In my study of history, I’ve noticed a few patterns. One of these is the cycle of impossible situations. It seems that about every ten generations—250 years, sometimes less—the Church is faced with one of these. It is some crisis which threatens to the destroy the whole Church and prove God false. At the time, it is unprecedented—unlike anything the Church has faced up to that point. During such a crisis many think that the world is at an end and start to identify the Antichrist among their contemporaries. Apocalyptic literature begins to proliferate. Yet somehow, against all odds, God delivers His Church once again.
The Lord’s military strategy for Gideon was to reduce his army from 32,000 to 300 lest Israel should glory against me, and say: I was delivered by my own strength (Jdg. 7:2). This tactic doesn’t seem to have changed over the years. If Church history shows us anything, it is that the “liberty and exaltation of Holy Mother Church” with men is impossible: but with God all things are possible (Mt. 19:26). I think it is important for us to remember these things in order to face our own situation. So here I will review a few of these in succession.
Crucifixion and Persecution (33-313)
The Church was born out of the most devasting crisis—the crucifixion of Christ. The Apostles abandoned him alone, and all their hopes were destroyed when he was buried. They were certain now that their movement was at an end. Consider how they felt when He was in the grave—this temptation to despair would be faced by all our fathers in every impossible crisis to come. But we hoped, that it was he that should have redeemed Israel (Lk. 24:21).
Against every conception of human imaginings, our Lord arose and sent them power from on high. Emboldened, they faced the persecution of the Jews and the Romans (the latter being the fiercest empire the world had ever known). St. Paul traveled throughout the empire boldly proclaiming Christ the King.
But even at the death of the last Apostle, the Church was a tiny movement with a handful of adherents which almost no one believed would amount to anything. The triumph predicted in the book of Revelation must have seemed like raving lunacy in 100 AD. The Church was mercilessly and systematically persecuted again and again by the Roman Empire, and somehow they endured and conquered. In 301, Armenia converted. In 313, Constantine revoked the persecutions and began favoring the Church. Suddenly the unthinkable began to happen.
The Arian Crisis (321-381)
No sooner was a shocking triumph begun for the Church but a new crisis arose which quickly engulfed the faithful. The vast majority of bishops denied the divinity of Christ. The stalwart defender of orthodoxy seemed to be only a single bishop, who was mocked as a lunatic with the phrase Athanasius contra mundum (“Athanasius against the world”). It was a brave new Arian world as Jerome lamented, “The whole world groaned, and was astonished to find itself Arian.”
The emperors renewed the persecution against the orthodox, and paganism was even revived by Julian the Apostate. Athanasius was driven from his see again and again. Martyrs shed their blood once more. Churches were seized for the Arian creed. All bishops seemed to abandon the faith as well as the pope. The laity were left alone to fight for truth. Yet once again, against all odds, this raging heresy was beaten back.
The Sassanian and Muhammadan Invasions (602-661)
But as the generations of Arians died away (in the east), a new fracture appeared in Christendom: Monophysitism. This heresy became the cause of the first lasting schism between East and west (the Acadian schism 484-519). It continued as the bishops attempted to resolve it over the successive generations, but by the 6th century bloodshed began to increase between the factions of Christians. While the west was grappling with barbarism, the stability of the east was breaking down as well.
The crisis took a turn for the worst when the divided Eastern Roman Empire could not withstand the incursions of the Sassanians beginning in 602. They penetrated to the Holy City of Jerusalem and even captured the True Cross. The situation was dire, provoking Emperor Heraclius to lead a crusade and recover the True Cross. But he too fell into heresy with another compromise with truth called Monothelitism.
Then the most devastating force arose on the frontier: an army of Arabs with a neo-Arian creed who quickly conquered most of the Christian lands in the East. At this point men were sure that the Apocalypse had come upon them, and numerous eschatological theories were put forth. But a new Athanasius arose who defeated Monothelitism: Maximus the Confessor against the world. The heresy was condemned and the advance of Muhammad was checked.
The First Pornocracy and the Viking Invasion (882-964)
Later, even as the east was experiencing its last great heresy under Iconoclasm, the west experienced a revival and advance under Charlemagne. But around this time a new menace emerged: the Northmen, (“Vikings”) who devastated western Europe like no one had seen before. A new petition was added to various oral litanies: from the fury of the Northmen, deliver us O Lord. They raped and pillaged across the continent, singling out monasteries for destruction.
To make matters worse, the Roman see fell into its first sustained period of corruption. It was a period later known as the Pornocracy, due to the unspeakable acts of sacrilege, profanation, and debauchery committed by the popes and their allies in this time. This hit rock bottom with John XII whom St. Robert Bellarmine called “practically the worst of all pontiffs.”
The people of Rome rebelled against him and the pious Emperor Otto I helped depose the pope and turn the tide against evil men in the hierarchy. This led eventually to the Cluniac reform to cleanse the clergy. Within a few generations St. Peter Damien (1007-1073) was leading the charge against clerical abuse, and shortly later the Gospel was conquering the vicious Northmen. The barbarity of our fathers was being turned into the chivalry of knights for Christendom.
The Great Western Schism (1378-1417)
After a great period of revival in the Church with the glorious 13th century and the Crusade in Southern France and the continued success in Spain, the Church again fell into a period of decline. First, the papacy became the pawn of French politics, a period known as the Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy (1309-1376), or the Avignon Papacy, named for its residence in modern France. This papal palace saw seven popes and five antipopes. Within a generation of this unhappy circumstance, France and England abandoned the glory of the crusade in favor of fighting each other in the Hundred Years War (1337-1453). Then the Black Death hit Europe, which peaked in 1348, and struck dead about half of the population. Bodies were stacked in the streets.
If this situation weren’t bad enough, the Great Western schism broke out in which Europe divided between two different popes. And then a third pope was added. Ecclesiastical revolt was gaining steam between Ockham (d. 1347), Wycliffe (d. 1384), and Huss (d. 1415). Despite this darkness, another Athanasius arose, the miracle-working preacher St. Vincent Ferrer (1350-1419). He is credited with turning back the apocalypse that everyone thought was coming down upon the world. He convinced the adherents of antipope Benedict XIII (whom he himself believed to be the true pope) to remove their obedience from him and give it to the Council of Constance, which eventually resolved the schism.
The Second Pornocracy and the Protestant Looters’ Revolt (1517-1563)
But once again the Church fell into decline as the Renaissance popes took control. The Black Death seems to have killed off most of the good priests, and by 1500 there was widespread debauchery and corruption, while the papacy followed suit with the worst of the worldly. We may call this time the Second Pornocracy due to its imitation of the First. Luther went to Rome and the scandal helped provoke him.
Suddenly Europe erupted in civil war as Protestants began revolting, looting churches and destroying statues. It was the Second Iconoclasm. Princes and kings joined the movement so they could commit adultery and theft with impunity, and were not above getting military aid from the Muhammadans to fight Catholics. The papacy was mired in corruption, and hesitated desperately to address the situation for almost thirty years while destruction reigned.
Finally, with the great efforts of new saints, the Council of Trent was convened and decreed. Despite fierce opposition even from Catholic kings, the Council succinctly clarified the vast majority of Catholic doctrine under attack and laid out the basic program of true reform. Within a few generations the Catholic Church was back on the offensive, winning back souls to the Church and stopping the advance of Protestantism in Europe. More than this, they began to spread the faith throughout the world from China to Japan to North and South America.
The Republican Revolutions (1789-1800)
But even as the Counter-Reformation gained momentum, Pope Urban VIII betrayed the faith. He induced France to side with the Protestants in the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), which turned the tide in favor of the heretics. As France became increasingly secular in the 1700s, a wave of anti-Catholic sentiment stirred among the elites who sought a way out of Catholic order. Finally in 1789, inspired by the American revolutionaries, the French began the revolt known as the French Revolution. This targeted the Church for genocidal attacks and mass murder, helped to justify pornography as free speech, and started to replace Catholic tradition with liberal public education.
Eventually this movement turned into an empire, and Napoleon conquested most of Europe, destroying the Catholic infrastructure everywhere. He captured the pope and brought him to France where he died. The enemies of the faith were proclaiming their victory over the old Catholic order by 1800.
But once again a revival took place, against all opposition. The papacy was revived and the Romantic and Ultramontane movements set off a renewal of Catholicism across Europe. France finally began implementing the Council of Trent, and even restoring Gregorian Chant (which had falled into widespread disuse even in Rome). Bl. Pius IX and Leo XIII both worked to bring about a counter-revolution of Catholicism, and especially Thomism after 1879.
The Third Pornocracy and the New Iconoclasm (1965-Present)
But the world responded by killing each other on the most massive scale ever seen in two world wars, refusing to repent even after the Miracle of the Sun. The errors of Russia spread and eventually found their way into the Church. Corrupt men began wielding power in the Vatican, and by 1965 a violent New Iconoclasm had arisen. The popes and bishops responded with timidity, allowing widespread destruction of statues, churches, liturgy and theology. Marriage began to break down across the world, and the unborn holocaust spread its silent bloodshed. In the late 1970s, the dossier of Cardinal Gagnon showed Paul VI that he was living in the Third Pornocracy, in which the debauchery gripping the Vatican had once against reached nadir levels. John Paul II refused to crack down on it, and by the time Benedict began to act, the evil machine was too strong for him to control. And then Pope Francis.
This story is known all too well, as readers of One Peter Five are aware. But when we look at the context of history, I think it is easier to see our present darkness, though unprecedented, as something that God can handle. And He will. Let us consider the faith of our fathers and the saints who continued the tradition of Athanasius against the world. God permits these things so that we may not ascribe to ourselves any sort of glory, since no man can fix the new unprecedented crisis we face. It is literally impossible to resolve. But not for Almighty God. Let us pass down the faith to our children and never lose hope.
Timothy S. Flanders is the author of Introduction to the Holy Bible for Traditional Catholics. In 2019 he founded The Meaning of Catholic, a lay apostolate. He holds a degree in classical languages from Grand Valley State University and has done graduate work with the Catholic University of Ukraine. He lives in the Midwest with his wife and four children.