Anti-Sedevacantism: Is it Catholic?
A critical analysis of the recent attack on "Sedevacantism" in the December, 2000 - January, 2001, issue of Catholic, along with a detailed criticism of the article, "Sedevacantism: Is it Catholic?"
Whys and Wherefores
In the December 2000 January 20001 issue of the periodical, Catholic, there appears a centre-page spread over which hovers the banner headline, "Finishing with Sedevacantism." Consisting of two articles and an editorial column, this spread evidently is intended to close off any discussion of the pope question by readers of Catholic. The editorial column is an abridged version of the journal's main editorial, so that the subject is dealt with in four separate places. There is a reason for this. What that reason might be is not at all apparent, however. The editorial contains what amounts to an admission that the case against sedevacantism is not likely to convince sedevacantists, followed by, "at least all will know where we personally stand, and all possible misunderstandings about this will be swept away." What misunderstandings have there been?
Having asked one of the Redemptorists (whose congregation publishes Catholic) what the reason was for this wholesale attack on sedevacantists and sedevacantism (for that is what it is, as will be seen), I was met with the response that he was unaware that the issue had been raised in that journal. He certainly did not think that anybody misunderstood the position taken by the Redemptorists and by Catholic. Furthermore, in an earlier issue of the journal the editorial had explained that the traditional Redemptorists (the Transalpine Redemptorists) are subject to the bishops of the SSPX, and do not take any major decisions without consulting them. It has always been abundantly clear that any traditional group affiliated with the SSPX is in professed communion with John Paul II. It goes without saying.
Why the Redemptorists felt that anybody misunderstood their position is therefore unknown, if indeed that is the reason for this anti-sedevacantist smorgasbord. But now that this material has been inflicted on the public, there is clearly a whole raft of new misunderstandings possible. For example, the editorial pretends to establish a moral obligation on Catholics to reject "the opinions of the sedevacantists." The case for this obligation is based on the principle that one may not act with a doubtful conscience. Which, for the Transalpine Redemptorists, is fine. If they are in doubt about the theology and law involved, then they ought not to join us. When has any sedevacantist asserted that those who doubt the principles involved in this question ought to act as though they were certain? Never.
But that is not all, as shall be seen shortly. But before embarking on an examination of just what these misunderstandings are, a word about this unseemly propensity for non-sedevacantists to launch broadsides at those of us who have formed the view that John Paul II is not the Vicar of Christ.
What will convince people of the truth, either way, is fact, law, theology, reason. It is what convinced many to leave the Novus Ordo, and it is what convinces people that John Paul II is not the Vicar of Christ. Broadsheet propaganda is not going to serve the purpose.
The question for the various anti-sedevacantists out there is therefore simple: Do you have Catholic authorities which show why our arguments are wrong? If not, then considering the overwhelming amount of evidence we have assembled in favour of our view, we are right.
Returning to the idea of doubt, the clear implication of the editorial is that good Catholics in general are obliged to avoid sedevacantism, for the reason that it is a doubtful position. That is, that all ought to doubt it, because of the reasoning presented in Catholic. That reasoning is as follows:
- Even if John Paul II were a formal heretic (which is not conceded), theologians are split over the question of whether he would be pope, so that no clear consensus is present.
- The theologians who have discussed this question never imagined a situation "as drastic as ours."
- The law of the Church is that a public heretic maintains possession of an office and its associated jurisdiction until he is deposed by a superior.
- Francisco Suarez maintained that a heretic pope must be deposed by a Council.
- Therefore there is "great doubt and uncertainty."
Answer to #1: Leaving aside the proof that John Paul II is a formal heretic, theologians are not "split" over the question. There is an almost universal consensus, in fact, and there is perfectly clear papal legislation covering the matter. The law involved, that public heretics cannot possess ordinary jurisdiction, is theologically certain.
Answer to #2: It is true that the theologians did not envisage our circumstances. Readers may well ask, what do the theologians and canonists discuss? They discuss the possibility that a pope might become a heretic as a private person (that is, that a pope might fall into heresy, but not impose it on the Church). And nearly all of them say exactly the same thing - if he did, he would not be pope, for he would not be a Catholic. Not a single one of them was dealing with a putative "pope" who literally preached heresy to the world as official teaching, re-wrote the Code of Canon Law in accordance with his heresy, banned the true Mass and replaced it with a Protestant "communion service," and travelled the world committing violations of the First Commandment with every false religion available, whilst encouraging others to do likewise. No, none of them thought of that. And if they did, it hardly seems reasonable to suppose that they would have been less sure that such a man would not be pope. Undoubtedly any of them who had even considered such a situation as ours would have been utterly emphatic that such a man as John Paul II could not possibly be the Vicar of Christ.
Answer to #3: Canon Law not only fails to maintain the office and jurisdiction of a public heretic, but in fact it legislates the precise opposite, in Canon 188, §4. Nor do the canonists support the editorial position of Catholic. If any canonist does support the claim of Catholic then I, for one, would very much like to see what he has to say, for our only interest in this matter is truth.
Answer to #4: Francisco Suarez did in fact hold the discredited minority position that a public heretic would have to be deposed by the Church. But since his time the Vatican Council has decreed that the First See is judged by no one. Therefore Suarez's idea that the Church could act "juridically" against the pope, and "declare him a heretic" is completely indefensible. After all, what else is a "juridical determination" but a public judgement? Suarez's argument that in such a case there would be no violation of the principle, The First See is judged by no-one, is hardly convincing, and Bellarmine explicitly rejected it. This is, indeed, one of Francisco Suarez's famous distinctions - a distinction without a difference, as the scholastics say. Suarez, with this doctrine, places the bishops in council over the pope, a notion now condemned explicitly as heresy.
Furthermore, Suarez must have been relying upon a corrupt text as the basis for his view, for he asserts that, "it is gathered from the first epistle of Saint Clement I, in which one reads that Saint Peter taught that a Pope heretic must be deposed." Yet nothing of the sort is found in the first epistle of St. Clement I, and no other theologian seems to have discovered any text like this in any other patristic source, nor have they relied upon it.
If a non-existent text, mentioned by only one theologian, who was famous for making subtle and incomprehensible distinctions, is sufficient basis for introducing a genuine doubt into a matter considered perfectly clear by numerous others, then we can have no solid doctrine whatsoever, outside of solemn definitions.
Answer to #5: Therefore, considering the evident confusion of this editorialist on this question it is agreed, there is "great doubt and uncertainty" on his part. How could there not be? The meaning of Canon 188, which needs no interpretation, seems to be unclear to this editorialist, as do the works of the canonists who have commented upon it. The Apostolic Constitution of Pope Paul IV, Cum ex Apostolatus, which defines that no manifest heretic can be pope, even if the entire Church adheres to him, seems likewise to be unclear. And, finally, the relative numbers and weight of the theologians who have discussed this matter and concluded one way or the other must be outside his ken as well. For hardly any take the view espoused by Suarez, and with good reason - it is founded on a mistake, and has been opposed by two Doctors of the Church, including the Redemptorists' own St. Alphonsus Liguori.
Doubts, and Doubts
A word on "doubt" in this context. A doubtful pope is no pope, as the theologians say. If John Paul II is doubtfully pope, then he can command no obedience whatsoever from good Catholics. For in the matter of subjection to the Roman Pontiff, only certainty is sufficiently safe. Now, it is granted that in their current state of doubt about the theology and law involved in this matter, the Redemptorists could not legitimately doubt John Paul II's claim. But if, on the other hand, their doubts about the teaching of the Church could be eliminated, then their clear suspicion that John Paul II is a heretic would place that matter on a whole different footing. Suddenly they would be faced with a doubtful pope, and a doubtful pope is no pope at all, and the obligation on Catholics is to refuse him. As sedevacantists do.
Consider the explanation to be found in the most authoritative post-Code (1917) commentary, Wernz-Vidal: "
jurisdiction is essentially a relation between a superior who has the right to obedience and a subject who has the duty of obeying. Now when one of the parties to this relationship is wanting, the other necessarily ceases to exist also, as is plain from the nature of the relationship. However, if a pope is truly and permanently doubtful, the duty of obedience cannot exist towards him on the part of any subject. For the law, 'Obedience is owed to the legitimately-elected successor of St. Peter,' does not oblige if it is doubtful; and it most certainly is doubtful if the law has been doubtfully promulgated, for laws are instituted when they are promulgated, and without sufficient promulgation they lack a constitutive part, or essential condition. But if the fact of the legitimate election of a particular successor of St. Peter is only doubtfully demonstrated, the promulgation is doubtful; hence that law is not duly and objectively constituted of its necessary parts, and it remains truly doubtful and therefore cannot impose any obligation. Indeed it would be rash to obey such a man who had not proved his title in law. Nor could appeal be made to the principle of possession, for the case in question is that of a Roman pontiff who is not yet in peaceful possession. Consequently in such a person there would be no right of command - i.e. he would lack papal jurisdiction." (Scholion 454).
Therefore if John Paul II is doubtful, which is at least the case, then the obligation on Catholics is to avoid him. A fortiori, upon those of us who have taken the trouble to do some serious reading on the question, so that no reasonable doubt remains, there exists an absolutely clear moral obligation to reject John Paul II as a patent fraud.
And this raises another set of considerations. It seems self-evident that since many prudent and learned men (I speak of others, not myself), including numerous priests - some who were ordained in the 'fifties - have concluded that John Paul II is not the pope, it seems perfectly evident that the case must have real merit. And since all good Catholics regard the question of whom the Holy Father actually is as being a matter of the first importance, since subjection to him is absolutely necessary for salvation, it follows that all good Catholics will want to investigate this question as well as their situation permits. Far from the situation being one in which good men will be satisfied to remain in doubt, it is notoriously a matter in which real effort ought to be expended in the endeavour of eliminating doubt.
But whatever else may be said about this anti-sedevacantist stance of the Transalpine Redemptorists, one thing is obvious. There is now yet another example of anti-sedevacantist polemic in the public forum, and it demands an answer, for the truth is at stake, and when the truth is at stake, souls are at stake. Furthermore, the nature of the second of the two main articles is such as to constitute a gross misrepresentation of those many informed, prudent, and good Catholics who have realised that the Holy See is at present vacant. That the author, probably one of the religious of the Transalpine Redemptorists, is innocent, is not being questioned. Indeed, I believe in his good will. But that his article misrepresents the typical sedevacantist is indisputable, as should become clear as it is critically examined.
Guilt by Association
The article mentioned is entitled, "Sedevacantism: Is it Catholic?" Opening such a question is sufficiently prejudicial, but the graphics create further doubt in the minds of readers. Included is series of pictures of claimants to the See of Peter, along with a boxed list of their "papal" names and real names. This box carries the heading, "Ten contemporary Sedevacantist Papal claimants - All with plans to be your pope!" For a moment one could be forgiven for thinking that instead of Catholic one had accidentally picked up a copy of one of Rupert Murdoch's less refined print organs. But sadly, no.
Curiously, one of the only claimants who is both certainly a heretic and a real and present danger to good Catholics, because of his acceptance by so many leading men in the Church, is entirely absent from this list. I refer, of course, to John Paul II, who does not even use a single Christian name for his papal title, but rather has adopted the double name system only ever employed by Oriental schismatic "Patriarchs."
And, even more curiously, one of those listed, the so-called "Little Pebble," an Australian "seer" and all-round lunatic, has not claimed to be pope, and in fact vehemently shares the opinion of the editors of Catholic that John Paul II is the present Roman Pontiff. One wonders whether guilt by association works both ways in this context?
The article is, to say the very least, not a careful presentation of the truth.
Thesis and Antithesis
The thesis of the article is essentially that it is perfectly reasonable to doubt John Paul II's claim, but that to form the judgement that he is not pope is to place oneself on a slippery-slide to schism. And the conclusion is arrived at most ingeniously. Firstly a straw man is set up - that all sedevacantists "itch for a pope" and are keen to see some uncanonical election take place to realise this desire. From there the case is made relatively easily that sedevacantists each desire their own pope, because, after all, they "place excessive value on their own private judgement." This is contrasted with those good Catholics who are "willing to hear the opposite point of view" and who do not "refuse correction."
And in the middle of all this character assassination (I speak objectively) is the assertion that "Holy Mother Church
teaches that only a pope is competent to judge another pope." This assertion is repeated at the completion of the "doctrinal" portion of the article. Clearly it is a key point.
The answer to this mess of pottage is simple. The facts it asserts are not facts. The reasoning employed is illogical. And the principles enunciated are false. And while no comment is made about the motives of writer who produced it, or the editor who published it, it is objectively slanderous of a large group of good Catholics.
- Every sedevacantist Catholic rejects all of the usurpers who claim the Holy See. By definition, a sedevacantist is one who believes the See vacant. But even if we illogically and unfairly include as "sedevacantists" those who adhere to one or other of the false claimants, while excluding those who adhere to John Paul II, we arrive at the fact that almost every sedevacantist in the world rejects all of these claimants. Just to take two examples, Victor Von Pentz has several dozen adherents, at most. Michael Bawden has perhaps two dozen. And the core of these is his own family, who after all were the majority of the "electoral college" which raised him to his great dignity in the first place. None of these frauds has any great number of followers, and the most successful would probably be Fr. Pulvermacher, who boasts several hundred "faithful." By contrast, in Cincinnati, USA, alone there are two Mass centres served by clergy who really are sedevacantists, and these have between them around a thousand parishioners. It is simply not true to assert that sedevacantists are inclined to elect their own popes. Hardly any of them have done so.
- To place this falsehood in its true context, however, let's examine what appears to be the strength of the case. And that is that only a sedevacantist would be drawn into an uncanonical election. Which is true (if, for the sake of the argument, we exclude uncanonical elections conducted in Rome). It is also true to say that sedevacantists desire that the interregnum be ended. (To describe this as "itching for a pope" is to employ coloured wording aimed at achieving a psychological effect rather than dealing soberly with facts. It is thoroughly objectionable.) So, is it right to draw the conclusion from this that sedevacantists are often drawn into uncanonical elections, or that this is in any way a common tendency? No. The facts prove otherwise.
- Is it then a real fruit of sedevacantism that each group elects its own pope? No. Is there a real danger that Catholics who realise that the See of Rome is vacant will end up following some fruity home-baked "pope" in Kansas? No. If the danger was real, then it would have materialised in some substantial way by now. The fact that there are a number of pretend popes is not proof that "sedevacantists all want their own pope" any more than the number of bad traditional priests is proof that traditional priests all tend to be bad. The real question is how such behaviour is judged by the bulk of the group being studied. And in both cases, that of traditional priests and of sedevacantists, the answer is the same - utter repugnance to the evil. Indeed, a man who has formed the judgement that John Paul II is not pope is a man who at least knows how to form a judgement, and he is the least likely, in general, to be drawn into adhering to some other fraudulent claimant. Hence the reason for the abject failure of any of these "popes" to gather any serious number of followers.
- However, it is notoriously and undeniably true that adherence to John Paul II tends to cause heresy. It is notoriously true that it was precisely the adherence to John Paul II by the SSPX, for example, which brought about the defection to heretical worship of the members of the Fraternity of St. Peter (John Paul II has recently imposed the Novus Ordo "Missae" upon them). I do not say that all adherents to John Paul II eventually end up involved in his heresies. But it is a plain fact that almost all of them have. Adherence to John Paul II is dangerous. Sedevacantism, by contrast, is safe.
- Are sedevacantists generally "willing to hear the opposite point of view"? Yes, we are. However, I've yet to discover an SSPX priest, for example, who is willing to discuss the matter by reference to theological sources. It is notorious that sedevacantists are the very men who are interested in genuine research and discussion of the relevant principles. It is notorious that our opponents have signally failed to provide any real arguments, based on theological sources, against our position.
- Do sedevacantists "refuse correction"? Interesting question! By whom is this "correction" offered, we ask? Is it asserted that we refuse sound theology and law, presented intelligently and moderately by anti-sedevacantists? No, because it is notorious that no such "correction" has ever been offered (although Fr. Maessen's article is cause for some hope in that direction). Instead we are offered utter nonsense like, "Holy Mother Church
teaches that only a pope is competent to judge another pope." We'll come back to that shortly. What, then, is the "correction" referred to by this anonymous writer? Accusations of schism? Yes, there have been a steady stream of those, from the likes of Michael Davies and Fr. Peter Scott, of the SSPX. All without the faintest shadow of support by the authorised pre-V2 canonists to whom sedevacantists turn to check these things. And indeed, even the SSPX has declared that these accusations are false, via Bishop Williamson and others, who have expressly stated that sedevacantists are not schismatics at all. When an anti-sedevacantist writer presents a genuine case against the sedevacantist thesis, based upon quoted authorities, we will welcome it with open arms. Sedevacantists want nothing more than truth, and treating us as though we arrived at our views by other than reasonable and careful means, is counter-productive. It also happens to be contrary to the Gospels.
- Do sedevacantists "place excessive value on their own private judgement"? Probably. It is one of the most common of human failings, exhibited by almost all men, with the sole exception of those gifted with outstanding humility. The problem with employing it as an argument against sedevacantists, therefore, is that it fails to make a distinction between us and everybody else. One might as well accuse us of being sinners. Most of us are, if I can say that without undue scandal to those who don't know us. As are most SSPX supporters, I believe. It is lamentable, and lamentably common. Which is why priests expend such effort in the pulpit and the confessional in the attempt to make traditional Catholics less so. The truth is that sedevacantists, by the very fact of taking the step of forming a judgement about the most grave of matters, are acutely aware of the danger of inordinate attachment to our own views. In other words, we are at least aware of the danger. It is my own experience, having been accused rashly and falsely of the foul crime of schism by numerous defenders of the heretic John Paul II, that our opponents are not, generally, aware of the problem. Their attachment to their own judgement about John Paul II is positively scandalous.
- Does Holy Mother Church teach that, "only a pope is competent to judge another pope"? No. She teaches, "The First See can be judged by no one" (cf. CIC 1556). The canonist Woywod comments, "The very idea of the trial of a person supposes that the court conducting the trial has jurisdiction over the person, but the pope has no superior, wherefore no court has power to subject him to judicial trial." Is another pope the superior of a previous Roman Pontiff? No. They are equals. So, on what grounds is it asserted that "Holy Church teaches" that "only a pope is competent to judge another pope"? I am not aware of what those grounds might be. The First See, after all, is judged by no one.
- Of course, this assertion that "only a pope is competent to judge another pope" directly conflicts with the opinion of Suarez, championed in the editorial. Suarez held that the bishops could and should "act juridically" against a heretic-pope. Putting this as delicately as possible, it would be helpful if our opponents could at least work out which principle they would like to convince us of. Are we to believe what we are told "Holy Mother Church teaches," which according to them is that only a future pope can judge John Paul II, or are we to hold with Suarez that the bishops ought to act against John Paul II, and depose him? And, if the latter, what are they doing to ensure that this happens?
- An entirely different question, of course, is whether the faithful are permitted to decide, for themselves only, whether or not a given claimant is the true pope. And by presenting negatively the various latter-day claimants from around the world the editor of Catholic is exercising that very right. Is forming a prudent judgement, about whether a particular man is the true pope or not, forbidden by the law? No. All canonists who address the matter are agreed, "Finally, one cannot consider as schismatics those who refuse to obey the Roman Pontiff because they would hold his person suspect or, because of widespread rumours, doubtfully elected (as happened after the election of Urban VI) or who would resist him as a civil authority and not as pastor of the Church." (Wernz-Vidal, Ius Canonicum, Rome, Gregorian, 1937, 7:398, Emphasis added.)
And, "Neither is someone a schismatic for denying his subjection to the Pontiff on the grounds that he has solidly founded ['probabiliter'] doubts concerning the legitimacy of his election or his power
" (de Lugo, Disp., De Virt. Fid. Div., disp xxv, sect iii, nn. 35-8)
- One more authority ought to make this point clear, if it is not sufficiently clear already: "Is it not true that, confronted with such a danger for the faith, any subjects can by fraternal correction warn their superior [i.e. a heretic "pope"], resist him to his face, refute him and, if necessary, summon him and press him to repent? The Cardinals, who are his counsellors, can do this; or the Roman Clergy, or the Roman Synod, if, being met, they judge this opportune. For any person, even a private person, the words of Saint Paul to Titus hold: Avoid the heretic, after a first and second correction, knowing that such a man is perverted and sins, since he is condemned by his own judgment (Tit. 3, 10-11). For the person, who admonished once or twice, does not repent, but continues pertinacious in an opinion contrary to a manifest or public dogma - not being able, on account of this public pertinacity to be excused, by any means, of heresy properly so called, which requires pertinacity - this person declares himself openly a heretic. He reveals that by his own will he has turned away from the Catholic Faith and the Church, in such form that now no declaration or sentence of anyone whatsoever is necessary to cut him from the body of the Church. In this matter the argument given by Saint Jerome in connection with the cited words of Saint Paul is very clear: Therefore it is said that the heretic has condemned himself: for the fornicator, the adulterer, the homicide and the other sinners are expelled from the Church by the priests; but the heretics pronounce sentence against themselves, excluding themselves from the Church spontaneously: this exclusion which is their condemnation by their own conscience. (Pietro Ballerini, De Potestate Ecclesiastica
," pp. 104-105. Emphasis added.)
Fortunately the first of the two articles presented in Catholic is of a very different tenor to that of this one. And it deserves consideration, if only because of the gentlemanly and scholarly approach taken by its author, a priest of the SSPX. I have addressed it separately.
Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, 2001