False Claims on Eschatology and the Papacy

Catholic World Report has published a disturbing attack on the papacy and the Church: Saint Paul, the Apocalypse, and the mystery of evil by Conor Sweeney. Well, CWR is a conservative publication, so nowadays they are morally required to attack the Pope. Otherwise, they might be rejected by conservatives, and labeled “liberal” (Oh, no!).

The author assures us that he is not trying to “deny the indefectibility and infallibility of the Church.” And then he contradicts himself by doing just that. After quoting the Gospel passage which is the basis for indefectibility, Sweeney asserts: “And yet, just 4 verses later we see Christ turn savagely on Peter, telling him ‘Get behind me, Satan.’ ” That’s the main theme of the article, to what extent and in what ways are Popes like Satan. “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.’ ”

But the fait accompli of his denial of the indefectibility of the Church is found here:

“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.”

Wrong. Indefectibility in fact means that no Pope can become an instrument of evil. It is a dogma taught by Vatican I. (Conservatives have gone from looking askance at Vatican II, to outright rejecting the dogma of Vatican I.)

“7. This gift of truth and never-failing faith was therefore divinely conferred on Peter and his successors in this See so that they might discharge their exalted office for the salvation of all, and so that the whole flock of Christ might be kept away by them from the poisonous food of error and be nourished with the sustenance of heavenly doctrine. Thus the tendency to schism is removed and the whole Church is preserved in unity, and, resting on its foundation, can stand firm against the gates of hell.”

A Pope cannot become an instrument of evil used by Satan. That would be contrary to indefectibility and to an extreme degree. The expression of Jesus “Get behind me, Satan” was a warning to Peter and to us all not to become an Adversary to the Church by thinking and acting like the unbelievers, by taking the point of view of man, not God. Jesus was not contradicting His own teaching that each Pope would be an unfailing Rock which secures the indefectibility of the Church.

As an outright denial of indefectibility, the article at Catholic World Report is heresy. But is it a popular heresy, since it gives conservatives a way to attack Pope Francis. Sweeney doesn’t mention Francis, but that is the obvious reading of his words.

Then there is his interpretation of the words of St. Paul, which I will quote from Thessalonians:

[2 Thessalonians 2]
{2:3} Let no one deceive you in any way. For this cannot be, unless the apostasy will have arrived first, and the man of sin will have been revealed, the son of perdition,
{2:4} who is an adversary to, and who is lifted up above, all that is called God or that is worshipped, so much so that he sits in the temple of God, presenting himself as if he were God.
{2:5} Do you not recall that, when I was still with you, I told you these things?
{2:6} And now you know what it is that holds him back, so that he may be revealed in his own time.
{2:7} For the mystery of iniquity is already at work. And only one now holds back, and will continue to hold back, until he is taken from our midst.
{2:8} And then that iniquitous one shall be revealed, the one whom the Lord Jesus shall bring to ruin with the spirit of his mouth, and shall destroy at the brightness of his return:

The passage is about the Antichrist, not the Pope. It is also about a future time, not the present. Now is not the time of the Antichrist’s reign, nor of the Return of Jesus (at the end of the Antichrist’s reign).

In verse 2:6, Paul talks about that person or thing that “holds him back”, preventing the Antichrist from appearing until the appointed time. What is it? For one, it is the Roman Pontiff. During the entire reign of the Antichrist, there will be no Roman Pontiff governing the Church, not even an antipope. The seat will be vacant. And, in another sense, what holds back the Antichrist is the Eucharist. For, in the time leading up to the Antichrist’s reign, there will be a false Eucharist, called the abomination of desolation, which is devised by unfaithful Catholic Christians. As the true Eucharist become rarer, and more and more persons fall away from the true faith, the world becomes ready for the Antichrist.

The Antichrist “sits in the temple of God”, presenting himself as if he were God. That is not a tenable description of any Pope. Contrary to some claims in poorly-written eschatology, the Antichrist never becomes Pope, and his false prophet never becomes Pope. The two of them hate the Catholic Church, and they seek to destroy it, not run it.

In my understanding, as described in my book The Second Part of the Tribulation, the Antichrist’s reign is divided into two parts. This is reflected in the book of Daniel, which speaks of a week of years (7 years) for the Antichrist’s reign, and then half a week of years (3.5 years) for the last half and worst of his reign.

In the first part of his reign, the Antichrist closes all houses of worship (Christian, Jewish, Muslim) and forbids all religion, except for the worship of himself. He uses military and law enforcement to force the world to worship him. But this does not succeed in obtaining anything but the external appearance of worship. Then, in the second part of his reign, the Antichrist sets up a formal structure for his false religion. He reopens all the houses of worship in the world, and requires everyone to worship him. He then reopens a prominent house of worship in Jerusalem, and enters there, proclaiming himself to be God. That house of worship, the “temple of God” in Thessalonians 2:4, may be the Jewish temple or, more likely, a Catholic Basilica in Jerusalem (one that has not been built yet).

The meaning of the passage is not that the Antichrist becomes a Pope. His false religion appears to be designed as a perverse imitation of the world’s religions, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, such that he draws elements from those faiths and perverts them to his own evil purposes. For example, the abomination of desolation is a false Eucharist, and the various ceremonies used by him are a perverse imitation of the Mass. Even so, his false religion is entirely distinct from the Catholic faith, and no one during his future time will think that the Antichrist is just another Pope, or the worst Pope, or anything of the kind.

In the article, Sweeney states: “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.” That question is not unanswerable. It is answered by the First Vatican Council and the dogma of indefectibility. No Pope can be the Antichrist, nor a figure for the Antichrist. For then the Church would not be indefectible.

Sweeney also claims: “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.” No, that contradiction is not possible. The gifts to each Pope of truth and never-failing faith, and the indefectibility of the Church are precisely given so that “deception, manipulation, and corruption (evil!)” cannot operate in any way inside the Church. To claim that evil can be working within infallibility and indefectibility is absurd. It is merely a clever way to assert a heresy, and contradict a dogma that comes from the very mouth of Christ, while pretending to be faithful and orthodox.

The Sweeney tips his hand by saying: “indefectibility and infallibility in principle mean little” — yes, they mean little in his heretical interpretation. And his assertion that the mystery of iniquity is “capable of being actively propagated even by the Church’s highest office” is schismatic as well. The gifts of infallibility, indefectibility, truth, and never failing faith are given so that this type of scenario can never happen. The Church is the body of Christ, enlivened by the Holy Spirit. She can no more be taken over by evil, whether in the Church’s highest office (the Pope) or in any other way, than can the actual body of Christ be possessed by evil.

The entire article in Catholic World Report by Conor Sweeney is nothing but a veiled attack on the papacy of Pope Francis, without mentioning his name. It is an heretical attack on indefectibility and on the teaching of the First Vatican Council. It is an attack on the body of Christ. And it proposes that the faithful cannot trust the Church, as the Ark of Salvation, because evil can be propagated by the Church’s highest office, and evil can work within indefectibility, and Popes can be “figures” of the Antichrist. If this were true, then the faithful should flee from the Church. (But it is not true.)

How is it that conservative Catholic publications have now decided that material of this sort is appropriate for their outlets? The schism has already begun.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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4 Responses to False Claims on Eschatology and the Papacy

  1. Denis says:

    Now that, as you say, the schism has begun (& arguably its leaders/media supporters/devout followers are already forming alliances), do you see any means of reversing its progress or halting it altogether?

    • Ron Conte says:

      No. It is part of a process predicted by Scripture. Of course, people could always repent. But there are too many leaders in the conservative subculture who are able to rail against the Pope, in their pride, and still retain much support from readers, followers, etc. So they would be very hard to correct.

  2. Will the Antichrist rule over the sum totality of the Human Race?

    • Ron Conte says:

      In the distant future, the Antichrist rules over all nations. But there are constantly rebellions here and there, now and then, so that he never has complete control. Also, the faithful Christians, Jews, and Muslims resist him till the end.

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