With news of seemingly endless natural calamities, unrest in the Middle East, and talk of an impending economic meltdown, not a few Catholics are wondering whether the Apocalypse is upon us.
So what does the Church really think about the “End Times” — a theological discipline known as eschatology?
Dominican Father Tommaso Stancati, professor of dogmatic theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, provided some insight.
He authored the 2010 book Christian Eschatology: The Foreknowledge of the World to Come.
What would the Church’s position be on the recent disasters and calamities in relation to Revelation and eschatology?
In a general sense, there is no close relationship between disasters, natural calamities and eschatology or apocalyptic eschatology. In fact, they happen “naturally,” that is, according to the laws, terrestrial and cosmic causes, because our planet and cosmos are relatively “young,” still dynamic and “alive.” The human being, however, present in the cosmos for only a few tens of millennia, interprets these events as filled with negative meaning. This provokes fear and a sense of religious pessimism or fatalism about the devastating end of the world.
Therefore, it is very important, when observing and analyzing these natural phenomena, that we base our knowledge on human science. It is very important to make people aware of the naturalness of such events, without necessarily turning to religious explanations — that is catastrophes from God who punishes mankind for their crimes.
I would also add that the planetary and cosmic events that have happened in the past have been far more sensational and disturbing compared to those we see in our own epoch. So, in comparison, what happens today is certainly less remarkable.
But today’s situations are often made worse by human beings foolishly exposing themselves to natural dangers. How? By building their cities or houses by the sea, along rivers, in proximity to volcanoes, in notoriously seismic zones.
The recent catastrophic earthquake in northern Japan revealed a series of human mistakes that exaggerated a thousand times the already terrible natural events that took place there.
Secondly, natural disasters or calamities can be interpreted correctly, in a symbolic sense, as somehow correlated to eschatology — for example, in the words of Jesus (see Matthew 25) or in some parts of the Book of Revelation. Such planetary and cosmic phenomena can be considered as 1) accompanying signs of divine action or 2) as a signal that intends to underline the provisional character and the brittleness of earthly realities (an idea very present in the Book of Revelation).
How does the Church’s teaching differ from those of New Age theorists who believe the Earth is reacting to exploitation of natural resources?
New Age thought appreciates prophesies about the future contained in ancient texts, such as the apocryphal literature of the biblical and patristic period, or more recent texts — the pre-Columbian religions or cultures such as the Maya calendar that some say prophesizes the world will end on Dec. 21, 2012.
This prophecy fills thousands of pages on the Internet and is in the news, on television, etc. But the true problem reading and interpreting these texts is a total lack of expertise and of authority. The result is to impress the reader, listener or observer. Few care if it is all a forgery.
There’s an absolute lack of critical spirit, of historical knowledge, of an exegetic method and of intellectual honesty.
In 1938, Orson Wells convinced the Americans that earth was under alien attack. Many believed him, and great fear spread across the whole of the United States. What this colossal but masterly lie showed was the great power of the media, but also the level of human credulity.
The teaching of the Church on this theme is much more realistic and underlines the fact that neither sacred Scripture nor theological tradition can give us sure indications about the time and place when the world will end. This is in the explicit declarations of Jesus. (In the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 13, Jesus teaches us that nobody knows the day and the time of the Second Coming of Christ.)
Certainly, however, the Church knows that human beings have the cognitive power to destroy the planet. The Church, therefore, while confirming that the Creator has entrusted humanity with the world’s wealth, nevertheless embraces ecology, often recommending that nature be safeguarded. ... This also means that the Church must warn humanity of the very negative consequences that could occur from wild exploitation of terrestrial goods.
How much are man-made calamities, such as terrorism and war, considered to be signs of the Eschaton?
Just in these last months, we’ve witnessed whole peoples rising up against military or authoritarian regimes in North Africa and the Middle East. In other countries, like Afghanistan, there is an ongoing war against terrorism that, till now, has not brought meaningful change.
What do all these “structures of evil” (as John Paul II called them) mean from the point of view of eschatology? Are they perhaps signals from which we deduce the end of the world? The answer is clearly negative, and it is very clearly found in the Gospel: “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for such things must happen first, but it will not immediately be the end” (Luke 21: 9; see also Mark 13:7; Matthew 24:6).
Therefore, wars and revolutions are part of human history and not, therefore, necessarily eschatological signs of the end. Wars and revolutions depend on, and are caused by, human passions and compulsions of the human mind towards the evil of conquering power or supremacy.
These same realities can also be interpreted as acutely showing signs of the incessant activity, and strength, of evil in the world. Sacred Scripture expressly states that Satan blows on the fire of human passions to produce the destruction, or the failure of, the divine plan. It is not difficult to locate the works of evil in human history.
But it is comforting to know that sacred Scripture stresses that the efforts and the “works” of Satan, the Antichrist are destined, in every case, to fail, or even more paradoxically, to favor the fulfillment of the will of God and the divine plan. The Bible calls these negative strengths a mysterious name: Gog and Magòg (see Ezekiel 38-39 and Revelation 20:8), where they represent the powers summoned by Satan for the decisive clash with God.
The reason for the certainty of the victory over evil is in the fact that Christ, because of his transcendence and triumph over death and evil, becomes dominant over Satan. ... The Church will enter the glory of the Kingdom only through this final Passover, when she will follow her Lord in his death and resurrection.
The Kingdom will be fulfilled, then, not by a historic triumph of the Church through a progressive ascendancy, but only by God’s victory over the final unleashing of evil, which will cause his Bride to come down from heaven.
God’s triumph over the revolt of evil will take the form of the Last Judgment after the final cosmic upheaval of this passing world (Catechism, 677).
In summary, then, what would be the sensible Catholic approach to this issue?
The Catholic must know how to distinguish — thanks to the clarity of sacred Scripture and the magisterium — when the events that take place are due to natural phenomena, human foolishness, or refer to evil present and working through history.
Believers, however, should look optimistically towards the goal of all things when these phenomena occur: History is, in fact, wisely driven by God towards its final goal, despite all appearances to the contrary.
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.