One of the most enigmatic tropes in the New Testament can be found in St. Paul’s comments to the Thessalonians (2 Thess 2) about the “mysterium iniquitatis”: the mystery of “lawlessness” or “evil” he tells us is “already at work.” This is a pervasive and apocalyptic evil able to inhabit and control human hearts, worldly powers, and worst of all, the earthly reality of Christ’s own mystical body, the Church.
Apocalypse and antichrist
At this point in these trying days for the Church, I’m inclined to think that we must reflect more urgently on this provoking Pauline perspective. This is, of course, by no means an easy or safe task. Disturbing, delusional, or fanatical possibilities await at every turn. The mysterium iniquitatis is therefore perhaps one of the more embarrassing New Testament themes, certainly for what passes as “civilized” (read: bourgeois) Catholic discourse today, which eagerly grasps at every opportunity to “spiritualize” away as much of it as possible. One can quite confidently expect accusing cries of “fundamentalist!” to ring in the ears of those who today take up this theme with any degree of seriousness.
And yet this teaching, along with the perspectives of apocalypse and antichrist that are part and parcel of it, is by no means peripheral to the New Testament as a whole: St. Peter and St. John pull no punches either. Properly understood, the mysterium iniquitatis furnishes an essential dramatic and eschatological dimension to Christian anthropology that we, heirs and citizens of the “flattest,” most dramatically and eschatologically arid eras of history (i.e. secular modernity), are wont to forget.
Here’s how St. Paul presents the teaching to the Thessalonians. He speaks, cryptically, about a “lawless one” (or, as one freer translation puts it, a “real dog of Satan”) (v. 3) who will “seat himself in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God” (v. 4). This, he assures his listeners, has not yet come to pass; but “the mystery of lawlessness is already at work” (v. 7). In more reassuring (but no less apocalyptic) vein he goes on to speak of the ultimate triumph over the lawless one, whom Jesus “will kill with the breath of his mouth and render powerless by the manifestation of his coming” (v. 8).
What’s most disturbing about this passage, of course, is how we’re told to look for an evil that will incubate in the heart of God’s own dwelling place—his “temple”—and even, as Paul tells the Ephesians, in the “heavenly places” (Eph 6:12). In other words, the worst evil is not outside the gates; it’s not even at the gates. Rather, the worst evil is always already inside the gates, at the very heart of the existential reality of faith, in us, in the Church.
Here we encounter the paradox that no person and certainly not the institutional machinery of the Church (“Surely not I, Lord?” (Matt 26:22), usually want to really confront. But what is confronted brutally and honestly by St. Paul is this unthinkable possibility: that the worst evils might be most at home and, indeed, find the most scope for their manifestation and legitimation in that which is most sacred.
Yet this should not be surprising if we consider what evil is in its essence. If evil is a “privation of the good,” this means that it cannot work on its own; it requires a host. In order to manifest itself evil must take a good thing and corrupt and desecrate it from within, transforming by parasitisation the icon into the idol. “Vice mimics virtue,” says St. Cyril of Jerusalem. Here’s the scary part: the more perfect the good, the more scope for evil to mimic and subvert.
Thus, in order to effect the most perfect corruption and desecration of everything good and pure, Satan—the personification of evil, antichrist, whom Scripture calls “a liar, and the father of lies” (John 8:44)—relentlessly pursues the best so that the worst might be that much more effective a lie. It’s nicely expressed in the ancient Latin idiom: corruptio optima quae est pessima—the corruption of the best is the worst.
The assault on “the temple”
The genuinely disturbing implication of St. Paul’s teaching is therefore that we should expect—and not deceive ourselves—to find the most horrible possibilities in our own hearts, our own hands, and our own community. St. Paul’s reference to the temple, God’s dwelling place, is crucial in this regard. In a broad sense, “temple” represents those sacred and holy places where God’s presence is manifest (e.g. the Jerusalem temple). The holiest of these is Christ himself, the Son, the “temple” par excellence (cf. John 1:14), who pours himself out for his bride (cf. Eph 5), the Church, who in turn becomes the Sacrament of Salvation for all mankind, generating the children of God, sanctifying and purifying them for perfect union with the Father. We ourselves, bearers of the divine image, adopted into the eternal mystery as sons in the Son and bride of Christ, are in the entirety of our bodily selves sacramental temples of the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Cor 3:16-17; 1 Cor 6:19).
This means, then, that what evil will attack and corrupt most virulently is precisely the mystery of baptismal adoption, eucharistic presence, Holy Orders, and sacramental marriage—the central ecclesial, sacramental, and liturgical modes of God’s “temple,” the highest realities of truth, worship, and love. It explains a lot, I think.
This is the deep paradox of the Incarnation: even as the gift of the Son offers the possibility for the best, it also adds to the scope of the worst. It makes a more perfect, more demonic rejection of Christ possible. This is why David Bentley Hart argues—so effectively—that nihilism could only become possible after Christ; you could not have Nietzsche, with his frighteningly polished embrace of anti-value, without the Incarnation.
But St. Paul recognizes that the Incarnation does not just sharpen the existing conflict between good and evil, but in fact starts its final countdown. This is what the apocalyptic mode of antichrist is all about. And if this plays out in the summons to each adopted child of God to fight antichrist in the dramatic arc of their own lives, to “put on the armor of God” against the “devil’s schemes” (Eph 6:11) and the “spiritual forces of evil” (Eph 6:13), it also sets the fate of the world itself on its final trajectory. “Apocalypse,” both in the sense of unveiling and ultimate catastrophe, thus perfectly expresses the new dramatic trajectory that the Incarnation has set us on. Salvation and redemption are the beginning of the end. The truth of Christ is simultaneously the activation of the greatest evil, one that will cause the catastrophic end of the age: and it will happen—is always happening—from and at the very heart of the Church, God’s dwelling place (if this sounds, well, apocalyptic, consult the Catechism’s treatment of the theme, cf. especially CCC 675; Catholics should believe in this stuff too).
It’s in this context that we must not shrink from the extent to which evil can and will operate in the innermost recesses of God’s temple, the Church. Evil’s power extends, not just to corruption of individual hearts and minds, but in some sense to the institutional dimension of the Church itself. This accords, I think, with what St. Paul is trying to say in 2 Thessalonians (although how far it’s to be taken is the difficult point; both anti-Catholic bigotry and Catholic “progressivism” see an ideological wedge here). It was the contention of enigmatic Croatian-Austrian intellectual Ivan Illich, a radical critic of modern institutions, that serious awareness that the best can become the worst, that the Church itself as an entire institution could easily adopt modes more typical of the “whore of Babylon” (Rev 17:1–18) was very early on in the history of Christianity effectively sublimated. For Illich, explains David Cayley, this has come with a price: “by abandoning this goad to self-criticism and self-awareness, on which it should have centered its faith, the Church disowned its own shadow,” thereby rendering itself “less and less capable of discerning in the image of antichrist its own tendency to substitute power for faith….”
“Get behind me, Satan.”
But one need look no further for vivid corroboration of this “shadow side” than chapter 16 of Matthew’s Gospel. In verse 18 we have Christ’s words to Peter that have inspired the dogmas of the indefectibility and infallibility of the Church: “you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” And yet, just 4 verses later we see Christ turn savagely on Peter, telling him “Get behind me, Satan. You are an obstacle [literally, skandalon] to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (v. 23).
My point is not, I wish to make clear, to deny the indefectibility and infallibility of the Church. Nor should we become fixated on the largely unanswerable question of the extent to which this pope or that pope is literally a figure of the “lawless one” or not. The important point, rather is to be attentive to the more general character of Paul’s cryptic insistence that a “hell” of a lot of deception, manipulation, and corruption (evil!) will operate in some way even inside the assurance of indefectibility and infallibility. It’s at this level that we must attend to Christ’s description of Peter—the first pope—as a stumbling block, and yes, even as “Satan.”
Here we face an “enigma,” a “hard saying” (and Christ has a few of these) not amenable to easy answers or control by merely juridical and rationalist categories. According to both Christ and St. Paul, then, there must be real acknowledgment that no pope, simply by virtue of being pope, is thereby immune from becoming an instrument of evil. And it’s also to affirm that somehow the office of the pope will be used by Satan as the instrument of evil par excellence. Every pope must therefore face this test and trial.
It’s not surprising that we should prefer to accent the reassuring message of verse 18: what institution wants to be up-front about an evil inside itself corrupting and perverting its operations and destroying its credibility? But indefectibility and infallibility in principle mean little, particularly for the “little ones” (cf. Matt 18:6) if the gatekeepers of the Church in any historical here and now are in the grip of heresy, apostasy, and false witness, especially at the level of praxis—it’s small, no, delusional consolation to appeal to theoretical doctrinal coherence and integrity while at the level of practices everything else is in pieces. My point, said with great caution, is that downplaying the mysterium iniquitatis capable of being actively propagated even by the Church’s highest office may well represent a crucial historical blind spot as regards treatment of Christ’s promise to Peter.
Modernity, the illegitimate progeny
There’s one more piece of the puzzle, particularly important for our own historical epoch: the way in which the mysterium iniquitatis at the heart of the Church comes to be mirrored in the world. Extending his reflection on the mysterium iniquitatis, Illich advanced the radical thesis that the modes and institutions of modernity were not post-Christian as much as they were perversely Christian—parodic perversions of faith bled of the vital sap of the New Testament, perhaps the beginning of the definitive (apocalyptic) “betrayal of Christian faith.” In other words, think of modernity as the illegitimate progeny of the Church’s own worst mode of itself, an extension of ecclesial perversion into the heart of the world. It’s a weird idea: the worst things in the world come from the Church. We’d prefer it to be the other way round.
This might be a bitter pill to swallow: for we’d be crazy not to regard some developments of modernity as salutary, i.e. universal rights, modern medicine, technology, democracy, etc., all undeniably of Christian inspiration and which have in remarkable ways raised standards of living, stamping out immense suffering. And yet, note how each of these “salutary” gifts of modernity can be employed, with moralizing imperatives that brook little dissent, for evils capable of destroying the person, communities, cultures, if not the world itself: e.g. a “right” to abortion—embryo experimentation and sex reassignment surgery—the atomic bomb—the “dictatorship of relativism.” Here’s the point: but is not this profound ambiguity precisely what we should expect from antichrist? Weave evil with good so it becomes well-nigh impossible to distinguish and extricate the two. Trap souls and bodies in what John Paul II called “structures of sin,” where material cooperation with evil becomes almost impossible to avoid, where simple social and cultural acts become freighted with a nihilism that works like a cancer on those who perform them.
Illich was struck by the fact that “apocalyptic modernity’s” greatest stroke is to consummate a trend that had already been long gestating in the worst tendencies of institutional Christianity: to overcome the gratuity, radicality, freedom, intimacy, and foolishness of Christian love with stifling procedural, bureaucratic, corporate, and professional modes; and as a final flourish, we might add, to then convince the Church to ape these modes of its own perversion and thus unwittingly cooperate in its own destruction (surely, this is evil’s greatest stroke). The transformation can be subtle enough not to notice. But then, one day, you wake up and the deepest New Testament modes of existential, Gospel faith—including the mysterium iniquitatis—appear as incomprehensible, fundamentalist nonsense, an embarrassment to “respectable” ecclesial discourse in Catholic institutions.
All of this is why Illich concluded ominously that “I believe this to be, paradoxically, the most obviously Christian era which might be quite close to the end of the world.”
Watch and pray
Thus ends a rather bleak, and by no means complete, reflection; but one, I think, with great explanatory power. Note that none of it precludes the truth that “where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more” (Rom 5:20). Christ has already triumphed over the lawless one. But this victory cannot to be an excuse for lethargy and blindness to the very real evil that this victory has unleashed. If the mysterium iniquitatis should not be the occasion for cheap attacks on the Church as divine institution per se, neither should we deny the profound ambiguity that Christ’s second words to Peter represent. The mysterium iniquitatis must be permitted as a goad forcing recognition that the central mode evil takes on is the corruption of the best for the worst, as the Gospel itself warns.
What always remains for us is to pray: “watch and pray that you will not fall into temptation” (Matt 26:41). And know that Christ always abides with us in this fight against evil:
One more thing, friends: Pray for us. Pray that the Master’s Word will simply take off and race through the country to a groundswell of response, just as it did among you. And pray that we’ll be rescued from these scoundrels who are trying to do us in. I’m finding that not all ‘believers’ are believers. But the Master never lets us down. He’ll stick by you and protect you from evil (2 Thess 3: 1–3).
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!