Pope Benedict’s resignation has stirred up a good bit of discussion of the so-called “Prophecy of the Popes,” attributed to St. Malachy of Ireland (1094-1148).
The prophecy is a list of 112 mottoes that allegedly describe the popes stretching from St. Malachy’s time to the end of time.
Supposedly, Pope Benedict is identified with #111, which means that there’s only one more pope to go, according to one interpretation of the list.
According to supporters of the prophecy, it’s an authentic revelation from God that we can trust.
According to critics of the prophecy, it’s a forgery that was most likely written around 1590 and that cannot be relied upon for knowledge of the future.
What Has the Church Said?
Although the prophecy has been influential in Catholic circles for several centuries, I can find no evidence that the Magisterium of the Church ever endorsing it.
This places the prophecy in the category of a reported but unapproved private revelation.
My own policy when dealing with reported but unapproved private revelations is to keep them at arm’s length. I don’t dismiss them out of hand, but I don’t embrace them, either.
The fact that we’re claimed to be up to #112 on the list, though, is creating a sense of urgency for some to figure out whether the prophecy is trustworthy, though, so I decided to dig a bit deeper.
Here’s what I found . . .
Although the prophecy is attributed to a 12th century figure, it wasn’t published until the end of the 16th century. We have no references to it in the interim, including from sources who would be expected to mention it (e.g., biographers of St. Malachy).
That’s a mark against its authenticity.
The suggested explanation for why there is no mention of it in the first 450 years after it was allegedly written is that it was hidden in an archive in Rome and not rediscovered until around 1590.
That would explain matters, but it’s still a mark against its credibility.
Further, I don’t know if we even still have the original document or whether it’s been authenticated by any of the various means available to us today. I’m not aware of any supporters of the prophecy claiming this, though if any do claim it, I’d love to see the evidence.
Until such time, though, it’s a mark against the document.
Sensational documents allegedly found in Vatican archives and dealing with the end of the world are, in principle, not to be trusted. It’s too easy and too tempting for people to fake those.
Alternative Explanation Credible
The alternative explanation for the origin of the prophecy–that it was forged around 1590–appears credible.
Critics of the prophecy claim that there is a difference in the mottoes attributed to the popes between St. Malachy’s time and 1590 and those who come after 1590.
Specifically, they claim it is much easier to see how the mottoes fit the popes in the first period than how the mottoes fit those in the second.
I had been aware of this claim but had never looked into the matter. With the current discussion, I decided to do so.
What I did was compose a table of the mottoes along with the popes they allegedly describe and the proposed explanations of how they fit together.
I then went through the list and classified the mottoes as being a “hit,” “miss,” or “vague.”
- “Hit” means that the motto can reasonably be connected with a specific pope in a way that does not appear random.
- “Miss” means that the motto can’t be so connected. That’s not to say that it can’t be connected with a particular pope, just that the fit is much less clear and requires more “stretching” to connect the two.
- “Vague” means that it isn’t a clear hit or a clear miss. I also placed into this category items that, because of their general nature, could fit many different popes.
Here are a few examples of how I classified particular ones:
- Ex castro Tiberis (“From a castle on the Tiber”). This is connected with Celestine II (1143-1144), who was born in Citta di Castello (City of the Castle), which is on the banks of the Tiber river.
- Frigidus abbas (“Cold Abbot”). This is connected with Benedict XII (1334-1342), who had been the abbot of a monastery at Fontfroide (“Cold Spring”).
- De parvo homine (“From a small man”). This is connected to Pius III (1503), whose family name was Piccolomini, which is derived from piccolo (small) and uomo (man).
- Pia civitas in bello (“Pious city in war”). This is connected with Innocent IV (1591), but there is no good way to link him with this motto. Some have pointed to the fact that he was patriarch of Jerusalem before his election to the papacy, and Jerusalem could be thought of as a “pious city,” but so could Rome and many others. Almost any Christian city would count, and Jerusalem was not a Christian city at this time. Furthermore, Jerusalem was not at war when he was patriarch.
- Aquila rapax (“Rapacious eagle”). This is connected with Pius VII (1800-1823), but there is no good way to link him with this motto. Some have proposed that his reign overlapped with that of Napoleon and that Napoleon could be described as a rapacious eagle (that is, a hungry commander of armies), but this is very tenuous and makes the motto not a description of the pope but of someone else who was on the world stage during his reign.
- Religio depopulata (“Religion destroyed”). This is connected with Benedict XV (1914-1922), but there is no good way to link him in particular with this motto. There is no obvious connection to his name, family, place of origin, or coat of arms. He did not destroy religion or religious life. Neither were either destroyed during his reign. He did reign during World War I, but that did not destroy either. He also reigned when Communism came to power in Russia. That didn’t destroy religion in his day or in Italy. And again, we’d be connecting the motto with something other than the pope. If that were allowed then it would be possible to connect every motto with something that happened somewhere in the world during a pope’s day, and the prophecies would have no particular value as they would all be applicable to any pope.
- Iucunditas crucis (“Delight of the cross”). This is connected with Innocent X (1644-1655). The proposed explanation is that he was raised to the pontificate around the time of the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross after a long and difficult conclave. This is a very weak connection (“around the time of”?). More fundamentally, almost any pope at all could be described as “delight of the cross,” either because of the sufferings he endured in his papacy or because of his general love of Jesus. It is too vague.
- Vir religiosus (“Religious man”). This is connected with Pius VIII (1829-1830). According to one explanation, it is a play on words on his papal name (a pious man is a religious man). But this is not a strong indicator. It could also apply to other papal names–like Innocent. In fact, another motto involving religion (De bona religione, “From good religion”) is allegedly connected with Innocent XIII (1721-1724), with the word “religion” pointing to his papal name. Furthermore, any pope who had been a member of a religious order could fit the description “Religious man,” as could any pope, period. This is too vague and could fit too many circumstances to say that it fits Pius VIII in a non-random way.
- Pastor angelicus (“Angelic shepherd”). This is connected to Pius XII (1939-1958). The proposed explanation is that Reigning during World War II, he is reported to have covertly helped many Jews escape extermination in the Holocaust. This is a weak indicator. Every pope is, by his office, someone who can be described as a shepherd. Every pope that does anything good can be described as angelic. This can fit too many popes. It is vague and cannot be connected with Pius XII in a way that is clearly non-random.
When I went through the papal mottoes in the prophecy, I found that there were, indeed, many more hits in the period before 1590 and many more misses and vagues in the period after 1590.
Here were my results:
- Hit: 70 (95%)
- Miss: 0 (0%)
- Vague: 4 (5%)
- Hit: 3 (8%)
- Miss: 15 (41%)
- Vague: 19 (51%)
I do not claim that my rankings are objective. They are impressionistic, and at times it was difficult to decide which category to put something in (“Is this a hit or a vague?” “Is it a vague or a miss?”).
If I spent more time looking at the mottoes, I am sure I would change many of the rankings and slide them from one category to another.
My goal, however, was to get an overall impression of the basic question: Do the pre-1590 mottoes fit the popes of that period better than the post-1590 period fit theirs?
The answer to that question was a clear yes, and further scrutiny and category switching is unlikely to change that basic impression.
The pre-1590 mottoes really do fit their popes better, and that provides evidence for the idea the list was forged around 1590.
There are also other reasons to view the list skeptically . . .
The list contains 10 entries that refer to antipopes, all of them before 1590 (but that’s not surprising since we haven’t had a notable antipope since then).
It identifies two of these as antipopes (Nicholas V = Corvus schismaticus, “Schismatic crow” and Clement VIII = Schisma Barchinoniu, “Schism of the Barcelonas”).
Why doesn’t it identify the other eight as antipopes?
It even identifies some of the antipopes in ways that would make one look favorably on them (e.g., Felix V = Amator Crusis, “Lover of the Cross”; Clement VII, De cruce Apostolica, “From the apostolic cross”).
One explanation might be that the anonymous author, writing around 1590, did not have as precise a knowledge of who the antipopes were as we do today.
This seems a more likely explanation than a divine revelation mentioning antipopes without marking them as such and even speaking of them in positive ways.
No Practical Value
There is also another factor weighing against the St. Malachy prophecy: What is it supposed to do? How is it supposed to help us?
God does not give revelations to satisfy our curiosity, but that seems precisely what the prophecy of the popes is designed to do.
There is almost nothing in the prophecy that could provide a plan of action or guidance in how to live the Christian faith in particular periods (the two figures marked as antipopes being an exception; one could reasonably infer “don’t trust these two guys”).
When God gives revelation, it is to help us in some way. At various points in the Bible, God may use symbolism to communicate his message, but there is always an underlying practical message waiting for us when we have wrestled with the puzzle of the symbolism.
The symbolic prophecies in Daniel or Revelation always have this element. They don’t just give us a long list of symbolic names that provide next to no guidance about how to live our faith.
The problem applies to private revelations–such as this purports to be–for their function is to help us live the faith in our own day. The Catechism states:
67 Throughout the ages, there have been so-called “private” revelations, some of which have been recognized by the authority of the Church. They do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith. It is not their role to improve or complete Christ’s definitive Revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history. Guided by the Magisterium of the Church, the sensus fidelium knows how to discern and welcome in these revelations whatever constitutes an authentic call of Christ or his saints to the Church.
A big list of symbolic papal mottoes provides endless hours of intellectual puzzle material to occupy human curiosity, but this is not the purpose of authentic prophecies. They don’t just leave us with a big puzzle. There is some underlying practical help for living the faith, and that is what we don’t have here.
Taken at face value, the prophecy of the popes looks like a big, intellectual puzzle designed to engage our curiosity but do little else.
The End of the World
Finally, there is the fact that the last pope–the one alleged to come after Benedict XVI–is predicted to reign at the end of the world:
Peter the Roman, who will nourish the sheep in many tribulations; when they are finished, the city of seven hills will be destroyed, and the dreadful judge will judge his people. The end.
This is, itself, another mark against the prophecy, because Jesus himself warned us that we would not be able to calculate when the end of the world will come, yet the St. Malachy prophecy has encouraged people to do exactly that. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes:
Cornelius a Lapide refers to this prophecy in his commentary “On the Gospel of St. John” (C. xvi) and “On the Apocalypse” (cc. xvii-xx), and he endeavours to calculate according to it the remaining years of time.
This is precisely the kind of calculation that is most dangerous, that has the worst track record (end of the world predictions having a notorious failure rate), that Jesus warned us against, and that the prophecy of the popes seems to invite us to perform.
Again, this is consistent with the idea it’s designed to appeal to curiosity rather than being an authentic revelation.
Some have tried to blunt the idea that we could estimate the end of the world based on the prophecy by proposing there may be a gap in the prophecy–a group of unlisted popes that come between Benedict XVI (Gloria olivae, “Glory of the olive”) and the final pope. Thus the Catholic Encyclopedia states:
It has been noticed concerning Petrus Romanus, who according to St. Malachy’s list is to be the last pope, that the prophecy does not say that no popes willintervene between him and his predecessor designated Gloria olivæ. It merely says that he is to be the last, so that we may suppose as many popes as we please before “Peter the Roman”.
Personally, I don’t see any basis for this. The texts of the prophecy that I have seen do not provide any reason to suspect a gap at this point.
The prophecy goes from Gloria olivae to the last pope without any hint of a gap with additional popes in it.
Furthermore, if we admit a gap here, we have to raise the question of whether there could be gaps elsewhere.
But if we can insert gaps with no evidence into the list (after 1590, take note, there being no need to insert them before since the fits are all too good) then identification becomes impossible and the prophecy’s predictive value is in danger of disintegrating.
My Own Prediction
My guess is that we are not at the end of the world and the new pope will not be the last one.
I therefore predict that, when his reign ends, when another pope is elected, and when people see that the end of the world has not come, the St. Malachy prophecy will fade in the popular Catholic imagination.
As it should.
But I also predict that there will be people who still support it, either positing the alleged gap between Pope Benedict XVI and the final pope or even claiming that the new pontiffs are all antipopes.
I just hope that there aren’t too many of the latter.
I try to take seriously St. Paul’s exhortation: “do not despise prophesying, but test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thess. 5:20-21).
I am not unfriendly to prophecies, and I have as much curiosity about the future as anyone.
But in the case of the St. Malachy prophecy of the popes, I am afraid that it does not appear credible, from either a historical or a theological perspective:
- It is an unapproved, alleged private revelation.
- It cannot be shown to have existed before 1590.
- The predictions it makes for the period before 1590 are markedly better than those it makes after 1590.
- Contrary to the nature of revelation (both public and private), it has virtually no practical value.
- It speaks of antipopes as if they are popes and even speaks positively of some.
- It encourages calculations regarding the end of the world.
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