Who Will Win the Catholic Civil War?

Pope Francis
Alessandra Benedetti - Corbis/Corbis/Getty Images

Who Will Win the Catholic Civil War?

Are Francis’s days as pope numbered?

Since the death of Pope Benedict xvi on Dec. 31, 2022, the Catholic Church has broken into infighting—with some wondering if Pope Francis himself will soon become a casualty.

Even at Benedict’s funeral, divisions were on display. The former pope had no hearse; his coffin was carted off in a white van. In his homily, Pope Francis only mentioned his predecessor once. “There are many of us who were never particularly enamored of Joseph Ratzinger,” wrote Vatican correspondent Robert Mickens. But in his view even Benedict “deserved better than this.”

The death of Benedict, wrote Mickens, “was also the death of a fragile truce that has existed the past decade between two factions inside the Vatican and the worldwide Catholic hierarchy—one yoked to the now-deceased former pope (Joseph Ratzinger) and the other tethered to Pope Francis (Jorge Bergoglio).”

Both sides are now ramping up the attack.

A ‘Secret Plan’ to Take Out the Pope?

On January 8, the Italian paper La Stampa quoted an unnamed cardinal who claimed there was a “secret plan” in motion to force Francis’s resignation. “The secret plan will be formulated on various axes and phases,” the cardinal said, “but it will have one objective—to place the pontificate under such stress that Francis will have to resign.”

Archbishop Georg Gänswein was Benedict’s personal aide and close confidant. Gänswein just published his memoir, Nothing but the Truth, which tells of Benedict’s disagreements with Francis about doctrine. (He claims Benedict considered Francis’s crackdown on Latin mass “a mistake.”) Gänswein implied Francis demoted him from his position in the Roman Curia out of personal enmity. He also claimed Francis’s persona of humility and austerity is, at least at times, pretentious.

Cardinal Gerhard Müller, a prominent Francis critic, also recently released a book, In Good Faith, which accuses Francis of “democratizing” and “protestantizing” the Catholic Church. This is in response to Francis’s program of “synodality”—allowing bishops more autonomy in decisions. He also compared Francis’s 2018 China deal to making a deal with Adolf Hitler and accused the Vatican of giving in to Chinese “blackmail.” Müller criticized Francis for allowing Joe Biden to receive communion despite promoting abortion. Müller even claimed that the Catholic Church in America would have banned Biden from communion except that Francis intervened on Biden’s behalf.

George Pell, an Australian cardinal, wrote an article for the Spectator published on January 11. He said some hard things about Francis. He accused Francis’s synod on synodality of being “a toxic nightmare,” compromising with Protestants and secularists. He said the document the synod produced attacked traditional morals and was written in “neo-Marxist jargon.” Pell also criticized the pope banning bishops from voting during the synod.

Pell actually died the day before the article’s publishing. But the Spectator wrote that Pell was “prepared to face the fury of Pope Francis.”

One critical text may have a surprising author: Pope Benedict himself. What Christianity Is is a selection of 16 of his essays. Some were published before, but five are new. Benedict entrusted the text to Elio Guerriero, an Italian journalist, with explicit instructions not to publish the text until after he died. “The fury of circles hostile to me in Germany is so strong that the appearance of every word I say provokes a verbal assassination,” Benedict wrote to Guerriero. “I want to spare myself, and Christianity, from that.”

In his book, Benedict complained about the influence of homosexuality and claimed “gay clubs” existed among seminarians. Benedict also accused certain segments of the church of blacklisting his literature. “In not a few seminaries,” he wrote, “students caught reading my books are considered unworthy for the priesthood. My books are concealed as dangerous literature and, so to speak, are read only in hiding.”

Benedict didn’t point the finger at Francis directly for these problems. He even thanked Francis at the end of his book “for everything he does to constantly display the light of God.” The last thing Benedict, Francis or anybody else would want is to discredit the office of the papacy. One pope attacking the pontificate of another could bring the church to open schism. Everybody in the Vatican wants to avoid such a scenario at all costs.

But Benedict’s attacks on homosexuality contrast with Francis’s toleration. Claiming Benedict’s legacy is under attack throws Francis’s liberalism in a dark light, even without mentioning Francis by name. And why wait until after his death to publish the book?

At the same time as all this criticism, Pope Francis is also coming under pressure regarding the Jesuit priest Marko Rupnik. Rupnik was convicted of sleeping with a novice nun and was briefly excommunicated. Despite the fact that he now faces a host of accusations of sexual abuse dating back decades, his career has progressed. A year ago, Rupnik had a private meeting with the pope, and some are accusing the pope of trying to protect Rupnik or cover up the abuse.

Some have accused Benedict of organizing a posthumous coup to try to take out his successor. But Mickens believes Benedict was “a neutralizing element that kept the radical fringes in both opposing camps somewhat at bay.” Either way, the civil war is more fierce than ever.

Calling the pope a protestantizer or a dealmaker with “Hitler” are huge insults. And Pope Francis seems to be at least a little rattled by the accusations. On January 8—a day before Francis was to have a meeting with Gänswein—Francis said in a weekly address that “[t]he great gossiper is the devil, who goes around recounting bad things about others, because he is the liar who seeks to divide the church, to distance brothers and sisters and not to create community.” Media interpreted this as a thinly veiled warning against his critics.

Time will tell how much and for how long these accusations and “secret plans” will shake the Vatican. But some expect a long haul. United States’ Vatican correspondent Gerard O’Connell said on January 26: “I suspect … the next two years will be a kind of roller coaster season here in Rome.”

The Future of the Catholic Church

The Bible—the book Roman Catholicism claims to follow—is full of prophecies that show us the trajectory of the Catholic Church.

A key prophecy is in Revelation 17. Verse 3 refers to a “beast”—a biblical symbol of an empire (see Daniel 7). Related prophecies (such as those in Daniel 7:19-23 and Revelation 13:1-8) reveal this to be the Roman Empire. (Please read Who or What Is the Prophetic Beast? for more information.) The beast in Revelation 17 has seven heads (verse 3). The prophecy interprets itself as meaning seven consecutive resurrections of the Roman Empire (verse 10).

What does this have to do with the Vatican?

The Revelation 17 beast is specifically ridden by a “woman” (verse 3). In Bible prophecy, a woman is a symbol for a church (see 2 Corinthians 11:1-3 and Ephesians 5:22-32). The prophecy states this church has intimate dealings with the world’s power (Revelation 17:1-2). She involves herself in politics so much that she guides and controls the imperial beast. She is decked in material splendor (verse 4). She is addicted to persecuting and murdering “heretics” (verse 6). And she inhabits a “great city” that sits on seven hills (verses 9, 18).

This “woman” is the Roman Catholic Church.

History records six of these resurrections having come and gone, the last of which being Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. There is one more rise still to come. This means the Catholic Church will lead Europe once more.

That seems a pretty improbable forecast. The Catholic civil war comes at a time of long-term crisis for the church: A secular society and the child abuse scandal means the church’s influence is weaker than ever.

In his article “Beware! The Vatican Will Retaliate,” Trumpet contributing editor Brad Macdonald described the way the Catholic Church has typically responded when in deep crisis: “If the Vatican were to concede and capitulate amid the growing criticism, it would be rejecting its 2,000-year history of confronting criticism and tackling opposition head on!”

Both Pope Francis and Benedict have moved Bible prophecy forward in their own ways. Benedict opened the door for conservatives from the Church of England to return to Rome. He strongly encouraged Europe to return to its Christian roots and began to rally it against Islam.

Pope Francis has worked hard to turn the world against the U.S.—often describing American capitalism as the root cause of the world’s evil. He’s also helped to cement Europe’s relationship with Latin America.

Watch for the outcome from the Catholic civil war to move the church forward.

The Catholic Church has 2,000 years’ experience bouncing back from disaster. The Bible says it will do so again. Watch for the church to unite behind a strong leader.

To understand what this revived Catholic Church will look like, and what it is prophesied to do in the world, please request a free copy of The Holy Roman Empire in Prophecy.