With the resignation of Pope Benedict and a front runner named Peter, the world is buzzing with the latest end-time prophecy. This one is based on the alleged prophecies to St Malachy indicating that the next pope will be the last pope before the second coming. I’ve written about it already this week here.

What are we to make of such prophecies? Apart from this particular prophecy with its dubious origins, there is something larger going on within our culture and within the human mind.

Too often people treat prophecies like conspiracy theories: they come up with the prophecy or the conspiracy theory first, and then they make all the facts fit. If the facts don’t fit quite as neatly as they’d like, then they come up with ingenious ways to make the facts fit. They see other levels of “interpretation” they find other facts that were “hidden” or if the facts really don’t fit at all, they decide that there was a cover up, that they don’t have all the facts yet or there is some other more sinister and secret interpretation.

This is a sort of mental sickness, and those who are into conspiracy theories and prophecies are not the only ones who are guilty of it. Religious or political or ideologically driven people who take a particular world view and hold to it despite all contrary facts and every evidence of reality fall into the same trap, but then so does most everyone in one way or another to a greater or lesser extent. We believe something about the ourselves, other people or the world around us, and every fact and morsel of evidence automatically ends up supporting our belief.

Here’s an example from everyday life: Let’s say George has decided that Harry doesn’t like him. He’s heard gossip that Harry is a manipulative bully. He is told that Harry is out to get him, and that he had better watch out because Harry is very smart and cunning. Therefore when George meets Harry and Harry  smiles, gives him a hug and says, “How’re you doin’ old buddy!” George has to cope with evidence which contradicts his beliefs. He can either alter his beliefs and say, “Well, maybe I was wrong and Harry is an okay guy.” or he can say, “Why is Harry befriending me? What is he after? This must be one of his cunning ruses. He’s trying to befriend me to get something.”

Belief in conspiracy theories and prophecies are like that for many people. They provide people with a grid through which to filter all the facts–a set of shades which colors everything they see.

There are several other problems with prophecies: very often they are received in dreams and communicated in cryptic language. The cryptic language is a kind of riddle and the dream imagery is always ambiguous. The dreams and riddles can usually be interpreted in many different ways. If we take the third secret of Fatima, for example, there was a bishop in white who was walking over the bodies of the faithful up a steep hill where he was shot. Is this a literal bishop in white? Is it the Pope? Is it another bishop? Is it a literal hill and a specific future event in history or does it refer generally to persecution? The cryptic form of the prophecies and the language and imagery of dreams and visions makes the whole subject very hard to interpret accurately.

Furthermore, there is the tendency to treat prophecies as fortune telling. The proper, Biblical and Catholic understanding of prophecy is not that it is fortune telling or soothsaying. This is black magic. Read More.