectable tyrant in those days, while the German concordat would have provided some space for civil society, had Hitler honored it. As it was, Pius did not give an inch: he is chiefly remembered for exciting the Nazi’s ire with his encyclical, “Mit brennender Sorge,” “With Burning Sorrow,” which criticized the regime.

Number 106, “pastor angelicus,” “angelic shepherd,” may excite the ire of many people today, since it is applied to Pius XII (1939-1958). “Angelic” is an eschatological title, one that the High Middle Ages applied to the chief enemy of Antichrist. There is an enormous file from the period of the Second World War of this pope’s public statements condemning racial and religious persecution, atrocities against civilians and particular acts of the Axis governments. There is an even larger file of his private efforts to rescue the subjects of Nazi persecution, Jews in particular, which in Italy met with substantial success. Nonetheless, for reasons chiefly connected with the liberal campaign to discredit the papacy because of unhappiness with the policies of John Paul II, Pius XII has been accused of silence, indifference, antisemitism and pro-Nazi sympathies.

Number 107, “pastor et nauta,” “shepherd and sailor” is a motto of which its bearer, John XXIII (1958-1963), was well aware. “Shepherd,” like “religious man,” is something that should be said of any pope. The “sailor” element was provided by John’s stint as Patriarch of Venice. John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council, the dust from which has not settled to this day. John is almost the only pope that Hogue can stomach. Hogue accepts the liberal thesis that, had John lived longer, he would have reformed the Catholic Church out of existence.

Number 108, “flos florum,” “flower of flowers,” is one of the relatively rare hits in the post-1600 Malachy list for a pope’s coat of arms: Paul VI (1963-1978) had three fleur-de-lys on his. The motto has no obvious bearing on his papacy. It might be said of Paul VI that he extended the hand of friendship to the modern world and had it bitten off.

Number 109, “de medietate lunae,” “from the half-moon, from the middle of the moon,” is applied to the likable but short-lived John Paul I (1978). No one knows what this man would actually have done had he sat on St. Peter’s throne for more than a few weeks. Nonetheless, liberals have fantasized about glorious alternative histories, in which an amiable John Paul I would have spent many years defining dogmas out of existence and turning the actual operation of the church over to people like themselves. Conspiracy theorists have outdone them, saying that reactionary clericalists murdered him to prevent these good things from happening, or to cover up an investigation he was about to launch into Mafia penetration of the Vatican Bank, or something. One could relate the motto to his name by observing that he was born Albino Luciani (“white light,” more or less) and that he once was the priest of a town called “Belluno” (which looks like “good moon”). On the other hand, “half moon” might be a good title for a cryptic and crepuscular reign that never really was.

Number 110, “de labore solis,” “from the labor of the sun,” is the title that the Malachy list assigns to John Paul II (1978 to at least 2001). Hogue spends a great deal of time condemning this most important of 20th century popes for his failure to reverse the Church’s stand on artificial contraception, the ordination of women, Vatican oversight of Catholic dogma, and other topics simple enough for newspaper columnists to understand. It is, perhaps, too much to expect any discussion of the topics on which the pope has spent most of his time, such as the phenomenology of ethics and ecclesiology. Hogue also speculates on how the motto applies to this pope; he suggests that JPII was born during an eclipse, and will also die during one.

For myself, I would suggest that the motto is an oblique reference to the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matt. 20). Some of the workers are destined, fairly or not, to labor during the hottest part of the day, but receive no more reward than the rest. The point is not whether such an interpretation tells us anything about the actual papacy; it is that the prophecy’s author was signaling the continuation of an extended terminal crisis.

The Future

Number 111, “gloria olivae,” “the glory of the olive” brings us into the future, when neither the actual names of popes nor regnal dates are available. Hogue suggests “John Paul III,” which might be plausible from a man with a better record. Hogue begins to wax loquacious with dates of wars and rumors of wars, based chiefly on his reading of Nostradamus. He suggests that, in a last reactionary spasm, the next pope will declare the Virgin Mary “Co-Mediatrix” with Jesus. He suggests that the credibility of the papacy will be undermined by the revelation of a great scandal. You can take that or leave it, but the really interesting point is what the author of the list meant by the motto.

Hogue directs our attention to several mentions of the olive tree in scripture. It can mean the body of believers, Jewish or Christian. It could be a reference to the Mount of Olives, where Jesus gave the extended statement on the Endtime called the Olivet Discourse. I would suggest, though, that the obvious reference is to Rev. 11:4, which speaks of the Two Witnesses who will preach and otherwise restrain evil in the latter days. They are “two olive trees and two lamp-stands.” In medieval speculation, the Witnesses were sometimes identified with the pope and a secular figure, usually the emperor.

Number 112, the last pope of all, does not get a motto. Instead, he gets an unambiguous name and a bit of narrative. St. Malachy, or Dom Wion, or possibly some combination of the two, have this to say about “Petrus Romanus,” “Peter the Roman”:

“In persecutione extrema Sacrae Romanae Ecclesiae sedebit Petrus Romanus qui pascet oves in multis tribulationibus; quibus transactis, civitas septicollis dirvetur; et judex tremendus judicabit populum.”

“During the last persecution of the Holy Roman Church, there shall sit Peter of Rome, who shall feed the sheep amidst many tribulations, and when these have passed, the City of the Seven Hills shall be utterly destroyed, and the awful Judge will judge the people.” 

There is not really much to add to this, so Hogue adds quite a bit. He speculates that this Peter II will be trying, unsuccessfully, to provide relief from famine and ecological collapse caused in large part by the Church’s refusal to countenance artificial birth control. This attitude will so outrage a desperate world that the Church will be finally and irrevocably suppressed, for the good of the planet. As Hogue puts it, “What the Church sees as its final persecution could actually be the next quantum awakening of human intelligence.”

One of the few insights to be gleaned from a reading of “The Last Pope” is a sense of the ossification of the mind of religious liberalism. Religious progressives adopted the Malthusian thesis on overpopulation in the middle of the 20th century and will not let go, no matter the state of the evidence.  Today Europe in general and Italy and particular have birth rates well below replacement level. A canny prophet would have bet on a pro-natalist backlash in Europe by the 2020s or 2040s, when all this is supposed to be happening. A wise historian would notice that the popes who were most insistent on maintaining dogma were also the most popular. If traditional and New Age religion are to be in a Darwinian struggle for survival in the 21st century, there cannot be much doubt about which will win.

Finally, what are we to do with the notion of prescience in general? As a matter of physics, the arguments against foreseeing the future are the same as those against faster-than-light travel: both would allow for effects to precede their cause, and so create temporal paradoxes. However, it is not strictly true that faster-than-light travel is impossible, since some quantum effects move between two points instantaneously. Special Relativity is saved, however, by the fact that information cannot travel faster than light. Quantum effects are random. They can be used to encrypt information, but are not information themselves. This could be a useful property: quantum effects could instantaneously provide a completely secure key to a receiver, but the information to be decrypted could arrive no faster than light. In other words, you may be able to receive information that is real information, but that cannot mean anything until ordinary reality catches up with it.

Prescience could work like this. There may be real perceptions of future events, but they cannot mean anything until the future becomes the present. Or, as Cardinal Newman dryly observed about biblical prophecy, “Events interpret the text.”


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