IS SEDEVACANTISM THE RIGHT APPROACH?
By Griff Ruby
In all of our Catholic attempts to understand how the current crisis of the Church has taken place, by far the most cogent and realistic conclusion reached is that which is known as the sedevacantist thesis. In a very small nutshell, this thesis basically states that there must have been some sort of loss of authority on the part of the Vatican leadership and hierarchical membership.
This much is clearly so, because otherwise if we were to follow them slavishly, as we ought to be able to follow Catholic authority, we would utterly lose our Faith. The real issue is "What checks and balances exist in the system as God created it to protect us from error?" At the very least, a limitation to their authority is at last brought to the attention of many persons. The corollary question to that is "Does the present Vatican leadership lack some degree of authority that others possessed, or has the lack always been there and we just never noticed?"
The standard sedevacantist approach attempts to answer some of these thorny questions by focusing in on the person of the pope himself. Is he orthodox enough, is he doctrinaire enough, is he Catholic enough? Their reasoning follows thus: A Catholic, in order to be a Catholic, must adhere to all known doctrines as propagated by the Church, and not oppose any of them (it is acceptable if, due to their lack of training or education they may be unaware of some, so long as there is an ongoing commitment to accept any and all Catholic teaching, whatever it is, that they may yet potentially encounter). A person who resists any Catholic doctrine, even one, is a heretic, and cannot while being such also qualify as a Catholic.
Looking at the man himself (first Paul VI, now John Paul II), one finds several Catholic doctrines which he does oppose (whether by spoken or written teaching, or by public example), for example the First Commandment which states that we are to have no other Gods, nor are we to worship them. Such a flagrant violation puts him outside the Church, and being outside the Church he thus cannot at the same time be its head. One cannot be the head of a body of which one is not a member. Ergo, he (the man) is no pope. Q. E. D.
For the record, let me state that I do not disagree with this line of reasoning. It is correct insofar as it goes. The deduction is clear, direct, valid, and totally inescapable. However, as an approach I find it to be flatly inadequate, and furthermore riddled with spiritual danger. Having proven that one isolated data point, we still know absolutely nothing about a great many other questions, and furthermore such an approach may induce us to taking certain extreme and unreasonable positions and attitudes towards him (the man himself), and often towards many of our fellow Catholics who do not agree with us, especially those who have trouble seeing that the man might not be a pope.
To illustrate, suppose we were attempting to study the moon, and someone comes up with the following chain of reasoning: Everything green is green, and everything which is not green is not a green thing. The Moon is not green but silver (or white and gray). Ergo, the Moon cannot possibly be made of green cheese. Q. E. D.
Once again, the reasoning is flawless, and the conclusion is in fact correct (if we arbitrarily exclude, for the sake of this discussion, the possibility that "green" in this context could refer to "unripe" cheese, e. g. cottage cheese, which isnít green in color). However, knowing that the Moon is not made of green cheese tells us extremely little about what the Moon IS made of (other than the fact that whatever it is, it is certainly NOT green cheese), and nothing about where the moon came from or is going, how it has its phases, or why it has craters or light and dark regions, or what the backside looks like.
Can this argument be extended? In the case of the Moon, one could also prove through the same reasoning that the Moon is not made out of anything else green (such as grass or trees), because the Moon itself is not green. Likewise, the sedevacantist argument can also be extended to other Sees, of Patriarchs, Archbishops, and ordinary Bishops. Is the man a heretic? If so, his Patriarchal, Archiepiscopal, or Diocesan See is vacant. Q. E. D.
However, having done that, the sedevacantist argument has told us all that it can tell us. It has nothing more to say to us. It is not a fruitful line of research. From it we know nothing else. Let us now focus on what the sedevacantist theory does not tell us: It does not tell us where the Church IS (only where it isnít); it does not tell us how this all happened; it does not tell us where jurisdiction in the Church resides now and must one day emerge from; it does not tell us what has become of Christís promises to His Church; it does not tell us why so very many prelates, including the chief prelate, and more importantly the organization which has long been identified as the Church, should be empowered to defect all at once, and so dramatically; it does not tell us just how "orthodox" a pope must be to be truly a pope.
Suppose a papal nominee, duly elected and accepted as pope by the entire Church, were to deny some obscure and little-known doctrine, which only the very few most educated Catholics would have even heard of let alone know to have been infallibly and irrevocably taught by the Church. Could this happen? If so what is the Church to do and how can it do what needs to be done? What can we trust God to do to keep him infallible, and in what sense? Where do we draw the line between "subtly heretical" (as illustrated here) and "flagrantly heretical" (which the Post-Vatican II hierarchy is today)? Are we to go back and reopen the cases of several other "heretical" or borderline popes of the past to see if maybe the Church has been wrong to call them popes at all?
And then there are the practical questions about the heretical hierarchy: Do they possess any jurisdiction at all? If not, how might they regain it should they as a body elect to return to Catholicism? Who possesses it in the meantime, and how can they prove they have it? Are the "Cardinals" they elect capable (both practically and canonically) of electing a true Pope? How are we to know for sure if they do, since after all a person they elect could undo 99% of Vatican IIís damage, but still insist on retaining the last 1% and therefore still be a heretic and no pope at all. Suppose the Vatican cardinals elect a man who re-institutes the traditional Mass and Sacraments, sees to the retraining and conditional ordinations/consecrations of the clergy, puts out the bad apples, and who does so much to restore Catholic tradition, but who insists on keeping Vatican II "on the books," as is, not even cleaning them up to remove their heresies and ambiguities, would the "crisis" really be over? What about weddings and annulments performed by them? What about weddings and annulments performed elsewhere? Should the Indult be supported or condemned? What about the SSPX and others who think him to be a pope but know better than to follow him into error, and thus have come to be regarded by many as having been excommunicated by the the man they continue to call pope?
And it gets worse. By focusing on the person of the Vatican papal claimant, one therefore focuses on the man himself, having no one and nothing to blame but the man himself. One would have to conclude that the man himself is somehow able to get elected as "pope" by the Cardinals, be accepted by all of them, teach error, and have all the Cardinals (and other Church prelates) simply go along with it, never questioning it, or else submitting their superior knowledge to that "popeís" error however grudgingly (in a few cases), and with no resistance from the Holy Spirit, the Roman Curia, the cardinals, the bishops, or the Papal Charism of Infallibility. That in turn implies that the man must be not merely wrong, misguided, or even evil, but that he would have some supernatural evil power in him, stronger than God, at least temporarily, such that he "must" be the Antichrist of prophecy, and this current "crisis" the final Apostasy right before the End of the World as prophesied in Sacred Scripture.
WERE all of that true, the man himself would be the problem, ergo the solution would be the removal of the man himself, for example, by assassination. That is what the sedevacantist priest, Fr. Krohn (ordained by Abp. Lefebvre in 1978), attempted in 1982. Instead all it did was backfire in the worst possible way. Many critics of Abp. Lefebvre have long wondered why he never chose to become a sedevacantist (at least not openly), and even went so far as to remove the sedevacantist priests from his organization. The answer to all of that lies right here. The Archbishop desired to distance himself from that action of Fr. Krohn as much as possible, since that was a great scandal and truly reprehensible.
Archbishop Lefebvre knew all along that some of the priests he was ordaining, such as Frs. Kelly, Sanborn, Dolan, Nitoglia, and even Krohn, were sedevacantists, and this did not deter him from ordaining them nor from installing some of them in places of authority within his organization. It was a private opinion on their part and Lefebvre felt the same way about it. But as details of Fr. Krohnís May 1982 attack on John Paul II filtered their way back to Abp. Lefebvre, it dawned on him that this was a great scandal for him and his organization and that he must do everything he can to distance himself from it as much as possible, and so by early 1983 the purge of sedevacantist priests from his organization began in earnest.
While the possibility of a scandalous assassination attempt is certainly the most immediately serious mistake which can follow from taking the standard sedevacantist argument, it introduces several other problems as well. The most serious of those is the creation of an attitude in which one is all too ready to doubt the papal claims of a Pope. Many of todayís sedevacantists would do well to study the simple piety of the Conservative Novus Ordo followers who have absolutely no more sympathy for the modernistic changes and heresies than Catholics, but who have tolerated, supported, and gone along with such only and strictly because they cannot bring themselves to question or separate themselves from their deeply beloved and admired "Holy Father."
Truth often sides with the simple piety of the faithful rather than with those who opine against it for some intellectual sounding reason. While the simple piety of the Conservative Novus Ordo believer materially errs in thinking the man to be a Pope, it is a far more serious error and spiritual defect even, to be lacking in such piety in the first place. The very audacity of questioning whether a "Pope" is really a Pope is itself what gives the discovery of the fact that there really is no Pope a certain quality of "stolen goods." Yes, the goods are true and real, but what piece of Catholic spirituality and maturity were relinquished so as to obtain it? That discovery is a true treasure, but obtained illicitly.
This illicit obtaining of such a true treasure also inspires a terrible judgementalism. Where the Indultarians (and some SSPX sympathizers) think in terms of "We need the approval of the Vatican since we cannot be legitimate otherwise" many sedevacantists take the opposite extreme of "We don't need them; to Hell with them!" The proper response would be "We don't need them; they need us!" But the mere basic sedevacantist theory provides no basis for this desperately needed balance, best practiced (from what I have seen) by the SSPX.
There is also the issue of trust. A central part of Catholic piety is a basic, unshakeable, implicit trust in God and His Providence and His Church. The post-conciliar Vatican organization has violated that trust in the worst possible way. When, if ever, can we trust it again? If they can so fall, what is to prevent a similar fall from happening to any of the smaller societies set up for the propegation of the Faith, such as the SSPX or the various sedevacantist orders, the SSPV, the CMRI, the Trento priests of Mexico, etc.? Without some larger framework to understand the present lack of a truly Catholic Pope, doubt has been cast on God's promises to His Church, and on the Vatican organization and its members, and especially its leader as well.
Part and parcel of that specific doubt as to the papal claims of the Vatican leadership, is simply doubt itself, the direct enemy of Faith. Faith invariably suffers when one encounters some clear and true discovery which seems at odds with Faith, and which one cannot, in the context of their limited knowledge of the Faith, account for. Weíve had a dramatic and ongoing demonstration of that in the loss of Faith resulting from the discoveries from Paleontology, Geology, etc. that the Earth and the Universe is older than Bishop Ussher calculated. The sedevacantist discovery, without the greater context of what it is that has been going on, becomes a kernel of doubt, difficult to contain, and very poisonous to our souls.
And that gets down to what is for me the real reason the standard sedevacantist argument has been such an unfruitful one. For you must see that the simple pious obedience of the Conservative Novus Ordo believers would serve them well if only they had a true Pope to follow. If a true Pope demands something of us which is unpleasant or disagreeable, rather than seek some excuse not to obey ("We donít have to obey sinful orders," or "He canít be a real Pope," etc.) we should submit and obey and recognize and trust that what is asked of us is truly in our best interest and able to deepen our spirituality with all due true humility. Can we really grow in God and in Grace if we are not truly humble and obedient? And can we gain in true understanding and wisdom if we do not grow in God and Grace?
Another problem with stolen goods: Thieves steal what they cannot make. For if they could make it, why steal it? The sedevacantist discovery is like a stolen treasure. One looks at it, turns it over in his mind, hefts it in his hand. But it is like a single part taken from a complex machine, purposeful as part of the entire machine, but useless in itself, by itself. Neither can he who took it reconstruct from it the entire machine from which it came nor otherwise use it as it was meant to be used. Yet it is a true part. How ought we get and use it?
This raises a basic issue: at what point does it become appropriate to raise a doubt about a papal claimant? For if we have no right to question the Pope, then we could never ask the question. Sedevacantists have responded to this only by saying that the current situation involves such flagrant violations that no one could miss it. Could, however, a less flagrant case, yet still heretical and therefore lacking the true Papacy take place? Ought we obey and not question in such a case? Or is there some principle which would force even the subtlest heretic and non-Pope to veer into substantial, manifest, and conspicuous error, such that he is either exactly right on as a true Pope, or blatantly off the mark and teaching conspicuous error, with nothing in between capable of occurring? When should we have begun to be concerned in the current crisis?
There is yet another difficulty. The brilliant Fathers, Doctors, Canonists, and Theologians who discussed the theoretical possibility of a heretic somehow attaining the Papal chair (or a true Pope subsequently veering into heresy) all posited the scenario of a Pope, all by himself, vanishing into error, or being invalidly elected in the first place, and a more or less sound bishopric or cardinalate existing who are capable of discerning what has happened and of taking the appropriate action, if not immediately, then at least upon the false "popeís" first attempt to teach error, or at the very latest, upon the death of the non-pope. What is it which allows such a string of such blatant heretics to gain and retain the total loyalty and trust of every single cardinal, and virtually every single bishop as well, over such a prolonged period of time? The indefectibility of the Church guarantees that at least one Cardinal would have to stand up and denounce the heretic, gather what few (if any) other cardinals are not heretics and who will stand with him, and the few of them hold another conclave to elect a non-heretic, were such a dire event to take place. Where are the true and Catholic cardinals?
No, the problem is much bigger than merely the man himself, or else the problem would have already died with Paul VI. So this opens up yet another small set of questions the standard sedevacantist argument simply cannot answer: Why is it that we have not just one such supernatural heretic, not even just two, but fully three, and all in a row (and four in a row if one adds John XXIII)?
The odds of there being even one such in all of Church history are practically nil. Every Church Father and Doctor who even speculated about the possibility of a heretic in Peterís chair considered such a situation to be unlikely in the extreme. Ergo, the possibility of three or four occuring would be to the third or fourth power many times as unlikely, and the possibility of three or four such all in a row by mere chance, so vanishingly small that one could quite properly rule it out altogether. Clearly, something ELSE has been going on, something into which the standard sedevacantist argument has provided no insight whatsoever.
Before moving on to that "something ELSE," it bears mentioning that some sedevacantists have very well researched the writings of Saints Thomas Aquinas, Robert Bellarmine, Cajetan, and various other great Doctors, Canonists, and Theologians of the Church, and applying their knowledge of such to answer a few of the questions raised by the current crisis. One such that comes to mind is sedevacantist John Laneís treatment on the SSPX. In a very tight nutshell, he concludes that although there err materially in imagining the Vatican leader John Paul II to be a pope, this is an error of mundane fact rather than of Faith or Morals, roughly on par with believing that the earth is flat. Therefore, provided that one is well grounded in intellectual fortitude to resist the mistakes of the SSPX, a Catholic may properly and licitly avail themselves of their Sacraments which in turn have all the jurisdiction necessary to be valid in all cases.
That is one example of a finding which will hold up and stand every test, and so is correct. And there are some other instances of isolated facts which the most brilliant sedevacantists have discovered and proven, not by the standard sedevacantist argument (though that might be on a very few occasions a small component of their chain of reasoning on some details), but from their deep knowledge of the Churchís teachings as enlarged upon and clarified by the above mentioned Doctors, Canonists, and Theologians.
Apart from such relatively "enlightened" sedevacantists such as the example of John Lane above, many sedevacantists are at a loss to account for what role the SSPX and the Indult have in the current "crisis." Without a handle on the bigger picture, all they see is emnity towards their fellow Catholics who make the mistake of thinking that a Pope can teach error (as a private teacher he can, and what the SSPX has done is blur the distinction between private and public teaching so as to be able to dismiss every one of the errors emerging from the Vatican as "fallible and non-authoritative private teaching"), and those who imagine that the new heresies are somehow reconcilable to Catholic teaching (with enough mental gymnastics, almost anything can be), even to the point of gradually losing their own Catholicity.
So, the fact that the papal chair is empty, and a few other details (upon many of which the sedevacantist community is unable to come to much of any universal consensus on) are all that they have to go on. To this they have added a host of useless speculations about the End of the World, the Three Days of Darkness, the Third Secret of Fatima, the message of Our Lady of La Salette, idle speculations about isolated bishops imprisoned and cut off from all outside contact since way back when, various conspiracy theories, and now more recently the sinister claim that Jesus is shutting down His Church, and so forth. Even worse, many have added positively destructive denunciations of their fellow sedevacantists, other traditional Catholics, and anyone who disagrees with their particular take on everything, leaving the sedevacantist position severely compromised and weakened.
Thus unable to unite around a common understanding of what is going on and how to proceed, they are confined in a sort of "stasis," or "holding action," as one of them once wrote. It is as if they are all waiting for some miraculous answer to fall out of the sky, and that is not going to happen. "Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven?" The reason is that the answer, the "something ELSE," already fell out of the sky many years ago, and no other is needed. We have but to discover it, study it, and apply it in order to be on the road to recovery.
So, what is this "something ELSE" of which I speak, and what line of research can prove and has proven fruitful in discovering it and the answers to all of the other questions raised by the current situation? I propose that rather than study the issue from the angle of the man in charge of the Vatican organization himself, "Is he a heretic?" one should instead study the issue from the angle of the Vatican organization itself which the man runs, namely "Is it the Church?"
It turns out that this question has a fairly straightforward, cut and dry answer, authoritatively confirmed in its own official documents. Furthermore, once one explores all the logically necessary ramifications of such a status as officially defined in said official documents, everything which has been observed becomes quite predictable, even subtle details which one could not otherwise have guessed at. Definitive and authoritative answers to all of the above questions are provided, no loose ends remain, and EVERYTHING falls neatly into place.
There are also some findings of particular interests to sedevacantists. One is that indeed, they are correct in that there really is no living Pope, at least not in the strictly Petrine sense. On the other hand, another finding is that no supernatural malice is required for the present Vatican Papal claimants to teach error, hence rendering unnecessary and inappropriate the accusatory language frequently directed at them. A corollary to that last would be that the cause and effect are not quite as simple as the standard sedevacantist approach would seem to suggest. While the man himself has only himself to blame for the errors he freely embraced, that freedom is itself caused by certain other factors over which the man himself has only indirect and accidental control, and would not have been his had he truly and fully possessed the Papal office.
Let us draw a lesson from history about this. When Vigilius was first elected, he was the willing and eager pawn of his patron, the Empress Theodora. As such he openly favored the Monophysite heresy and several Monophysite clerics whom he appointed to crucial sees. If one of today's typical sedevacantists were to be sent to back then, he would look at "pope" Vigilius' career and assert that "based on the clear and objective evidence of the man's own actions, both as putative 'pope' and previous, I hold that Vigilius is no Pope at all." He might even venture the theory that no one with a history of sympathy to any heresy could be validly elected as pope, and so therefore his election was invalid. A Novus Ordo conservative transported to back then would have claimed that Monophysitism must somehow be a legitimate theological opinion (though perhaps still a bad idea), especially since it is clearly the belief of the (then) current Holy Father.
On the one hand, an objective approach would show that the man was no pope on account of his behaviors being so clearly beyond the pale, but on the other hand the standard a priori approach would have maintained that he was a true, but very bad, Pope, on account of his valid and lawful election. Although there was as yet in his day no "College of Cardinals" to hold a "Conclave," there were equivalent procedures in his day which HAD been followed. How to resolve the seeming contradiction?
I am the fellow who comes along and points out "Hey wait a minute! His predecessor Pope Silverius is still alive and has not resigned in any way. Therefore, the papal office, already being lawfully occupied by Silverius cannot also be occupied by Vigilius, and so therefore Vigilius never recieved the office of the Papacy at all, and thus did not enjoy the protection of the Holy Spirit and the charism of Infallibility which a true Pope would possess. Ergo, he was free to vanish into his error." In other words, I would claim that Vigilius was no Pope, not on the basis of his evident heresies, but merely because Pope Silverius is still gloriously reigning. Evidently, the procedures as understood then were still unclear as to what to do if a pope were taken in confinement and hence unable to rule the Church as he ought, namely, "Does he lose the papacy and need to be replaced?" to which I would answer "No, it cannot be taken from him, only voluntarily relinquished by resignation (which he has not done) or terminated through his death (which has not happened)."
What is also interesting is to observe what happened when Pope Silverius finally did pass away and Vigilius could and did at last ascend to the true Papacy. The charism of infallibility now applied to him, and he was no longer able to approve the Monophysite clergy he had previously installed, nor to approve of Monophysitism itself in any way at all. While the remainder of his career as a Pope was dominated by the waverings of a weak, cowardly, and mentally unstable personality, at no point did his vacilations carry him beyond the pale, once Pope Silverius was dead and Vigilius able to occupy Peter's chair at last. It is also interesting to note that although his previous record as a heretic ably predicted his papacy to be a weak and flawed one, it did not bar him from being Pope, nor from having the Papal charism of Infallibility come upon him. Something similar could be said regarding Pope Pius IX who, upon his election was cheered by the Freemasons because he was known to be "their man," but who upon having the charism of Infallibility fall upon him became staunchly opposed to that secret society along with all the heresies it stood for. Ergo, I believe that attempts to invalidate the election of John XXIII on the basis of his previous record as a heretic similarly fall flat on their face.
I am therefore claiming that the typical sedevacantist has, as a result of the barrennes of that approach, gotten the whole thing backwards. Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, and whoever comes next do not lack the papacy due to their errors, but are free to vanish into their errors because they juridically lack the papacy, and with that they lack the Papal Charism of Infallibility which would have otherwise prevented even the most evil of them from promulgating error and doubtful or invalid "Sacraments."
I put this challenge to all the sedevacantists: You are to prove that John Paul II is no pope, BUT all evidence of his heresies, scandalous public example, etc. shall be arbitrarily barred from your case. You must prove it without accusing him of even so much as one heresy or heretically motivated public act. You are free to cite any teaching made by him, or clearly approved by him, provided that you interpret that teaching or approval in some way which is fully reconcilable with established Church Dogma. Can you do it? I would venture that any sedevacantist who cannot has been at least the recipient (and doubtless in some few cases the procurer) of stolen goods.
It is my claim that the man is not a Pope in any circumstances, even if he were not a heretic. It is his lack of the Papacy that enables him to enter error precisely the way a true Pope cannot, although admittedly that non-Papal freedom did not drive him into error, it only permitted it. I will return to all of this in a later installment.
Return to Main Next Level Up Next Article