What is sedevacantism?
Sedevacantism is the theory of those who think that the most recent popes,
the popes of the Second Vatican Council, have not really been popes.
Consequently, the See of Peter is not occupied. This is expressed in Latin
by the formula sede vacante.
Where does this theory come from?
This theory has been conceived in reaction to the very
grave crisis which the Church has been undergoing since the Council, a
crisis that Archbishop Lefebvre justly called "the third world war."
The main cause of the crisis has been the dereliction of the Roman Pontiffs,
who teach or allow to be propagated serious errors on the subjects of
ecumenism, religious liberty, collegiality, etc.
The sedevacantists think that real popes could not be
responsible for such a crisis, and consequently they consider them not to be
Do the sedevacantists agree amongst themselves?
No, far from it. There are many different positions. Some
think that, since the Chair of Peter is vacant, someone should occupy it,
and so they have elected a "pope." Such is the case of the sect of Palmar in
Spain, for example. Among those who do not go so far, there are different
schools. Some think that the current pope is an anti-pope, others that he is
only partly pope, a pope materialiter but not formaliter.
Some sedevacantists consider their position as a "likely
opinion," and consent to receive the sacraments from non-sedevacantist
priests, while others, called "ultra" by the Fr. Coache,
make it a matter of faith, and refuse to assist at Masses where the priest
prays for the pope. But what is common to all the sedevacantists is that
they think that the pope should not be prayed for in public.
What is meant by being pope materialiter?
The main difficulty of sedevacantism is to explain how
the Church can continue to exist in a visible manner (for she has received
from the Lord the promise that she will endure until the end of the world)
while being deprived of her head. The partisans of the so-called "Cassiciacum
Thesis" have come up with a very subtle solution: the current
pope was validly designated as pope, but he did not receive the papal
authority because there was an interior obstacle (heresy). So, according to
the theory, he is able to act in some ways for the good of the Church, such
as, for instance, appointing cardinals (who are cardinals materialiter),
but he is not really pope.
What do you think of this solution?
For one thing, this solution is not based on Tradition.
Theologians (Cajetan, St. Robert Bellarmine, John of St. Thomas, etc.) who
have examined the possibility of a heretical pope, but no one prior to the
Council every devised such a theory. Also, it does not resolve the main
difficulty of sedevacantism, namely, how the Church can continue to be
visible, for, if the pope, the cardinals, the bishops, etc., are deprived of
their "form," then no visible Church hierarchy is left. Moreover, this
theory has some serious philosophical defects because it supposes that a
head can be head materialiter, that is, without authority.
What arguments do the sedevacantists adduce to prove
They use a theological argument and a canonical one. The
theological argument consists of positing that a heretic cannot be head of
the Church, but John Paul II is a heretic, therefore...
The legal argument consists of pointing out that the laws
of the Church invalidate the election of a heretic; but Cardinal Wojtyla was
a heretic at the time of his election, therefore...
But isnít it true that a pope who becomes a heretic loses
St. Robert Bellarmine says that a pope who would formally
and manifestly become a heretic would lose the pontificate. For that to
apply to John Paul II, he would have to be a formal heretic, deliberately
refusing the Churchís magisterium; and this formal heresy would have to be
open and manifest. But if John Paul II often enough makes heretical
affirmations or statements that lead to heresy, it cannot easily be shown
that he is aware of rejecting any dogma of the Church. And as long as there
is no sure proof, then it is more prudent to refrain from judging. This was
Archbishop Lefebvreís line of conduct.
If a Catholic were convinced that John Paul II is a
formal, manifest heretic, should he then conclude that he is no longer pope?
No, he should not, for according to the "common" opinion
(Suarez), or even the "more common" opinion (Billuart), theologians think
that even an heretical pope can continue to exercise the papacy. For him to
lose his jurisdiction, the Catholic bishops (the only judges in matters of
faith besides the pope, by Divine will) would have to make a declaration
denouncing the popeís heresy.
According to the more common opinion, the Christ, by a
particular providence, for the common good and the tranquility of the
Church, continues to give jurisdiction to an even manifestly heretical
pontiff until such time as he should be declared a manifest heretic by the
Now, in so serious a matter, it is not prudent to go
against the common opinion.
But how can a heretic, who is no longer a member of the
Church, be its leader or head?
The Dominican Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, basing his
reasoning on Billuart, explains in his treatise De Verbo Incarnato
(p. 232) that an heretical pope, while no longer a member of the Church, can
still be her head. For, what is impossible in the case of a physical head is
possible (albeit abnormal) for a secondary moral head.
The reason is that, whereas a physical head cannot
influence the members without receiving the vital influx of the soul, a
moral head, as is the Roman Pontiff, can exercise jurisdiction over the
Church even if he does not receive from the soul of the Church any influx of
interior faith or charity.
In short, the pope is constituted a member of the Church
by his personal faith, which he can lose, but he is head of the visible
Church by the jurisdiction and authority which he received, and these can
co-exist with his own heresy.
How does their canonical argument fare?
The sedevacantists base their position on the apostolic
constitution Cum ex Apostolatus of Pope Paul IV (1555-1559). But some
good studies have shown that this constitution lost its legal force when the 1917 Code of Canon Law was promulgated. See, for example, the article
of Fr. Albert, O.P., in Sel de la terre, Summer 2000, pp.67-78. What
remains in effect from this constitution is its dogmatic teaching. And,
consequently, it cannot be made to say more than the theological argument
Donít the sedevacantists claim to find a confirmation of
their theory in the errors of Vatican Council II and the harmful liturgical
and canonical laws of the Conciliar Church?
Indeed, the sedevacantists think, in general, that the
teaching of the Council should have been covered by the infallibility of the
ordinary and universal magisterium, and consequently should not contain any
errors. But, since there are errors, for example, on religious liberty, they
conclude that Paul VI had ceased to be pope at that moment.
Really, if one accepted this argument, then it would be
necessary to say that the whole Catholic Church disappeared then, too, and
that "the gates of hell had prevailed" against her. For the teaching
of the ordinary, universal magisterium is that of the bishops, of the whole
It is simpler to think that the teaching of the Council
and of the Conciliar Church is not covered by the infallibility of the
ordinary, universal magisterium for the reasons explained in the article of
Fr. Pierre-Marie, O.P., on the authority of the Council that appeared in
Sel de la terre, "Líautorite du Concile," pp.32-63.
One of the arguments set forth there consists in showing
that the Council does not present its teaching as "necessary for salvation"
(which is logical, since those who profess this believe that it is possible
to be saved without the Catholic Faith). Since this teaching is not
authoritatively imposed, it is not covered by the guarantee of
infallibility. The same thing can be said about the liturgical laws (the New
Mass) and the canonical laws (the 1983 Code of Canon Law) promulgated
by the most recent popes: they are not covered by infallibility, although
normally they would be.
Arenít the sedevacantists right, though, in refusing to
name the pope at Mass in order to show that they are not in communion with
("una cum") a heretic (at least materially) and his heresies?
The expression "una cum" in the Canon of
the Mass does not mean that one affirms that he is "in communion"
with the erroneous ideas of the pope, but rather that one wants to pray for
the Church "and for" the pope, her visible head.
In order to be sure of this interpretation, in addition
to reading the erudite studies that have been made on this point, it is
enough to read the rubric of the missal for the occasion of a bishop
celebrating Mass. In this case, the bishop must pray for the Church "una
cum ...me indigno famulo tuo," which does not mean that he prays "in
communion with...myself, your unworthy servant" (which does not make
sense!), but that he prays "and for ...myself, your unworthy servant."
But doesnít St. Thomas Aquinas say that in the Canon
one should not pray for heretics?
St. Thomas Aquinas does not say that one should not pray
for heretics (Summa Theologica, III, Q. 79, A. 7, ad 2), but merely
observes that, in the prayers of the Canon of the Mass, one prays for those
whose faith and devotion are known to the Lord (quorum tibi fides cognita
est et nota devotio). For, he says, so that this sacrifice obtain its
effect (effectum habet) those for whom one prays must be "united
to the passion of Christ by faith and charity." He does not say that
praying for heretics is forbidden. He only means that this prayer will not
have the same efficacy as one for a Catholic, and is not provided for in the Canon.
All that can be concluded from this affirmation of St.
Thomas is that, if the pope is a heretic (which remains to be proven), then
the prayer for him will not have the foreseen effect, "non habet effectum."
In conclusion, what should we think of sedevacantism?
Sedevacantism is a theory that has not been proven
speculatively, and that it is imprudent to hold practically (an imprudence
that can have very serious consequences). That is why Archbishop Lefebvre
never adopted this position, and even forbade the priests of the Society of
St. Pius X to profess it. We should have confidence in his prudence and
Fr. Munoz points out that no saint in the
Churchís history was ever a sedevacantist, while several openly and
forcefully resisted a popeís errors. Let us do likewise. (Translated from
Sel de la terre, Spring 2001.)