The Apostasy of Rome and What it Really Means

“The apostasy of the city of Rome from the vicar of Christ and its destruction by Antichrist may be thoughts so new to many Catholics, that I think it well to recite the text of theologians of greatest repute. First Malvenda, who writes expressly on the subject, states as the opinion of Ribera, Gaspar Melus, Biegas, Suarrez, Bellarmine and Bosius that Rome shall apostatise from the faith, drive away the Vicar of Christ and return to its ancient paganism. …Then the Church shall be scattered, driven into the wilderness, and shall be for a time, as it was in the beginning, invisible hidden in catacombs, in dens, in mountains, in lurking places; for a time it shall be swept, as it were from the face of the earth. Such is the universal testimony of the Fathers of the early Church.”
-Henry Edward Cardinal Manning, The Present Crisis of the Holy See, 1861

The Catholic Church teaches that she will never have any stains or defects in terms of doctrinal and dogmatic teachings.  It also teaches that Rome is the First See. The one who occupies the seat of the papacy is the universal leader of Christendom.  And that it is impossible for any man who occupies this seat to lead the whole Church into heresy.  We are not just talking about infallible statements that have specific conditions.  We are also talking about in general, the pope of Rome can not lead the whole Church into heresy.

So how do we reconcile this with what Cardinal Manning says about Rome losing the faith?  Not just Cardinal Manning, but other theologians and saints (and even Church Fathers). These theologians and saints surely knew what the Catholic Church teaches about indefectibility and infallibility. So, how can they say that the pope of Rome is the Rock of the Church that holds the foundation from falling and yet at the same time teach that Rome can lose the faith?  How can these two positions be reconciled?

It is no doubt that the Church will remain unstained until the end of times. This, the Lord promised us (Matthew 16:17-19).  We will consult Scripture, Catholic theologians, and Church Fathers to make sense of what it means for Rome to lose the faith. 

We will begin with scripture, since it is preeminent.  In speaking about the coming of the Antichrist, St. Paul tells us in 2 Thessalonians 2:3:

Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition,

The word translated as “rebellion” can also be translated as “apostasy”. In fact, the transliteration of the Greek is apostasia. The significance of the word is that its meaning is a falling away from something. Here, St. Paul is telling us that the Antichrist will not arrive at the scene until an Apostasy takes place. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

Before Christ’s second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers. The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the “mystery of iniquity” in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh. (CCC #675)

Since an Apostasy is a falling away from something, who else would be falling away other than true Christians? An atheist cannot become an Apostate. Neither can a Muslim. In order to become an apostate, you must first be in the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church and you must believe in all that it teaches.  With that, we can begin to see a bit of an unraveling of this mystery. The Great Apostasy (or Great Deception) will happen to the Church itself. It’ll be an apostasy from within. This Great Deception will be so great, that it could even lead the elect astray (Matthew 24:24).

In the same work quoted above, Cardinal Manning writes:

In treating of this subject, I shall not venture upon any conjectures of my own, but shall deliver simply what I find either in the Fathers of the Church, or in such theologians as the Church has recognized, namely, Bellarmine, Lessius, Malvenda, Viegas, Suarez, Ribera, and others. 

First, then, what is the revolt? In the original it is called daroa’rao’ia, ‘an apostasy,’ and in the Vulgate, discessio, or ‘a departure.’ Now a revolt implies a seditious separation from some authority, and a consequent opposition to it. … this revolt or apostasy is a separation, not from the civil, but from the spiritual order and authority; for the sacred writers, again and again, speak of such a spiritual separation…-Henry Edward Cardinal Manning, The Present Crisis of the Holy See, 1861

Here, Cardinal Manning summarizes our first point; that of apostasy. Note well that he sees this apostasy or departure as a spiritual one, not a civil one. He also supports this interpretation using the Church Fathers and theologians.

Bellarmine says:

“In the time of Antichrist, Rome shall be desolated and burnt, as we learn from the sixteenth verse of the seventeenth chapter of the Apocalypse.” -Bellarm. de Summo Pontif lib. iv. cap. 4

Lessius says:

“In the time of Antichrist, Rome shall be destroyed, as we see openly from the thirteenth chapter of the Apocalypse;” – Lessius, de Antichristo, demonst. xii.

Malvenda writes:

“But Rome itself in the last times of the world will return to its ancient idolatry, power, and imperial greatness. It will cast out its Pontiff, altogether apostatize from the Christian faith, terribly persecute the Church, shed the blood of martyrs more cruelly than ever, and will recover its former state of abundant wealth, or even greater than it had under its first rulers.” – Malvenda, de Antichristo, lib. iv. cap. 5.

This theme of Rome returning to its pagan ways is a theme that the Church Fathers agree with. The Church Fathers believed that just before the Antichrist’s arrival, Rome will go back to its pagan ways and be destroyed. Before we prove the case from the Fathers, we will first quote Pope Piux IX:

“To act with freedom, as it is just she should, she has always needed the assistance which was suitable to the conditions and the necessities of the age. It is, therefore, by a particular decree of Divine Providence that, at the fall of the Roman Empire and its partition into separate kingdoms, the Roman Pontiff, whom Christ made the head and center of his entire Church, acquired civil power.” -Pope Pius IX, Apostolic Letter Cum Catholica Ecclesia

In other words, after the fall of the Roman Empire, the Pope eventually and organically assumed this temporal and civil power.

Pope St. Leo the Great once wrote:

“That the effect of this ineffable grace might be diffused throughout the world, he prepared the empire of Rome, the expansion of which was extended to the limits which border upon the whole family of all nations. For it was a fitting preparation for the work divinely disposed that many kingdoms should be confederated in one empire, so that the universal preaching of the Gospel should penetrate speedily through those nations whom the government of one city held in unity.” – St. Leo, Serm. lxxxii. t. i. p. 322.

St. Thomas Aquinas, in commenting on this passage, wrote:

“The Roman Empire has not ceased, but is changed from the temporal into the spiritual.” – In lib. lv. Sent. Distinc. xlvi. 1.

Cardinal Manning comments on all this and says:

“…it was not the Roman Empire, or Rome alone, but the kingdom of God which descended upon the whole earth, and from the day of Pentecost spread throughout the circuit of the Roman Empire, with an authority higher than the authority of Rome.” -Henry Edward Cardinal Manning, The Present Crisis of the Holy See, 1861

In other words, the Roman Catholic Church is now, in a sense, the Roman Empire of old. It is with this understanding that Cardinal Manning interprets the Early Church Fathers as teaching that before the Antichrist enters the scene, Rome must first turn to its pagan ways and be destroyed. 

The Prophet Daniel writes:

“Then I desired to know the truth concerning the fourth beast, which was different from all the rest, exceedingly terrible, with its teeth of iron and claws of bronze; and which devoured and broke in pieces, and stamped the residue with its feet; and concerning the ten horns that were on its head, and the other horn which came up and before which three of them fell, the horn which had eyes and a mouth that spoke great things, and which seemed greater than its fellows. As I looked, this horn made war with the saints, and prevailed over them, until the Ancient of Days came, and judgment was given for the saints of the Most High, and the time came when the saints received the kingdom. – Daniel 7:19-22

We shall then say that the 11th horn is the Antichrist. This 11th horn the Church Fathers interpret as Rome and the Antichrist. This horn made war with the saints and prevailed over them until the Ancient of Days (Christ) came. We are reminded here of our Lord when he said, “For false Christs and false prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.” (Matthew 24:2). Let us now consult the Church Fathers and prove our point that the 11th horn is Rome and the occupancy of the Antichrist.

Lactantius Firminianous (4th Century) writes:

“These are the things which are spoken of by the prophets as about to happen hereafter: … The subject itself declares that the fall and ruin of the world will shortly take place; except that while the city of Rome remains it appears that nothing of this kind is to be feared. But when that capital of the world shall have fallen, and shall have begun to be a street, which the Sibyls say shall come to pass, who can doubt that the end has now arrived to the affairs of men and the whole world? It is that city, that only, which still sustains all things; and the God of heaven is to be entreated by us and implored — if, indeed, His arrangements and decrees can be delayed — lest, sooner than we think for, that detestable tyrant should come who will trader-take so great a deed, and dig out that eye, by the destruction of which the world itself is about to fall.” – Divine Institutions, Book VII, Chapter 25, of the Last Times, and of the City of Rome

St Cyril of Jerusalem (4th Century) writes:

But this aforesaid Antichrist is to come when the times of the Roman empire shall have been fulfilled, and the end of the world is now drawing near. There shall rise up together ten kings of the Romans, reigning in different parts perhaps, but all about the same time; and after these an eleventh, the Antichrist, who by his magical craft shall seize upon the Roman power; and of the kings who reigned before him, three he shall humble, and the remaining seven he shall keep in subjection to himself.” – Catechetical Lectures, Lectures XV

St. John Chrysostom (4th Century) writes:

“So indeed he also says here. “Only there is one that restraineth now, until he be taken out of the way,” that is, when the Roman empire is taken out of the way, then he shall come. And naturally. For as long as the fear of this empire lasts, no one will willingly exit himself, but when that is dissolved, he will attack the anarchy, and endeavor to seize upon the government both of man and of God. For as the kingdoms before this were destroyed, for example, that of the Medes by the Babylonians, that of the Babylonians by the Persians, that of the Persians by the Macedonians, that of the Macedonians by the Romans: so will this also be by the Antichrist, and he by Christ, and it will no longer withhold. And these things Daniel delivered to us with great clearness.” – Homilies on Second Thessalonians, Homily IV, 2 Thess 2:6-9

St. Jerome (4th – 5th Century) writes:

“… We should therefore concur with the traditional interpretation of all the commentators of the Christian Church, that at the end of the world, when the Roman Empire is to be destroyed, there shall be ten kings who will partition the Roman world amongst themselves. Then an insignificant eleventh king will arise, who will overcome three of the ten kings, …” – Commentary on Daniel, Chapter 7, Verse 8

St. Augustine (4th Century) writes:

“For what does he [Paul] mean by ‘For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now holdeth, let him hold until he be taken out of the way: and then shall the wicked be revealed?’ [2 Thess 2] I frankly confess I do not know what he means. … However, it is not absurd to believe that these words of the apostle, ‘Only he who now holdeth, let him hold until he be taken out of the way,’ refer to the Roman empire, as if it were said, “Only he who now reigneth, let him reign until he be taken out of the way.’ ‘And then shall the wicked be revealed:’ no one doubts that this means Antichrist.” – City of God Book XX, Chapter 19

We now arrive to the crux of our matter. What does it mean for Rome to lose the faith? What does it mean for Rome to be the seat of the Antichrist? If you were paying close attention to the Malvenda quote above, you would have caught a detail that unravels further the answer to our questions. He says:

“But Rome itself in the last times of the world will return to its ancient idolatry, power, and imperial greatness. It will cast out its Pontiff, altogether apostatize from the Christian faith, terribly persecute the Church, shed the blood of martyrs more cruelly than ever, and will recover its former state of abundant wealth, or even greater than it had under its first rulers.”

Rome will cast out its Pontiff. It will become a religion of paganism. It will not be part of the Church. Malvenda even writes that pagan Rome will “terribly persecute the Church, shed the blood of martyrs more cruelly than ever…” This tells us that we will be dealing with two different organizations. One of God and one of man. We know that the one of God will be that which the Pontiff is head of. He will be cast out from Rome and will reside in a different city. He will be killed shortly after. The Church that will be persecuted will be under this Pontiff. The organization (or man-made church?) will exalt her own Pontiff). The true Church will be headless for a time without a pope.

For the Church with the true Pontiff will appear as though it has ceased to exist. It will be underground. And scattered. Scarce. And the one that takes over Rome will appear as though it is the One True Church since it will have a Pontiff who will be elected who will appear to be humble and holy. Most Catholics will recognize the antipope as the true pope.

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