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Fr. Timothy Zapelena, S.J.

Pre-Vatican II Theologian: Catholicity of Church “Very Restricted” during Great Apostasy


The dome of St. Peter’s Basilica as seen through the keyhole of the entrance portal of the Magistral Villa on the Aventine Hill in Rome (image: shutterstock.com / Simone Migliaro)

Earlier this month we published a post on St. Augustine of Hippo writing to one Bp. Hesychius regarding the Church’s visibility during the Great Apostasy before Christ returns:

The question of the visibility of the Church is a crucial one, for the Church founded by Christ is visible by her very nature and she must ever remain in her essential constitution exactly the way Christ founded her: “But since the Church is such [having both visible and invisible elements] by divine will and constitution, such it must uniformly remain to the end of time. If it did not, then it would not have been founded as perpetual, and the end set before it would have been limited to some certain place and to some certain period of time; both of which are contrary to the truth” (Pope Leo XIII, Encyclical Satis Cognitum, n. 3).

What does it mean for the Church to be visible? Fr. Elwood Sylvester Berry (1879-1954), an American seminary professor, explains:

When we say that the Church of Christ is visible, we mean primarily, that it is a society of men with external rites and ceremonies and all the external machinery of goverment by which it can easily be recognized as a true society. But we further maintain that the Church of Christ also has certain marks by which it may be recognized as the one true Church founded by Christ when He commissioned the Apostles to convert all nations. In other words, we maintain that the Church of Christ is formally visible, not only as a society known as a Christian Church, but also as the one true Church of Christ. Furthermore, we maintain that the Church of Christ is so clearly visible that it may easily be recognized by all as the true Church. It has marks so evident that all who see it may say with certainty: “This is the true Church of Christ.” This, of course, does not mean that all will actually recognize it as such; those blinded by passion and prejudice can no more recognize the true Church than the Pharisees of old could recognize its Divine Founder. The man who closes his eyes cannot even see the sun in its noonday splendor.

(Rev. E. Sylvester Berry, The Church of Christ: An Apologetic and Dogmatic Treatise [Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1955], p. 37. Novus Ordo Watch makes a small commission on purchases made through this Amazon link. An earlier edition of this book can be found for free online here.)

The whole point of the Church’s visibility, then, is that she is visible as the Church Jesus Christ founded; that is, that she is uniquely identifiable as the Church of Christ, and not as some heretical sect or other society.

It solves nothing, therefore, to point to the impressive hierarchical organization that is the Vatican II Sect and proclaim its hard-to-miss visibility as evidence that it is the Church founded by Christ. For this New Church of Vatican II is not substantially the same as the Church once shepherded by Pope Pius XII, as even the Novus Ordo authorities admit from time to time, more or less candidly:

The present blog post will furnish an example from a renowned pre-Vatican II theologian addressing a related question, albeit in a rather limited way. The question concerns the Church’s attribute of catholicity. The term “catholicity” means “universality” and is professed to be an essential property of the Church in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed: “I believe in … one holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church” (Denz. 86).

Before we get to the renowned theologian, however, we will first let Fr. Berry explain the basics regarding the Church’s catholicity:

The idea of diffusion, or extension, throughout the world has so predominated in the notion of universality that the term Catholic is now used almost exclusively in that sense. …

Catholicity of diffusion may be either de jure or de facto. The Church is catholic or universal de jure (by right) because it is destined for the salvation of all men, and therefore endowed with the ability to spread to all parts of the world to fulfill that mission; it is catholic de facto (in fact) when actually diffused or spread throughout the world. All who admit that Christ founded any church at all, must admit that it is Catholic de jure, — that it was commissioned by Christ to carry salvation to all nations, and that it was consequently endowed with the ability to spread throughout the world for this purpose. Hence de jure Catholicity is an essential property possessed by the Church of Christ from the first moment of her existence. It is immediately evident that de facto Catholicity could only come with the lapse of time, and gradually increase with the passing centuries, until the Church becomes completely Catholic, embracing all nations, tribes, and tongues. Therefore de facto Catholicity is not an essential property of the Church in the sense that it must have been present at all times from the very beginning; it is an essential property in the sense that it necessarily flows from the very nature of the Church as a society destined to carry the Gospel to all nations.

(Berry, The Church of Christ, p. 69; italics given.)

Having thus explained that the Church’s catholicity refers primarily to her extension throughout the world, and having clarified that she need not be actually so extended at all times by her very nature, we can now better understand how the Church’s catholicity is compatible with the Great Apostasy foretold by St. Paul, which he said would precede the Second Coming of our Blessed Lord: “Do not let anyone find the means of leading you astray. The apostasy must come first; the champion of wickedness must appear first, destined to inherit perdition” (2 Thess 2:3; Knox translation).

The Roman Catechism, published shortly after the Council of Trent in the 16th century, teaches the following regarding three conditions that must be fulfilled before God judges the world:

The Sacred Scriptures inform us that the general judgment will be preceded by these three principal signs: the preaching of the Gospel throughout the world, a falling away from the faith, and the coming of Antichrist. This gospel of the kingdom, says our Lord, shall be preached in the whole world, for a testimony to all nations, and then shall the consummation come. The Apostle also admonishes us that we be not seduced by anyone, as if the day of the Lord were at hand; for unless there come a revolt first, and the man of sin be revealed, the judgement will not come.

(Catechism of the Council of Trent, The Creed: Article VII; underlining added.)

As Bp. Donald Sanborn notes in his sermons on Antichrist, the first condition, that of the Gospel having reached every corner of the world, was probably fulfilled during the reign of Pope Pius XI (1922-39). What must still precede the coming of the Antichrist, then, is the “falling away from the faith”, and it seems hard to deny that the fulfillment of that condition began decades ago, thanks chiefly to the so-called Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The near-universal apostasy either has been entirely fulfilled by now or is still being fulfilled at the present time.

Regarding this loss of Faith by the vast majority of Catholics, the Jesuit theologian Fr. Timothy Zapelena (1883-1962), who taught at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, writes the following in his ecclesiology manual regarding the catholicity of the Church towards the end of time:

[Objection 10:] However, the truth is, at the end of the world catholicity will be absent, as is clear from Lk 18:8: “But yet the Son of Man, when he cometh, shall he find, think you, faith on earth?” But catholicity presupposes unity of faith. Therefore…

Answer. I distinguish the major [premise]: That at the end of the world, living faith will be lacking in many, I grant; that all faith [will be lacking] according as there is an apostasy of all or of most—[this] the second premise demonstrates. Very decidedly, “then shall many be scandalized … and many false prophets shall rise, and shall seduce many. And because iniquity hath abounded, the charity of many shall grow cold” (Mt 24:10-12). But if at the end of the world apostasy of such a kind actually were to be the case in most men, it would be necessary to think of catholicity in such a manner that it must be understood in a very restricted sense as a stage immediately and very shortly preceding the consummation of the world. However, the difficulty relates to the end of the world, not the existence of the Church throughout the ages, about which we especially speak in this thesis.

(Rev. Timoteo Zapelena, S.J., De Ecclesia Christi: Pars Apologetica [Rome: Gregorian, 1955], p. 489; italics given; underlining added. Translation by Novus Ordo Watch.)

The way this is formulated will sound odd to many readers’ ears, as Fr. Zapelena is using the linguistic conventions of scholastic argumentation.

The key takeaway here is that the renowned dogmatic theologian does two things that are of particular interest to us today: (a) he notes that prior to the end of the world, the Church’s catholicity (universality) will be greatly restricted, and (b) he explicitly draws a distinction between the Church’s catholicity just before the end of the world and her catholicity throughout the ages.

These two observations are important because they confirm that the Church can retain her essential property of catholicity and yet not manifest it in quite the same way as it was throughout most of Church history and as would therefore typically be expected. Just as the Church was but a “little flock” (Lk 12:32) at the very beginning, so it seems she will once again be at the end, at least for a time.

For those not familiar with Fr. Zapelena’s distinction between “living Faith” and “dead Faith”, the difference is that those Catholics who are in the state of sanctifying grace have a living Faith (that is, a Faith animated by supernatural charity; cf. Gal 5:6; Jas 2:24), whereas those Catholics who are in mortal sin have a dead Faith. Whether it be living or dead, however, a Catholic’s Faith is always a true Faith. The Council of Trent was absolutely insistent on this point: “If anyone shall say that together with the loss of grace by sin, faith also is always lost, or that the faith that remains is not a true faith, though it be not a living one, or that he, who has faith without charity, is not a Christian: let him be anathema” (Session 6, Canon 28; Denz. 838).

This dogma regarding dead Faith being nevertheless a true Faith and a Catholic in mortal sin still being a true Catholic has enormous implications for the visibility of the Church. For, if a Catholic ceased to be a member of the Church upon committing mortal sin, then, since most mortal sins are committed in secret, it would be impossible to know who is and is not a Catholic, and the Church would be essentially invisible, which is a Protestant heresy. This is explained at some length in the following posts:

The passage from Fr. Zapelena’s De Ecclesia Christi regarding the Church’s catholicity during the Great Apostasy will hopefully be of help to all Catholics who are tempted to doubt or compromise given the enormous challenges to the Faith in our difficult times.

Another consoling and edifying resource in that regard is the following lecture, given at the 2021 Fatima Conference hosted by the Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen (CMRI):

May God have mercy on us all, and may Our Lady of La Salette guide us safely through these most tumultuous times to that heavenly abode where we may see her Divine Son face to Face!

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