Fr. Justin Swanton
How can we know when the world is about the end? Are there any reliable signs that will precede that final cataclysmic event?
Well, 2000 is here and the world is, physically at least, more or less intact. My exposure to predictions of imminent catastrophe from the early 80's (when I first came into Tradition) and especially over the last year, have prompted me to look at the end of the world, its signs, time and nature.
Past fears of doomsday
A widespread conviction that the world was about to end is something that has been fairly common in the history of the Church, right from her foundation: "Do not be terrified out of your senses all at once, and thrown into confusion, by any spiritual utterance, any message or letter purporting to come from us, which suggests that the day of the Lord is close at hand." - II Thess. 2:2.
The contemporaries of St. Gregory the Great, aid the Pope himself, were convinced, in the year 600, that the world's end was imminent. They had good reason to do so. The Roman empire in the west had been destroyed 150 years previously; the `romanitas', or civilised Roman way of life, had managed to linger on under the barbarian kings until incessant warfare between the Ostrogoths and the Byzantines in Italy all but destroyed the Roman infrastructure. At one time not long before Gregory's accession to the Papacy Rome was completely deserted. And now a new enemy, the pagan Lombards, or Longbeards, had just burst into Italy, taking four-fifths of the peninsula and ravaging the remaining fifth-which included Rome. Famine and disease stalked the city: at one point the Pope had to make a procession through the streets to implore Gods mercy during a particularly virulent plague that threatened to wipe out the population. It was natural far thinking men to read the signs and conclude that history was nearly at an end.
Just before the first millenium the situation in Europe was similar, only worse. The Christian empire that Charlemagne had built up had completely collapsed a century and a half before, after which there was no central authority anywhere. During this period of anarchy, every corner of Europe had been raided by Vikings from the north, Saracens from the south, and Avars from the east. The papacy was the pawn of the robber barons of Rome, and popes were frequently murdered
Sylvester II was Pope in the year 1000. Although the situation had somewhat improved things were by no means ideal. His predecessor had had an antipope rival barbarously mutilated; Sylvester himself would live only as long as his patron, the German emperor Otto III, was alive. It is quite possible the Pope was poisoned after Otto's death.
But to the point. As the year 1000 drew near, many were convinced that the world would not survive January lst. Again, they had good reasons for thinking so. Many wealthier men bequeathed all of their possessions to the Church. The night of December 31- arrived; the Pope and his Cardinals gathered together in St. Peter's for a vigil they did not think would last much beyond midnight, when the new year, and millenium, would begin. They prayed. Midnight came--and passed. A thousand years later the world is still here.
Possibly every century of the Church’s history has had Catholics seriously convinced that their generation was the last. The Antichrist-precursor of the world’s end-has been identified with enemies of the Church of every age, from Nero to Napoleon. The fact is that the Church has never had a century in which she was completely and
peacefully in possession of her own house. Even the golden age of Christendom, the 13th century, was a time of crises of the first order, from the hostility to the Church of the most powerful man in Christian Europe. Frederick II -- an apostate -- to the Albigensian heresy that ravaged southern France. What many Catholics do not realize or are perhaps unwilling to admit, is that the Church is not really at home in the world and never has been, and will always be in a state of strife with it. The strife and tension have ever been fertile ground for prophets of doom, and although many of them were right in predicting chastisements for the Church because of her sins, as did Savonarola, their words were all too easily taken as harbingers of the final consummation.
But the time we live in now .....
The time we live in now is in a number of ways unique from the times that preceded it, granted. The question, however, is whether this time offersany clear and certain signs that the world, from God's viewpoint, has gone on long enough. Let's look at what are offered as signs and see if they are indeed clear and certain. I divide them into three general categories: those belonging to natural disasters, those connected with social corruption, and those that concern the state of the Church.
a). Natural disasters. According to surveys made by insurance companies, natural disasters have increased five-fold over the last thirty years. The increase has been exponential; they have tripled in the nineties alone. This trend is certainly ominous, but it is not a definitive sign that the world is near its end. There is plenty of evidence that natural catastrophes of an unimaginable scale devastated this planet more than once in its history. The Flood has geological proof. Another planet-wide disaster, probably the impact of a large asteroid, was the most likely cause of the extinction of the dinosaurs--in fact, of half the species then living. We may be in for another shake-up that could be apocalyptic in scale, without that necessarily meaning that we are at the end of the road.
b) Social corruption. It is possible to argue that the world has never been as morally rotten as it now is. We live in societies in which, for the first time in history- the religious principle no longer plays a significant part in the shaping and upholding of the social mores. Men are no longer taught arty faith in a divinity and they are not given any foundation, religious or otherwise, for moral behaviour. As a result human society, at least in the West and ex-communist East, is falling apart. Crime is becoming rampant, corruption is reaching paralyzing levels, sins such as abortion, contraception, alcohol and drug abuse, pornography, etc., are so widespread as to he almost the norm. People, to put it in a word, are becoming incapable of living normal lives. However, this is not the first time that significant parts of the human world have been in this state. The Roman Empire just before its fall was in a moral mess. Abortion was not as common as it now is (they did not have the technology), but infanticide was far more frequent: about half of baby girls born were killed. Divorce was as widespread as it is today, Corruption had paralyzed Roman state as it is paralyzing modern states. In fact, one of the reasons why Rome fell was that, despite heavy taxation, there was not enough money in the national coffers to pay for an army. At its height, the Empire had nearly half a million troops; in the last defence of Rome the number was down to 13,000.
In history, there is one clear case of a society being brought to a catastrophic end by divine intervention, purely because of its moral corruption, and that was the land of Sodom and Gomorrah. What is noteworthy about that case is that the cities were destroyed, not because of the magnitude of their iniquity, but because there were no longer even ten just men to be found in them. The just man who did dwell there, Lot, was finding it impossible to live according to the principles of justice. So God had him leave the city of Sodom and then destroyed it and the other four cities of the south Dead Sea plain. The lesson is clear: God will leave a corrupt society alone if it is still possible for a small number of god-fearing men in it to live good lives and work out their salvation. He will destroy such a society only when that is no longer possible.
Are we in the position of Sodom and Gomorrah? The answer, at least for the present, is no. To a certain extent the laws, at least in principle, still protect the innocent. One can still raise a Catholic family, and shield one's children, albeit with difficulty, from the surrounding turpitude. One can still create Catholic schools. People are not under irresistible pressure to give up their convictions and moral principles. And there are still a number of good people around who are able to sanctify them-selves and are doing so. It is impossible to tell just when society will became unlivable for the good. In some ways it was far more difficult to be a Catholic under Diocletian than it is now. Personally I would say that the depth of moral decay is not a precise or reliable sign of the world's imminent end. As a final point on this topic, moral decay in the past has more than once been followed by moral revival, and it may well happen again.
c). The state of the Church. To my mind the arguments for the world's end based on the state of the Church are the strongest. The premise is simple: the world will last as long as the Church does and not one day longer, according to Our Lord's promise: "And behold I am with you all through the days that are coming, until the consummation of the world." - Mt, 28:20, and, " I tell thee this in my turn, that thou art Peter, and it upon this rock that I will build my church: and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” - Mt. 16:18. The gates of hell will not prevail, but they have never been nearer success than now. At no time in her past has the Church ever been in the position she is in today, where the principle of heresy—or the absence of any effective safeguard for doctrinal purity -- is on the verge of becoming institutionalized and permanent. Even Arianism at its height got no further than to make a Pope, who personally was unquestionably Catholic, sign a single, ambiguous creed --a deed he effectively repudiated four years later.
In the last forty years we have had four popes who have been either sympathetic towards modernism or modernist themselves. The underlying modernist tenet, that religious truth is just a mutable, man-made opinion, has now permeated every part of the Church, from conciliar documents to the sacraments, liturgical life, the reforms of religious orders, the catechisms, everything. And there is not the slightest indication that the situation is going to change in any dramatic way in the near future.
One can see God's providence still at work by the fact that the absolute essential -- defined. moral and dogmatic teaching -- has not been touched, and has even been upheld on critical points. The undiluted and uncompromising practice of the Catholic Faith has also been preserved in Catholic Tradition, but one must bear in mind that Tradition constitutes a small minority, and has been effectively sealed off from any influence in the body of the Church as a whole. At the present time very, very few conciliar Catholics are coming over to the traditional ranks; the major sources of growth seem to be births and conversions. So whereas Tradition is assured of survival, it is not in a position to spiritually regenerate the Church as did the religious orders in the past: St. Benedict Cluny, the Jesuits, and so on.
In the meantime the decay in the Church is not static, but getting worse. The last barriers to the complete ruin of Catholicism, her dogmas, moral teaching, hierarchical powers and essential disciplines, like clerical celibacy, are under increasing attack. It is impossible to see how, in the normal course of human events, they can survive for very much longer. It is easy to forecast the accession of a pope after John Paul II who will not have the personal prestige of his predecessor to enable him to ride the storm, and who will be forced to make the final, fatal compromises. In fact the bulk of the Cardinals have the intention of electing a pope who will do just that -- Cardinal Martini of Milan to be precise -- whom it is doubtful has even Christian beliefs, never mind the Catholic Faith.
What will happen? There are two possibilities: Either the world will come suddenly to an end just before the final ruin of Catholicism, or there will be an unprecedented rallying and revival within the Church, helped by some extraordinary divine intervention. If the former is the case then we may well see the world's end in our lifetime, but if the latter takes piece then it is probable that the last consummation is still a good way off.
This is the moment to touch on the delicate topic of Catholic prophecy. Much has been written on the subject, a good deal of it speculation or simple nonsense. However this is not a reason to dismiss prophecy. It has pleased heaven to reveal to the earth major events in the future that concern the salvation of men, and we ignore these revelations at our peril.
In what concerns the current situation in the Church, the most relevant prophecies were those made by Our Lady at Fatima. What is interesting about them is that if one looks at Our Lady’s words carefully, they seem to preclude an imminent end to the world.
"If my wishes are fulfilled, Russia wilt be converted and there will be peace. If not, Russia will spread her errors throughout the world, promoting wars and persecution of the Church. The good will be martyred, the Holy Father will have much to suffer, and various nations will be annihilated. But, finally, my Immaculate Heart will triumph. The Holy Father will consecrate Russia to me and it will be converted, and a time of peace will be conceded to the world. In Portugal the Dogma of Faith will always be preserved….[followed by the Third Secret]"
Our Lady speaks of a triumph of her Immaculate Heart, This triumph includes the conversion of the largest nation on earth and a "time of peace for the rest of the planet. To see these two events as lasting only one or two decades would be, to my mind, a very hollow victory indeed for the Mother of God.
Even after this victorious period for the Church the end is not yet. The Antichrist is still to come, preceded by a decline from the Christian high water mark. And according to the Summa Theoiogica and many Catholic writers, the fall of the Antichrist will not be followed immediately by the world's end. It is then quite possible that all these events will not be completed before the next century or two -- or more -- have passed.
There are three main sources in the New Testament that are cited as giving the signs that will precede the end of the world: Christ's discourse on the destruction of the Temple and the end of the world (Mt. 24; Lk. 21); St. Paul (II Thess. 2); and, of course, the Apocalypse.
There is not enough space to look at the Apocalypse in any kind of detail. It is a difficult book; its interpretations are countless and there is not that much consensus amongst commentators as to what exactly it means. It is enough to note that there is no clear agreement that any of the events described in it immediately precede the end of the world.
St. Paul, in II Thessalonians, gives two signs preceding the world's end: an apostasy and the appearance of the "champion of wickedness....the rebel who is to lift up his head above every divine name, above all that men hold in reverence, till at last he ethrones himself in God's temple, and proclaims himself as God. - 11 Thess. 2:3-4. There is no agreement as to whether this "champion of wickedness"-- the Antichrist -- is a single individual or several powerful men doing the same work, either together or in succession. I prefer the latter interpretation; both St. John and St. Paul affirm that the Antichrist was already alive in their time.
Presuming that the Antichrist is an individual, possibly the last and worst of the great political persecutors of the Church, it will be very difficult to recognize him. Any powerful ruler who is opposed to Catholicism and is in a position to menace its vitals (for example the papacy) could qualify as the Antichrist. One thing is certain: he is not a reliable sign that the world is about to end. Indeed, St. Paul does not say that he will be immediately followed by the Second Coming, merely that "the Lord Jesus will destroy him with the breath of his mouth, overwhelming him with the brightness of his presence." – II Thess. 2:8.
The apostasy has, over the past five centuries, taken place. Protestantism threw off the authority of the Church founded by Christ and rejected many of His teachings; freemasonry and its doctrines (liberalism, laicisation, etc.) have refused the Church any right to guide society in God’s law; and Communism has done its best to refuse the Church the right to exist. This apostasy is, however, no indication as to the precise time of the world's end, but a general indication that that time is drawing near.
No less an authority than the Summa theologica, repeating St. Augustine, states that the signs of Christ's discourse in Mt. 24 and Lk. 21 "refer not only to Christ's coming to judgment, but also to the time of the sack Jerusalem, and to the coming of Christ in ceaselessly visiting His Church. So that, perhaps, if we consider them carefully, weshall find that none of them refers to the coming advent, as he [St. Augustine] remarks: because these signs that are mentioned to the gospels, such as wars, fears, and so forth, have been, from the beginning of the human race: unless perhaps we say that at that time they will be more prevalent., although it is uncertain in what degree this increase well foretell the imminence of the advent." Summa Theologica, III Q 73, art. 1.
The best interpretation of this discourse of Christ that I have come across is that He answers in order two questions the apostles pose: "Tell us, when will this [the destruction of the Temple] be?" followed by "And what sign will be given of thy coming, and of the world being brought to an end?" - Mt. 24:3. Christ's answer to the second question is short: "But as for that day and that hour you speak of they are known to none, rant even to the angels in heaven; only the Father knows them. When the Son of Man comes, all will be as it was from the days of Noe; in those days before the flood, they went on eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage until the time when Noe entered the ark and they were taken unawares, when the flood came and drowned them all; so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Mt. 29:36-39.
To sum up: although there are signs that the world is gradually drawing to a close, none of these signs are intended to give anything like an exact date, and should not be made to do so. To quote the Summa: "At His first advent, the Christ came secretly, although the appointed time was know beforehand by the prophets. Hence there was no need for such signs to appear at His first coming, as will appear at His second advent, when He will come openly, although the appointed time is hidden." - Summa Theologica III, Q 73, art. 1 ad 3.
Why there are no chronologically precise signs is made clear by, Our Lord in Matthew: "You must be on the watch, then since you do not know the hour of your Lord's coming. Be sure of this; if the master of the louse had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch, and; now allowed this house to be broken open. And you, too must stand ready: the Son of Man will come at an hour when you are not expecting him."