Wednesday 20 February 2013

The Next Pope and the Number of the Beast

By John D. O’Brien, S.J.

Amid the fervent speculation over the identity of the next Pope has been an undercurrent of conjecture over whether the Church is about to elect its last Pope, the pontiff who will preside over the apocalyptic era, perhaps the final consummation predicted by Christ.

The dominant fuel is provided by the Prophecies of St. Malachy, the 12th century Archbishop of Armagh, who reportedly had visions of all the popes from 1143 until “the end of the world”. He left a series of cryptic Latin phrases which supposedly describe each one. Pope Benedict XVI is the second-last on the list; his successor, therefore, will be the final pope. He will be called “Peter the Roman”, of whom the prophecy says:
In the final persecution of the Holy Roman Church, there will sit Petrus Romanus, who will pasture his sheep in many tribulations, and when these things are finished, the city of seven hills [i.e. Rome] will be destroyed, and the dreadful judge will judge his people. The End.
Wisely, the Church puts little stock in such apocryphal and unverifiable sources. From Nostradamus to Dan Brown, there are enough crypto-prophetic and conspiracy tales to distract from her actual business of sanctification and witness. Above all, Jesus tells us that we do not know the day nor the hour (not even him!). Yet there are times when a genuine sense of apocalyptic awareness is healthy and necessary, when we are called to be vigilant against eruptions in history of certain recurrent forms of evil. While there may be a final conflict, the spirit of anti-Christ is at work throughout all time. Thus what is important is the call to discernment of spirits, especially the spirit of one’s own age.

Five years before his election, Joseph Ratzinger gave a talk in Palermo, Sicily, in which he called attention to the fact that the “sign of the beast” is a number. He unpacked its meaning with characteristic brilliance, referring to various forms, hard and soft, of 20th century tyranny. "The Apocalypse speaks about God’s antagonist, the beast," he said. "This animal does not have a name, but a number. In their horror, they [concentration camps] cancel faces and history, transforming man into a number, reducing him to a cog in an enormous machine. Man is no more than a function …"

Ratzinger’s comments may be among the most incisive diagnoses of the diabolical errors of the age, from Auschwitz and Stalin’s disastrous and genocidal five-year plans, to the mechanization of sexuality, and any cultural system that reduces the human person to the status of data or device. He then made the stunning connection between totalitarianism and the computer age:
In our days, we should not forget that they [Nazis] prefigured the destiny of a world that runs the risk of adopting the same structure of the concentration camps, if the universal law of the machine is accepted. The machines that have been constructed impose the same law. According to this logic, man must be interpreted by a computer and this is only possible if translated into numbers. The beast is a number and transforms into numbers. God, however, has a name and calls by name. He is a person and looks for the person.
Our current age finds us increasingly immersed in artificial worlds and virtual realities; everything is becoming mediated by digital platforms. While this has given us many benefits, it is worth asking: what is the totalizing effect of this ongoing experience on our perceptions – of nature, of fellow human beings, and of God?

Marshall McLuhan, the media philosopher and scholar, wrote in his post-humously published book Theories of Communication (2011), that the machine-mentality is cultivated by the electronic media, and is responsible for fostering the illusion of almost divine detachment from basic things, such as one's place in time, space, and the moral structure of creation. He wrote:
At the speed of light, minus his physical body, man is discarnate, and discarnate man is not related to the “Natural Law”. His sudden emancipation from Natural Law, in a sense, makes him “greater than angels”. He can be everywhere at once, whereas they are subject to limitations of space and can only be in one space at a time. This anarchic elevation of nuclear man enables individuals to be dispensed, as it were, from the moral law, a fact which was strikingly manifested in the radio age by Stalin and Hitler (and in the TV age by the universality of abortion), and helps to explain the sudden indifference of the TV generation to private morality.
Regardless of the outcome of the papal election, I am certain there is a need for a new kind of witness, not one that is anti-technology, but one that insists on keeping the mystery and dignity of the human person on the top rung of the scale of values. The Church may find that in addition to her task of proclaiming the Gospel through all media, she also has a vocation to call people to profound experiences of reality, to sacramentality, to the basic elements of bread and wine, the meaning of body and blood, and of the purposefulness in all things.


  1. Thank you for this brilliant article, John. I was hoping you'd write on the Pope, and even better, addressing the St. Malachy prophesies. Our older kids have been very afraid since they heard about them. I like what you say about the spirit of the anti-Christ at work throughout all time. And that the beast turns persons into numbers, taking away our personhood. Keep up the uplifting and evangelizing work!

  2. Thank-you, Regina. I'm glad to know it might have been helpful for your children. From what I can see, they are bubbling over with personality, and are in no danger of becoming numbers! But yes, personhood needs protection at many levels of our society. Peace! - John