Scientists have long known that stressful situations arouse magical thinking. Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski famously observed that when Trobriand Islanders fish in the calm waters of the lagoon, they do so rather mundanely; but when they go out to fish in the dangerous open sea, they engage in very complicated rituals.
Wars are very stressful situations, so it comes as no surprise that, as the conflict rages on in Ukraine, people across the world are engaging in magical thinking and rituals in an attempt to put an end to this carnage. Pope Francis is one such person. Last month, he organised a ritual for the consecration of Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, in the hope that this would bring forth world peace.
Cognitively speaking, this is not different from someone performing a dance to elicit the gods to send rain. But Francis’ ritual has connections that go deep in the recent history of apocalypticism, conspiracist mongering, and political manipulation.
The story begins in the town of Fatima (Portugal) in May 1917. Three peasant children claimed to witness the apparition of the Virgin Mary, and after a series of alleged miraculous events, devotion to Our Lady of Fatima was established. Two of the children died soon afterwards, but the third one – sister Lucia – went on to become a nun.
In 1929, Lucia claimed that the Virgin asked her for the consecration of Russia. This was in the context of growing international paranoia over a Communist takeover. From the onset of the apparitions – months before the Bolshevik Revolution – Portugal’s socialist government had confronted the clergy and its promotion of the Fatima devotion. By 1929, the red scare was in full swing.
Long before Lenin, Russia had excited the imagination of apocalyptic-minded enthusiasts, as the mysterious Gog and Magog from the book of Revelation were considered to represent a threat from the North. When the Bolsheviks took over, it was not hard for apocalyptists to identify the now formally atheist Russia with the Biblical forces of evil. And so, in 1941, Lucia put in writing two of the three secrets that the Virgin allegedly revealed to her.
The first secret was a description of hell, loaded with apocalyptic imagery. The second secret was about the start of a new war. Lucia claimed that these secrets were revealed during her encounter with the Virgin in 1917, so devotees believed that she had been prescient about the start of World War II, but of course, this was ex post facto, as it was written in 1941, after the start of the war.
In the second secret, Lucia also claimed that the Virgin pronounced these words: “… I shall come to ask for the Consecration of Russia to my Immaculate Heart”, the implication being that if this task is accomplished, world peace would prevail.
From that moment on, Popes have shown some enthusiasm for the Fatima movement. But John Paul II took it to another level. Much more than his predecessors, he was determined to confront Communism, and we are now aware of the great extent to which he collaborated with Ronald Reagan in hastening the collapse of the Soviet Union. The exaltation of the Fatima devotion came very handy in this endeavor. After surviving an assassination attempt in 1981, he claimed Our Lady of Fatima intervened to save him. And in 1984, he asked all bishops of the world to join him in consecrating Russia and other nations to the Immaculate Heart. Sister Lucia then revealed that the Virgin was satisfied with the ritual.
Eventually, the Soviet Union collapsed (many Fatima enthusiasts predictably claimed that this was a natural result of the consecration), Russia became Christian again, and the Cold War was over. In 2000, the third secret of Fatima was revealed by Vatican authorities, and although it contained vague apocalyptic imagery, it was largely interpreted as a prophecy of events that had already come to pass (including John Paul II’s assassination attempt).
But of course, this mellowing of doomsday expectations disappointed the hardcore Fatima apocalyptists. And so, many went down the rabbit hole of conspiracism. In order to keep the apocalyptic flame alive, two new claims were made. First, it was alleged that the Vatican has not fully disclosed the third secret of Fatima, as it presumably contains disturbing prophecies about terrible events to come – with Russia possibly leading the forces of evil once again. Second, it is claimed that the Virgin is not satisfied, because the consecration of Russia was not properly done because when sister Lucia announced that the Virgin was satisfied with John Paul II’s ritual, it was actually an impostor. The real Lucia had been confined by corrupt Vatican liberal elites who were interested in mellowing down the ultra-traditionalist Fatima movement.
From a skeptic’s point of view, things do not add up. If John Paul II’s ritual really worked and Russia changed its ways, why is Putin pursuing a barbarous war? Why should Francis do the consecration again? Didn’t the Virgin promise peace the first time around? The skeptic’s point is that just as dancing is useless to bring about rain, the consecration of Russia is useless to bring about world peace.
But strangely enough, the hardcore Fatima enthusiasts have embraced an aspect of this skeptical point. In their view, world peace has not been achieved, not because the ritual is useless, but because the ritual has not been done in the first place. According to them, the Virgin asked for the consecration of Russia alone and all bishops must participate. Neither one of those conditions were met by John Paul II: he consecrated many nations (not Russia alone), and not all bishops participated. Francis’ ritual is likewise deficient. He consecrated Russia and Ukraine, and only about one quarter of the bishops worldwide joined. The debate about the validity of the consecration continues amongst Catholics.
Skeptics cannot help but laugh (and cry) at this debate. It is reminiscent of the apocryphal story about the siege of Constantinople when citizens were allegedly discussing the sex of angels while the Turks were bombarding the city. The reasonable thing to do in the face of the war in Ukraine is to discuss how civilians can be spared from the destruction, whether economic sanctions against Russian oligarchs will work, or perhaps even consider whether Putin may have some legitimate points in his arguments. But to split hairs over whether a ritual has been properly done and the extent of its magical effect on world peace, is preposterous.
Ultimately, the Fatima debate is yet another instance of a well-known phenomenon in psychology: cognitive dissonance. Very much as apocalyptists who refuse to give up their claims when their prophecies fail and somehow attempt to rationalise their delusions, Fatima enthusiasts have hit a brick wall. The ritual that the Virgin allegedly asked for was carried out, and her promise of world peace has not been fulfilled. To manage this dissonance, some – such as Pope Francis – will claim that the Virgin’s promise was only temporary, and the ritual has to be renewed; others – the ultra-conservative folks from the Fatima Center – claim that the ritual has never been done.
Of course, we are all subject to cognitive dissonance when particular expectations are not met – including skeptics. But the more we learn about them, the better prepared we are to face harsh realities while avoiding magical thinking.