ASK FATHER: When the next Carrington Event wipes out the grid, what will happen in our ultramontanist Church of the 21st century? 

From a reader…


Our sun is waking up.  One sunspot let loose half a dozen flares ranging from C-class to M-class over the weekend.  Our magnetic shields are weak and getting weaker.  Barring Divine intervention, it’s only a matter of time before the next Carrington event sends us back to a world lit only by flame.

In thinking about this recently, I wondered, given the direct role that the Holy Father plays in appointing bishops around the world, what would happen in the event of a sudden and prolonged interruption of international communication?

Given the age and general location (densely populated urban areas) of most of our bishops, I’d imagine many dioceses and eparchies would very quickly find themselves sede vacante.  Are there any canonical provisions for appointing or consecrating bishops without the input of the Holy See in our ultramontanist Church of the 21st century?

Bishops, for all their human failings, seem kind of important for the continuation of the Church in a given area.  Is anyone in the hierarchy tasked with thinking about this, or will we be caught as offguards as the rest of the world in preparing for this event?

What you are talking about with a new Carrington Event is damn scary, given our global lack of preparedness.

Useful. Readable.

For those who are not in the know, the adjective “ultramontanist” refers to the tendency to place huge importance on the person of the Pope, to centralize all authority in Rome, and to subordinate all local Churches to the Pope and Rome to a high degree.  There was a sharp uptick in ultramontanist attitudes after the First Vatican Council and the decrees about papal primacy and papal infallibility.   The point here is that all choices of bishops must now be approved by Rome and receive a papal mandate, otherwise the consecrations would be illicit although valid.  For more on this shift take a look at John W. O’Malley’s Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church.

And again for those who are not in the know, on 2 September 1859 an extremely powerful CME, coronal mass ejection, struck the Earth.  The “Northern Lights” were seen as far south as the Caribbean.  People could read at night as if during the day.  The electricity dumped into the atmosphere was devastating.  There was not much electric tech yet but, for example, telegraph wires melted.

Imagine that today.  In one day we would be plunged into the early 19th century.   Some tech, hardened again EMPs and the like, would survive, but there would be no grid.

Think of all the stuff today that we depend on, most of which requires electricity.  Think of all the gizmos with delicate circuitry which would be fried.   Everything would stop.   The result would be death on a scale that can hardly be imagined.

Use phone camera

It would be a darn good idea for dioceses and others to have ham radio equipment that can be quickly stored in a very hardened place.   These days there would be at least some warning that a huge CME was on the way and likely to strike us.    We would have a little time to put some things away.    The ensuing chaos that would likely erupt in the world even as warning was given would be hard to deal with, but some people will be able to take steps to protect some useful equipment.

Will you have what it takes to survive?

On the other hand, perhaps there will be nuclear attacks that cause EMPs, or perhaps there will be a pandemic or other natural events which brings down the world’s economy, resulting in much the same.

What about the state of the Church?

Massive swathes of the population would be dead within a year and most of the surviving world would make Mad Max look like Downton Abbey.

What will happen to the buildings and clergy?

In those places where it is impossible to establish communication with Rome, with  whomever survives as Vicar of Christ … remember that Rome will be chaos and I imagine that a distraught populace would eventually storm the Vatican City … bishops would have to fend for themselves.   If before the CME hit, the Pope didn’t issue worldwide directives for what to do, I imagine that, in the absence of the possibility of a mandate from Rome for consecration of bishops, bishops would just have to take matters into their own hands.   They would have to consecrate some men as bishops on their own and then do their best.  Perhaps things would get sorted out later.

Let us also recall that while the Lord promised that the gates of Hell would not prevail against His Church, He didn’t promise that the Church would survive everywhere and in the form we recognize.    He didn’t make any promises about the Church surviving in these USA.   He didn’t make any promises about the borders of dioceses or the numbers of our schools and churches and chanceries.    He didn’t say anything about many of the things we have now.  We have had to do our best based on what He passed to the Apostles and what they passed in the Deposit of Faith.

It may well be that the Church will not survive a new Carrington Event… in these USA or wherever you are.

Some people have given thought to various disaster scenarios and have spun them into speculative novels.

Here are a few books you can try out, just to scare the stuffing out of you.

Lights Out by David Crawford

One Second After by William R. Forstchen (a sequel – One Year After)

Dark Grid by David. C. Waldron

The following isn’t a CME/EMP scenario, but the effects are in many respects the same.

Patriots by James Wesley Rawles.

It is really good to think about these things, especially if you are responsible for others.

Something for you hams out there to think about, too.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Jacob says:

    _Seveneves_ by Neal Stephenson is pretty scary. For some unexplained reason the Moon is fractured and it eventually fragments enough that the rubble as it falls to earth super heats the atmosphere. Humanity must attempt to survive

  2. Charivari Rob says:

    I’m at my Mom’s house for a couple of days. I wonder if I can find my old copy of Nightfall – either the original Asimov short story or the later novel-length collaboration with Silverberg. Silver

  3. Kent Wendler says:

    For an extended treatment you might consider the 1959 novel A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.

  4. Neal says:

    When was the last major Carrington Event before that? Because if it’s once every 1000 years then we’re golden.

  5. Semper Gumby says:

    Post-catastrophe (whatever that catastrophe may be) a handy book to accompany your Bible is Gregory Oates’ 130-page paperback “Catholic Doctrine in Scripture.” The Mass, Eucharist, Priesthood, Rosary, Purgatory, Infant Baptism, Venerating Relics, Guardian Angels, Excommunication, Ash Wednesday and Lenten Devotions, Crucifixes and more are referenced to specific bible verses. Spiffy.

  6. TonyO says:

    I agree with Fr. Z, in that SOME people really should be thinking about these things. I myself have thought about them.

    The result of my thinking is that with all of the medical issues I have, I am extremely unlikely to survive a total breakdown of modern society. And I am (at least to some extent) prepared to accept that fate: I will be one of the hundreds of millions (or billions) who die. OK: I can meet my Maker.

    Even among those who have a plausible chance to survive, many of them will NOT survive due to mere chance facts: they are away from home, visiting cousins. They missed ONE vital preparation, that made all their other preparations moot. They happened to have a group of neighbors who are insane and violent and who acted like rabid animals when the lights went out. And so on: even highly developed preparation is no GUARANTEE that you will survive, it only increases the odds somewhat. Some of us should make those preparations.

    Not necessarily all. It’s OK to let events catch up to you and kill you, if that’s what God’s plan is and there is no good prospect of avoiding it. And thinking that you can certainly avoid it if you “do enough” is almost certainly erroneous. In every age, God has let brilliant preparers die from catastrophic events along with the unprepared.

  7. JonPatrick says:

    Neal, the research I have read indicates a probability of 0.7% of a Carrington type event in a year which means one every 143 years on average. The last one was 162 years ago so we are actually overdue.

    Considering how vulnerable our grid is and recent political decisions (repeal of Trump’s executive order preventing utilities from buying components from China) that keep it that way, not only vulnerable to Carringtons, but from a more likely cyber attack like the Colonial pipeline.

  8. WVC says:

    “If before the CME hit, the Pope didn’t issue worldwide directives for what to do . . .” – this line made me laugh out loud. I have a very active imagination, but if impending world-wide catastrophe was announced I simply cannot imagine the current Pope having the foresight, clarity, and fortitude to issue worldwide directives on how bishops should proceed with the ministry of the Church. Directives on how to be sensitive about how to help migrants with the impending crisis or why the traditional words of the “Hail Mary” need updating, sure, but on how to ordain future bishops? Nah.

    Also, I couldn’t help thinking of this song as I read the post.

  9. A Carrington Event is certainly frightening; however, having priests and bishops and popes is one of the least worrisome problems.

    There will still be some form of communication, even between continents. If not short-wave radio, then the really old-fashioned way of sending messengers with letters and sailing across on ships. I admit I haven’t read the literature: are there indeed scenarios in which all the cargo ships somehow cease to operate? How and why does that happen? But if not, then it seems overwhelmingly probable that cargo ships will happily take mail across the oceans (for a price), and that solves the problem of bishops being consecrated with papal approbation.

    One advantage the Church has is that she has been around for 2,000 years and operated under all kinds of circumstances.

  10. ChesterFrank says:

    I don’t know if Ham Radio equipment could survive a Carrington Event, but I think a Carrier Pigeon could. Atmospheric events have a strong influence on how far radio signals travel.

  11. Semper Gumby says:

    WVC: “Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb.” Brilliant.

    Alvin York, before he was Sgt. York:

  12. Fr. Ó Buaidhe says:

    Whether the ships sail depends on how much they rely on electronics, even for something so ordinary as fuel delivery within the ship. When the electricity fails just now, my oil-fired heating goes off too; it’s controlled and pumped by electricity.

  13. impaul says:

    I like One Second After the best. It seemed much more plausible than the usual zombie scenarios.

    For a totally different take on the end of the world check out Suspicious Observers channel on youtube: They have daily videos but be sure to view the 12000 year cycle play list.

  14. WVC says:

    @Semper Gumby – Just watched “Along Came Jones” with the kids over the weekend. We love Gary Cooper, but what decent human being doesn’t?

    And for any who don’t know the story, he died Catholic thanks to his daughter and wife and his guardian angel. Crisis had a nice write up on him and Patricia Neal from a while back.

  15. iamlucky13 says:

    “When was the last major Carrington Event before that? Because if it’s once every 1000 years then we’re golden.”

    There were not systematic observations of solar storms or the earth’s magnetic field for very long prior to the Carrington Event. It is the most severe geomagnetic disturbance on record.

    Since then, there have been several CME’s within an order of magnitude of the Carrington Event. For example, one data point that was able to be recorded in 1859 was a magnetic disturbance of about 1600 nanoTesla (nT). Although magnetic disturbance is not enough to fully characterize the severity of a solar storm, it is still to some degree helpful to compare the 1989 solar storm that caused a 9 hour outage for most of Quebec, which was measured at 589 nT. Over 100 nT has been classified as an intense geomagnetic storm, and over 250 has been described as a geomagnetic “superstorm.” Other geomagnetic superstorms occurred in 1903, 1909, 1921, 1938*, 1958, and 2003.

    Part of the reason Quebec was affected more than other regions were the significant number of very long power lines (current induced by a solar storm can scale with length of a conductor, hence why some telegraph lines were affected in 1859), and the local geology preventing induced currents from flowing effectively in the ground instead of the power lines.

    Since then, some additional measures have been gradually implemented to reduce the susceptibility of parts of the grid to major damage, although it was not without protections before then, either, nor do many researchers seem satisfied with the work that has take place so far.

    I would say the most likely result of another Carrington-level event would be fragmentation of the grid, rather than outright collapse. A GAO summary for Congress based on input from a variety of experts from academia, the DOE, FERC, insurance companies, and others concludes similar. One of the more severe scenarios forecast includes tens of millions of Americans experiencing power outages lasting more than 2 weeks. After the initial outages, reduced ability to transport power within a region would likely continue to cause limited supply and ongoing reliability issues that could take years to fully resolve. That in turn causes a host of problems such as in the production of essential goods like food and fuel and the storage of refrigerated goods such as many foods and medical products.

    Some other researchers believe it more credible that the effects would be less severe, but regardless, estimates of the economic effects of a Carrington Event level storm today are in the trillions of dollars, similar to estimates of the economic effects of COVID-19 – months long disruptions of important activities sounds rather familiar, doesn’t it?

    “I admit I haven’t read the literature: are there indeed scenarios in which all the cargo ships somehow cease to operate?”

    Ships and planes and radios (except for short term interference) would still be fine. The long period geomagnetic disturbances caused by solar storms would have effects on very long conductors, like regional or inter-regional power lines. These could damage the very large transformers, rectifiers, and other components serving these parts of the grid, which are not produced in large volumes and would take a long time to replace if very many were damaged. A solar storm would not directly affect end-use electrical systems, and there is relatively low risk the induced currents in high voltage lines would cross the multiple layers of transformers and other disconnect and failure points between the high voltage lines and end users.

    A nuclear weapon optimized to create a large EMP would be more likely to damage electronics and end-user or even municipal scale electrical systems (see also: Starfish Prime). The effects of such a event would be regional rather than global. This would only be possible to a small number of nations possessing both large nuclear warheads and rockets capable of carrying them to an appropriate altitude over a target country. The 6 countries in question (US, UK, France, Russia, China, and India) arguably have more to lose than to gain from perpetrating such an event.

    My overall view is the fiction based on such scenarios exaggerates the plausible effects, but the effects are still severe, and it is worthwhile to consider ways to prepare for the possibility, starting with:

    Go to confession.

    * The 1938 storm is known as “The Fatima Storm” due to the match between the brilliant aurora that occurred and the 2nd Secret of Fatima: “The war is going to end: but if people do not cease offending God, a worse one will break out during the Pontificate of Pope Pius XI. When you see a night illumined by an unknown light, know that this is the great sign given you by God that he is about to punish the world for its crimes, by means of war, famine, and persecutions of the Church and of the Holy Father.”

    At the time of the aurora, the Sino-Japanese War had already started and the massacre in Nanjing was underway. The German annexation of Austria and the European agreement to appease Hitler by letting him take the Sudetenland happened later that year. Germany invaded Poland the next year.

  16. kurtmasur says:

    Fr. Martin Fox: “One advantage the Church has is that she has been around for 2,000 years and operated under all kinds of circumstances.“

    To the above statement I would even add that the Church was able to operate without electricity through the majority of its 2000 year history. In fact, mankind has been able to live on this planet for 99% of its (mankind’s) history without electricity just fine. It was only barely “yesterday” when electricity started to be used in the later half of the 19th Century.

    In the case of another Carrington Event, I predict that there would be chaos and a major disruption to life as we know it, but this would only be in the short to medium term. In the long run people will either adapt and continue without electricity or work hard enough to re-establish it.

  17. GregB says:

    The show Nazi Mega Weapons did an episode about the Eagle’s Nest where they claimed that on August 24, 1939 that Hitler saw a red Aurora Borealis and took it as a sign just before he invaded Poland.

  18. Philmont237 says:


    DENSE CME IMPACT: A CME just hit Earth’s magnetic field, around 1250 UT on May 26th. The solar storm cloud abruptly doubled the density of the solar wind near Earth (from 10 to 20 protons/cc). It is too soon to know if a geomagnetic storm will develop as a result of the CME’s arrival. Stay tuned for updates.

  19. Semper Gumby says:

    WVC: Thanks for the article, I haven’t seen that movie yet. Here’s something you might be interested in, James Cagney and “Angels With Dirty Faces.”

  20. Semper Gumby says:

    WVC: The video clip in the article is the end of the movie, you might want to skip that. The movie is about two boyhood pals, one becomes a priest the other a criminal.

  21. WVC says:

    @Semper Gumby – thanks for the article. I love “Angels with Dirty Faces” – haven’t shown it to the kids yet. The older ones could handle it, but it might be a little much for the younger kids. Maybe I’ll have to have an older kid movie night soon.

  22. Semper Gumby says:

    GregB: Good eye.

    Albert Speer was with Hitler that night in August 1939 and later wrote:

    “In the course of the night we stood on the terrace of the Berghof with Hitler and marveled at a rare natural spectacle. Northern lights of unusual intensity threw red light on the legend-haunted Untersberg across the valley, while the sky above shimmered in all the colors of the rainbow. The last act of the Gotterdammerung could not have been more effectively staged. The same red light bathed our faces and our hands. The display produced a curiously pensive mood among us. Abruptly turning to one of his military adjutants, Hitler said: “Looks like a great deal of blood. This time we won’t bring it off without violence.””

    From The Atlantic, May 2003, “Hitler’s Forgotten Library” by Timothy Ryback. Hitler’s personal library at Berchtesgaden-Berghof was captured in 1945 by the 101st Airborne Division “Band of Brothers.” Part of Hitler’s library, about 1200 books, are in Washington DC at the Library of Congress. Ryback on what he found in the rare-book reading room of the Library of Congress:

    “One leather-bound tome- with WORTE CHRISTI, or “Words of Christ,” embossed in gold on the cover- was well worn, the silky, supple leather peeling upward in gentle curls along the edges. Human hands had obviously spent a lot of time with this book. The inside cover bore a dedication: “To our beloved Führer with gratitude and profound respect, Clara von Behl, born von Jansen von den Osten. Christmas 1935.”

    “Worte Christi was so fragile that when the attendant brought it to me, he placed it on a red-velvet pad in a wooden reading stand, a beautifully finished oak contraption with two supports that could be adjusted with small brass pegs to fit the dimensions of the book. No more than a foot wide and eighteen inches long, the stand had a sacred air, as if it belonged on an altar.”

    “On page 241 appears the passage “You should love God, your Lord, with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your spirit: this is the foremost and greatest commandment. Another is equally important: Love your neighbor as you would love yourself.” Beside this passage is one brief penciled line, the only mark in the entire book.

    “Given Hitler’s legendary disdain for organized religion in general and Christianity in particular, I didn’t expect him to have devoted much time to the teachings of Christ, let alone to have marked this quintessential Christian virtue. Had this in fact been made by the pencil of Hitler’s younger sister, Paula, who occasionally visited her brother at the Berghof and remained a devout Catholic until her dying day? Might some other Berghof guest have responded to this holy Scripture?”

    “One of the most heavily marked books is Magic: History, Theory and Practice (1923), by Ernst Schertel.”

    “Hitler’s copy of Magic bears a handwritten dedication from Schertel, scrawled on the title page in pencil. A 170-page softcover in large format, the book has been thoroughly read, and its margins scored repeatedly. I found a particularly thick pencil line beside the passage “He who does not carry demonic seeds within him will never give birth to a new world.””

    In 2009 an English translation of Schertel’s book was published, complete with Hitler’s annotations.

  23. TKS says:

    And the old trusty dusty Catholic “The Last Ark” by Jack Sky.

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  25. GregB says:

    Semper Gumby Thanks for the additional information. It’s always good to have multiple sourcing. Mark Felton Productions has done some videos that are on YouTube that cover the occultism that Himmler was involved in. Two are: “The Real Castle Wolfenstein” and “SS Death’s Head Rings – A Nazi Treasure Mystery”

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