675 Before Christ’s second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers. The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the “mystery of iniquity” in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh. (769)
(Catechism of the Catholic Church)
Back in the days when Left Behind and other series were popular, I wrote a few blog posts about how Christians had a dangerous tendency to conflate their political views with their theology. Their portrayal of the Antichrist was as someone who appealed to the liberal left and hedonism. They would interpret the actions of liberal politicians and leaders of the Church as symbols or conspirators of a coming apostasy*. The problem with this concept is that such an Antichrist is not likely to deceive the faithful, and deception of the faithful is exactly what the final trial is about.
The temptation to justify immoral behavior has always been with us. People who argue that the popular sins are not really sins have always been with us. The Church combats them in every age, and the faithful listen to the Church. But, if people should refuse to listen to the Church, trusting in themselves or people who say that the Church cannot be trusted, then we have a situation where the faithful risk apostasy by making their own preferences of right and wrong replace the teachings of the Church which God empowered to teach in His name.
If we follow those Catholics on the basis of their previous defense of the Church but they now argue that the Church is going astray, we will follow them to ruin if we insist on trusting them instead of those tasked with leading the Church.
The common argument is that the Pope is only infallible when he teaches ex cathedra but can err when he doesn’t§, implying that whether or not we obey depends on whether we think the teaching is true or false.
That is to misunderstand the nature of Church teaching. An infallible teaching cannot be reformed. We won’t ever see the Church edit the teaching of The Immaculate Conception in a way that changes how it is understood. We do see things in Rerum Novarum that have been modified to address changes in society#. While it’s true that people often invent loopholes to get around previous teachings; it is also true that the Church recognizes that new problems emerge and must be solved. The encyclicals of Pius XI, St. Paul VI, and St. John Paul II neither mean that Rerum Novarum was in error nor that his successors committed error by “contradicting” Leo XIII.
But whether from ignorance or a willful act, Catholics are promoting error when they claim that only the ex cathedra statements are binding on the grounds that the ordinary Magisterium can “err.” What this boils down to is the de facto denial of Christ’s promises to guide and protect His Church. They still view Christ as God, but they reduce His role in the Church to handing down laws from on high and judge the Church for not interpreting those laws in the way they think the laws should be interpreted.
That certainly is a religious deception. It allows those who use these tactics to deny that God leads the Church whenever they happen to disagree with it. Those who fall into this error can certainly be led astray by an Antichrist who can give them what they want: A “Church” that agrees with them so they don’t have to listen to the Church under the visible headship of the Pope. Such an Antichrist will tell them that they can reject the Church when they like because the Church obviously “errs” when it teaches against them.
That’s an Antichrist who can deceive Catholics regardless of their preferences. If we are to be faithful to Christ and oppose the Antichrist, we must listen to the Church which teaches with His authority and protection.
(Note: An earlier version of this essay first appeared at David Wanat’s personal blog, If I Might Interject, under the title “Are You So Certain That You’re on the Right Side?”)
(*) For example, when the novel Father Elijah came out in the late 90s, we saw a thinly disguised Cardinal Martini as actively working to corrupt the Church.
(§) It should be noted that the Catholic Church has consistently taught this is an error. See Pius IX (Syllabus of Errors), Pius XII (Humani Generis #20), Vatican II (Lumen Gentium #25) and the Code of Canon Law (#752). So why do people give credence to Catholics who promote that error?
(#) The Church teaching on the death penalty falls into this category. The fact that conditions may have made the DP tolerable in previous centuries does not mean it is right in all times and circumstances. St. John Paul II taught that those past conditions do not exist today, and Pope Francis confirms it.
Image: The Antichrist, Rylands Beatus Manuscript, Commentary on the Apocalypse by Beatus of Liébana, via Wikimedia commons.