On the Scholarly Over-Confidence of the Dismissal of Prophecy

This article was written by my friend Ashton Wilkins on March 12, 2013, Posted with his permission.

I neither believe nor disbelieve the alleged prophecies of St. Malachy. That said, Donald Prudlo’s recent article on the subject is a prime example of scholarly over-confidence in dismissing them. You can find his article here:Our Lady of Guadalupe Crushing the Serpent

What is amazing about this treatment–and its a good example for learning how dismissive scholars (especially historians) can be–is that it commits almost every methodological error in the book.
First, it speaks with a confident tone disproportionate to the evidence. I recognize this error as I have often fallen into it myself, especially prior to my conversion. It is manifested by the sarcastic tone of the article (“Our forger eventually got bored around entry 112,” “I am surprised the author did not include ‘Tall Dark Stranger’ in his list“), and its loaded descriptions of the prophecies and their interpretations as “tortured explanations,” “trite, nebulous descriptions,” “vague utterances that a local horoscope page would be embarrassed to print,” and “the absurd post 1590s entries.” Anyone who has spent a quarter of an hour studying these prophecies–and I truly mean only a quarter of an hour–can easily see that these dismissive comments are not proportional to the historical data. Although good men can come away from the data doubting the prophecies, or even outright rejecting them, the question of authenticity is really not as clear-cut as the Prudlo makes it out to be. At the very least these facts show that modern historians are too hasty to dismiss the prophecies as obvious forgeries.

Second, the article sets up a straw-man by being selective with the evidence. With utmost care, Prudlo selects the prophecies which are the most obscure or difficult to interpret. It is obvious he is laboring to present the prophecies in the most unflattering light possible. For example, he mentions the difficult prophecy of Benedict XIV being called a “Farm Animal.” This is an apparently random selection of one of the most obscure of the prophecies, and even the quotation itself evidences the author’s bias, for many translations would give “Animal of the Field,” which certainly to English speakers has a more positive ring than “Farm Animal.” We are dealing here with a straw-man fallacy in its most hideous manifestation.

Third–and related–the article not only focuses on the evidence against the prophecies, but it never presents the evidence favoring the authenticity of the prophecies. Every single objection mentioned in the article has a response which is well known to those who have studied the subject. Prudlo may not find these responses to be satisfying, but he is certainly not doing his readers any favors by hiding those arguments from them. I have on my desk right now a commentary on the prophecies written in 1969 which predicted that the former pope (Benedict XVI) would have something to do with St. Benedict. That is surely worthy of mention. And what about the reports that Bl. John Paul II was born at the time of a solar eclipse, in conformity with the prophecies? Even these examples, which I have chosen at random, are not conclusive, but they show that some of the prophecies have reasonable explanations which are a far cry from being “tortured.” This is not unlike the Old Testament itself, which gives enough literal predictions of the Messianic age to convince Christians to follow Christ, but also gives many veiled predictions which are evidently of a mystical character (anyone who has read St. John of the Cross is aware that this mixture of literal and mystical predictions is a common feature of authentic prophecy). Even if we ignore all of the uncanny fulfillment of the prophecies, though, Prudlo’s arguments against authenticity still have answers. He is only presenting one side of the story. Although he confidently dismisses the work as a forgery, and says that this is obvious from the facts of their discovery, he neglects to mention that one of the greatest historians of that time, Onofrio Panvinio, who was the corrector and reviser of the Vatican Library beginning in 1556, accepted the prophecies as authentic. (See Peter Bander’s commentary, p. 15.) Now when a 21st century historian, who writes with a sarcastic and uncharitable tone (which, to put it nicely, does not exactly inspire confidence in his powers of dispassionate judgment) dismisses these prophecies as obvious forgeries against the judgment of the then-reviser of the Vatican Library, I think cooler heads are justified in proceeding with greater caution. More can be said; I encourage the reader simply to Google the traditional answers to Prudlo’s arguments, which have been around for centuries.

Another problem with the article is that it assigns too much weight to internal evidence. Again and again, the prophecies are rejected for being “vague” after the 1590s, whereas they are “spot-on accurate” prior to that point. But the literary feature he called vagueness is not really strong internal evidence for rejecting them. He might have a decent argument were it not for the fact that scripture itself, as I said above, mixes vague and precise predictions quite commonly. But even more damaging to his position is the fact that the prophecies before 1590 really aren’t any less vague than the others. Trust me, I have read the document. And if you don’t trust me, at least don’t trust Prudlo, but read the prophecies for yourself and come to your own conclusion. Critics of the prophecies have always exaggerated the precision and clarity of the early ones while denigrating the vagueness of the later ones, but I encourage any careful reader to assess for himself whether this isn’t an obvious example of “imposing a construct.”

Then there is the one somewhat worthy argument in the entire article: that the prophecies were unknown for centuries and then conveniently “discovered” in the 1590s. I concede this argument merits attention–but I deny is that it is so conclusive as to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the prophecies are inauthentic, as Prudlo seems to maintain. First, as we saw, a noted historian of that time considered them authentic (so much for their being obvious forgeries). But even more important is the fact that it is not uncommon for documents to be lost and rediscovered centuries later. Historians of all people should be aware of this fact. For example, the epistle of Eusebius to Constantia is generally considered reliable even though it was unknown for hundreds of years after Eusebius’ death and was never mentioned in any of Eusebius’ other works. So yes, this kind of thing happens. It is not a decisive argument against authenticity. At the same time, it is not (nor am I claiming it is) an argument in favor of authenticity. We should recognize the situation for what it is: it lowers the overall probability of authenticity but does not conclusively prove the prophecies are forged. I can easily recognize the “spin” Prudlo puts on the data when he triumphantly asserts: “History is absolutely silent for 400 years, a silence that–to the historian–speaks louder than words.”

One final criticism, which we might call the “overuse of Sitz im Leben.” German biblical scholars in particular are experts at this fallacy. It proceeds by reconstructing the historical “life setting” of the document–on the assumption that it is not authentic–and then “explaining” its literary features by appeal to the conjectured time and place of composition. In this case, Prudlo thinks he can call the authenticity of the document into question on the grounds that the sixteenth century was “an age that was hungry for prognostications, the most famous of which were those of Nostradamus. Astrology and divination of all sorts fascinated even some of the greatest minds of the period. In that sense the ‘prophecies’ are perfectly suited to their time.” Actually I think this argument is downright ridiculous. First of all, it is seriously doubtful whether the 1590s was an age of greater eschatological speculation than the era in which St. Malachy lived (1094-1148). So even if we granted the validity of appealing to a conjectured Sitz im Leben, it would not call the prophecies into question since the 1100s is just as reasonable as the 1500s.

In conclusion, I ask readers of the prophecies to take them with an open mind: do not assign them the status of religious dogma, but at the same time do not fall prey to the over confidence of modern skeptics. After all–and this is what really concerns me the most about Prudlo’s arguments–anyone who is familiar with biblical criticism can recognize that the argument he uses to “refute” the prophecies are in logical structure identical to the arguments liberals use to call into question the historical reliability of the Gospels. That is worthy of our attention and calls attention to the serious nature of the issue. What is at stake here is historical methodology itself.