To recognize that The Last Pope, a two-hour exercise in Christian hysteria, is nothing but fact-free fear-mongering exploitation is easy. To understand what exactly went wrong with the pseudo-documentary about the supposed prophecy of the popes produced by St. Malachy (sometimes spelled Malichy) requires much more effort. To write this review, I read documents in four languages: the original published version of the prophecies in Latin, the nineteenth-century book that created their modern legend in French, modern academic research into their origins in Italian, and various English-language resources. As is evident from the thin veneer of scholarship papering over the slapdash production of The Last Pope, which at times comes across as little more than a narrator reading conspiratorial blog posts at the audience, my research was (a) overkill, (b) more than anyone involved in the show’s production ever did, and (c) both more interesting than and a direct contradiction to the narrative presented on-screen.
But what worries me more is that the amateur internet sleuths who stand in for actual historians in the making of travesties like The Last Pope either really believe that they are doing actual historical research, or they and the History Channel which broadcasted it, don’t care. I’m not sure which is more frightening.
The Last Pope is the latest in a long line of History Channel pseudo-documentaries designed to generate fear among Christian viewers that the End Times are upon us. Past specials on Nostradamus, Fatima, nuclear war, disease, and other standard apocalyptic fears come along at regular intervals, and few are interesting enough to warrant much notice. They are repetitive and often quite dull, using the End Times fear-mongering as an emotional substitute for research and analysis, substituting cheap scares for the harder work of intellectual argumentation. This particular special is noteworthy for folding in Nostradamus and Fatima into a documentary that was supposed to focus on a prophecy of the end of the papacy, even though neither of the other supposed prophecies was about the end of the papacy.
But the show is more noteworthy for being a product of Minnesota production company Committee Films, the former producers of America Unearthed, the pseudo-historical pseudo-documentary series that spent three seasons spinning anti-Catholic conspiracy theories on History’s now-defunct H2 channel. The current special received more than $700,000 in grant money from Minnesota’s taxpayer-funded Snowbate program, and Committee Films used the show and the money to reintroduce former television personality and “forensic geologist” Scott Wolter to the History audience, rebranded now as a “historian,” a title that the History Channel first bestowed on the professional geologist when he hosted Pirate Treasure of the Knights Templar after the cancellation of America Unearthed. That show received condemnation from UNESCO for what it said was a media-led approach that jeopardized archaeological treasures, prompting History to burn off remaining episodes on a Saturday afternoon. After this Wolter’s star went into eclipse for several years. Wolter has no education or training in history, and no relevant research experience in the topic of this particular documentary. By his own admission in his books, he can’t even read the Latin in which the prophecies under discussion were written, and when he first discovered the prophecies in 2013, he asserted, falsely, that they spoke of the resignation of Benedict XVI, which they plainly did not.
Another talking head, John-Henry Westen, is also questionable. Presented here as a “Catholic writer,” he is actually a Canadian anti-abortion activist and frequent Fox News guest whose “writing” is his anti-abortion website.
Many of the other talking heads in the special are familiar faces to viewers of fringe history programs. Several are regulars on Forbidden History, the British pseudo-history program that airs on AHC in the U.S. Other speakers, mainstream journalists from The Daily Beast and other publications, seem to be in a different show and speak only about Catholic politics, suggesting that they were not told they would be on a show about prophecy rather than just the papacy.
No real historians or actual experts in medieval documents appear on the show. But at this point in the life of the History Channel, I simply expect that the talking heads will be a ragtag collection of hucksters, opportunists, lunatics, and self-promoters.
The show opens with the resignation of Benedict XVI in 2013 and concern that a lightning strike on St. Peter’s Basilica at the time was some kind of omen of the destruction of the Roman Catholic Church. It then moves into the supposed prophecy of the Irish St. Malachy (1094-1148), who is alleged to have predicted the entire line of popes from 1139 down to the end of their line. For former America Unearthed host Scott Wolter, Malachy is especially interesting because he sees a connection between Malachy and Bernard of Clairvaux, who helped establish the Knights Templar, a particular obsession of Wolter’s. “People ask me: ‘What’s the biggest prophecy of all time?’” Wolter says. “It’s got to be the Malachy prophecy.” In terms of importance and impact, it pales before the prophecies of Revelation, which color all of Western Civilization, or the prophetic writings of the Hebrew prophets, which were used retroactively to justify Christianity. The Malachy prophecy of the popes hasn’t even been as influential as the drug-addled ramblings of the Pythia of Delphi, whose words could sway the course of wars, or the Sibylline Oracles, which were used to guide the fate of Rome.
The bigger trouble is that The Last Pope tells a story that isn’t true, presenting a nineteenth century historical fiction about a sixteenth century hoax as fact. Let me explain, using all that historiography that “historian” Scott Wolter and all the other credulous talking heads and poor researchers on the production team chose to avoid.
St. Malachy lived in Ireland in the twelfth century, but for more than four hundred years after his death, no one heard tell of any supposed prophecies of the future of the Roman Catholic Church. But in 1595, the Benedictine monk Arnold Wion (or Wyon) published a book called Lignum Vitae in which he included a long list of mottos describing past and future popes which he attributed to the long-dead Malachy. Wyon, however, did not tell his readers where the prophecies came from, where he found the text, or how old the manuscript he used was, nor if he copied it verbatim. (The show gets this wrong because they didn’t read the original.) The story given out for where the text came from was that Malachy had had a prophetic vision while in Rome during a visit in 1139 and that he bequeathed the list to Pope Innocent II, who promptly hid it in the Vatican’s archives until it was rediscovered in 1590 and published five years later.
This was the story, anyway, and one that The Last Pope accepts wholesale. As it happens, that story was first told by Abbé Cucherat, a believer in the prophecy, in 1871, with no source. It seems to be his own work of speculative history based on the saint’s actual life and Cucherat’s wishful thinking about what might have happened assuming that Malachy’s vision occurred in Rome—a politically important point given that Cucherat was writing at a time when the papacy was in eclipse, losing its temporal power and territory to the new Kingdom of Italy, which had made the pope a “prisoner of the Vatican.” Cucherat concluded his apparently fictitious account this way:
The document then remained forgotten, completely ignored in the Roman archives until the time marked in the decrees of Divine Providence for its discovery and popularization. Its discovery dates to the year 1590. Its popularization was reserved for our troubled days. By writing this, may I contribute a work of good faith and patience! (my trans.)
However, Cucherat’s story must be false, as the recent research of Italian historian Lorenzo Comensoli Antonini has demonstrated. Antonini published an article in 2015 reporting on a previously unprinted letter of Maurizio Cattaneo, the secretary to the cardinal Giovanni Girolamo Albani, in 1587 (now held at the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo, Italy) in which Cattaneo refers at length to what seems to correspond to Malachy’s list of 112 popes. Cattaneo was discussing several prophecies then in circulation about the possibility of his boss soon becoming pope, and here is just part of what he says:
I well say by Our Lady that there are good results for us, but I want secondly to say, that these are not modern but ancient prophecies; the first is that of Malachy which contains more than 200 popes, of which “De rore coeli” (“from the dew of the sky”) admirably applies to us… (my trans.)
Although the number of listed popes disagree (Cattaneo may have spoken figuratively, or may have had a longer list), the mottos quoted by Cattaneo (three in total) are verbatim identical to Wyon’s list. In short, the prophecies had to have been composed no later than 1587, but probably not before 1585, when Sixtus V was elected, since his coat of arms is described literally in the line before “De rore coeli.” Consequently, the most logical solution is that the prophecies were faked as part of the campaign to elect Sixtus V, or shortly after his election on behalf of a hopeful successor.
The final part of the alleged prophecy became the most famous because it predicted the end of the Church and possibly the world with the one hundred and twelfth man to sit on the throne. The exact wording of the end of the prophecy—the last ten popes—is as follows (my correction of a standard translation):
Such is the prophecy of Malachy, or rather, the Renaissance hoax that passed under his name. Note that there is a little bit of ambiguity at the end over whether the “he” who shall sit on the throne is the same as the succeeding Petrus Romanus or is intended to be a different character.
By complete coincidence, Malachy’s list was remarkably accurate from the time of Malachy down to around 1585, after which critics quickly noted that considerable effort was needed to match the ambiguous and poetic descriptors to the men who actually sat on St. Peter’s throne.
As early as 1602, scholars had begun to attack the authenticity of the prophecies, notably French and Dutch writers, who repeatedly debunked the text as an imposture, for the obvious reasons: its accuracy declines markedly after describing the arms of Sixtus V, who was elected in 1585; there was no mention of the prophecies in any medieval document; and the text was just one of several forged prophecies about popes circulating in the 1580s, as Cattaneo and other Catholic observers of the era alluded to and described. Malachy’s list became the most famous because it was the longest, the most mysterious (not naming popes explicitly), and the only one to predict the upcoming end of … something.
The Last Pope gives the mythical version instead of the factual one—indeed, it never acknowledges the factual challenges to the list’s authenticity, even to dismiss them—and asserts that the Vatican Archives held Malachy’s prophecy, which would surprise Maurizio Cattaneo, who knew of the prophecies as a popular text circulating among the educated class of the Roman aristocracy. It is true that cardinals from the 1590s onward have believed in the prophecies, as the show asserts (Cattaneo’s letter confirms as much), but that does not mean that the prophecies were written in the 1100s, or that they were divinely inspired.
But even a mystery-mongering show can’t manage to spin two sentences into two hours, so the producers were forced to bring in additional prophecies from other sources. Much of the show’s run is dedicated to the prophecies of Fatima, allegedly given from a supernatural figure assumed to be the Virgin Mary to three children in Portugal in the summer and fall of 1917. These prophecies have been debunked many a time, but also, they have nothing really to say about Malachy’s list, despite the show’s efforts to claim that the two prophecies march in lockstep toward proving the reality of the Christian faith. No, wait… toward proving that the world is going to end and Jesus will save us all. No, that’s not it either… Well, it must be something about how God is real and you evil skeptical atheist communist libtards need to just shut up and die already.
You laugh, but this is a show that (a) gives a prominent perch to an arch-conservative anti-abortion activist as an “expert” on history, (b) repeatedly quotes people decrying communism and atheism as sinful and something God must punish, and (c) revels in finding examples of where people they label as “skeptics” (i.e. atheists) were converted to Christianity through the power of Marian prophecies. Against this, they have the decidedly liberal Scott Wolter claiming that the Vatican holds a copy of the marriage certificate of Jesus and Mary Magdalene in their archives, dating back to the third century. There is no evidence of this, and the claim is a modern fantasy. The show’s Christianity, like its politics, is not pure, but its arrow points largely in one direction.
By the end of the show, the program told its viewers that Muslim terrorists planned to invade Rome and kill the pope, Hell is going to open up beneath our feet, the Third World War will be starting soon, and the pope is too liberal, so God will strike down the Church for insufficient moral purity. In a strange twist that I can’t imagine would have held such weight before 2016, the show devotes a bizarre amount of time to a reference in the Fatima prophecies to a demand that the country of Russia be consecrated to the Sacred Heart of Mary. The prophecy, fabricated by the Fatima youths between Russia’s February and October Revolutions—that is, after the overthrow of the Tsarist government but before the Communist takeover—reflected concern at the time over anti-monarchical and anti-Christian revolution, which in the Catholic teaching amounted to the same thing. But the narrator wants none of this and gives it a Trumpian spin. He asks whether the prophecy was not about the coming Soviet Union but rather about how Americans have antagonized Vladimir Putin and Most Christian Russia, risking a world war. The show quotes U.S. officials about Russian interference in America’s internal affairs, including the 2016 election, but the narrator is silent about what the viewer is meant to take from this, though the answer is, by omission, clear: Russia must be welcomed back into both the secular and sacred folds as a full and equal partner to prevent a rift with America that might destroy the world. Only by working together can Christendom be restored to its medieval glory. Of course, that reading would require us to posit that Donald Trump is the Last World Emperor—a frightening failure of prophecy if ever there were one.
The show finishes with an allegation that Nostradamus predicted that St. Peter’s tomb would be uncovered when the world was about to end, but this interpretation is a bit of a stretch for a quatrain that actually read:
Au fondement de la nouuelle secte,
They ask us to believe that this refers to the recent discovery of bone fragments attributed to St. Peter last year in Rome’s Church of Santa Maria in Cappella and that “the world stage seems ripe for devastating conflict.” It’s worth noting that Nostradamus didn’t name Peter, and “the great Roman” could be anyone, like, say, Julius Caesar or Cicero.
As the show comes to an end, Wolter opines that the End Times of Revelation are the same as Malachy’s tribulation of the last pope, and the narrator bluntly asks if the End Times are now upon us. Wolter, surprisingly, mitigates the fear-mongering by positing that the End is simply a preparation for rebirth, but then he says that “it’s all going to be over” for us unless we make better choices as a species. The producers cut out what seemed to be leading into references to climate change and the environment, key concerns of Wolter, and instead they sliced and diced the sound bites to make sure to end on a sour note, keeping the audience afraid. Repent! Repent! For you wasted two hours on this propagandistic, fear-mongering trash fire.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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