by Matthew Walther

Much as it has throughout Christian history, with fewer happy interludes than most of my readers will imagine, speculation now rages about what many Catholics imagine (in quasi-Millerite terms) as the “End Times.” Certain lay observers now inform us, in tones of stultifying confidence, that we are living in the midst of that Great Apostasy foretold in Holy Writ.

I have my doubts. One somehow gets the sense that the actual Great Apostasy would not be a question of somewhat equivocal encouragement of various well-known sins against the Sixth Commandment by members of the clergy, but some unspeakable, no doubt ultimately Christological heresy, of the sort that has not been common since the fourth century.

Now if I were a heresiarch, I would not restrict myself to the mere approbation of suburban vice. Rather I would give free rein to the wildest speculations of my intellect, to anagogic minutiae and ponderous distinctions. I might suggest that the world of matter is an illusion (as the young Saint John Henry Newman suspected) or else that it exists but only within the mind of some terrible and unknowable being—the earth’s kingdoms and peoples and her varied flora and fauna, nay, the very laws of nature, the physical and chemical constants upon which the visible created order is said to depend dancing like so many shadows cast about by the puppet play-things of some bored giant. I might suggest that Christ had three natures or five or fifteen or some number known only to the angels. I would add to the named orders of the Heavenly Host innumerable triads—the aubergine ——phim, the luteous capriform ——phim, the albugineous ——phim, the unlovely bulliform ——phim, the lithe and watchet ——phim in their blessed order and array. I might insist, as Milton seems to do, upon the corporealness not only of the purely spiritual beings created by God but of the Father Himself. I might propose that there are five Gospels or none, and replace the living symbol of the Evangelists with some more suitable figure—a heptatriacontamorph of grotesque proportions, comprising the figures of testaceous lizards and hairy sloths, of divers amphiumas and ichneumons and coelacanths; of spatangoids and tinamous; of phoenicopters and porbeagles, to say nothing of dryads and aegipans.

And rather than preach these heresies openly, I would cloak them in rapturous metaphors and publish them not in detailed systematic treatises but only in poetic hymns composed in a hieratic language of which only the vaguest rumor would reach the profane.

Nor would mine be a cult of cheap mercy. Eftsoons the eavesdroppers and cowan dare impart even a whisper of these dread mysteries to the uninitiated or deviate, I say not openly or materially, but even per accidens, in one neglected iota or hastily construed verb, then would they find themselves punished: stern and emphatic decrees of excommunication, anathemas of such devastating force that the recitation of their first syllables—a mere prolegomena to the litany of bitter curses that would issue forth from the lips of jasmine-robed priests—would inspire the apostate with holy dread and effect instantaneous submission of the intellect to the whole body of my wild doctrine. Then there is the question of the rites, the unspeakable Keatsian ecstasies among the occluded faithful, in hidden groves or atop peaks rarely espied, or else amid the ice-capped polar regions, where, with the slow work of centuries, sublime temples would be erected upon which travelers in ages hence, long after the extinction of my sect, would gaze with approving wonder and wonted dread. . .

I am afraid to say that all of this would be lost on today’s heretics, who betray remarkably little interest in metaphysics. Indeed, the closest most of them ever come to anything resembling genuine theological speculation is in their naive, and largely tacit, belief in universal salvation (not to be confused with the theological virtue of hope, which it in fact mocks). Few if any of them would run afoul of the proscriptions of the ancient councils or of the terrifying sentences of the Quicunque Vult, if for no other reason than that they are unacquainted with them.

Instead, the Church’s enemies have made an idol of a remarkably small number of disordered sexual practices (some also insist upon vexing the faithful with sacrileges that orthodox observers would have found wearily familiar long before O.J. Simpson’s retirement from the National Football League). This is the not exactly Luciferian height of their ambition, which they defend with arguments that I will not even dignify with the epithet of “childish” because to do so would suggest that any well-catechized child presented with them would be capable of anything but almost unbecomingly disdainful laughter.

It is for these reasons that I very much doubt that we are living in the midst of the Great Apostasy. Scripture tells that we know neither the day nor the hour, so the idea cannot of course be dismissed out of hand. But vigilance is not credulity, and my best guess is that when Antichrist arrives, it will be in a world that looks remarkably unlike the present one. I imagine it will be a world in which the Church’s liberty and exaltation are secure, if only because the glib mockery in which the Enemy delights could not otherwise be obtained. It will be, in other words, in something like, but not identical to, that state of affairs which we once designated as “Christendom.” The Enemy in his brief terrestrial thralldom will ape the Church Militant in Her full splendor, just as in heaven he once sought to emulate the monarchy of God.

When this happens, I suspect that rather than simply encourage sins against chastity and charity, as they do at present, his servants will put forth not the view that God does not exist—hard materialism is too supremely unlikely to be an easy sell—but that He is not Himself, and not simply because He commands other than He does, but because He is something other than what He is.

Part of me thinks we should be thankful that the lot of the faithful during the Arian crisis has not fallen to us. Then the fate of Christendom rested upon the ability of hard-headed emperors and bishops hardly relaxed from a permanent missionary posture to appreciate subtle differences among the competing theological formulae pressed upon them. Since then, hundreds of generations have been formed by the Church’s ancient creeds and sustained by Her sacraments. Compared with that of the fourth century’s Christians—to say nothing of what awaits in what I hope is still a remote Armageddon—ours is a comparatively easy task of rejecting a series of increasingly dreary-sounding vices. For this not insignificant grace many thanks are due.

To read more articles like this one,
subscribe to The Lamp here.