Of Notre Dame burning and signs of the times

Credit: Reuters

On the Tuesday before Good Friday, many in the Catholic community will have awoken with a sense of foreboding. For them, the Notre Dame fire will have signified much more than the destruction of 900 years of culture.

Occurring on Holy Monday -- a day associated with the withering of the fruitless fig tree -- the fire might have implied a divine message about the state of the world and what needs to be done about it. That it happened in Paris is also highly significant.

If you're not a practising Catholic with a penchant for traditionalism and miracles, you probably won't be familiar with this line of interpretation. Even if you are, you might be inclined to dismiss it as non-scientific nonsense. Which is fine and understandable.

But it’s also missing the point. The same kind of ideas once associated with the mystical spectrum of religious belief now permeate the entire media landscape, from Facebook to Weibo.

These ideas -- divorced from empirical evidence, disavowed by the professional media and dispersed through online networks –- have demonstrably changed the world of politics over the past few years.

But these processes have so far played out in the realm of elections. What does it look like when religious narratives – older and ultimately more powerful systems of belief – combine with the new information age?

The ideas in question may seem crazy. But if the internet has become a vast religious incubator, the most crazy course of action is to ignore the cults it spawns, how they work, and how political operators take advantage of them.

Here's the fascinating Dan Brown-esque back-story to what's going on within Catholic circles, and how these ideas are spreading via online forums, blogs and social media networks.

The belief cult of Fatima: a pre-digital story

First, some pre-internet background. Key to this perspective is the Marian apparition phenomenon and the associated prophecies that often come with it. One of the most famous "recent" examples is Our Lady of Fatima, who appeared to three Portuguese children between 1916 and 1917.

The Fatima prophecies -- coming in the form of three secrets revealed to the children over the course of their engagements with Mary -- have inspired fascination, controversy and conspiracy in equal measure. This is due in part to their deeply political nature, occurring as they did in the midst of the First World War, while being interpreted as a critique of the unfolding communist movement at the time and the atheistic attitudes that came with it.

In the early apparitions, it is said, Mary urged the children to pray the Holy Rosary in a bid to bring about peace and the end of the First World War. But as the apparitions continued she went on to reveal a compendium of secrets about how the future would turn out if the Holy Church failed to controversially consecrate Russia to Mary's Immaculate Heart. The language used in the prophecy referred to Russia spreading "her errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of the Church", an alleged euphemism for expanding communism.

To help convince people of the authenticity of what the visionary children were saying, Mary also promised a heavenly intervention in public view. On cue, on October 13, 1917, the miracle of the dancing Sun occurred in front of 70,000 people, just weeks before the October Revolution broke out in Russia.

The crowd at Fatima for the Miracle of the Sun.

As the Catholic Herald recounts, even the secular press of the time suggested that something inexplicable occurred on the day. One of the reports from Lisbon paper O Dia supposedly wrote:

The silver sun … was seen to whirl and turn in the circle of broken clouds. A cry went up from every mouth and the people fell on their knees on the muddy ground. … The light turned a beautiful blue as if it had come through the stained-glass windows of a cathedral and spread itself over the people who knelt with outstretched hands. The blue faded slowly and then the light seemed to pass through yellow glass. … People wept and prayed with uncovered heads in the presence of the miracle they had awaited. The seconds seemed like hours, so vivid were they.

Modern-day sceptics say the testimonies of unbelievers on the day don't necessarily prove very much, because they too could have been consumed by a collective delusion brought on by the highly charged atmosphere of the impressionable crowd. And while plenty of pictures do exist of the gathered crowds, none mysteriously were ever taken of the miracle itself. What's more, even the pictures of the crowds that do exist never show everyone looking in the same direction simultaneously.

But the authenticity of the miracle is irrelevant. What is relevant is the extraordinarily powerful belief cult that then sprang up around Fatima, and the role it has played in guiding Catholic relations with Russia ever since.

Those who believe in Fatima in many cases interpret the prophecies as predicting the rise of global communism and with it the eventual annihilation of the nation-state ( in the form of modern globalisation). Many are also convinced that a failure to properly perform the desired consecration along with the suppression of all aspects of the secrets until 2000 (when Pope John Paul finally revealed the third and most speculated-about part of the secret trilogy) reflected a strategic policy of Russian and communist appeasement.

In many cases, they also question whether the Fatima third secret that was eventually released was authentic or entirely complete, citing correspondence from the only surviving Fatima child, Lucia dos Santos (later known as Sister Lucy) which allegedly alluded to a major crisis of faith in the church as being part of the secret, something never referenced in the official release. The official version of the secret instead relates to a vision of the Holy Father being killed by a group of soldiers. It has since been interpreted as predicting the 1981 assassination attempt against Pope John Paul II. Sister Lucy died in February 2005 at 97 years of age, two months before John Paul II -- an ardent anti-communist and supporter of Fatima.

While there were two attempts to consecrate Russia to appease the Fatima faithful -- one in 1942 by Pope Pius XII and another by Pope John Paul II in 1984 -- many Catholics believe these consecrations did not meet the necessary criteria and thus don't count.

This is either because the attempts didn't specifically focus on Russia (comprising of world consecrations or utilising references that dodged naming Russia specifically, referring as an example to "Russian peoples" instead ) or because the necessary number of bishops did not participate. The reasoning for the failure, meanwhile, was the great political sensitivity of the Vatican intruding into the religious affairs of the USSR under the doctrine of Ostpolitik. In the last consecration of 1984, Pope John Paul II instead -- allegedly departing from his prepared text at the time -- used the euphemism "those peoples for whom you yourself are awaiting our act of consecration and entrusting" (though we can't find the primary transcript source directly).

As a consequence, for a large proportion of Catholics, Mary's demands were never properly adhered to and Russia's errors (communism) are still spreading through the world to this day, leading to wars and persecutions of the Church.

But there's some even more intriguing modern-day relevance.

According to Catholic Fatima scholars, when Sister Lucy was quizzed by a Russian exile in 1946 about how Russia's consecration and conversion would eventually take place, she allegedly replied the conversion of Russia would be completed through the Orthodox Church and the Oriental Rite.

Moscow as the Third Rome: a digital story

In millenarian quarters of the internet (often representing breakaway traditionalist Catholic groups not recognised by Rome) for some years now a fascinating spin on the story of Fatima has been emerging as a result of all this.

It relates to growing speculation that it is Vladimir Putin himself who will emerge as Fatima's greatest champion and as an advocate of a renewed attempt to consecrate Russia. In so doing, it is speculated, he will finally reunite the Orthodox arm with the rest of the Catholic church, ending the centuries old schism between the two belief centres.

Fuelling the speculation further is the fact when Putin met with Pope Francis in 2013, he allegedly (according to online speculation) brought up the topic of Fatima. The speculation continues that Pope Francis snubbed the request.

To be clear, there's no proof of this discussion having happened; it's just what the traditionalist and conservative Catholic internet endlessly speculates about. But again, whether the claims are authentic or not is almost irrelevant. What matters is that these unsubstantiated assertions exist in large numbers on the internet, target the impressionable, and more often than not cast Putin in a much more favourable light -- as a heroic defender of the faith, with potential aristocratic lineage, no less -- than the Pope himself.

What also matters is how the speculation feeds into another great Vatican controversy of recent years: the deteriorating relations between the Holy See and the Order of the Knights of Malta, on the back of differences of opinion between the Order's more conservative and liberal elements.

You can read the back-story to the relationship breakdown as reported by the FT's James Politi here and here.

It pertains to the attempted dismissal in 2017 of a key member, Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager, the Grand Chancellor, for controversially approving funding for the distribution of condoms in Africa, something that went against core Church teaching about the use of contraception. The dismissal of Boeselager was presented as being the Pope's preferred route forward. And yet, when Boeselager appealed to the Pope, the Holy Father saw fit to launch a papal investigation which would later exonerate him, opening the door to his reinstatement and controversially for a call for the Order’s reining Grand Master, Matthew Festing to abdicate instead. The implication appeared to be that the Pope's wishes had been purposefully misrepresented in the first instance by Cardinal Raymond Burke, an ultra conservative, whose job it was to oversee relations with the Knights. This it is speculated was due to Burke’s own desire to purge the Order of its liberal members and maintain it on a crusading conservative path.

But the affair also proved controversial because of the Pope's direct intervention into the Order's governance and affairs, something seen as undermining its sovereign status. Many Order members further perceived the papal probe as unfairly biased in favour of Boeselager due to investigators’ pre-existing personal relations with the more liberally minded knight. Many refused to co-operate accordingly.

In January, 2019, the plot thickened. While the breakdown in relations between the Vatican and the Order had been well covered in the media at the time, the controversies of the affair were once again revived because of publication of papal documents pertaining to the incident by Wikileaks. It was this leak, among other factors, that pushed Ecuador into finally revoking Julian Assange's asylum in its London embassy.

As WikiLeaks noted at the time, its batch of leaked documents appeared to corroborate speculation that the fallout was part of a much larger power struggle between conservative and liberal elements within the Church. Pope Francis’ original letter was also shown to reveal concerns about the degree to which the Order's members were engaging with secular and frivolous associations, movements and organisations which run contrary to Catholic belief.

Returning to the fire

It is in this framework that the fire of Notre Dame finds itself.

Whether readers believe in the associated myths, prophecies and legends or not, it’s hard to deny the powerful symbolism of the blaze in the context of the very modern issues fuelling the gilets jaunes protests in Paris as well as wider populist movements in Europe.

Online, the fire can now be utilised to inflame the differences between the more conservative and liberal members of the Catholic community even further, especially with respect to their opposing views on how prophetic Marian texts, such as Fatima, should be interpreted and acted upon in the near future.

Meanwhile, even though the Russia factor may have been nipped in the bud in the Trump election saga by the findings (or lack thereof) of the Mueller report, the symbolism of Notre Dame on fire emboldens an even more profound -- and related -- belief circulating in Russian Orthodox circles.

As the following paper from polish academic Justyna Doroszczyk, of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Institute of Philosophy and Sociology in Warsaw neatly summarises, it relates to the growing notion in certain Russian Orthodox circles that Moscow will soon emerge as the Third Rome shifting the leadership of the Catholic world to the East and in so doing defending all sovereign states and people from an ongoing liberal/communist threat:

Moscow as the Third Rome is the basis of Russian thinking about the state and the Russian nation and also Russian geopolitics. It is a solid foundation of the anti-Western tendency in Russian geopolitics. The belief about Russia’s providential mission is a tool of differentiation between the two types of civilisations and cultures – the “rotting” western world and the Russian world, which manifests as a cradle of traditional, conservative values that individualistic, materialistic Western civilisation has rejected.

The fact that this all falls squarely within the category of conspiracy theory doesn’t matter. It is not only that online theories can thrive even when they are not true. It is that they seem to thrive more readily precisely because they cannot be true. A religion based on a man who arises from a three-day coma doesn’t work. A religion based on a man who arises from the dead does.

The role of the internet in re-energising the kind of transcendental tendencies found in major religions is not amenable to fact-checking, or the marshalling of evidence. The fact that these conspiracy theories seem absurd is one reason why they are ignored, until long after their power has become apparent. Absurdity is not a reason to dismiss them; it’s a reason to take them as seriously as possible.

There are simply too many people who want to believe in something improbable.

Related links:
Moscow the Third Rome: Genesis and significance of a political-religious idea -JSTOR
The sovereign movement - FT Alphaville
How did Russians react to the Notre-Dame blaze? - Russia Beyond
Notre Dame Fire Symbolizes Europe's Decline, Russian Commentators Say
- The Moscow Times
Steve Bannon "told Italy's populist leader: Pope Francis is the enemy" - The Guardian
Wake up investors — you ignore conspiracy theories at your peril - FT

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