It doesn’t take too much time looking at newspaper headlines to figure out that Americans today are unusually stressed, anxious and depressed. 

According to data released this summer, the number of Americans taking antidepressants doubled in the decade before 1995, to a full 10 percent of our population.

There’s a good bet that number has increased even further in recent months. A short list of what Americans are worried about these days includes: the global economy; the national economy; America’s plummet from world economic superpower; the spike in unemployment into double-digit territory; the shrinking of 401k retirement accounts; the number of homes worth less than what is owed on them; skyrocketing foreclosures; uncertainty about the future of health care for the elderly, the infirm and disabled and the unborn; the persistent threat of terrorism; a fear that our country is overextended in two overseas wars.

Maybe that helps explain the resurgence of the popularity of apocalypse panic, as evidenced by the buzz around movies such as “2012,” a box office sensation that plays on fears that the world will end when the Mayan calendar expires (see story, Pages 9-12). There’s a short-term emotional satisfaction in fixating on fictional problems we can do absolutely nothing about when we’re up to our necks in real troubles.

The doomsday hype has gotten so out of hand that a scientist with NASA’s Astrobiology Institute told a newspaper that more than 1,000 people have contacted him for confirmation that the end is near, and that he’s “even had cases of teenagers writing to me saying they are contemplating suicide because they don’t want to see the world end.”

Culture being as powerful an influence as it is, Catholic Americans are no less likely to experience these fears, even if they don’t always manifest them so extremely.

Recent intra-Church battles bear a tinge, too, of the hysteria of the end-times fear. While there is no doubt that there are no issues more important than those that deal with our faith, the sheer number of self-proclaimed prophets of our time — from one end of the ideological spectrum to the other — should make us wary of their claims. That’s especially true when they are set up in opposition to the successors of the apostles, the bishops, dividing the flock from their shepherds.

To get caught in the fear and anxiety whipped up by today’s false prophets — whether warning about the destruction of the Church by autocratic hierarchy or liberal laymen, proclaiming President Barack Obama either a messiah or Antichrist, or professing any other in a litany of threats of subterfuge and destruction — is to be lessened as a Christian, because it means a loss of the critical virtue of hope.

Hope stabilizes us and keeps us pointed in the right direction. It means a desire for the good (ultimately, our eternal happiness) and an expectation that we can achieve it (even if we know it will be difficult). It is a virtue that enables us to love our enemies, and earnestly desire their greatest good, too.

As believers, we know the end of the story — the good guys win. Christ, and trust in him, is a Christian’s sure mooring, even in the stormiest of times.

At a different turbulent time, St. Paul could have been addressing us when he told the early Christians, “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Rom 12:2).