For those who know how to tell time, the new millennium will begin in little more than two years. For those who think the first year of a new century ends with a double zero, it will begin in little more than a year. Little matter. In at most five years (to give everyone a little slack), we will know that the prognosticators have been wrong — again. Doomsday will not have come, there will have been no rapture, and things will remain much as they have been, only a little worse. Catholic seers will have proved as wrong as Fundamentalist and New Age seers.
In 1988 Edgar Whisenant published a thin book titled 88 Reasons the Rapture Will Occur in 1988. Immediately popular with Fundamentalists, it sold 3 million copies. The author — whose claimed competence in biblical prognostication was a result, he said, of working as an engineer for NASA — realized a tidy addition to his bank account, but, not surprisingly, some diminution of his reputation. After all, in 1988 nothing happened, at least so far as the rapture was concerned. Three million people got into a tizzy for nothing.
The next year, Whisenant discovered he had made a mathematical error. His calculations had presumed that there was a Year 0 between 1 B.C. and A.D. 1. It was a foolish mistake, he confessed. So he published a sequel explaining that the rapture would come in 1989. That book sold only 30,000 copies — a decline of 99%, but still a respectable sale.
Whisenant, who has not been heard from since, is not the only person to have made more than pocket change on predicting the imminent end of the world. Elizabeth Clare Prophet, a prominent figure in the New Age movement, convinced her followers that the end was near, and many sold their assets and transferred the funds to her in preparation for the end, not giving much thought, apparently, to the maxim “You can't take it with you.” If they couldn't, how could she? Her followers hid themselves in the wilds of Montana, in a gigantic underground bomb shelter Prophet had built, only to discover that the world went on without them, and, when they returned to the world, they had to go on without their money. Another disappointment, but Prophet did not lose all of her flock, though her regard as a seer went into eclipse.
We snicker at such foolishness when engaged in by Fundamentalists and New Agers — is it any wonder that people whose theology is wrong will not be able to make predictions that come to fulfillment? But what is our attitude toward doom-sayers within our midst? Somewhat less critical, it's fair to say. Two groups vie for attention.
Doomsayers within the Marian movement attach themselves to purported apparitions, nearly all of which have occurred only within the last three decades. Some, such as Bayside, have been condemned repeatedly by the Church. Others have had monitums (warnings) issued against them. But no matter. If the Virgin Mary is said to appear and to predict disaster, the apparition must be true, regardless of what Church authority says — and no matter how silly some of the other predictions of that apparition may be. It's as though some Catholics are desperate for bad news about the future. (Actually, the bad news they look forward to always seems to be bad only for other folks. Somehow, it seems, the true believers inevitably are numbered among the remnant that will squeak through unscathed.)
There is a similar reaction within the Traditionalist movement. No appeal is made to alleged apparitions of recent years. You never hear Traditionalists talking about modern apparitions. They appeal to old (and usually Church-sanctioned) apparitions such as Fatima and La Salette. Two problems arise: The prognosticators claim to know what they can't know, such as the “third secret” of Fatima, or they rely on “predictions” that were not part of the original private revelation, such as the claim, supposedly made late by one of the La Salette seers, that “Rome will become the seat of the Antichrist” — a claim used, not too subtly, to undermine the authority of John Paul II.
In such cases it is achingly obvious that these people really want to believe that the “third secret” will confirm their worst suspicions about the modern Church and that they want to believe that ecclesiastical problems, even local ones, are the fault of a handful of men at the top. The intensity of their belief in the authenticity of these purported revelations seems to be in inverse relationship to the bona fides of the revelations — an odd quirk of the human mind. Sometimes the things that, at arm's length, seem least reasonable are taken to be most reasonable. So who is right and who isn't?
Are we about to see the rapture? Will the “third secret” be made public and shock us with its explanation of the immediate future? Is Rome, the seat of the Church, about to become the seat of the Antichrist? My recommendation: Don't bet on the sensationalists.
Karl Keating is the founding director of Catholic Answers.