Responses to Some Anti-Sedevacantist Objections

The objections
  • A Catholic cannot know a heretic until Holy Church has judged infallibly. "Private judgement" can never be more than a "private hunch."
  • Pope Benedict XV and the Code of Canon Law legislate this.
  • A heretic-"pope" remains pope until judged infallibly by Holy Church.
  • Catholics can be taught by somebody they think teaches heresy, by sifting the "good" from the "bad".
  • Catholics cannot really know what is heresy and what is not, until Holy Church judges infallibly.
  • Catholics should not cut off communion with heretics who claim offices in Holy Church, but should wait for an infallible judgement, if one ever comes.
  • The Church must be "called away from novelties and back to Tradition."
  • Bellarmine taught that one must resist a heretic "pope", but not reject him.
  • All the thoughts of the Doctors on the question of "heretic-popes" are "hypothetical."
  • Bellarmine's doctrine is merely his "opinion."
  • The judgements of individuals without jurisdiction are not binding on others.
  • Cum Ex Apostolatus never had the force of law, and was never incorporated in the Code.
  • Not to pray for the heretic at mass is to endanger one's communion with the Church.


    1. A Catholic cannot know a heretic until Holy Church has judged infallibly. "Private judgement" can never be more than a "private hunch."

    There are two things wrong with these assertions. Firstly, Holy Church does not ever infallibly judge heretics. She judges via her tribunals, usually, and these are fallible. They arrive at certainty using the same means used by any man who diligently inquires after truth. In fact, Pope Pius XII specifically addressed the officials of the Roman Rota on the principles to be applied, so as to ensure they understood them and diligently applied them. Explaining that judges must reach moral certitude, he taught: "There is an absolute certainty, in which all possible doubt as to the truth is of the fact and the unreality of the contrary is entirely excluded. Such absolute certainty, however, is not necessary in order to pronounce the judgement. In many cases it is humanly unattainable; to require it would be to demand of the judge and of the other parties something which is unreasonable; it would put an intolerable burden on the administration of justice and would very seriously obstruct it."

    Then the Holy Father proceeded to describe quasi-certainty, which does not form a sound basis for judgements. Finally, he expounded moral certainty, teaching that it "…is characterised on the positive side by the exclusion of well-founded or reasonable doubt, and in this respect it is essentially distinguished from the quasi-certainty which has been mentioned; on the negative side, it does admit the absolute possibility of the contrary, and in this it differs from absolute certainty. The certainty of which We are now speaking is necessary and sufficient for the rendering of a judgement, even though in the particular case it would be possible either directly or indirectly to reach absolute certitude." (Canon Law Digest, vol. 3, pp. 606, 607.)

    The second error in the propositions stated above is that Catholics cannot know a heretic until he has been judged publicly, whether an infallible or fallible judgement is meant. This singular view conflicts with numerous clear cases in the history of the Church, so that it is hard to imagine how anybody could give it any credence.

    It is clear from both reason and authority that moral certainty about whether or not somebody is a heretic is possible in the absence of a public judgement. Reason tells us that in given circumstances a "private" judgement might easily be more certain than a public one. For example, where a man knew the facts intimately, he could know with certainty something which a judge might be able to discover only after a lengthy court process, or even not at all. The fact that a judge is generally in a better position to pass sound judgements than an individual might be, does not prove anything except the necessity for experienced, learned judges invested with strong powers for obtaining evidence, and surrounded by able assistants. It certainly does not prove that only public judgements can be certain.

    All have believed and taught that we can know heretics, with certainty, without any declaration. Canon 188,4, (which states that offices are lost automatically and without any declaration), is meaningless without such an understanding. The constant tradition of Holy Church, as presented by Bellarmine, confirms this principle. Bellarmine writes: "the Holy Fathers teach unanimously not only that heretics are outside of the Church, but also that they are 'ipso facto' deprived of all ecclesiastical jurisdiction and dignity." (De Romano Pontifice, bk II, ch. 30). What is the meaning of this if not that heretics can be known as such prior to a public judgement?

    Pope Pius XII taught: "Actually only those are to be included as members of the Church who have been baptized and profess the true faith, and who have not been so unfortunate as to separate themselves from the unity of the Body, or been excluded by legitimate authority for grave faults committed." (Mystici Corporis Christi). Our opponents implicitly argue that what the Holy Father actually meant to say was that "only those are to be included as members of the Church who have been baptised and profess any faith they like, and who have not been so unfortunate as to be excluded by legitimate authority for grave faults committed." Separating oneself from Holy Church is actually impossible, according to some anti-sedevacantists. Or at least, if it happened nobody could know.

    2. Pope Benedict XV and the Code of Canon Law legislate this.

    This assertion is baseless. Bellarmine answers a parallel charge: "There is no basis for that which some respond to this: that these Fathers based themselves on ancient law, while nowadays, by decree of the Council of Constance, they alone lose their jurisdiction who are excommunicated by name or who assault clerics. This argument, I say, has no value at all, for those Fathers, in affirming that heretics lose jurisdiction, did not cite any human law, which furthermore perhaps did not exist in relation to the matter, but argued on the basis of the very nature of heresy. The Council of Constance only deals with the excommunicated, that is, those who have lost jurisdiction by sentence of the Church, while heretics already before being excommunicated are outside the Church and deprived of all jurisdiction. For they have already been condemned by their own sentence, as the Apostle teaches (Tit. 3:10-11), that is, they have been cut off from the body of the Church without excommunication, as St. Jerome affirms." (De Romano Pontifice, bk II, ch. 30.)

    Even the teaching of a Doctor of the Church is not sufficient for some - they will insist on their own interpretation of Canon Law all the same. Da Silveira answers: "Such a teaching, it might be objected, is found in the textbooks, but it has not been retained by the Code of Canon Law which establishes in canon 2233 n.2 the precise manner in which the accused must be rebuked and warned before any censure may be imposed.

    "This objection does not stand up, because this canon applies only to 'ferendae sententiae' censures, ie. those which are inflicted by the superior or by the ecclesiastical judge. When the censure is 'latae sententiae', that is to say when the accused incurs it automatically by the fact of having committed a certain crime, the warning is not necessary. In this case, as a fine old legal maxim has it, 'Lex interpellat pro homine', the law calls to account, instead of the man (cf. Palazzini, col. 1298).

    "The excommunication which falls on the heretic is 'latae sententiae' (Canon 2314 n.l). It becomes clear, as a consequence of this, that the Code of Canon Law has also accepted the principle that a warning is not always necessary for pertinacity to be revealed." (Da Silveira, "Essay on Heresy".)

    In other words, this interpretation is in perfect accord with the principle embodied in Canon 192, section 1, which states: "A person may be unwillingly deprived of, or removed from, an office, either by operation of law or by an act of the lawful superior." Penalties, as all canonists acknowledge, are applied either by a superior, or by the law itself. Therefore excommunications, which are penalties, can result from the actions of a superior, who must warn the accused before applying any penalty; or they can be applied by the law itself, automatically. Thus to teach that the law requires a warning or a judgement in all cases is to misrepresent the Code.

    Furthermore, to focus on excommunications is to miss the whole point of the traditional teaching on this matter, so beautifully brought together and expounded by Pope Pius XII in Mystici Corporis Christi. There are two ways to leave the Church - either by one's own act (heresy, schism or apostasy), or by being cut off from communion for grave crimes committed (excommunication).

    3. A heretic-"pope" remains pope until judged infallibly by Holy Church.

    It is true that some authorities have taught that in the extraordinary case of a pope falling into heresy (something the best authorities believe to be impossible), the loss of office would not occur, or would not be known, until after a declaration by a General Council or a Conclave. Who are these few? John of St. Thomas, Suarez, Cajetan, Bioux. Not a canonised saint or a Doctor among them, and they constitute a tiny minority. The opposite view is the common one, and in fact according to Bellarmine it is the constant tradition of Holy Church. He writes: "Therefore, the true opinion is the fifth, according to which the Pope who is manifestly a heretic ceases by himself to be Pope and head, in the same way as he ceases to be a Christian and a member of the body of the Church; and for this reason he can be judged and punished by the Church. This is the opinion of all the ancient Fathers, who teach that manifest heretics immediately lose all jurisdiction…" (De Romano Pontifice, bk II, ch. 30.)

    Bellarmine himself has made clear only a few paragraphs before that no declaration is necessary. He writes: "…it is proven with arguments from authority and from reason that the manifest heretic is 'ipso facto' deposed. The argument from authority is based on St. Paul (Titus, c. 3), who orders that the heretic be avoided after two warnings, that is, after showing himself to be manifestly obstinate - which means before any excommunication or judicial sentence. And this is what St. Jerome writes, adding that the other sinners are excluded from the Church by sentence of excommunication, but the heretics exile themselves and separate themselves by their own act from the body of Christ." (Ibid.)

    It has been argued as follows. Manifest heretics lose their offices automatically, and without any declaration. But heresy is not manifest until it is declared. Therefore offices cannot be known to have been lost until after a declaration.

    As already demonstrated, this is flatly contradictory to the Code of Canon Law. It is in the face of the constant tradition of Holy Church. And it is senseless. The reason it is senseless is that it involves confusion over the definitions of authority and certainty, and it contains within itself a contradiction.

    The contradiction is this: If heresy is never manifest until it is judged publicly, then no office could ever be lost automatically, and the first assertion falls. But if the first assertion falls, then the last assertion (that we cannot know about lost offices until a public judgement is delivered), cannot have any meaning. For what is there to know about? Or, if what is meant is that the only occasion upon which offices are lost automatically is immediately after a public judgement of heresy, then we justly inquire, why has anybody bothered to write about it? For Holy Church, when she judges a cleric guilty of heresy, deprives him of his offices anyway. It would seem, according to this incredible "reasoning", that theologians, canonists, popes, the Fathers, and many others have spilled a lot of ink over a distinction which has no practical ramifications at all.

    The root of the failure to grasp the reality here is often confusion regarding certainty and authority. Certainty, as we have seen, is that state of mind in which no reasonable doubt remains. Authority is the right to impose or enforce something. Now it is clear that certainty is not restricted to the minds of those who possess authority. Nor is it restricted to those things which authority has decided, or "judged". However, what authority can do, and does, is make clear to all what might not be clear otherwise. Authority provides certainty for those who cannot or might not achieve certainty otherwise.

    In addition, authority can, and does, impose a judgement in the external forum. What this means is that dissent is not permissible once a public judgement has been issued. It remains true that a fallible judgement may be wrong, by definition. Good Catholics do not question even those judgements which are issued by fallible tribunals, unless there be evident and powerful reasons. I emphasise the distinction only to throw light on the difference between authority and certainty.

    4. Catholics can be taught by somebody they think teaches heresy, by sifting the "good" from the "bad".

    Non-sedevacantist traditional Catholics generally assert correctly that Catholics must defend their faith even when somebody with apparent authority attacks it. However they often seem unclear on why this is so.

    Perhaps they find themselves caught between certainty and authority. They see that unless a Catholic can resist those who try to destroy his faith, then we might as well all become V2 heretics. And they generally claim that Catholics can rightfully refuse to accept what is proposed by those they insist are their true teachers. What is going on?

    Catholics are taught by their teachers - their pastors, bishops, and the pope. To learn requires holding open one's mind to receive what is being presented. It is essentially a passive activity. To teach is to present with the expectation of being listened to in this way - it is essentially active. Now the reason why Catholics can be certain, when listening to a heretic who appears to possess authority, that what they are hearing is not truth, is because of contradiction. That is, the contradiction between what has been taught before, and what is being taught now. For while it is the role of the student to accept what is taught, it is impossible for a man to hold two contradictory propositions at the same time.

    Note that the beginning of this process of identifying heresy, of being alarmed at the possibility, is not an active thing at all. It is passive. In the passive role of being taught, the student is asked to receive two contradictory propositions. The mind fails in the attempt. The student is alarmed, becomes active, and searches for the reason for the contradiction. And after further consideration (if necessary), he decides that the contradiction is real, and rejects the novelty. "Sifting" all that is proposed, to check for possible error, is an activity. A "student" who does this is not really learning - he is placing his own knowledge above that of the teacher, and waiting for the teacher to say something with which he agrees, before "accepting" it. This active "picking and choosing" is not what Catholics do when being taught. It is active, not passive. It is assessing, not learning.

    It is possible for a Catholic to be certain that an untruth is an untruth, precisely because the faith resides in the intellect, and the intellect cannot simultaneously hold two mutually incompatible propositions. It is also possible to be certain that a particular untruth is a heresy - by the simple fact that it is incompatible with dogma. That it is possible to be uncertain does not destroy the fact that certainty is also possible. It just means that particular men may be more ignorant than others, or more stupid, or less diligent. But I think it fair to say that every Catholic who has gained the use of reason can identify universal salvation as a heresy, as one example.

    The difficulties of our opponents continue, in that they can't see the propriety of distinguishing further. They see that it is right and licit to resist heresy, but they cannot see that there are further steps in the natural Catholic reaction which we are entitled, and ought, to take. And those additional steps are to check for signs of pertinacity, and then form a judgement. If your pastor stated during a sermon that all men are saved, then he may have been mistaken, or he may be a heretic. Approaching him after Mass would enable pertinacity to be assessed. "Do you know what you said? It's a heresy." His reaction will generally be one of two alternatives: Either he will tell you it isn't a heresy, and that you have to believe it, in which case you are dealing with a heretic; or, he will express surprise and regret for having erred, and retract his error. In the latter case there is no heresy - just a mistake. St. Paul has taught us to avoid a heretic, "after the first and the second admonition." In other words, once pertinacity becomes clear.

    All of Church history proves that those who preach heresy are really heretics. "Material" heresy is a mistake. It is merely an error against faith made by one who means to speak the truth, but who slips, or is misled. To suggest that Karol Wojtyla, for example, granted a doctorate in dogmatic theology in Rome before the Revolution began, and claiming the highest office in the Church, and ignoring or persecuting every Catholic who opposes his non serviam, while publicly celebrating the Revolution as a "New Pentecost", can be reasonably judged to be mistaken or misled is positively absurd. Those "traditionalists" who defend Wojtyla speak of the "mental gymnastics" required to reconcile his actions and words with the true Faith. The fact that such things are necessary in the attempt to reconcile truth and lies is proof that no reasonable doubt is possible. Unreasonable doubt must needs be conjured.

    The anti-sedevacantist arguments fly in the face of the warnings of Our Lord to beware wolves in the clothing of sheep. Indeed, they suggest that we need to beware of the sheep that wear the clothing of wolves! They flatly deny St. Paul's injunction to avoid heretics.

    5. Catholics cannot really know what is heresy and what is not, until Holy Church judges infallibly.

    This has been answered.

    6. Catholics should not cut off communion with heretics who claim offices in Holy Church, but should wait for an infallible judgement, if one ever comes.

    This also has been answered. The Catholics who immediately rejected Nestorius, until then Patriarch of Alexandria, when he began preaching heresy, were justified by the pope after the fact. Their excommunications were declared to have been null and void, because "…he who had defected from the faith with such preachings, cannot depose or remove anyone whatsoever." (Quoted by Bellarmine.) In other words, once he became a public heretic he lost his office, automatically and without any declaration by Rome.

    7. The Church must be "called away from novelties and back to Tradition."

    The Church is indefectible. She cannot fail. She is the Spotless Bride of Christ. The Church cannot cause evil, teach error, or cease being what she has been made by divine ordinance. In other words, she cannot fail in her essential mission, to teach, sanctify and govern, nor can she change in any essential. She is also "a city seated on a mountain, whose light cannot be hid." In other words, she is visible, and cannot become invisible. The statements made by traditional Catholics, summarized by the single line above, to the effect that the Church has somehow done the wrong thing, taken the wrong path, become obscured, or in any other way defected, are grave errors.

    8. Bellarmine taught that one must resist a heretic "pope", but not reject him.

    Bellarmine has often been quoted as follows: "Just as it is licit to resist the Pontiff who attacks the body, so also is it licit to resist him who attacks souls or destroys the civil order or above all, tries to destroy the Church. I say that it is licit to resist him by not doing what he orders and by impeding the execution of his will. It is not licit, however, to judge him, to punish him, or to depose him, for these are acts proper to a superior. (De Romano Pontifice. II.29.)"

    The solution to this apparent difficulty is that in chapter 29 St. Robert is discussing bad or evil popes, and in chapter 30 he is discussing what would happen were a pope to lose the faith, an entirely distinct thing. Bad popes can be resisted, in grave matters; and heretics are not Catholics, and therefore can't be popes, argues Bellarmine. There is no contradiction at all between the two sections.

    Bellarmine asks the rhetorical questions: "Now, a Pope who remains Pope cannot be avoided, for how could we be required to avoid our own head? How can we separate ourselves from a member united to us?" And the answer: "This principle is most certain. The non-Christian cannot in any way be Pope, as Cajetan himself admits (ib. c. 26). The reason for this is that he cannot be head of what he is not a member; now he who is not a Christian is not a member of the Church, and a manifest heretic is not a Christian, as is clearly taught by St. Cyprian (lib. 4, epist. 2), St. Athanasius (Scr. 2 cont. Arian.), St. Augustine (lib. de great. Christ. cap. 20), St. Jerome (contra Lucifer.) and others; therefore the manifest heretic cannot be Pope." (De Romano Pontifice. bk. II, ch. 30.)

    What could be difficult about avoiding the visible head of Holy Church, of separating from him, if the answer has been given in chapter 29? The answer is evident - "avoiding" a heretic does not mean moving to the other end of the bar when he drops into the local for a beer. It means cutting off communion with him, or as Bellarmine puts it, "separating ourselves" from him.

    "How can we be required to avoid our head?" "Why, we simply refuse to judge!" exclaim the anti-sedevacantists. Indeed, this is truly avoiding one's head.

    9. All the thoughts of the Doctors on the question of "heretic-popes" are "hypothetical."

    No, they are not. St. Robert Bellarmine did not write, "This principle is most certain", as a hypothesis. He wrote that, surprisingly enough, because he believed that the principle he was about to expound was "most certain." Likewise with most of the rest of that chapter of De Romano Pontifice. It contains a series of principles, all of which are thoroughly proved from both reason and tradition. The only part which is rightly described as "hypothetical" is the suggestion that a pope could become a heretic. Bellarmine, followed by many "sedevacantists", did not believe it could ever happen. But that doesn't change the fact that the "most certain" principles and conclusions are "most certain."

    Bellarmine writes: "…the manifest heretic cannot be Pope." He does not write: "If a manifest heretic wasn't pope…" He taught that manifest heresy excludes one from membership in the Mystical Body; that non-members cannot possess jurisdiction; that if somebody becomes a non-member they lose any offices they may hold, automatically and without any declaration. And he wrote that the Fathers universally taught all of these things. There's nothing hypothetical about any of them. They are truths of the faith.

    To recapitulate, the idea that a pope might become a heretic is hypothetically considered. That a manifest heretic cannot be pope, whatever the cause of his claim, is certain - i.e. not "hypothetical." The Communist, Vatican 2 heretic, Karol Wojtyla, was never pope. Only Catholic men are eligible for the papacy. "III. Appointment to the office of the Primacy. 1o What is required by divine law for this appointment: (a) The person appointed must be a man who possesses the use of reason, due to the ordination the Primate must receive to possess the power of Holy Orders. This is required for the validity of the appointment. Also required for validity is that the man appointed be a member of the Church. Heretics and apostates (at least public ones) are therefore excluded." (Coronata, Institutiones Iuris Canonici. Rome: Marietti 1:312,316. Emphasis added).

    10. Bellarmine's doctrine is merely his "opinion."

    Bellarmine's doctrine is not merely his "opinion" in the common English meaning of that word. The Latin, which we translate as "opinion", is "sententia". It is not "a belief based on grounds short of proof," which is what the English word means. It means "aphorism, or teaching." An insight into the meaning can be gleaned from the fact that our English word "sense" is related to it - as in "the sense in which he used that term." It relates to "meaning", so that Peter Lombard's book (the standard theology text until the Summa displaced it) is referred to in English as "The Book of Sentences". The ignorant might call it "The Book of Opinions." These "teachings" or "sententiae" were presented and defended by the ablest scholastics, and only some of them were disputed – many were dogmas. Generally the process was one of refining the wording of the "sentence" so as to express better the doctrine it contained. Examples of "sentences" are those which expressed the dogmas of The Real Presence, the Divine Maternity, The Incarnation, etc. In other words, not "opinions" in any modern sense of that term.

    The particular point that a pope who became a heretic would lose the papacy was Bellarmine's "opinion", shared by everybody else of note except Cajetan, whose arguments he refuted thoroughly. Since his day pretty much everybody has followed Bellarmine. But the basis for the "opinion" was theological truth, described by Bellarmine as the universal teaching of the Fathers.

    11. The judgements of individuals without jurisdiction are not binding on others.

    This is true. What is not true is the suggestion that objective truth - such as that Karol Wojtyla was a heretic and no pope - is "optional" as a result. One's own judgements created obligations for oneself. This is really nothing more than the standard doctrine regarding conscience. Some traditional Catholics don't like those "sedevacantists" who insist on making this clear. They think it is "judgemental" and "usurping authority" when it is neither. It is a spiritual work of mercy to attempt to assist others to a clearer understanding.

    12. Cum ex Apostolatus never had the force of law, and was never incorporated in the Code.

    This is a most amazing error. Cum ex Apostolatus was a bull, promulgated by Pope Paul IV, which legislated that if a heretic was elected "pope" it would be invalid, and even the universal acclamation of the Church could not rectify the defect.

    This bull not only had the force of ecclesiastical law, but insofar as it states that a heretic cannot possibly be a pope, it is a reflection of divine law, which is unchangeable by its nature. In any case, the footnotes in the Code of Canon Law reference Cum ex Apostolatus as one of the bases of Canon 188,4. Canon 188,4 lays down that: There are certain causes which effect the tacit resignation of an office, which resignation is accepted in advance by operation of law, and hence is effective without any declaration. These causes are : …(4) if he has publicly fallen away from the Catholic faith;…"

    This is precisely how ancient laws were incorporated in the Code.

    13. Not to pray for the heretic at mass is to endanger one's communion with the Church.

    "Finally they cannot be numbered among the schismatics, who refuse to obey the Roman Pontiff because they consider his person to be suspect or doubtfully elected on account of rumours in circulation..." (Wernz-Vidal: Ius Canonicum, Vol vii, n. 398. Emphasis added.)

    "Nor is there any schism if one merely transgress a papal law for the reason that one considers it too difficult, or if one refuses obedience inasmuch as one suspects the person of the pope or the validity of his election, or if one resists him as the civil head of a state." (Szal, Rev Ignatius: Communication of Catholics with Schismatics, CUA, 1948, p.2. Emphasis added.)

    "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 [refs to Sanchez and Palao]." (de Lugo: Disp., De Virt. Fid. Div., disp xxv, sect iii, nn. 35-8. Emphasis added.)

    John Lane
    Perth, Western Australia
    Feast of St. Claire, 1999.
    Revised, August 26, 2008.