Is the Papacy Becoming More Authoritarian?

St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican Merlini

Is the Papacy Becoming More Authoritarian?

By weakening the Roman Curia, Pope Francis is strengthening local bishops—and himself.

Pope Benedict xvi shocked the world almost five years ago when he became the first pope to resign since the Middle Ages. After the pope’s butler leaked confidential documents to the press, exposing power struggles within the Vatican bureaucracy, Benedict decided he was too frail to implement the reforms necessary to fix the Roman Curia. So, after he resigned, Pope Francis was elected with a mandate to reform the Vatican.

Rather than restructuring the Curia, however, Francis has been circumventing the Vatican’s bureaucratic offices and dealing directly with regional episcopal conferences. Some cardinals have warned that granting too much authority to regional conferences threatens to decentralize the Catholic Church. Yet giving more authority to these local bishops also strengthens the pope himself by weakening the main check on his power—the Curia.

While popes have always been absolute monarchs in theory, the practical reality is that most popes have to carefully weigh the advice of Curia cardinals. To avoid this de facto system of checks and balances, Francis appointed a Council of Cardinal Advisers only one month after his election in 2013. Informally known as the Vatican C9, this council consists of nine cardinals from six continents. Its official purpose is to advise the pope on Curia reform. Yet its most significant function seems to be amplifying the pope’s voice in Vatican affairs.

During a meeting of the Council of Cardinal Advisers in December 2015, the pope emphasized a need for a “healthy decentralization” in the Catholic Church. This meeting preceded the publication of Francis’s 2016 exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. In this exhortation, Francis implied that local bishops could use their discretion in granting communion to divorced Catholics who went on to remarry in a civil ceremony. Now bishops in Argentina, Germany and Malta have adopted guidelines allowing such Catholics to receive communion, using Amoris Laetitia as justification. While some cardinals in the Roman Curia opposed this loosening of Catholic dogma, the Council of Cardinal Advisers stands by the pope.

When the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said that “no power in heaven or on Earth, neither an angel, nor the pope, nor a council, nor a law of the bishops, has the faculty to change” doctrine on divorce and remarriage, Pope Francis had him removed from office. In removing Cardinal Gerhard Müller, Francis sent a powerful message to the heads of all curial departments that there is only one center of power in the Vatican.

“The pope has told Cardinal Müller that from now on all heads of dicastery will serve five years only,” wrote Alexander Lucie-Smith. “So that is the first message, directed to other Vatican chiefs—watch out, your time is short, and you can and will be removed at the end of your term. … From now on, expect to be moved around like pieces on a chessboard, because in the Vatican there is only one center of power that counts, and it is not yours.”

Francis repeated this process of taking away power from the Curia and giving it to local episcopal conferences last month. On September 9, the pope shifted more control over the translation of liturgical texts into vernacular languages from the Curia to local bishops. When the Curia cardinal in charge of liturgical translations wrote a letter indicating that the real impact of this power shift would be limited, the pope quickly responded with a public letter reiterating that power is indeed shifting from Rome to local bishops.

Some Vaticanologists are warning that Francis is a weak pope who is leading the Catholic Church toward schism. But the reality is that Francis is simultaneously strengthening episcopal conferences and the papacy by weakening the Curia. Once the Curia’s role in decision-making is downsized, bishops must appeal to the pope himself to arbitrate disputes.

“In four years as pope, Francis has instituted a deeply personal (some might say autocratic) regime that is without precedent in living memory,” wrote Marco Tosatti for First Things.

By allowing local bishops more autonomy, Francis has made Catholic unity with Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches easier. Francis has circumvented the Curia to relax rules on communion for Catholics in “irregular marriages” and indicated that he is sympathetic to calls to end the celibacy requirement for Catholic priests. One German bishop even indicated that communion for non-Catholics with a Catholic spouse is a possibility under Francis. These changes are now possibilities because of the expanded powers of the papacy.

Astonishingly, the Bible has some strong things to say about a great false church wielding great political and economic power in the time before Jesus Christ’s return. In Revelation 13, this church is depicted as looking like a lamb but speaking like a dragon. In Revelation 17 and 18, this church is labeled “Babylon the Great” and prophesied to rule a vast empire from a city with seven hills. In Revelation 16 and 19, the leader of this church is labeled “the false prophet” and is mentioned in conjunction with a political leader called “the beast.”

Based on these scriptures, Plain Truth editor in chief Herbert W. Armstrong predicted that the office of the papacy would grow in strength until it became the religious force unifying the European continent. Notice this excerpt from the Plain Truth in October 1961: “The pope will step in as the supreme unifying authority—the only one that can finally unite the differing nations of Europe. The iron jurisdiction over both schools and religion will be turned over to the Roman Catholic Church. Europe will go Roman Catholic! Protestantism will be absorbed into the ‘mother’ church—and totally abolished” (emphasis added).

These forecasts may or may not be fulfilled during the papacy of Pope Francis, who has stated that he feels his pontificate may be brief. Regardless, they are sure to come to pass. They are based on the sure word of Bible prophecy.

To understand what the Bible says about the religious system that will dominate the Western world during the last days of man’s civilization, request a free copy of Mr. Armstrong’s booklet Who or What Is the Prophetic Beast?