Conspiracy theories abound these days. A conspiracy theory, according to Wikipedia, is “an explanation for an event or situation that invokes a conspiracy by sinister and powerful groups, often political in motivation, when other explanations are more probable.” By nature, conspiracy theories are extremely difficult to disprove, because proponents will use both the presence and the lack of evidence as arguments in favor of the conspiracy. Some conspiracy theories are kind of fun to listen to because of their goofiness, like claims that the earth is actually flat. But many are very dark and can foster grave evils such as anti-Semitism. The recent dramatic rise in the popularity of conspiracy theories is connected to the ubiquity of the internet, which gives conspiracy theorists a platform to promote their ideas. It’s also due to the unfortunate breakdown in institutional credibility. This is the case, for example, when it comes to the government, the Church, and the media. When people (sometimes with good reason) don’t trust what established institutions are saying, they will turn to other sources of information, including those that put forward conspiracy theories.
We see a sort of this conspiratorial mindset in the gospel for today’s Mass (Lk 17:20-25), which begins with the Pharisees asking Jesus when the Kingdom of God would come. This was a question of central importance for the Pharisees who were always looking for signs of the coming of the Messiah, who would usher in the Kingdom. Our Lord replies: “The Kingdom of God cannot be observed, and no one will announce, ‘Look, here it is,’ or, ‘There it is.’ For behold, the Kingdom of God is among you.” Jesus then turns to His disciples and warns them that there will come a day when false prophets will say to His followers about Him: “’Look, there he is,’ or ‘Look, here he is.’ Do not go off, do not run in pursuit. For just as lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day. But first he must suffer greatly and be rejected by this generation.”
Here, Our Lord seems to be warning us against falling prey to those who would make great claims of special insight into the end times – which might sound familiar to us. Make no mistake: that the world will end is certain. That it will bring judgment is also certain. But we need to approach these realities in an appropriate way that is in accord with what we believe as Catholics. The Second Vatican Council teaches us that “the Church has always had the duty of reading the signs of the times and interpreting them in light of the gospel,” for the sake of “carry[ing] forward the work of Christ.” To do this, Our Lord exhorts His followers to “stay awake” and not be lulled to sleep by life in the world. Such sleep comes for us when we simply go along with conventional ways of living, even when they conflict with both revealed truth and what we can know by the lights of natural reason. It also comes when we engage in excessive speculation as to whether the end of the world is nigh. This fosters anxiety in people, and is a waste of energy that the Lord Jesus wants us to spend elsewhere.
For there is no doubt that we live in the end times. Christ Our Lord has come, He has died and risen for our sake, and we live under His reign in the Kingdom of God right now. Moreover, these are definitively the end times for me and you, since these are the days in which we work out our salvation during our lives on earth, at the end of which we will meet Christ and we will be judged. In uncertain times we might be tempted to turn to conspiracy theories or excessive apocalyptic speculations. It is far more important that we turn instead each day to what is certain and solid – liturgical and personal prayer, the sacraments, corporal and spiritual works of mercy, the teachings of the Church, and the life of grace. This how we faithfully carry forward the work of Christ with confidence and joy, even in our strange and unsettling age.