Is Francis a false prophet? Some Catholics claim that he is. They refer to him as “the false prophet, the forerunner of the antichrist.” However, before addressing the charge it’s important to ask a prior question—namely, is it at all possible for such a thing to happen? Could the Cardinals possibly make such a bad choice?
I raise the question because some—if not many—Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit protects the Church from making such an error. This belief is connected to the doctrine of infallibility—the belief that a pope is protected from making serious errors in matters of faith and morals when he speaks ex Cathedra. The reasoning is that, even if the Cardinals should elect a “bad” pope, he is still protected from promulgating erroneous doctrines.
But, as history teaches, it’s more complicated than that. For example, over the course of centuries quite a few antipopes have sat on the throne of Peter. I suspect that many Catholics are under the impression that the term “antipope” was made up by critics of Pope Francis is order to delegitimize him. Yet the Catholic Encyclopedia lists about 30 antipopes in the 2000-year history of the papacy. An antipope is a person who, though not duly elected, claims to be pope, or is proclaimed as pope while a legitimately elected pope is still in office. The claims of the antipopes were a source of great confusion in the Church. It was not always easy to resolve the competing claims of popes and antipopes, and some of the antipopes were widely accepted as true popes, and some ruled for years.
So, the charge of antipope is not unprecedented, and the possibility that another antipope could be elected is not out of the question.
Another widely misunderstood Catholic teaching is that the pope cannot commit heresy. But, once again, it’s not that simple. Theologians distinguish between material heresy and formal heresy. A material heretic is one who holds a heretical opinion but is unaware that it is contrary to revealed truths. A formal heretic, by contrast, realizes that his opinion contradicts Catholic teaching yet continues to cling to his own belief in an obstinate and persistent fashion.
According to Professor of Theology, Jacob Wood, “most theologians would agree that a pope could be a material heretic, just like any other well-meaning but misinformed Catholic.” Moreover, he continues, “He wouldn’t be culpable for any sin or guilty of any [canonical]crime.”
That might come as a surprise to many Catholics. Even more surprising is Wood’s assertion that “theologians are divided as to whether the pope could ever be a formal heretic.” Catholic philosopher, Edward Feser, seems to agree that this is a real possibility and he provides a long list of popes “who have erred, in some cases in an extremely serious way.”
Interestingly, his list begins with St. Peter: “As if to warn the Church in advance that popes are infallible only within limits, the first pope was allowed to fall into serious error. Before the crucifixion, he denied Christ.”
But although the beliefs and action of some popes on his list are quite shocking, Feser does not accuse any of them of formal heresy—perhaps because their statements were not promulgated ex Cathedra. In short, the doctrine of papal infallibility does not prevent all error:
“The sober truth is that Christ sometimes lets his Vicar err, only within definite limits but sometimes gravely. Why? In part because popes, like all of us, have free will.”
Cardinal Ratzinger seems to have held a similar view. When asked if the Holy Spirit plays a role in the election of popes, he responded.
“I would not say so in the sense that the Holy Spirit picks out the pope, because there are too many contrary instances of popes the Holy Spirit would obviously not have picked. I would say that the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather like a good educator… leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us. Thus, the Spirit’s role should be understood in a much more elastic sense…” (quoted in John Allen, Conclave).
If Ratzinger is correct, we would have to wonder not only about the amount of protection from error afforded to the pope but also about the degree of protection provided to the Cardinal Electors.
We’ve already seen that papal electors are not protected from electing an antipope, and they are not protected from electing a pope who falls into serious, though not necessarily formal heresy.
With this in mind, let’s return to the initial question: “Does the Holy Spirit protect the College of Cardinals from electing a false prophet as pope?
I would venture that it is possible. For one thing, a pope is normally chosen from the College of Cardinals, many of whom hold to false doctrines about marriage, the ordination of women, homosexuality, chastity, abortion, moral relativity, and so forth. So, there is no shortage of candidates who are already in the business of leading the faithful astray. For another thing, the Holy Spirit would be reluctant to override the free will of the Cardinals. Thirdly, as Cardinal Ratzinger pointed out, the Spirit has already allowed papal electors to pick some awful people, some of whom were both morally and doctrinally compromised.
Finally, we have the word of Christ that many false prophets will arise: “Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Mt. 7: 15). In addition, warnings about false prophets can be found throughout the epistles. And neither Christ nor the apostles suggested that the Church’s leadership would be immune to infiltration by false prophets. Jesus cautions the disciples that even the elect will be targeted: “for false Christ’s and false prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect (Mt. 34: 24).
One of the chief talents of these false prophets is their ability to deceive. They are difficult to detect because they “come to you in sheep’s clothing.”
Of course, detection would be more difficult still if the deceiver were dressed as a shepherd. No one would suspect the shepherd of being a wolf/false prophet. Which brings us back to Francis, the chief shepherd of the Church.
If he were a false shepherd, how would we know? How would he act? Well, as Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano observed in a recent talk, Francis would act exactly as he is acting now. He would proliferate “declarations and behaviors completely foreign to what is expected of a pope.”
But, if he were a false prophet, he would do this in a deceptive way—at least initially. He would avoid teaching in an ex-Cathedra fashion. Indeed, he would harshly criticize the Church’s past emphasis on doctrine. And instead of making abrupt and radical changes he would introduce changes in a gradual way and cloak them in therapeutic language such as “accompaniment,” “listening,” and “inclusiveness.”
In short, a false prophet pope would employ what might be called a wink-and-a-nod approach. He would elevate people whose views coincide with his own to positions of authority, encourage them to dialogue freely about issues of concern to “the people of God,” wait for them to voice the radical changes that he desires, and eventually declare himself open to same-sex blessings, the ordination of women, communion for those in irregular situations—or whatever other changes the Spirit is supposedly calling for.
However, as the First Vatican Council emphasized, the Holy Spirit is not exactly a free spirit. He is bound by his own rules:
“For the holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles.”
But it often seems that Francis prefers “new doctrines” to the “old” ones. In fact, Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez, the new head of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, has taken to talking about the “pope’s doctrine.” Increasingly, however, we are left to wonder if the “pope’s doctrine” has anything to do with the doctrine of Christ. For example, Francis’ oft-repeated criticism of conversion seems to be a direct contradiction of Christ’s command to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt.28:19). And his openness to same-sex blessings stands in contrast to Christ’s insistence that marriage is a one-flesh union between a man and a woman (Mt. 19:4-6).
Has Francis fallen into heresy? Is Francis really the pope? Is Francis a false prophet? A number of Catholic commentators say that one shouldn’t even raise these questions. Why? As Jeffrey Mirus wrote in a 2019 repost of a 2017 piece for Catholic Culture, “all who advance this argument [questioning the pope’s authority] destroy the credibility of the very Church they seek to save.” He asserts that calling Francis a heretic undermines confidence in the Church as a Divine institution.
It’s a sobering thought, and several other Catholic writers have raised similar concerns out of fear that such criticism of Francis could break the unity of the Church and lead to schism.
But as Archbishop Vigano points out, the Church, thanks to Francis, is already well on the road to schism: “We see on the one hand Bergoglio’s ‘synodal church’…and on the other hand what remains of the Catholic Church…” In a similar vein, Vigano charges that Francis is in the process of “liquidating” the Catholic Church.
A unified Church is only desirable if it is unified behind the teachings of Christ. Do we want a unified Church in which the majority of Catholics are unified behind the humanistic doctrine of Francis rather than the saving love of Christ?
Unfortunately, many Catholics don’t understand or practice their faith. And many others have been seduced by the feel-good counterfeit Catholicism which is now on offer. It’s seductive because it tells us that sins—especially sexual sins—are no big deal and are, in fact, not really sins at all. It’s a good bet, for example, that the majority of Catholics have little or no problem with the pope’s recent show of openness to same-sex blessing. “What’s the harm in that?” many will ask.
But as some Catholic writers and theologians have maintained, the spread of seemingly minor errors can often lead to far greater harm than formal heresies.
In an excellent piece for The Catholic Thing, professor David Carlin maintains that the “minor sin” of same-sex blessing, far from being harmless, “will ruin the Church.” He then convincingly lays out the logical steps by which the blessing of same-sex unions eventually leads to the rejection of the entirety of Catholic dogma.
Is Francis an antipope? Is he a false prophet? In view of the immense harm that Francis and his allies have already done to the Church, it seems almost sinful to remain silent on these questions.
In Ecclesiastes we are told that there is “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak” (Ecc. 3: 7). Considering the perilous state of the Church under Francis, this is not a time to keep silent. That should not keep us, however, from choosing our words carefully. Francis and his followers may take sin lightly, but they do not take criticism lightly.
Pictured above: Statue of St. Peter
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