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Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Great Apostasy: A Catholic Response

The Great Apostasy:
A Catholic Response

Note: This article is not meant to single out Mormons (for whom I have great affection) for criticism.  However, the Great Apostasy is the foundational Mormon doctrine, and is a direct attack at the claims made by the Catholic Church.  Therefore, it is imperative that Catholics understand how to respond when we are inevitably challenged.

          If you have Mormon friends or family, and if you’ve ever discussed religion with them, you have probably encountered the theory of the “Great Apostasy.”  It is the foundational doctrine of Mormonism and the reason why they say we should leave the Catholic Church.  So what is the Great Apostasy, and is it true?
          The Great Apostasy is central to the Mormon understanding of Church history.  One thing the Latter-Day Saints (LDS – Mormons) get right is that they do see clearly that Jesus established a visible Church, with hierarchy and authority.  They will generally agree that the Catholic Church can trace its roots back to that original Church that Jesus established.  If the Catholic Church is the Church Jesus founded 2,000 years ago (a point on which Catholics and Mormons generally agree), why shouldn’t one belong to it?
          Because, the Mormon teaching goes, that Church fell into complete and total apostasy very early and replaced the true (Mormon) gospel with a false (Catholic) gospel.  So the Holy Spirit left the Church, Jesus was no longer the Head of that Body, and there was no true Church left on the Earth.  Jesus had to restore the gospel through a new Church, which He established through the New York farm boy Joseph Smith in the 1820s.
          That is the Mormon claim.  Missionaries will tell you that story with confidence.  They will say that throughout the centuries there were reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin, who recovered parts of the original gospel message, but there was no way to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.  There needed to be a new Church, with new authority, established in these latter days.  That is the LDS Church.
          This may sound completely unbelievable to us, but there are 10 million people who take it seriously and they are pulling Catholics out of the Church, so we had better know how to respond.  There are some simple ways to show, not only that the Great Apostasy didn’t happen, but that it couldn’t happen.  The following is certainly not exhaustive, but hopefully a good start.
          Since we do share some common ground over the nature of the Church, we should be able to establish that the question of the Great Apostasy should have direct impact on a Mormon’s assessment of the Catholic Church.
          The first place I would go to show that the Great Apostasy is a falsehood is the Scriptures.  Since Mormons use the King James translation of the Bible, that is what I will quote here.
          First, we turn to Matthew 28:19,20, in which Jesus commissions His disciples to make disciples of all nations.  Since this is something that could only be accomplished after the lifetimes of the eleven men hearing Him on that day, clearly He is commissioning the entire Church.  Look at verse 20: “lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” (Scriptural emphases added throughout)  If the Great Apostasy happened, that statement of Jesus is a lie.
          Next, turn to John 14:16.  “And I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter, that He may abide with you forever.”  How long does Jesus say the Comforter (the Holy Spirit) will abide with the Church?  Forever.
          Turn to Matthew 16:18 – “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”  Jesus is building His Church on the rock.  What does He say about the man who built his house on rock in Matthew 7:25?  And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.”
          Our Mormon friend may come back with some Scripture of his own, such as 1Tim 4:1 – “Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith…”  Notice that the passage says some will depart from the faith.  In every such passage we hear that some, or even many, will fall away.  In and of itself that implies that not all will fall away.  No total apostasy.
          Besides, look at Matthew 13:24-30.  When the enemy sows weeds with the wheat, what does the Master say?  “Let them grow together until the harvest; then they will be separated.” 
Finally, in Ephesians 3:21, St. Paul says, “Unto him be glory in the church by Jesus Christ throughout all ages, world without end.”  Not only was there no total apostasy, if we take God’s Word seriously, there couldn’t be one.
          Scripture is only one tool to use to show that the Great Apostasy never happened.  The next is history, particularly the writings of the Fathers of the Church.  The myriad of writings from men who learned the Faith at the feet of the Apostles – St. Clement of Rome (disciple of St. Peter); St. Polycarp and St. Ignatius of Antioch (disciples of St. John); Sts. Irenaeus and Justin Martyr only slightly later, are powerful evangelical tools.  And there are many, many more.  Not only do they demonstrate that the Great Apostasy never happened, they show without a doubt, that the early Church was Catholic.
          Look at just a few quotes:
St. Ignatius of Antioch (A.D. 110):
Make certain, therefore, that you all observe one common Eucharist; for there is but one Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, and but one cup of union with his Blood, and one single altar of sacrifice – Letter to the Philadelphians
[The heretics] abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes – Letter to the Smyrnaens
St. Justin Martyr (A.D. 151):
For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive [the Eucharist]; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nurtured, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus – First Apology
St. Irenaeus (A.D. 180 – Irenaeus was a student of St. Polycarp, who received the Faith from St. John the Apostle):
For with this Church [in Rome], because of its superior origin, all Churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world; and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the Apostolic tradition – Against Heresies
          There are only three ways to explain this:
1)     These men received the Gospel from the Apostles, but intentionally and universally corrupted it, in exactly the same way, throughout the world.  This would be an incredible task since they lived throughout the Mediterranean world and would have found it hard to communicate or even know of each other.  It is further incredible because these men died horrific deaths for their faith.  No one would die such terrible deaths for what they knew to be a lie, yet all these men courageously faced martyrdom.
So, scenario 1 seems very implausible.  How about scenario 2? Even more unrealistic.
2)     The Fathers died as martyrs for the Catholic Gospel because they received it from the Apostles, but it was the Apostles that took the true (Mormon) gospel, intentionally corrupted it, and then passed on that corruption to their disciples.  This may be more possible on a practical level since the Apostles all knew each other and were all together, so they could have master-minded such a scheme.  But they also had personal contact with Jesus, and had their lives transformed by Him.  Why would they betray Him now?  And like the fathers, they too died horrific deaths as martyrs for their faith.  There’s no way it was a corruption.

3)     The only explanation left is the true one.  The reason these men died for their Catholic Faith is because it is exactly what was given to them by Jesus.  He gave it to the Apostles, who witnessed to it by their lives; they gave it to the fathers, who also witnessed to it by their lives.

Of course, if you follow that line of reasoning where it leads, there’s no denying it leads to Rome.  Whether a Mormon or Protestant or Jehovah’s Witness, even once they discover the fathers, there will still be many questions and misconceptions to clarify.  We need to be patient and loving and supportive of their journey.
And we also need to support fellow Catholics.  Like St. Peter, we need to strengthen our brothers, so they (and we) will not be pulled from the bosom of the Church, the Body of Christ.