Some words spring up as the fashion “du jour” and linger longer than others. There are annoyances like the overwrought “awesome” and now the incessant “iconic” which betray a weak understanding of the meaning of those words and a limited vocabulary. A little more irritating a few years ago was “gravitas” which appeared in an election campaign and still is used by pundits unable to identify its declension.
On a somewhat loftier plane is misuse of “prophecy” to mean predicting. Columnists, statesmen, stock analysts are “prophetic.” True, Aquinas includes prediction as an aspect of what prophets do, but not exclusively or even primarily so. The first role of the prophet is contradiction, or denouncing what is false. Before any prediction comes an infused knowledge of what God intends to reveal. Revelation needs a source: “Thus speaks the Lord.” Some mystics had an ability for predicting events: Edward the Confessor, Phillip Neri, Bridget, Paul of the Cross, John Vianney, Padre Pio to name a few, but the essential service of prophecy is to disclose an inner mystery about God’s will for guiding the Church. Where there is prediction, it is a warning of the consequences of not attending the Voice.
But a lot of holy figures were capable of error, like Pope Innocent III proclaiming that the world would end in 1284, a fatal 666 years after the founding of Islam, and Vincent Ferrer who announced the immediate end of the world, and Bernard who envisioned the success of the dismal Second Crusade. Then there was the forgery known as St. Malachy’s “Prophecy of the Popes” whose ambiguous predictions are a Rorschach test for the gullible. Not every pope was as sensible as Sylvester II, one of the true scientific geniuses ever to sit on the papal throne: when Romans anxiously gathered at the turn of the millennium to ask him to stop the end of the world at midnight, he told them to quiet down and go home, and some cursed him for it. They were more subdued the next day. That resembled the Y2K hysteria in the year 2000 when even more than a few Catholics fled to the hills.
The last canonical revelation was in the last book of the Bible. It is not the Book of Revelations, as it is so often carelessly called, but the Revelation that all prophecies longed for and after which all else is commentary. It is also beyond satisfactory interpretation. Ronald Knox said that two sure signs of insanity are: 1) questioning Shakespeare as the actual author of his plays and 2) claiming a full understanding of the Apocalypse. It is not a game plan for the politics and economics of future centuries. In “Against Heresies” Irenaeus writes: “The word “revealed” refers not only to the future—as though the Word began to reveal the Father only when he was born of Mary; it refers equally to all time. From the beginning the Son is present to creation, reveals the Father to all, to those the Father chooses, when the Father chooses, and as the Father chooses. So, there is in all and through all one God the Father, one Word and Son, and one Spirit, and one salvation for all who believe in him.”
This point is lost on those fellows who carry signs outside Grand Central Terminal announcing the world is about to end. For New Yorkers the end of the world would only be a source of complaint if it slowed down the Lexington Avenue subway. The end of time should only agitate people who have no limited life expectancy. For mere mortals, the concern should be about when we are going to relinquish this mortal coil. “Estote et vigilate….” We need only be vigilant for that private last moment. Thus Cardinal Newman: “I do not ask to see the distant scene, one step enough for me.”
Our Lord’s warning against false prophets was made from full knowledge that there would be plenty of them, even though “no one knows the day nor the hour” (Matt 24:36). Only a couple of centuries later the schismatic Montanists were getting ready for the imminent end of the world. Even the spiritually arid eighteenth century had its false seers like Joanna Southcott, and in 1806 a Prophetic Hen of Leeds was said to lay eggs predicted the coming of Christ. The Jehovah’s Witnesses made a cottage industry of predictions, regularly revised. The Mormon “prophet” Joseph Smith predicted that the Son of Man would return to earth in 1891, but the closest thing to that was the visit of President Benjamin Harrison to San Francisco.
When the evangelist Harold Camping predicted the “Rapture” which is totally outside Christian revelation, students at Columbia University littered the streets at the appointed hour on May 21, 2011 with empty pajamas. In 1932, Father Divine mistakenly decided that he was God and got quite a following when the Suffolk County judge who convicted him, suddenly dropped dead. Father Divine did not disabuse the reporters who suggested that this was a prophetic judgment, and he went on to become a very rich man. Sometimes predictions are right for the wrong reason. In a book I wrote on coincidences, I mentioned that Jonathan Swift described in “Gulliver’s Travels” the two moons of Mars: Phobos and Deimos, in 1726, 151 years before they were discovered with Hall’s telescope. But he may have got some information from Kepler who inferred their existence ironically by misconstruing an anagram of Galileo.
Niels Bohr liked quoting the man who said that predicting can be very difficult, especially about the future. Even the most level-headed empiricists with acute insight can lack foresight. Some of their famously wrong predictions are amusing, but only in retrospect. In 1876 an officer of Western Union saw no commercial use for the telephone, and before that, in 1830, an inventor said that rail travel at high speed would cause people to die from asphyxia. Even before then, it is said that Napoleon stomped out of a room indignantly when he thought his intelligence had been insulted by Robert Fulton describing a boat propelled by a steam engine. Then in 1807, a crowd gathered along the Hudson River to jeer “Fulton’s Folly,” but the Clermont did work albeit at five miles per hour. The Michigan Savings Bank decided against funding Henry Ford’s horseless carriage because it was only a fad.
Likewise, Charlie Chaplin, of all people, declared the cinema “little more than a fad.” In 1878 Oxford professor Erasmus Wilson sniffed: “When the Paris Exposition closes, electric light will close with it, and no more will be heard of it.” Hiram Maxim said of his own invention in 1893, “The machine gun will make war impossible.” Marconi would say the same of the wireless. Here is Einstein in 1932: “There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable.” The New York Times displayed its infallible intuition for fallibility in 1936: “A rocket will never be able to leave earth’s atmosphere.” In 1943 the Chairman of IBM said that there would be a world market for no more than five computers. Werner von Braun looked forward to the year 2000 by which time there would be a baby born on the moon. In 1969, Surgeon General William Stewart gave thanks that “We can close the book on infectious diseases.”
If theologians should heed Cardinal Baronius’s dictum—“The Scriptures tell us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go”—the counsel applies as well to natural sciences. In a secular society, science is tempted to don the vestments of religion and skeptics become heretics. For instance, these days there are various predictions about climate change, formerly called global cooling and then global warming and after that climate change and lately climate disruption. It is a concern that should be tempered by caution about treating hypotheses as absolutes. Because climate issues involve the stewardship of creation, it is a moral matter that properly should have the attention of Church leaders, but they are not scientists nor are scientists prophets of some arcane covenant whose predictions are prophecies. The latter is not science but its corruption as scientism. Fifty years ago we were told from many quarters that by now there would be massive starvation caused by overpopulation, and Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich, with the perspicacity of the Prophetic Hen of Leeds, envisioned England covered in ice by now, just as the meteorologist Albert Porta thought that an exploding sun would engulf the earth in 1919.
In 2005 the United Nations Environment Program warned that rises in sea level would cause 50 million “climate refugees” to flee the Caribbean and Pacific islands by 2010. Then there is the problematic extent of man-made change or any sweeping claim about the anthropogenic effect on the environment. As Galileo’s error was to propose his theory as fact and not hypotheses (his various superstitions notwithstanding), clerics should humbly avoid making what is disputed into dogma. That would be clericalism, and clericalism is as unworthy of religion as scientism is unworthy of science. The balance is expressed by Athanasius in “Against the Pagans,” with a clear gloss on Colossians 1:17: “…in his goodness he governs and sustains the whole of nature by his Word (who is himself also God), so that under the guidance, providence and ordering of that Word, the whole of nature might remain stable and coherent in his light.”
When it comes to predictions, Abraham Lincoln’s self-effacement resulted in a most memorable miscalculation in the Gettysburg Address: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here….” The Mother of our Lord made an opposite and very accurate prediction, stunning as it was: “Henceforth all generations shall call me blessed….” In her case, perfect humility dispensed with natural modesty. John the Baptist was the last of the Messianic prophets, which is why any religion that proposes Christ as a prophet but not the Son of God misses the whole point of true prophecy itself. Christ did make some predictions—the death of Judas, the destiny of Peter, and the destruction of the Temple—but he counseled against anxiety about the future. His only prediction we need to know is fulfilled in every generation: “Heaven and earth will pass away but my words will never pass away.”
Editor’s note: The image above titled “Frieze of the Prophets” was painted by John Singer Sargent and is located in the Boston Public Library.