“Sedevacantists” have always constituted a
particularly distant group in the Catholic resistance to the error of modernism.
Their main characteristic is to be found in their manifest disregard of the
Apostles’ Creed in favor of their public support and adherence to a rather
odd, to say the least, theological thesis. There have been certain occasions
where “sedevacantist priests” have gone so far as to refuse the sacraments to
faithful Catholics who sincerely profess the unchanging Creed of the Church, but
who show no enthusiasm for their sedevacantist redemptive thesis, i.e.,
the Thesis of Cassissiacum of which we will now give an analysis.
Brief historical background
In 1977, a former professor of theology at the seminary at Econe, Fr. Guerard de
Lauriers, published a fanciful thesis with the intention of proving without a
shadow of a doubt that Paul VI, Bishop of Rome, recognized and acknowledged by
the entire visible Church, was not, in fact, pope at all. This thesis is known
under the title of Thesis of Cassissiacum. This Father had previously
attained widespread notoriety thanks to his incomprehensible courses. This
thesis ran true to form. Literally no one could understand his
“distinctions,” for instance, between the “sessio” and the “missio.”
A handful of young priests, just a little while before ordained by Archbishop
Lefebvre and, to say the least, greatly lacking in experience, imprudently gave
themselves heart and soul to the defense and explanation of the Thesis of
Cassissiacum. They referred to themselves as “the syndicate.”
According to them, they were the true Thomists who simply could no longer put up
with Archbishop Lefebvre’s doctrinal infantilism. They soon left the Society of
St. Pius X and the “syndicate” then began to break up into rival tendencies,
remaining united only in their deep-seated detestation of the very bishop to
whom they owed their ordination.
Around 1980, there appeared a new “popular version” of the
“sedevacantist thesis,” the so-called Blignieres-Lucien version.
While side-stepping the core and essence of the earlier thesis, i.e., the
distinction between “material pope” and “formal pope,” it now concentrated on
trying to make it plain for all to see that there had occurred a certain
breakdown of papal infallibility, thus proving that the person who then seemed
to be the pope could not in actual fact be the pope indeed. And so off they
went, mouthing their inanities before an amazed audience made up of unqualified
lay people full of admiration in the presence of such a great display of
“theological science.” Soon, in certain traditional chapels, there were to
be found self-proclaimed theologians repeating and re-echoing over and over
their new password: “material - formal; formal - material.” Thanks to
their grotesque errors, these efforts discredited them in the eyes of any
learned, well-advised priest. Such erroneous teachings, forgivable to some
extent for laymen, are completely inexcusable for priests, especially coming as
they do from those pretending to be radar beacons of theology.
American sedevacantists have since come up with an interesting novelty which is
a new rehash of the original Thesis of Cassissiacum (see Sacerdotium,
no.16). It is clear that sedevacantist propaganda often seems to carry some
weight by its gravity as well as its extensive research. The keenest among the
sedevacantists do not base their thesis on the above-mentioned theological
fantasies. First of all, they seriously try to elucidate or to clear up that
reality which should exist behind the distinction between “material pope”
and “formal pope.” For those unfamiliar with philosophy, it seems
worthwhile to explain the meaning of such a distinction:
A natural being is, in fact, composed of two essential co-principles: matter
and form. In the same way, an accidental being (e.g., a football
team, a community, a radio station) is understood by analogy as a whole made up
of two co-principles which are like matter and form. But then we have a
superimposition of quasi-substantial or of almost-substantial forms, and only
the latter constitutes the compound being in its essence. For example, the rungs
of a chair in kit form finally constitute or make up the chair only after having
been placed each in its own stable position, which is an accident of relation.
This accident acts as the “form” of the chair.
In the present case, a pope is a man, that is, a bodily, created being, a man
who has been baptized, a Catholic invested with an episcopal character, and
finally, a bishop designated and recognized as the legitimate Pastor of the
Church of Rome. The human being constitutes the quasi-matter for the
superimposed supernatural accidental form: Baptism and supernatural life. A
baptized male who has thus been elevated to a life of the supernatural order
becomes the quasi-matter who receives the “quasi-form” of the sacrament of
Orders, etc. To every ordinary bishop, however, there is still lacking a “form”
to become pope, that is, the legitimate appointment, the recognition or
acknowledgment of the Catholic faithful of his authority over the Church of
In the previously mentioned thesis, what is meant by the expression material
pope? Answer: It is a pope to whom would be lacking the ultimate “formality,”
meaning that ultimate accidental perfection which really and finally “activates”
the papacy in a subject, that is, the man. It is through this “formality” that
the pope-not-yet-pope becomes pope-in-fact-and-in-deed. All this being
understood, the whole question resides in knowing for sure whether this
superimposed accidental perfection actually exists outside the imagination of
The aforementioned sedevacantists attempt to prove that there is still something
lacking to the bishop who has legitimately been designated to occupy the Chair
of Peter in Rome and who has so been acknowledged by the entire visible Church.
It is obviously quite clear that Pope Paul VI as well as Pope John Paul II have
indeed met these conditions. What is therefore lacking to them? To make a long
story short, we simply and briefly give the American sedevacantists’ conclusion,
which is that the distinction between a material pope and a formal
pope is the distinction between a legitimate pope without
authority and a legitimate pope with full authority.
But is it really possible in fact to separate legitimacy from authority? Can a
ruler be simultaneously legitimate yet without authority? Would it not be better
to say that a ruler loses his authority in the eyes of his subjects only after
having lost his legitimacy and that one does not lose one without also losing
the other? One needs only to consult the treatise De legibus [Regarding
Laws] to be convinced that that which requires obedience on the part of a
subject is that which has been ordered by those enjoying legitimate authority.
In social philosophy, legitimacy and authority are inseparable. The distinction
dreamed-up by the sedevacantists does not, in reality, exist at all.
The fundamental error
The American sedevacantists support their arguments by quoting some very good
authors. But these good authors speak of something else. They speak of the
authority of the law, and not of the authority of the one who rules.
There is a difference. It is common knowledge that the ruler is not infallible
and that his subjects are also endowed with free will. It can happen that an
order contrary to reason or injurious to the common good might be given by the
legitimate authority. If an individual comes to realize that the law is harmful,
he must not obey; for it is not, in truth, a law, but a tyranny.
In order to bolster their private judgment through the use of good authors, the
sedevacantist propaganda jumps from the “intentio promulgendi errorem [intention
of promulgating an error]” to the “intentio evertendae Ecclesiae
per promulgationem erroris [intention of overthrowing the Church by
promulgating an error]” (Sacerdotium, p.47).
The latter entails or leads to the first, but not vice versa (i.e., not
reciprocally). The intention of a ruler (i.e., any superior, the father
of a family, an employer, a teacher) to promulgate or proclaim something
objectively harmful to the common good is compatible with the intention
of promoting the common good because it is possible that the subject
can sincerely, but erroneously, believe that it is useful. How is it possible
for subjects to prove with moral certainty that their ruler, in his heart of
hearts (i.e., within himself), actually hopes and wishes to cause and
bring evil upon his subjects and that it is on account of this evil will that he
promulgates such evil laws? It is not possible. To prove this proposal is
as impossible a task as proving a pope’s well-known public material
heresy is actually formal heresy. Of course, errores et disciplinae
nocivae non sunt leges [harmful errors and disciplinary regulations are
not laws]! This only proves that a person invested with authority is
mistaken. It does not at all prove that his authority no longer exists. How many
acts contrary to the common good would it take on the part of the ruler in order
for his subjects to infer that he does not wish, in a casehardened and habitual
manner, the common good and has, therefore, become a tyrant? Five bad or evil
laws? Ten bad laws? It is true, however, that such a frequent and recurring will
on the part of the ruler to act against the common good gives rise to a
legitimate suspicion which obliges us to closely examine those laws. Exactly in
the same way, repeated teachings suspiciously smacking of heresy inevitably lead
to suspicions of heresy. But, that’s all–neither more nor less. All of which
gives rise to doubts which tend to discredit the law but not the very existence
of authority itself.
One gets the feeling that the sedevacantists have indeed caught a glimpse of the
problem. They usually make at least two attempts to get around this difficulty:
Therefore, inasmuch as
[authority] is a habit, it takes its species from its proper act and formal
object. The primary and formal object, however, of the habit of authority is
the making, promulgation and execution of laws. The formal object of law,
however, is the promotion of the common good. It follows that he who enjoys
authority must have the habitual intention of promoting the common good, as
otherwise he cannot have authority (ibid., p.14).
We reply in the negative to this objection. We
cannot justifiably make a mental leap from the absence of obligation of a bad
law to the absence of authority of the ruler promoting such a so-called “law.”
All of which simply means, in plain language, that he who rules and gives orders
favoring evil at the expense of the public good, acts against nature and sins,
[I]t is not sufficient that he
who holds authority intends in his will the common good of the community, but
rather the good which he intends must be the true and objective common good.
The reason is that law is defined as an order of reason for the common good.
Therefore in order that the will of a superior oblige in conscience, it is
necessary that he objectively intend the common good [emphasis in original] (ibid.,
If the sedevacantists were right in this case, he
would prove too much! They would imply both constitutive infallibility as well
as impeccability of all true authority!
The first sophism can be found in the word authority. The author has
illogically leapt from legitimacy before God (i.e., the ruler acts
virtuously by ensuring the common good of his subjects through good laws) to the
legitimacy before subjects (i.e., the order promulgated by the legitimate
ruler must be obeyed). The ruler sins before God if he intends to harm society
which he commands by his evil laws. But this does not mean that he has thereby
lost his authority. An objectively bad law binds no one, yet subjects must, in
conscience, obey as long as they truly believe them to be good, or even when
they have doubts about it!
The second sophism consists in leaping from the authority of such a bad law to
the authority of the ruler in general.
The third sophism lies in the attempt to attribute such an absence of authority
to the ruler, objectively provable the moment that it has been noted that a law
is objectively bad.
There is, of course, to be seen a moral correlation running throughout all of
these elements, that is to say, the praiseworthy intention of the leader before
God, a good law, the duty of conscientious obedience on the part of the
subjects, together with the objective welfare or well-being of human society.
But there is in no way a metaphysical link here at all. Here we see
sedevacantists theorizing metaphysically in spite of the fact that they are
dealing, in truth, with the physical political order.
THE VERY SAME DEAD-END AS WITH
THE DEMONSTRATION OF THE POPE’S HERESY
A ruler’s authority can be understood either in its relation to:
society over which it is exercised.
The ruler (i.e., the person invested with authority) as an individual
subject, extends God’s authority while constituting a channel through which
courses the common good when he objectively desires that good through beneficial
laws. The Latin word auctoritas takes its origin from the Latin root,
auctor, meaning he who begets or generates, increases, or adds to. The right
of commanding stems from the good generated. If the ruler enacts laws lacking
the proportionate good or well-being of his subjects (despotism) or which cause
damage or injury to the community (tyranny), he simply has no such right before
God, and if he realizes his fault and is quite conscious of it, he is in the
state of sin and has no authority to continue in such a manner.
Does this automatically give his subjects the right of disobeying such a leader?
No, not until they have positive proof or evidence of the evil(s) befalling
The subject’s obedience is not due to the inner dispositions of the leader, but
rather to the law, to the order coming publicly from legitimate authority,
together with the necessary conditions required to make it a law in deed. The
social relationship of subject and authority therefore remains, even in
the case of the inner sinful dispositions of the ruler.
THE FATAL FLAW
We have now come to the flaw which warps the Thesis of Cassissiacum: subjects do not owe obedience to the inner
dispositions of their leader, but to the recognized social authority,
legitimate in the social body. Social function is inseparable from legitimacy,
while the conformity of the ruler’s will to the will of God can be separated
from the question of his legitimacy.
American sedevacantists are able to explain this with remarkable precision
without noticing, I suppose, that the entire “proof” of their theory has thus
been struck and dashed to pieces:
Every society is a moral
person, and by analogy to a physical person, a society has its intellect and
will. Therefore it is possible and it often happens that a fact is able to be
true in the real order, and even most evident, but is not recognized as such
by society. For example, someone is able to commit a murder, in front of many
witnesses. Although the witnesses know that such a man is a murderer,
nevertheless, before the law, he is held as innocent until he should be
condemned by a court of law. In other words, in the eyes of society, he is not
a murderer until he is convicted, even if it is absolutely certain to the
witnesses that he is a murderer.
Another example: in matrimony a spouse simulates [i.e., pretends - Ed.]
consent. Before God and in reality, there is not a bond of matrimony in this
case; but before the Church, the marriage is valid until it can be proven that
the consent was simulated. If the priest should discover, by the confession of
a spouse, that the consent was simulated, he must forbid the spouses the use
of matrimony, because before God the bond does not exist, although before the
Church the bond does exist until it shall be declared null by a legal
declaration... Because of this distinction between a real fact and a legal
fact, the Church - and every society - is distinguished from a mere mob (ibid.,
These very precise and apt remarks are aimed at
those intending to prove the deposition of the pope through Canon 188, §4 of the
1917 Code of Canon Law.
American sedevacantists have done an excellent job on the canonical meaning of
heretical notoriety (ibid., pp.62-65; 72-74). In the canonical sense,
“notorious heresy” means heresy acknowledged by society, that is to say, a
pertinacious heresy (i.e., persistent and determined to the point of
stubbornness). One’s own personal subjective convictions concerning the pope’s
writings have no social effects.
This point must be made unmistakably clear: it means, for example, that a priest
must celebrate Mass in union with the pope, no matter what intimate conviction
that such a priest may entertain regarding the pope’s “heresy” or “schism,”
since the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is not a private prayer, but an act
of the Church’s official
public worship as such, and the pope remains pope as long as he be so
acknowledged legitimacy. He remains pope before the public as long as he has not
been proven pertinacious. This is why the priests of the Society of St. Pius X
include the name of the current pope when celebrating Holy Mass.
An heretical pope remains pope as long as he is not pertinacious. Pertinacity is
determined by the public acknowledgment of the heresy by the legitimate
authority. Is this possible in the case of the pope who has no superior here on
earth? - Maybe, as in the case of his rejection from the communion by the moral
unanimity of the episcopacy. This is what occurred at the Council of Constance
In human society, legitimacy is inseparable from authority. The loss of the one
in the social order entails the loss of the other. The sudden changes and
reversals of fortune encountered, for instance, at the Council of Constance
constitute a classic case. Things had reached a point where, in the eyes of all
of the bishops, even in the view of his own personally-appointed cardinals, a
pope’s obstinacy in prolonging the Great Schism was incompatible with the will
to promote the common good, and caused the loss of all legitimacy and thus all
To lose social legitimacy means exactly the same things as to lose authority.
We take our conclusion from the American sedevacantists themselves. As
long as the Catholic episcopacy does nothing, there is no one capable of
providing the certainty of conscience that the presently-reigning pope has been
stripped of his authority:
Our problem today - which is
indeed horrendous - is that all the sees of authority, at least apparently,
teach the errors of Vatican II as the magisterium [doubtlessly meaning here as
belonging to the revealed Deposit of Faith - Ed.], and all electors of
the pope participate in the errors of Vatican II, in such a way
that there is no one who, in a legal way, is able to recognize or ascertain
the fact of error in the magisterium, and therefore the absence of authority
in those who promulgate it (ibid., p.51).
THE REAL QUESTION
Sedevacantists are truly obsessed by the question of the papacy. One may well
wonder if in many of them this is not due to some psychological trauma. Their
understandable ancestral veneration for the pope seems to unleash a veritable
panic at the idea of contrasting their cherished, idealized image of the papacy
with such popes as Paul VI and John Paul II.
Sedevacantism appears to be more of a psychological than a theological problem.
It would be both easy and cruel to evoke here some of the variations, as well as
the successive divisions fostered by their numerous cliques and the astounding
reversals and turnabouts coming from their inconsistent motives.
But why be so harsh with them? Are not those reproaches which they make
regarding the Pope’s teaching, his pastoral approach, including some erroneous
Vatican II teachings, indeed well-founded? Admittedly, some indulgence could be
shown for some theological error which, for the moment, has but little practical
consequences, if we were not to note and observe the dire consequences brought
upon the faithful. We now see only too well what effects those theological
outpourings produce in passionate Catholics. They now have become their own
pope. They judge their own priests. No longer do many of them have recourse to
the sacrament of Confession. No longer do they hearken to the Church’s
infallible teachings. They generally bring moral ruin on their own families.
[These are the self-titled and self-styled “home-aloners.” - Ed.]
We used to know truly pious Catholics. After a few years we met them again only
to find them marked by a psychological behavior found in types such as the
Jehovah’s Witnesses or in Protestants in general: haughty, understanding
everything, seeing everything through their jaundiced and obsessed eyes,
unceasingly shaking their rattles of definitive, final, and unanswerable
arguments which they do not understand themselves. Beware the time when they
lose their God-given Faith and give up on everything.
How can one explain such a breakdown in the Christian spirit? We may well wonder
if sedevacantism may not prove to be even more grave, more serious than it first
seemed. Experience has proved that that which is understood by most of those
Catholics won over to the sedevacantist camp turns out to be quite a simple
idea: an unworthy pope is no longer pope. This strangely resembles the unhinged
teachings of Wycliffe and of John Hus: A pope in the state of mortal sin is no
longer pope, a bishop in the state of mortal sin is no longer bishop having
authority in his own diocese, nor does a pastor in such a state have any
authority over his parish. And the same for a king over his country, etc. We may
think that John Hus was sincere in his errors. His death does not seem to be one
of a formal heretic. But this fact changes nothing with regard to the eventual
ugly consequences. The followers of Jan Hus later became bloodthirsty wolves
feeding on their exploited fellow citizens as they hunted to death those
bishops, pastors, kings and princes whom they thought were not worthy of life.
Rank speculation? A strange mixture of ideas? Do not be too sure. Let those who
know of the appalling affair of the Institut Cardinal Pie think deeply
about this: a half-crazed, self-appointed leader had applied the Cassissiacum Thesis to the French political system. He preached that those in power had no
intention of working for the common well-being of their people, and therefore
their power was only a sham, their places in government were vacant and required
being taken over by right-thinking men. “I,” said their leader, “know
what is necessary for the welfare of France. This is my desire and intent and I
therefore constitute the legitimate power of the country.” And thus was
founded a secret society levying taxes on its members, passing judgments by
internal tribunals, and spying on its associates. Of course, such nonsense could
not last and soon fell apart. But the sudden appearance and taking form of such
a project and the seduction it was able to exert over intelligent men and women
proves that the spirit of sedevacantism is indeed harmful to souls.