The word Catholic translates as “universal” in the sense of“whole and inviolate.”
There is one Truth – Jesus said “I am the way, the Truth, and the Life” – vs. myriad false doctrines. Evil is diverse and varied in its perversions, whereas good is constant and irreducible.
As with Tolstoy’s happy families, the saints express happiness in the same ways, by attaining the virtues and subsuming their identity in Christ – whereas the damned devolve into a downward spiral of increasingly perverse individualized programs of sin.
Of course saints exercise their individuality; some virtues shine through more than others depending on God’s particular will for that person. Some will exemplify prudence while others are noted for their humility. Some were called to witness to God in the vocation of marriage, and others in religious life. Within these delineations, the great diversity of the saints speaks to the universal call to sainthood. How God asks you to live out your vocation is as varied and complex as your person, as He created you.
But the fiat of a saint, perfect unity of the personal will with God’s will, and membership in the body of Christ, reflect a unity of identity and purpose that is completely lacking in Hell. Even when demons act together, it is out of common yet atomized hatred. In Heaven, the saints are all oriented toward God in perfect unity. In Hell, the damned turn hatefully inward into themselves – they made themselves gods on earth; so too is their damnation characterized by solipsistic pride. Hell is populated by little would-be gods, confirmed in pride, devoid even of an inverse unity. They warped their God-given individuality to create cults of the self through sin, which ultimately constitute an infinite number of false religions.
Thus, there are almost as many ways to apostatize as there are to sin.
Satan doesn’t care how you apostatize, nor how “far” you apostatize. Whether you leave the Catholic Church for atheism, “spirituality,” or even Apollo worship; or else Protestantism or Eastern Orthodoxy, they each constitute an act of betrayal that leads to the same place. Even within the Church, all it takes is one mortal sin to be separated from God forever.
Most Catholics today will not be faced with a dramatic moment at which our faith is tested – we will not be asked to performatively apostatize by pinching a grain of incense to the pagan gods, nor step on an icon, nor renounce Christ publicly with a gun to our heads. Generations of Catholics did face this tremendous duress, and still do today – some tragically apostatized under the pressure; others became courageous martyrs who formed the seeds of the Church.
But we will be asked to divide our hearts against Christ. One of the greatest threats to the modern Catholic’s salvation is a kind of slow apostasy – a compromise here and there, a tolerance of blasphemy, a degeneration of moral rigor, a concession on one “small” matter of doctrine. The main vice that propels us to slowly apostatize is an over-valuing of what is called human respect – that is, valuing the opinions and approbation of man over the will of God.
Fr. Vincent Miceli, in his 1981 treatise The Antichrist: the Final Campaign Against the Savior, identifies this temptation toward piecemeal apostasy, comprised of a series of compromises with the world that gradually amount to renunciation of Christ:
“It is not that you will at once reject Catholicism, but you will measure and proportion it by an earthly standard. You will throw its highest and most momentous disclosures into the background; you will deny its principles, explain away its doctrines, rearrange its precepts, and make light of its practices, even while you profess it.”
The siren call of Secularism is so seductive because it minimizes each sin on this track of slow apostasy. We will be made fun of, vilified, called “rigid” for sticking to Catholic orthodoxy and values. “It’s not a big deal,” we hear. Yet these sins compound over time, to the point where a Catholic will begin to commit serious sins against the Church while claiming membership. Such cognitive dissonance cannot be sustained, so the person will either fully apostatize, or grow in courage and return to their former zeal.
Fr. Miceli exposes this pattern of gradual apostasy in Catholic colleges in the latter half of the twentieth century: “Lusting after secular academic excellence, huge student bodies, expensive science complexes, notoriety, publicity, political clout, and financial power, the leaders of Catholic universities somehow lost sight of the unearthly purpose and spirit of the Catholic university.”
Many of these colleges nominally maintained their Catholic identity – but the substance and supernatural faith was gone. Fr. Miceli continues: “These former Catholic universities, like Judas, traitor and forerunner of the Antichrist, have turned over to the enemy for a price, the Christ who is the supreme Teacher and Master of the truly Christian school. When asked why they strive to erase their religious and Catholic character, the religious leaders of these universities display an incoherent inability to define themselves, their policies, their goals or even their continued existence.”
There is perhaps no worse kind of apostate than one who purports to still be Catholic – with the performative external veneer of “Catholic identity,” a sinner can make excuses for a multitude of denials of Christ. As Our Lord made clear, we cannot serve two masters.
So how are we to prevent this divided heart and live fully for Christ? Of course, we must remain close to the prayer and sacraments. But we must realize that life as a Catholic consists in saying no to the world as often as it does in saying yes to God. We have to give up friendships, relationships, feelings of belonging, academic and career opportunities & subsequent material prosperity, etc. that would ask us to renounce Christ.
As Fr. Raoul Plus points out, there are two types of courage: active, heroic courage, and the “passive” courage that consists in magnanimity in suffering. Our Lord Himself perfectly embodied the courage of suffering through His Passion.
While there are times that we may be asked to actively make a stand for the faith, there is a good chance that our martyrdom will be slow and white.
The call of every Catholic is martyrdom: be it the red martyrdom of death or the white martyrdom of prolonged suffering. The particular challenge of white martyrdom in today’s world consists in being constantly on guard against these devious temptations to renounce Christ in small ways, which over time can amount to a large and fatal act of apostasy. Yet we should be confident and hopeful – centuries of saints bore heavier crosses and triumphed. God designed each of us to be alive at this time and knows we can bear this unique cross for His glory.
Editor’s note: the above quotations are taken from Fr. Vincent Miceli’s The Antichrist: the Final Campaign Against the Savior, available now from Sophia Institute Press.