The end of the world

Years ago I read a newspaper account about a store-front minister in a Midwestern city who announced during the summer that he and his congregation were going to lock themselves into their church on the last day of September. The minister told the press that members of the small flock were convinced that the end of the world was going to occur sometime during October of that year. They were prepared to seclude themselves as a group in anticipation of the Second Coming.

I do not recall seeing any follow-up reports. I do remember, however, the minister’s amusing response to a reporter’s theological question, as recorded in the story I found. Doesn’t Scripture warn that no one is supposed to know when the world will end? That’s not exactly the case, the minister argued. He explained to the reporter that the biblical verse in question only refers to not knowing the day or the hour. No restrictions are mentioned about knowing the month and the year.

This episode came to mind when a friend recently asked me if I heard about St. Malachy and his “Prophecy of the Popes.” The online version of the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia and an internet Wikipedia entry explain that a numbered list of future popes surfaced in the sixteenth century, and was attributed to St. Malachy who lived four hundred years earlier. The saint purportedly had a vision which revealed an exact number of popes (112) and supplied a series of short, cryptic Latin phrases to identify each pope.

Pope Benedict XVI supposedly is the next-to-last pontiff on the list. The Latin phrase associated with his place in the prophesied line of succession, the 111th, refers to olives, which early commentators connected to St. Benedict and the Benedictine order. Thus when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger chose his papal name, this intensified interest in St. Malachy’s list.

The prophecy predicts the final pope to be “Peter the Roman.” Observers note that the historical document containing the list does not attach a number to the last entry, so the prophecy allows for the possibility that an undetermined number of popes will follow after Pope Benedict XVI and before the last pope.

The “Prophecy of the Popes” lacks, of course, any official sanction. It obviously is not to be regarded as an infallible indication for knowing, by simply counting popes, when the world will end.

Of more direct relevance here is the fact that “the end” of the world has two meanings. One can refer to “the end” not just in terms of the world’s demise, but also with respect to the world’s purpose. For what end is the world made? It is less profitable to ask “How long will we be here?” and more important to examine “Why are we here?”

Contemplating the question of why we exist influences every aspect of our life, including our understanding of social justice. There are adversarial philosophies that offer competing answers to the question of ultimate ends. These different metaphysical approaches produce in turn various political theories and governmental models.

Take for instance the State Constitution of Massachusetts. It is the oldest in operation of all of the constitutions around the world currently in force. Drafted by John Adams and ratified over two centuries ago in 1780, its original form reflects a clear and, to modern readers, startling vision of government’s object, based on a powerful idea of the world’s end.

What is the document’s surprising element? It is the degree to which God and government are intertwined in the original text.

The third paragraph in the preamble acknowledges “the goodness of the great Legislator of the Universe” and asks for “His direction” in creating and operating a new form of government in Massachusetts. So right at the very beginning of our state constitution, God is recognized, thanked, and sent a prayer for more help.

Article II of the Declaration of Rights asserts that it is everyone’s duty “to worship the Supreme Being, the great Creator and Preserver of the Universe.” Articles I and II thus declare it to be the government’s obligation to protect life and religious liberty. Article III emphasizes that the preservation of civil society requires good morals, and that “the knowledge and belief of the being of God, His providential government of the world, and of a future state of rewards and punishment, [are] the only true foundation of morality.”

These compelling words, aligning political ends with divine ends, remain as part of our state’s primary law, but they are largely forgotten.

Bad court rulings and misguided amendments have altered the original vision. “Freedom from,” as in freedom from religion and morality, has taken precedence over “freedom for,” as in freedom for worship and serving the moral common good. Today as a result, to take two examples, not one penny of our state tax bill can be used to support religious education while millions of state dollars are mandated to fund abortion. God and his gifts have been shoved aside.

This local legal history demonstrates that the understanding (or misunderstanding) of ultimate ends can have profound social consequences, especially in the law.

Daniel Avila is the Associate Director for Policy and Research of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.