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St. Malachy: The Case for Authenticity
Unam Sanctam Catholicam blog ^ | 03/10/13 | Unam Sanctam Catholicam blog

Posted on 03/11/2013 11:02:56 AM PDT by Brian Kopp DPM

Sunday, March 10, 2013

St. Malachy: The Case for Authenticity

While we all wait with anticipation for the election of our next Holy Father at the Conclave next Tuesday, let's take a minute to stop and bring some sanity back to the discussion of the prophecies of St. Malachy.

As we get closer to the Conclave, more and more articles on the alleged prophecies of St. Malachy are being posted all over the web, usually from mainstream, conservative Catholics who are bent on drumming into people's heads that the prophecies are forgeries and that serious Catholics should not pay them any credence. The authors usually state that they are writing for the purpose of addressing the St. Malachy/Petrus Romanus "hysteria" that has attended the interregnum, although ironically most of the hysteria I have seen about the prophecies thus is from those bent on debunking them.

As two examples of the sorts of articles I am talking about, take this article by Dr. Donald Prudlo published  on the Truth and Charity Forum at Human Life International, which basically denigrates the prophecies as "papal campaign literature from the 1590's" and says they are "vague utterances that a local horoscope page would be embarrassed to print." Or we could take this one by Gerald Korson from Catholic Online, who feels the need to "debunk" the prophecy and says they are "about as reliable as the Mayan calendar." These are some of the most recent example, but there have been many others as well.

I certainly do not mind engaging in argumentation about the credibility or incredibility of private apparitions or prophecies about which we are permitted to disagree; I myself have done this many times on this blog regarding Medjugorje, Bayside, etc. However, I do take issue with a prophecy uttered by a canonized saint that has been believed by many scholars and even popes for at least four centuries being so summarily dismissed, and with such a cavalier attitude. This has not been the way Malachy's prophecies have traditionally been approached. In the past, the approach to Malachy's prophecies was generally one of reserved skepticism; for example, the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia mentions the arguments against the authenticity of the prophecy, but it also points out that none of these arguments are conclusive and that the jury is still out. For as long as I can remember, the prophecy has always been approached in this "jury is still out" manner. However, now that we are up to the point where the pontificate of Peter the Roman could begin as soon as a few days from now, the attitude has changed to one of outright hostility and ridicule by people who are horrified any time any Catholic starts thinking seriously about eschatological fulfillments, as if the worst possible thing a Catholic could do would be to think we could be on the verge of a divine chastisement. But like it or hate it, the Malachy prophecies have a very long pedigree in the western Church, and we should not be so quick to mock them or speak derisively about them.

Are there arguments against the prophecy of Malachy? Absolutely there are, and they are strong. But there are also arguments in favor of its authenticity, and regardless which position we take, neither is conclusive, and the strongest arguments against their authenticity are ultimately based on mere speculation, as we shall see. Therefore, since Malachy was in fact a canonized saint, and remembering St. Paul's admonition "Do not despise prophecy", (1 Thess. 5:20), let us take a more objective look at the case for St. Malachy's prophecy.

The Authenticity of the Prophecies of St. Malachy

When discussing whether the prophecies of St. Malachy are "authentic", there are two ways in which we can speak of "authenticity":

(1) Whether or not the prophecies were in fact uttered by Malachy or at least date to the 12th century
(2) Whether or not the prophecies are divinely inspired and can be expected to be fulfilled

Of course, we have no way have conclusively proving the second meaning of authenticity one way or another; no Catholic can have absolute certainty about any private revelation, so this discussion will be confined to looking at the first definition of authenticity: whether or not the prophecies are actually from the 12th century as they purport to be, or whether they are in fact 16th century forgeries.

Malachy the Prophet

Let us remember, first off, that St. Malachy (d. 1148), was a legitimate prophet. The Breviary entry for his feast day notes that he was gifted with prophecy, and St. Malachy is also remembered for a very famous prophecy that Ireland would be oppressed by England for seven centuries, at the end of which time England would suffer a chastisement and Ireland would help restore the Faith to England. Much of this prophecy has come true and has been authenticated, a manuscript of it having been found at Clairvaux dating from the time of Malachy. Thus, if Church tradition records he was a prophet, and if he made other prophecies of events centuries to come, and if these were accurate, why is it implausible that the prophecy of the popes is not similarly authentic?

The Simoncelli Hypothesis: Origins and Problems

In the writings of those bent on disproving the prophecies the Malachy, a standard objection is that the prophecies are probably spurious because the text of the prophecies do not show up until around 1595, over 450 years after their alleged authorship in 1143. In the two articles cited above, Mr. Korson and Dr. Prudlo both state that the late discovery of the text authorship is enough to throw them out as a forgery. Dr. Prudlo considers this to be the strongest argument against them and states that this fact alone is "enough to discount the story even before considering the internal evidence." So, without even considering the content of the prophecy, the fact that they do not enter the historical record until 450 years after their alleged authorship rules out their legitimacy entirely. Prudlo and Korson both use different dates; Dr. Prudlo says they are not mentioned until 1590; Korson says 1595.

These dates are based on the assumption that the prophecies were actually written by the party of one Cardinal Girolamo Simonelli, a cardinal-elector in the conclaves of 1555, 1559, 1566, the two in 1590, 1591 and 1592. The theory is that the prophecies were written to bolster the candidacy of Cardinal Simoncelli (who was a strong papabile in the conclaves of 1590-92) by depicting Simoncelli as a pope prophesied from centuries back.

Korson, Dr. Prudlo and other detractors of the prophesy take the Simoncelli thesis for granted and assume its truth. But where does the Simoncelli hypothesis come from? This theory can be traced back to Fr. Claude-Francois de Menestrier, S.J. (1631-1705) who was an antiquarian and published nine volumes on medieval heraldry and emblems. Menestrier was the first proponent of the Simoncelli hypothesis, which he formulated based on his opinion that the prophecies before 1590 are very specific while those after 1590 are disappointingly vague. He therefore cites the party of Simoncelli as the forgers and even names a specific forger, but regrettably does not furnish us with any evidence whatsoever in support of the opinion, leaving us to understand that his opinion is simply a theory. This is the ultimate origin of theory that the prophecies are a 1590 forgery.

Why 1590? According to Dr. Prudlo, the year 1590 refers to the first publication of the prophecies by Benedictine historian Arnold Wion; the 1595 date cited by Korson is the year Wion republished the prophecies in his book Lignum Vitae. Regarding Wion's book, he was assisted in his translation by the Spanish monk Alfonso Chacon, who was a renowned antiquary and scholar of medieval manuscripts. To Chacon fell the important task of authenticating the manuscript and making sure it was not a forgery, and it is noteworthy that the manuscript did pass the scrutinizing eye of Chacon and was authenticated. It was Chacon who rendered many of the prophecies into the phrases we are familiar with today.

We should note, however, that the 1590 date assigned by Menestrier is misleading, which is unfortunate since this is the date that has been subsequently repeated by commentators who don't know better. The prophecies were not discovered in 1590, but in 1556 by Augustinian historian and antiquary Onofrio Panvinio, who apparently published the first edition of the prophecies in 1557. Wion's inclusion of them in the Lignum Vitae was more well known, but came thirty-three years after the publication by Panvinio. More on Panvinio later, but it is sufficient here to note that the true discovery of the text in 1556 is seriously problematic to the theory that the prophecies were created by Cardinal Simoncelli, who was only thirty-three at the time, had only been a Cardinal for three years and was not considered a papabile until almost three decades later. Fr. Menestrier did not deduce the prophecies as a forgery based on the 1590 date; rather, he started with the assumption the prophecies were false and then hypothesized the 1590 date to justify his theory about Cardinal Simoncelli.

Another edition of the prophecies was published by Girolamo Muzio in 1570. Muzio, likewise, believed in their authenticity. Muzio's 1570 edition of the prophecies was written in Italian and cumbersomely named Il Choro Pontifico Nel Qual Si Leggono Le Vite Del Beatissimo Papa Gregorio& Di XII Altri Santi Vescoui. Thus we have two editions of the prophecies in circulation prior to the 1590 date cited by Prudlo and the 1595 date preferred by Korson.

Even if we grant this, however, we merely exchange one problem for another; instead of a 450 year silence, we have a 413 year silence. Is the 413 year silence about the prophecies problematic? Yes. Is it damning? No. The question really is not whether or not the text was "missing" for 413 years, but whether or not there is a good explanation for it - and whether we accept it or not, there is a traditional explanation. The French Abbe Cucherat in an 1871 work on the prophecies repeats an older tradition that the prophecies were in fact legitimate and were delivered by Malachy to Pope Innocent II in 1143 in order to comfort the Holy Father during a time of discouragement and illness, but that the pope subsequently filed the manuscript away at the Vatican where it remained lost until its discovery in the late 16th century. This would explain the 413 year absence of the manuscript from the historical record; unfortunately, however, Cucherat also gives no evidence for his hypothesis, so it remains as theoretical as that of Menestrier.

Even if Cucherat gives no evidence to back up his assertion, the simple fact that a text allegedly went missing for four centuries is not enough to discount the story prima facie, as Dr. Prudlo would have it. There are multiple well-known examples of texts getting lost at the Vatican for centuries. It is quite common. People tend to forget how voluminous the archives of the Vatican are, where documents have been amassing since the pontificate of Pope St. Damasus I in St. Jerome's day (see the book Vatican Secret Archives by Terzo Natalini for an excellent history of papal record keeping). For example, the oldest extant copy of the Scriptures, the Codex Vaticanus, came to the Vatican sometime in the late 4th century and was lost for over a thousand years, rediscovered only in the early 15th century; if the disappearance of the obscure text of St. Malachy's prophecy for four centuries is problematic, the disappearance of the Codex Vaticanus for a thousand years is immensely more so. Let us not forget the similar stories surrounding the discoveries of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Codex Sinaiticus, both of which were lost for longer, almost two thousand years each. And, lest we doubt how easy it is to lose stuff in the Vatican, let us not forget that the tomb of St. Peter himself was lost in the Vatican until discovered during the reign of Pius XII (1953) and only positively identified as that of Peter by Paul VI in 1968. If the Church can even lose the tomb of St. Peter for two thousand years, then it is not at all unbelievable that the text of Malachy's prophecy could be lost for 413. This of course does not prove their authenticity, but at the very least, it should allow us to admit that this problem does not at all amount to an ipso facto declaration of invalidity, as Dr. Prudlo would have.

Arguments from Authority

Another argument in favor of authenticity is that two of the greatest scholars and exegetes of the Tridentine period considered the prophecies completely authentic: Cornelius Lapide (1567-1637) and Onofrio Panvinio (1529-1568). As we have seen above, it was Panvinio who first discovered the manuscript and he remained one of the firmest believers in the prophecies. Panvinio was no novice; the chief librarian and editor of the Vatican Library, he authored over 16 major works on history and archaeology and was considered the foremost authority in medieval and ancient Roman history. During his lifetime he was called pater omnis historiae ("father of all history"). Cornelius Lapide was a universally acclaimed student of scripture and prophecy whose works are still being translated today. Lapide studied the prophecies extensively, believed in them, and wrote a tract attempting to establish a chronology attempting to identify the approximate time we could hope to see Peter the Roman.

Other scholars who published, or commented, or otherwise supported the authenticity of the prophecies were Giovannini de Capugnano (d. 1604), Jean Boucher (1623), Chrisostomo Henriquez (1626), Thomas Messignham (1624), Angel Manrique (1659), Michel Gorgeu (1659), Claude Comier (1665), Giovanni Germano (1675), Louis Morerl (1673), John Toland (1718), who fully accepted the prophecies and wrote a treatise on the destruction of Rome during the pontificate of Petrus Romanus; we have already mentioned the Abbe Francois Cucherat (1871), who wrote extensively on the prophecies. It is worth mentioning that despite the assertion of Dr. Prudlo, who claims that the manuscript disappeared in the 16th century, Abbe Cucherat reports having seen the original manuscript in the Vatican in the 1860's, though this is disputed.  All of these men were men of erudition, most of them scholars, historians and antiquarians familiar with medieval heraldry and the procedures of humanist textual criticism. None of them had any doubt about the authenticity of the manuscript. Granted, arguments from authority are not the strongest, but when so many luminaries of Catholic scholarship spanning so many years wholeheartedly accepted the prophecies, we should at least do them the courtesy of not rejecting them out of hand.

Fr. Menestrier (d. 1705) was the first one to suggest the prophecies were a forgery. However, Menestrier apparently never knew of the study of Alfonso Chacon, the expert paleolographer who subjected the manuscript to rigorous scrutiny in the 1590's and proclaimed it an authentic. Chacon's entire vocation consisted in sorting out fraudulent texts from the authentic, and he proclaimed Malachy legitimate. However, as stated above, Menestrier had no knowledge of this study, which is damaging to his thesis.

Evidence of Malachy's Prophecies Before 1556

Even if we were to throw out the testimony of Lapide, Panvinio and all the others, there is also the interesting fact that bits and pieces of Malachy's prophecy of the popes seem to have been circulating around as far back as