The Long View: The Millennium and the Roman Catholic Church

I blame John for getting me interested in millennialism. I find the subject endlessly fascinating, even though it retains something of a disreputable air. I have used the linked piece in particular in a number of [relatively] popular talks I have given on the subject of millennialism and millennial movements.

In the United States, it is evangelical and charismatic Christians who are most associated with millennialism, but the Catholic Church is millennial too, just in a very different way. The terminology is endlessly confusing to the uninitiated. For example, Catholics are millennial but not millenarian. The recent Catechism of the Catholic restates the view advanced by St. Augustine in the 5th century: all of history since the time of Christ is the Millennium. The interesting twist is that all of the events in ordinary history that inspire apocalyptic expectations really are lesser instances of the eventual final apocalypse. To put it as Augustine would, each apocalyptic event participates in the form of the Apocalypse. Each one truly shares in its nature, even though they are not simply identical. For Augustine, this is why he declined to identify the sack of Rome in 410 with the literal end of the world, even though in a sense the Western Roman world really was ending.

Every version of secular progress advanced in the West ever since has been a rehashing of Augustine's argument. It is one of the durable features of Western Civilization, and part of the reason why people still find the City of God a book worth reading.

The Millennium and the Roman Catholic Church

By John J. Reilly


In "The Devil's Dictionary," that indispensable treasury of acidic wisdom, Ambrose Bierce defined the Millennium as "The period of a thousand years when the lid is to be screwed down with all the reformers on the under side." This terse formulation is actually not much different from the term's ordinary significance in popular American apocalyptic (see Rev. 20:1-3). In that context, the term refers to a future paradisiacal stage of history, when such constants of human experience as war, death and poverty will no longer exist. Although the earth will continue to exist in something like its familiar form, this future age will be discontinuous from secular history. It will be inaugurated by a period of natural and social disasters, culminating in the Second Coming of Christ. The biblical verse on which this view is primarily based is Rev. 20:4, which says in part:

"And I saw thrones, and men sat upon them and judgment was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of the word of God, and who did not worship the beast or his image, and did not accept his mark upon their heads or upon their hands. And they came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years..."

A good argument can be made that this view of the final stage of history was also that of primitive Christianity. Certainly it was the view of St. Irenaeus of the second century, who likened the Millennium to the Sabbath of a historical "week" that consisted of "days" of a thousand years each. This view is often called "millenarian," and many observers have noted that it is an essentially revolutionary way of viewing history. From Montanus in second century Phrygia to David Koresh in twentieth century Texas, millenarians have tended to form sects that are separatist, often antinomian and sometimes violently insurgent. As a general matter, of course, persons and groups with millenarian beliefs live undramatic lives in harmony with their wider societies. However, millenarianism does lend itself to outbreaks of apocalyptic anxiety when historical events chime with one or another of the apocalyptic texts of the Bible. Millenarians are notorious for setting dates for the end of the world and then setting new ones when doomsday fails to materialize.

A point that often escapes American commentators on popular eschatology is that the official theology of the Roman Catholic Church, by far the largest segment of Christianity and the largest denomination even in the United States, is resolutely antimillenarian. The recently-issued "Catechism of the Catholic Church" provides a useful summary of traditional doctrine:

Par. 676 "The Antichrist's deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the 'intrinsically perverse' political form of secular messianism."

This section contains a reference to the encyclical "Divini Redemptoris" by Pius XI, which condemned the "false mysticism" of the "counterfeit of the redemption of the lowly." The school of sociologically-informed Catholic social theory known loosely as "liberation theology" has fallen more and more into official disfavor during the pontificate of John Paul II largely because the Vatican sees it as just this sort of counterfeit, one that comes close to equating leftist politics with the creation of the Kingdom of God. Another problem with liberation theology, ironically, is that it has not proven popular with the poor whom it was intended to serve. Its chief effect so far, in fact, seems to have been to drive millions of Latin Americans into Protestant churches. (For a CIA assessment, see Patrick E. Kennon's "The Twilight of Democracy," Doubleday, N.Y., 1995, pp. 196-197.)

The origin of this Catechism, it may noted, illustrates the perception in the Vatican that not just liberation theology but liberal Christianity in general does not have much of a future. The Catechism is the first such universally authoritative document to appear since the "Catechism of Pius V" was composed in the 1560s following the Council of Trent. The new Catechism was created in the 1980s by a pontifical commission charged with restating essential Catholic doctrine in the wake of the disorder that followed the Second Vatican Council (1963-1965). The conservative content of the Catechism was widely deplored by liberal Catholics. The publication of an English translation was delayed until 1994 by objections from much the same people on the ground that it failed to use "inclusive language." Whatever may be thought of the merits of these controversies, the Catechism that resulted from this ecclesiastical wrangle well reflects the remarkable continuities in Catholic doctrine, not least in the matter of the Last Things.

The Catholic view of universal eschatology was formulated in all essentials in the fifth century by St. Augustine, bishop of the North African city of Hippo. Few dogmatic constructs have proven to be so durable and so practical as the Augustinian model of history. Augustine was skeptical about the possibility of associating particular biblical prophecies uniquely with particular historical events. In his day, the final decades of the Roman Empire, the western world was in fact doing a good imitation of ending. He was shocked by the first Gothic sack of Rome in 410, and himself would eventually die in the siege of his city by the Vandals. Despite this, however, he declined to see the catastrophes of his time as the literal end of the world. Rather, he showed how apocalyptic could be applied metaphorically to a range of historical situations.

The most interesting of his doctrines for our purposes is his theory that the whole age of the Church should be associated with the Millennium of the Book of Revelation. His view of the matter, as set out in Book XX of "The City of God," is reflected in the Catechism:

Par. 670 "Since the Ascension God's plan has entered into its fulfillment. We are already at 'the last hour.' 'Already the final stage of the word is with us, and the renewal of the world is irrevocably under way; it is even now anticipated in a certain real way, for the Church on earth is endowed already with a sanctity that is real but imperfect.' (The quotation is from the Vatican II document, 'Lumen Gentium,' chapter 48, section 3.) Christ's kingdom already manifests its presence through the miraculous signs that attend its proclamation by the Church."

This view of history is sometimes called "millennialism." (Nomenclature in the comparative study of eschatology can be bewildering. Augustine's view, more or less, is also sometimes called "post-millennialism," to emphasize that the Second Coming is at the end of history, or even "amillennialism," to emphasize its total rejection of the Millennium of the millenarians. The simple distinction used here is borrowed from J.F.C. Harrison's "The Second Coming," Rutger's University Press, New Brunswick, N.J., 1979, pp. 5-6.) Augustine's model is closely associated with the modern idea of historical progress. (See, for instance, Robert Nisbet's "History of the Idea of Progress," Basic Books, N.Y., 1980.) In this scheme of things, the reign of the saints takes the form of the gradual improvement of the world under Christian influence. There is no lack of material in the New Testament to support such a "long-haul" view of history. Jesus likens the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed that grows into a great tree. The Kingdom is also like the field where the wheat and the tares, good and evil, mature together until the harvest at the end of history. (Matt 13:24-43) This rather comforting view of history has often developed into a rejection not just of millenarianism, but of apocalyptic in general. In the view of the Social Gospel, which has enjoyed intermittent periods of popularity in the United States, history does not end in a climactic battle between good and evil, but in a state of perfection achieved by secular progress. Augustine held no such view, and neither does the Catholic Church today:

Par. 677 "...The kingdom will be fulfilled...not by a historic triumph of the Church through a progressive ascendancy, but only by God's victory over the final unleashing of evil, which will cause his Bride to come down from heaven...."

The eschatological schema set out in the Catechism is often bewildering to Americans familiar only with protestant millenarianism. However, the Catholic view retains the ancient features of Christian apocalyptic, from the conversion of the Jews to a personal Antichrist. There are passages in the new Catechism that ten Jesuits dancing on the head of a pin would have trouble allegorizing away:

Par. 675 "Before Christ's second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers. The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the 'mystery of iniquity' in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah in the flesh."

Thus, we see that Augustinian millennialism is as capable of simple apocalyptic expectation as is millenarianism. The chief difference, perhaps, lies in the Augustinian ability to transform specific historical events and personages into "types" of the elements of prophecy. As John Henry Newman (1801-1890), once an Anglican priest and later a Catholic cardinal, once put it : "...every event in the world is a type of those that follow, history proceeding forward as a circle ever enlarging...For every age presents its own picture of those future events which alone are the real fulfillment of the prophecy which stands at the head of them all." ("Tracts for the Times," Vol. V, 1838-40, London, J.G.F. & J. Rivington, 1840, pp. 4-5) From this perspective, very destructive wars are typical of the Battle of Armageddon, persecutions of the Church are typical of the Tribulation, great tyrants are typical of Antichrist. The fact that none of these precursors have yet turned out to be the embodiment of the prophecies of the endtime does nothing at all to invalidate the prophecies. To quote Newman again: "Events interpret the text."

Throughout her long history, the Catholic Church has done a very good job of suppressing apocalyptic fervor or of channelling it to social projects. This, however, is not to say that Catholicism lacks a popular eschatological tradition. Some features of popular Catholic eschatological belief are charming perennials, no less engaging for their pedantic obscurity. This class includes such items as the Prophecies of St. Malachy of Armagh, a Irish saint of the first half of the twelfth century. The prophecies are of a familiar type, a list of future popes and their characteristics. The prophecies set out 111 popes after St. Malachy's time, the last being "Peter II" or "Peter the Roman." He too is a familiar figure of medieval apocalyptic, the "Angelic Pope" who will lead the Church through the final tribulation. St. Malachy's prophecies did not come to light until about 1590, and Bernard McGinn is so rude as to suggest in "Visions of the End" (Columbia university Press, N.Y., 1979, p. 189) that they were composed then. However, the prophecies are still dragged out and discussed whenever a new pope is to be elected. There is some confusion about the full tale of the popes because of the contested papal elections of the Middle Ages. No matter how you count them, however, the list is exhausted either in John Paul II or his successor.

The chief exception to the Church's record of control over millenarian excitement is the tripartite model of history developed by Abbot Joachim of Fiore in the twelfth century. The effects of this model continue to this day, not least in the form of Hegel's ineradicable three-stage dialectic of history.

Joachim's impending Third Age would not be wholly discontinuous from history as we know it. (See Marjorie Reeves's "The Influence of Prophecy in the Later Middle Ages," Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1969.) Joachim seems to have meant it simply as a specially blest period, after the defeat of the first of two Antichrists, when the world would in effect be a vast monastery. The abbot's followers notoriously turned it into an image of revolutionary theocracy, but even they tended to maintain its continuity with secular history. There is still a Third Order of St. Francis for the laity. Had history gone according to the hope of the fraticelli, the radical Franciscans who were so strongly influenced by Joachim, something like this auxiliary would have come to encompass all of civil society. The Second Coming in Joachim's system would still come at the very end of history, after the Third Age. In this, the Third Age resembles other features of medieval apocalyptic, such as the future reign of the Emperor of the Last Days, which permitted the hope of a temporary defeat of the powers of evil before actual end of history in the approved Augustinian manner. While these examples are familiar mostly to specialists, they embody patterns which continue to manifest themselves in sometimes spectacular forms.

The prophecies connected with the Marian apparitions at Fatima in 1917 are not obscure. They remain the single most important element in popular Catholic apocalyptic in the twentieth century. The story has been told many times before, often in connection with one political agenda or another. See, for instance, Malachy Martin's entertaining if somewhat alarmingly titled book, "The Keys of This Blood: The Struggle for World Dominion Between Pope John Paul II, Mikhail Gorbachev & the Capitalist West," Simon and Schuster, N.Y., 1990, p. 629 ff. The mention of Mikhail Gorbachev in the title of this still-recent book is yet more evidence, if any were needed, of the soundness of Augustine's caution against reading eschatological significance into particular historical figures. For a discussion of Marian apparitions in general, particularly the important French ones of the nineteenth century, see James Webb's "The Occult Underground," Open Court Press, Chicago, Illinois, pp. 134-140.

The gist is the story is that three children, who lived in the neighborhood of Fatima in Portugal, had visions of the Virgin Mary on the 13th of every month from May to October of 1917. Their names were Lucia dos Santos and Francisco and Jacinta Marto. Although the visions were in general apparent only to the children, they were concluded by the famous "Miracle of the Sun," in which the sun was seen by many members of a large crowd to throw off colors, spin like a pinwheel, and approach the earth. The incident is significant to popular eschatology because of the three "messages" or "secrets" which the children received.

The third message has occasioned an extraordinary popular tradition, one that continues to accumulate, since the "secret" still remains something of a secret. It was committed to paper only in 1944 by Lucia, by then a nun and the only surviving visionary, and entrusted to the pope. By most accounts, she directed that it not be revealed until 1960. That year, of course, was in the reign of John XXIII, who called the Second Vatican Council. Pope John died in 1963, and rumors swirled to the effect that whatever was in the message was so terrible that it killed him. In any event, he decided that the message did not apply to his own pontificate and did not publish the message. Remarks made in the 1980s by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, suggested that the message was simply a restatement of Chapter 13 of the Book of Revelation, particularly those elements relating to the "great apostasy," a general falling away from the faith which is another staple of eschatological prophecy (see 2 Thess. 2:3). However, the actual text has still to be published.

The other messages, however, have long been well known. The first was a call conventional in Catholic piety to personal penitence and to prayer for the dead. The second dealt with matters of historical import. This version of the latter is taken from "The Reign of Antichrist" by Fr. R. Gerald Culleton, TAN Books and Publishers, Inc., Rockford, Illinois, 1974, p. 186 (originally published 1951). Note that though the Millennium is nowhere mentioned, the text ends with the more modest sort of favored age that Abbot Joachim probably had in mind:

"...The war will soon end. But if men do not stop offending the Lord it will not be long before another and worse one begins; that will be in the Pontificate of Pius XI.

"When you see the night illuminated by an unknown light, know that it is the great sign which God is giving you, indicating that the world, on account of its innumerable crimes, will soon be punished by war, famine, and persecutions against the Church and the Holy Father.

"In order to prevent it I shall ask for the consecration of Russia to my Immaculate Heart, as well as Communions of Reparation on the First Saturdays of the month.

"If my requests are granted Russia will be converted and there will be peace. Otherwise Russia will spread her errors through the world fomenting wars and persecutions against the Church. Many will be martyred, the Holy father will have much to suffer; several nations will be destroyed.

"In the end my Immaculate Heart will triumph. The Holy Father will consecrate Russia to me, Russia will be converted, and there will be a certain period of peace."

It may be noted that this prophecy, including the mention of the Russians, resembles some of the private revelations attributed to Pope St. Pius X, who reign from 1903 to 1914. Paul Johnson, in his "Modern Times" (Harper & Row, N.Y., 1983, p. 145) dismisses this pontiff as "the last of the great reactionary popes," a conventional assessment that is probably ripe for reconsideration. (See also Johnson's "History of Christianity," Atheneum, N.Y., 1963, pp. 469-474. The character of Denethor, Stewart of Gondor, in J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" is arguably based on this Pius.) In any event, the first two "secrets" of Fatima were widely publicized in the years between the world wars, and the second secret, understandably, was an important feature of anticommunist polemic.

The visions of Fatima went through the rather skeptical review process accorded "private revelations" by ecclesiastical authorities, and unlike most, they passed review. This meant, simply, that in 1930 the local bishop declared them "worthy of belief"; it did not endorse their content. It is dogma that no revelation after the close of the New Testament period can add to the "deposit of the faith," though such things may be edifying and useful in particular historical circumstances. No one is required to believe them. The review simply determined that there was no fraud involved, no obvious physical or psychological explanation, and the private revelation revealed nothing that was contrary to faith or morals.

In contrast, we may note that the visions that began to be reported from Medjugorje in Bosnia in 1981 have been through similar reviews by the local authorities and failed them. (See E. Michael Jones's "Medjugorje: The Untold Story," Fidelity Press, South Bend, Indiana). These and other disapproved series of visions, usually characterized by prophecies of imminent catastrophe and often including invective against the hierarchy, are a conspicuous feature of popular Catholic apocalyptic as the millennium nears its end. However, since this subject deals largely with the beliefs of schismatic groups, such as the Society of Pius X, it lies outside the scope of this essay.

Students of apocalyptic often assume that part of their problem must be to explain how people can continue to believe prophecies that are repeatedly disconfirmed. However, as Paul Boyer has noted in "When Time Shall Be No More," history rather often seems to confirm many details of prophetic expectation. The "unknown light" mentioned in the second secret was widely held to have been fulfilled by an extraordinary aurora visible over much of Europe in August of 1939. Albert Speer, later to be the German Minister of Armaments, described the eerie display, which he viewed in the company of Hitler and his entourage from the terrace of the Berghof on the evening of August 23, two days after the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact was concluded. Hitler remarked: "Looks like a great deal of blood." ("Inside the Third Reich," Albert Speer, The Macmillan Company, N.Y., 1970, p. 162.)

The course of the war and of the Cold War period would have been enough to confirm all but the gravest apocalyptic anxieties. After his accession to the papacy, John Paul II made some effort to organize special prayers for Russia, which were interpreted by Fatima enthusiasts as an attempt to fulfill the vision's demand for "consecration." Similarly, the collapse of the Soviet Union was widely regarded as a partial fulfillment of the prophecy. This would suggest that we are now living in the "period of peace" foretold by the visionaries. No one would argue, of course, that we are living in the sort of Millennium envisioned by the millenarians. Still, though the world continues to have no end of problems, in many ways it at least has better problems than it had even a few years ago. As St. Augustine might have put it, the situation is typical.


(This article also appeared in the Millennial Prophecy Report in 1996.)

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