When news of the death of Pope Benedict XVI broke on December 31, the expectations of many were shattered in a corner of the Church. It was not the result of grief over the death of our pope emeritus, but because it meant future events would not occur in the way they thought they would.
Back in 2019 Fr. Michel Rodrigue, a French Canadian priest who claimed to have prophetic and apocalyptic visions of the future, said that he had received a private revelation about Popes Francis and Benedict:
“The Antichrist is in the hierarchy of the church right now, and he has always wanted to sit in the Chair of Peter. Pope Francis will be like Peter, the apostle. He will realize his errors and try to gather the Church back under the authority of Christ, but he will not be able to do so. He will be martyred. Pope emeritus, Benedict XVI, who still wears his papal ring, will step in to convene a council, attempting to save the Church. I saw him, weak and frail, held up on either side by two Swiss guards, fleeing Rome with devastation all around. He went into hiding, but then was found. I saw his martyrdom.”
It appears that with the passing of the pope emeritus, Pope Francis will not die before his predecessor, Benedict will not convene a council, and Benedict will not die a martyr’s death. (Nor, for that matter, did Benedict wear his papal ring following his resignation.) It seems that at this point, Countdown to the Kingdom — a website that promotes unapproved end-times prophecies and a form of millenarianism regarding an “era of peace” before the end of the world — has conceded that, at least on this point, Fr. Rodrigue had made a “prophetic miss.” They have taken down materials related to his prophecies from their website.
They are quick to point out, however, that “this ‘miss’ pertains only to some of the more precise details predicted by Fr. Michel, whereas the vast majority of his messages’ content … overlaps squarely with what had already been confirmed by — and is still confirmed by — the ‘prophetic consensus.’” Indeed, although they are disappointed by his inaccurate prediction of the martyrdom of two popes and an ecumenical council, they clarify “that we are neither claiming nor implying that Fr. Michel is a ‘false prophet.’ It is simply now clear that he was one alleged seer who has given a prophecy that has failed.”
To reinforce this point, the editors of the Countdown site conclude their article with a list of prophecies from Fr. Rodrigue that align with the “prophetic consensus” — meaning they match the prophecies of other visionaries that Countdown supports, more or less. And they still maintain that they believe Rodrigue is “a priest in good standing and the Founder and Superior General of The Apostolic Fraternity of St. Benedict Joseph Labre in Québec, Canada,” despite having no faculties for ministry and being renounced by the bishops of the two dioceses in which he has served.
This story has likely struck most readers as funny or amusing. Anyone who publicly goes about announcing warnings about the end-times, prognosticating future events, and shouting to the rooftops that the end is nigh is bound to find themselves the target of ridicule and the butt of jokes when their prophecies (inevitably) turn out to be false. Their critics will speculate about the failed prophet’s motives (“Was he a con artist or just delusional?”). Many will ask of the prophet’s disciples, “How can someone be that stupid?” Others will be astonished that many of his supporters still believe that his (other) prophecies are credible.
There are plenty of reasons why many of Fr. Rodrigue’s supporters continue to believe in his prophecies, and in many cases lack of intelligence isn’t a factor. Many of the people who have promoted his visions are well-educated and hold advanced degrees, are talented writers, are well-read, and can construct elaborate and nuanced arguments to defend their beliefs.
Many remember the story of doomsday radio preacher Harold Camping, whose prediction that the Rapture would occur on May 21, 2011, became a topic of widespread media fascination. Many young people held “apocalypse parties” scheduled to coincide with the “end of the world.” Many people laughed at Camping and his followers. Many in this group had quit their jobs, sold their homes, and spent all their money to spread the message that the world was about to end.
And when it didn’t end, Camping declared that it had happened “spiritually,” and the real date of the Rapture would be October 21, 2011. Many of his followers, left with few appealing alternatives, decided to stick with him and his new prediction. Many observers mocked them and had a good laugh, and then moved on with their lives. Others pitied them and moved on with their lives as well. It wasn’t until March 2012 that Harold Camping, a civil engineer-turned-prophet, finally admitted he had been wrong.
That’s correct, Harold Camping was an engineer, earning a BS degree in civil engineering from the University of California, Berkley, in 1942. He then started a successful construction company that made him a millionaire by the age of 35. His prediction for the end of the world was calculated with a method based on his interpretation of the Bible. He believed that a series of numerical codes hidden within the Bible could be used to predict the date of the apocalypse. By all accounts, he was a highly-intelligent man, and his intelligence helped him to justify and defend his beliefs.
This isn’t unusual for people who are fascinated with the end times. In a longform article for Religion Dispatches, Tom Bartlett describes the mentality of many of Camping’s followers and members of other end-times movements:
It’s been noted by scholars who study apocalyptic groups that believers tend to have analytical mindsets. They’re often good at math. I met several engineers, along with a mathematics major and two financial planners. These are people adept at identifying patterns in sets of data, and the methods they used to identify patterns in the Bible were frequently impressive, even brilliant.
But why would highly intelligent people hold such bizarre or irrational ideas in the first place?
Because they want to.
Many people, it seems, imagine themselves to have come to their beliefs as a result of a purely rational and highly objective analysis of the possibilities. They seem to believe that they sought the truth and ultimately reached the only rational conclusion that any reasonable and honest person could ever reach. When these beliefs are religious or political, they will surround themselves with others who share similar beliefs, and together they will look down upon or pity those who have not yet figured out the “truths” they have learned.
In reality, the truth is more simple: we typically choose to believe things based on our desires and emotions and we use our intelligence to justify our beliefs. And once we’re determined to hold on to a particular belief or set of beliefs, we aren’t going to let them go very easily. When we have deeply invested our lives and emotions into a religious faith or ideology, more will be required to convince us to change or abandon that belief system.
In his bestselling book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt wrote, “Reasoning can take us to almost any conclusion we want to reach, because we ask ‘Can I believe it?’ when we want to believe something, but ‘Must I believe it?’ when we don’t want to believe. The answer is almost always yes to the first question and no to the second.”
Returning to the followers of Fr. Rodrigue’s prophecy about Pope Benedict, it seems that Benedict’s death has finally convinced them that they now “must” believe the prophecy is untrue. As for the rest of his prophecies? Apparently they “can” still believe in them.
This principle can be applied to any ideology, worldview, religion, or conspiracy theory. And if we aren’t conscious of this tendency within ourselves and others, it can be easily misused or abused. It can also cause us to misjudge others. We might incorrectly assume people are highly intelligent because they hold similar beliefs to our own, and we might judge brilliant people who believe differently to be less intelligent. In reality, intelligence has little role in driving belief. It often serves as little more than a tool to justify or nuance the beliefs we already hold.
This is how self-righteousness, hard-heartedness, and rigidity set in. This mentality cultivates the mindset that we’ve got it all figured out and others are stupid, deviant, or evil. This tendency can lead to spiritual abuse, emotional manipulation, fear, and cruel and antisocial behavior.
With all that in mind, we might ask, “If our decisions are primarily rooted in emotion and not in reason, then why believe in anything at all?”
I’m not criticizing belief per se. We all have beliefs, and that’s a good thing. Even atheists believe in atheism.
What’s important is that we understand more fully why we believe. Pope Benedict described it well when he said at Aparecida in 2007, “The Church does not engage in proselytism. Instead, she grows by ‘attraction.’” Apologetical arguments and trying to convince someone of something only goes so far. A tug at the heart can change a life. And it helps us when we realize when our heart is drawn to something. The intellectual life is extremely important to the faith, but it is not the foundation. The faith of children and the intellectually disabled teaches us this.
We must become aware of our tendency to cling to harmful or false beliefs and assumptions due to emotional attachment. Understanding this possibility allows for more efficacious examination of ourselves and our consciences. More importantly, for those of us who are committed Catholics, this awareness can help us recognize when we have chosen to follow our own will, rather than God’s. It can also help us to realize when we’ve chosen to place our faith in ourselves and our desires, rather than in Jesus Christ and the promises he made to his Church.
In the words of Harold Camping:
“Even the most sincere and zealous of us can be mistaken.”
 Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind (p. 91). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Image: By © O’Dea at Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15275300
Discuss this article!
Keep the conversation going in our SmartCatholics Group! You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter.
Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.