This post represents my current pious opinion on how the great apostasy begins.
The great apostasy is initiated by a two-step process, beginning under Pope Francis, and continuing with his conservative successor. But let me be very clear on this point: Pope Francis and his successor are each true valid Popes. They exercise the Magisterium with the help of the Holy Spirit, and their teaching is the teaching of Christ.
Step 1: Pope Francis proclaims a new teaching, one that Catholics on the far right (conservatives, traditionalists) refuse to accept. This teaching may well be that non-Christians and non-believers can be saved without converting. He promulgates this teaching in a papal encyclical (or similar document). And as a result, many conservative Catholics accuse the Pope of heresy. By this accusation alone, they fall into schism.
The controversy widens and intensifies, especially by means of the internet and the news media. When these conservative Catholics see that the support that this teaching will have on the left, among liberal Catholics, they try to convince conservative Bishops and Cardinals to intervene with the Pope. This attempt fails, and those Catholics on the far right decide to leave the Church. They unjustly accuse the Pope and the body of Bishops who promulgate this teaching of numerous heresies. Some few Cardinals and Bishops break communion with the Pope as well.
How can this be?
Pope Francis has already upset conservative Catholics with several public comments. His newly published interview with America Magazine (a Jesuit publication that conservatives love to hate) mentions some of these controversial remarks.
On homosexuality: “During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge.”
On the Latin Mass: “What is worrying, though, is the risk of the ideologization of the Vetus Ordo, its exploitation.”
On the issues that conservatives emphasize: “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”
On the salvation of atheists: “First of all, you ask if the God of the Christians forgives those who do not believe and do not seek faith. Given that — and this is fundamental — God’s mercy has no limits if he who asks for mercy does so in contrition and with a sincere heart, the issue for those who do not believe in God is in obeying their own conscience. In fact, listening and obeying it, means deciding about what is perceived to be good or to be evil. The goodness or the wickedness of our behavior depends on this decision.” (repubblica.it)
But it seems to me that the most likely issue that will cause many conservatives or, as they say, traditionalists, to leave the Church is the salvation of non-Christians and non-believers. Not every Catholic attends the Latin Mass (Vetus Ordo). Not every conservative has a harsh attitude toward homosexuals. But one of the most controversial portions of Vatican II, one of the reasons conservatives cite most often as the basis for their disregard (at best) of that Council, is the teaching that salvation is concretely available to everyone.
Vatican II taught this point to a rather limited extent. The most conservative Catholics have found that they can ignore or re-interpret the words of Vatican II on this topic. If Pope Francis were to promulgate a more explicit version of that same teaching, plainly saying that non-Christians and non-believers can be saved without converting, many conservative Catholics would reject that teaching. In fact, unfortunately, many conservative Catholics have “definitively” decided certain open questions of doctrine, as if they themselves could issue dogmas. And they have not accepted Pope Francis as a teacher over them. They simply find ways to explain away or re-interpret his word — so far.
What has happened, within Catholicism, is that a conservative Catholic subculture has developed within the Church. The Latin Mass, Communion only on the tongue and only when kneeling, and other points of liturgical form have become banners to be waved in rejection of liberalism. Many conservative Catholics have gradually replaced Catholicism with conservatism. They are no longer “conservative CATHOLICS”, but rather “CONSERVATIVE catholics. Every liberal theological opinion is rejected as heresy. The Magisterium is judged on every teaching and point of discipline, according to conservative standards. And any Pope or Council whose teaching seems liberal, they consider to have gone astray. They have already left the true Church in their hearts and minds, forming their own version of the Church within a conservative Catholic subculture. They imagine that liberal Catholics are not really Catholics.
Pope Francis is a liberal but orthodox Pope, (something that conservatives think cannot exist). He teaches well and is a good example of humility and holiness. But because he is liberal, those Catholics who have exchanged their faith for a culture of religious conservatism will condemn and reject him.
I expect that this rejection will happen relatively soon. It might occur in the next encyclical, the one that is reportedly on the topic of the clerical vow of poverty. Pope Francis does not “color inside the lines”. He would be perfectly comfortable beginning with a topic like poverty, and then extending this to poverty of spirit and to the beatitudes as a path to salvation for anyone, even a non-Catholic or non-believer. He might also mention the idea that a homosexual man could become a priest. (I disagree with that idea, but it is of discipline, not doctrine.) He has said some things along these lines already. He might decide to greatly reduce the use of the Latin Mass in the Church. He might decide that Communion should be received on the hand while standing. But if I had to name one issue that would be most likely to cause very many conservatives to leave the Church, it would be the idea that salvation can be obtained without converting to Christianity, and even without converting to belief in God.
But whatever the occasion for the departure of unfaithful conservatives may be, this is the first step to the great apostasy. Many conservatives imagine that all heresies are liberal heresies. Not so. Jesus’ teaching on various topics was sometimes conservative, sometimes liberal, sometimes moderate. He did NOT teach conservatism. The tree of the Church will be shaken by the teaching of Pope Francis, and those conservative Catholics who are found to be unfaithful, because they love conservatism and they reject the Magisterium, will fall away from the tree.
Not all conservative Catholics have fallen into this type of error of exalting conservative theological opinion above the Magisterium. And so not all conservatives will fall away from the Church. But a large number will fall away, spurred on by the conservative Catholic subculture that has been nourished and corrupted by many conservative Catholic authors and commentators online.
Step 2: Pope Francis will have a short reign. The next Pope will be very conservative. I still think Cardinal Arinze will be Pope, but any conservative Cardinal could fill this role. The conservative Pope will issue decision and doctrines that upset the liberal Catholics, and then they, too, will leave the Church.
But there are many more liberal Catholics than conservative Catholics. So this second step in the great apostasy is much more noticeable. A vast number of Catholics will leave the Church, along with many religious, deacons, and priests, and more than a few Bishops.
But the new conservative Pope will NOT do the will of the conservative schismatic and heretical Catholics, who left the Church under Pope Francis. He will not reverse or contradict the teaching of Pope Francis, that non-Christians and non-believers can be saved without converting.
The experience of having a liberal Pope, followed by a conservative Pope, will test the faithful, to see if they truly love Christ and His Church — or if they merely love a socio-political subculture of Catholic liberalism or Catholic conservatism. Most Catholics will fail the test and depart from the Church. And at about the same time, the tribulation will begin.