Schism in Rome? Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism

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Schism in Rome? Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism

Is there a “plot to change Catholicism”? Several recent developments indicate significant tensions in the Catholic Church between various (2) “conservatives” and “progressives” over how the Roman Church should relate to several sensitive issues, with some even wondering whether a schism is in Rome’s future.  Such issues include the church’s approach to divorce and remarriage (whether to grant divorced individuals communion); the forgiveness or absolution of abortion by any priest (abortion has traditionally been considered a serious sin for which the penalty of excommunication can be remitted only by a high ranking bishop); the treatment of homosexuals; and, most intriguingly and importantly, the structure of the church itself, which Pope Francis appears to want decentralized to a considerable extent to allow the church flexibility to deal with issues that arise in a more contextual and localized way.

These more theological tensions merely represent the forefront of a number of philosophical divisions within the Roman Church over a range of issues, including economics, politics, and religious liberty. Yes, as much a surprise as it may be for those who are not up on the contemporary Catholic Church, Catholics disagree about a lot of things, and some of those disagreements are found between some Vatican leaders and yes, even with the pope himself!

The most recent demonstration of these tensions occurred during a synod (meeting) of cardinals called by Pope Francis that indicated the pope wanted the Roman Church to take a more liberal or “merciful” and gospel-oriented position on each of the above issues:

  • more openness to accepting divorced individuals (which won a limited victory),
  • a more welcoming attitude toward homosexuals (which lost for the time being), and
  • a push toward a more bottom-up ecclesiastical structure (based on changes related to the Second Vatican Council), with the pope seen more as the “authoritative spokesman” for the church’s laity and lower priests in contrast to his more traditional role as the power figure at the top of a pyramid (results pending; 2).

Interestingly, upon the conclusion of the synod, the pope appeared to “lecture” his bishops by expressing some disappointment with them for not being more pastoral and liberal in their attitudes, which no doubt was a reflection on the rebellious attitudes expressed by some of the conservatives prior to and during the synod.

As one critical conservative Catholic commenter put it,

What Francis implies seems to be . . . that the whole “People of God”—pope, bishops AND layman—are now all part of the “Teaching Church.” They teach each other, and the “base” of the pyramid (the whole of the laity) is now at the top, above bishops and pope.

So if the overwhelming majority of the (theoretically) Catholic laity agree that communion for the divorced/remarried, gay marriage, and contraception are not sinful (as is the case in the U.S.), well, the pope and the bishops have to heed them, because they’re the “Teaching Church” now, not just the “Learning Church.”

And who does this listening and discerning for them? The “People’s Pope,” of course!

So the question today is, is it really possible that the Roman Catholic Church could actually change in any fundamental way, particularly concerning its positions on the above highly politicized and controversial issues? Although Seventh-day Adventists have long held that “Rome never changes” (see The Great Controversy, p. 581), I think the answer is very much a qualified “yes” to the question of change in the Roman Church. And that answer is based upon the fact that it all depends on how one defines “change.”

First, the idea of Pope Francis fundamentally altering Catholic ecclesiology (church structure), in particular, doesn’t mean a thing for our traditional Adventist prophetic interpretations. The fact that Francis is trying to move the power to the masses of Catholics doesn’t change what the Catholic masses might decide to do about Sunday someday.

That said, it is ironic that the Catholic Church having a “People’s Pope” who seeks to follow the whims of the masses by holding his finger in the air to feel which way the breeze is blowing does mirror, in a way, our own Seventh-day Adventist “General Conference in Session” philosophy that no one man or small group of people (such as only 275 synod cardinals and archbishops) should hold ultimate power. The Catholic Church hasn’t yet made this transition, and may not, but let me explain why, on both ecclesiology and the other issues mentioned above, it would not surprise me to see the Roman Church lean leftward after their pope’s stated wishes.

New Methods for Today’s World

First, a bit of philosophical background to the issues as I see them may be helpful. Ellen White noted that “Satan’s masterpiece of deception is popery; and while it has been demonstrated that a day of great intellectual darkness was favorable to Romanism, it will also be demonstrated that a day of great intellectual light is also favorable to its power; for the minds of men are concentrated on their own superiority, and do not like to retain God in their knowledge” (Signs of the Times, February 19, 1894, emphasis supplied). Assuming this is true, I think that today’s “enlightened” postmodern climate may yet reveal some interesting things about the nature of how God works and, equally important, about how Satan works.

I believe a key to understanding what the future may hold is to remember that Satan is only, deep down, interested in two things:

  1. Being the most popular.
  2. Insuring that people are sinning.

So for his favored “man of sin” (The Great Controversy, p. 446), the Roman Church’s pope, to not be forgiving on abortion, homosexuality, and divorce (popular sins in the West) stands in the way of Satan’s desires and casts the Roman Church at odds with some of the most powerful groups in the world (liberal scholars, scientists, and medical specialists). Satan doesn’t want them to be enemies when they are encouraging sin.

Yes, Rome never changes, but that doesn’t always mean what we think it means, in the narrow sense of rigidity with its history. What it primarily means is that Rome always wants people to look to itself for forgiveness as the guardian and creator of moral law. It wants people to constantly feel the need to seek such forgiveness, keeping the Roman Church foremost in their minds. This means Rome actually benefits when people sin in as many ways as possible (historically this has been literally true through their system of indulgences). On this, Rome truly never changes.

So I believe, as the future unfolds, it is possible that Rome will be more lenient on people for a variety of sins, such as abortions, homosexuality, and divorce/remarriage, than it will eventually be for violating Sunday “sacredness.” This means the Roman Church may indeed tilt “leftward,” or in a more liberal direction, on the socio-political spectrum, contrary to the understandings of many Adventists and others!

Why or how, one might ask, could violations of Sunday sacredness become a more serious sin against Rome than abortions, divorce, homosexuality, etc.? I believe there is a logical answer to this question. And that reason is because having voluntary abortions of healthy unborn humans is sinning, which Satan (actually, secretly) encourages. And so Satan, working through Rome, is happy enough to falsely “forgive” such sins. On the other hand, violating Sunday sacredness is not sinning, and so it merely challenges Satan’s authority through his Roman Church to forgive and thus be the most popular. People really want to sin and think they are forgiven, and so Satan, to be popular, wants to offer them the feeling of forgiveness, all the while insuring they are still sinning and so needing to keep seeking his false forgiveness.

However, those who would “violate” Sunday sacredness neither are sinning according to the Scriptures nor feel the need for forgiveness, and Satan really doesn’t like such folks who distract the world from his popularity. They keep the world from looking to himself.

As Ellen White insightfully noted:

Popery is the religion of human nature, and the mass of humanity love a doctrine that permits them to commit sin, and yet frees them from its consequences. People must have some form of religion, and this religion, formed by human device, and yet claiming divine authority, suits the carnal mind. Men who think themselves wise and intelligent turn away in pride from the standard of righteousness, the ten commandments, and do not think it is in harmony with their dignity to inquire into the ways of God. Therefore they go into false ways, into forbidden paths, become self-sufficient, self inflated, after the pattern of the pope, not after the pattern of Jesus Christ. They must have the form of religion that has the least requirement of spirituality and self-denial, and as unsanctified human wisdom will not lead them to loathe popery, they are naturally drawn toward its provisions and doctrines. They do not want to walk in the ways of the Lord. They are altogether too much enlightened to seek God prayerfully and humbly, with an intelligent knowledge of his word. Not caring to know the ways of the Lord, their minds are all open to delusions, all ready to accept and believe a lie. They are willing to have the most unreasonable, most inconsistent falsehoods palmed off upon them as truth. (Signs of the Times, February 19, 1894, emphasis supplied)

So when we hear word of Francis wanting to make the Roman Church a more “merciful” and accepting church, listen carefully to what he’s actually saying, and what it will mean in the future. Yes, it may appear that Rome is not changing its actual doctrines. It probably won’t change its doctrines. However, don’t be surprised if Francis and his potential papal successors continue to push the Roman Church leftward in its leniency toward many “sins,” emphasizing its “open-armed” approach to welcoming all people.

Rather than merely thinking of all this as part of some deceptive agenda masking an inner or true “conservatism,” in light of the above logic, consider the possibility that Rome really doesn’t mind being very tolerant and open-minded concerning many sins, so long as people are led to seek forgiveness from Rome herself. This means, in the westernized/modernized world, the Catholic Church may be very sincere in its new leftward leanings (on more than moral issues, might I add—Rome also prefers leftward socio-economic policies.  Nevertheless, I believe they will remain flexible enough to accommodate any political situation).

Authority in the Church

Returning for a moment to the question of whether the ecclesiology governing the Roman hierarchical power structure may change, again I would suggest we remain open-minded. From Satan’s point of view, what’s the harm in granting more voice and authority to the Catholic laity and lower-level priests? The masses of humanity enjoy feeling empowered; it tempts them to feel enlightened beyond the ways of God.

What ironies and paradoxes. Pope Francis claimed the title “Bishop of Rome” with authority over all bishops and pastors to justify his ability to change the structure and grant more power to the priests who are in direct contact with the will and needs of the laity—as interpreted by himself, of course. In other words, many wondered if “the pope could decide to opt for decentralization, but do so in a highly centralized fashion,” by implementing it unilaterally from the top.

Although such a direct action was not to be taken during this particular synod, whether in the near or somewhat more distant future, it appears what the Catholic Church’s progressives are trying to do is “update” the church to be in harmony with one of the greatest achievements of modernism, that is, democracy (where the majority rules), all the while still not really changing a thing about the church’s claim to authority. Amazing. If it could succeed in making such a transformation, then it could claim the authority not only of God but also of the people in the actions it takes.

Such a shift would also more cleverly counterbalance, in a mirror-like way, what I’d call the “true” ecclesiology of Adventism, which is a majority representative body here on earth, which we believe will remain subject to the Spirit’s leading and Christ’s headship when voting in a general session, and which we believe has greater authority than our General Conference president alone (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 3, p. 450, and vol. 9, p. 260).

Satan, through the current pope, is simply updating Rome’s “cover picture” to better match what today’s world wants, that is, that majority rule is truth, and thus what the majority wants represents the new ethical imperative for society to follow. Satan doesn’t want his false church to appear as a top-down hierarchical church in today’s “majority rules” world. He wants one that appears fresh and modern and bottom-up, and flexible to the various societies and cultures around the world. And, indeed, time may reveal that Rome may adapt itself to a stance that officially incorporates some of these elements.

If this does happen, Satan knows full well that the majority of Catholics will not lead the Church into Sabbath observance. The fulfillment of Bible prophecies is not at issue. Rather, the time has arrived where the world is preparing to “wonder after the beast” in full strength (Rev. 13:3; Rev. 17:8), and that beast may be preparing the way for this newfound attention by “updating itself” to the modern world.  Make no mistake, “the papacy is just what prophecy declared that she would be, the apostasy of the latter times. 2 Thessalonians 2:3, 4. It is a part of her policy to assume the character which will best accomplish her purpose; but beneath the variable appearance of the chameleon she conceals the invariable venom of the serpent.” (The Great Controversy, p. 571).

In actuality, I believe White supports a symbiotic relationship between the “masses” and secular and religious leaders in the eventual enforcement of a Sunday law. It’s neither exclusively a top-down nor a bottom-up affair. As White put it, “By false representations and angry appeals they [certain religious leaders] will stir up the passions of the people. Not having a ‘Thus saith the Scriptures’ to bring against the advocates of the Bible Sabbath, they will resort to oppressive enactments to supply the lack. To secure popularity and patronage, legislators will yield to the [popular] demand for a Sunday law” (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 5, p. 450).

What we see here is only an indirect control over the “masses” by religious leaders through the power of persuasion and religious oppression. It is ultimately the secular legislators and leaders that exercise the real power. And they will not act toward creating a Sunday law until the masses support it democratically.

If the real power is in the masses, then it is no surprise that the leaders of the Roman Church are preparing to make themselves popular with the people and to grant some “authority” to the will and whims of the people to secure their allegiance and a firm relationship. What better way to establish this relationship than to appear to serve the interests of mankind through liberal social politics while appearing merciful, accepting, and “forgiving” of the people’s many sins?

[Photo: Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Beatrice/Wikimedia Commons]

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Michael Younker is a consulting editor for The Compass Magazine. He is completing a doctoral degree in philosophical theology (2019) at Andrews University.