Pope-Sifting Revisited

Rebuttal to "Is Sedevacantism Pope-Sifting?"


{work in progress: Last Revised 7/25/99}

please direct any questions, comments, or criticisms

to Laszlo Szijarto

e-Mail: LSzijarto@aol.com

I appreciate any suggestions you may have to improve the content, style, and readability of my text -- since I am genrally not a very polished writer. Thank you.



In what follows, to make the discussion easier to follow, the text of Fr. Cekada appears in normal typeface while my comments can be distinguished as bold. By adopting this convention, I do not mean to imply that my comments, per se, have more weight or cogency than his. To avoid tedium, moreover, I shall omit the phrases "in my opinion" or "I believe" which I intended to have conjoined with every statement I make in the ensuing argument that has not been defined by the authority of the Holy Catholic Church. Please mentally insert those phrases, according to my virtual intention, wherever they may apply.


Part 1: Status Quaestionis (State of the Question)



An explanation of the term "sedevacantism" may be in order. Traditional Catholics have tried to explain in various ways how the errors and evils of the officially-sanctioned Vatican II changes could come from what appears to be the authority of an infallible Church. The sedevacantist position maintains that the only coherent explanation for this state of affairs is to conclude that, since error and evil cannot come from the authority of an indefectible and infallible Church, the ecclesiastics who promulgated these changes--from pope on down--at some point lost their office and authority.

The last point may surprise Catholics. But an impressive list of pre-Vatican II theologians and canonists, as well as at least two popes (Innocent III and Paul IV) admit the principle behind it:

That a pope, in his personal capacity, can defect from the faith or become a heretic. When the fact of his defection becomes manifest such a pope automatically (ipso facto) loses his office and authority. I cited numerous passages on this point in Traditionalists, Infallibility and the Pope.

At this point, for the sake of clarity and in order to set the stage for the ensuing discussion, I need to elaborate somewhat on the terms of debate. Fr. Cekada intertwines and, in the process, confuses two distinct and separate lines of argument. In point of fact, some sedevacantists join argument from principles of magisterium, others from the personal illegitimacy of John Paul II (whether it be that Karol Wojtyla defected from faith or was not legitimately elected to the papacy). There remains, moreover, a third school of sedevacantism--proponents of the material-formal pope distinction--but these, as I shall point out, effectively reduce to one of the aforementioned two positions.

First, as I stated, some sedevacantists argue, to use Fr. Cekada's words from above, that, since error and evil cannot come from the authority of an indefectible and infallible Church, the ecclesiastics who promulgated these changes--from pope on down--at some point lost their office and authority. Basically, this form of argument can be classified, in terms of logical principles, as modus tollens or modus tollentis. In simple terms, if A implies B, then not B implies not A. Here, A would be a legitimate pope exercising teaching aurhority and B an infallible (or inerrant) doctrine (or law). Sedevacantists of this school hold that a legitimate pope who exercises teaching authority must produce a doctrine or law free of any error or harm to the Church. But John Paul II (and other Vatican II popes) have taught doctrines and enacted decress that either embody error or cause harm to the Church. Consequently, John Paul II cannot be a legitimate pope.

Here's where the distinction I made earlier comes into play. On its own, this argument does not establish that John Paul II has defect[ed] from the faith or become a heretic. It can only conclude that John Paul II, by whatever means, could not have been a legitimate pope at the time of promulgating the erroneous (or harmful) doctrines (or decrees)--whether that means had been defection from the faith or an illegitimate election of some kind.

Let me express the argument in symbolic terms.

A ® B

where A is a legitimate pope exercising teaching authority and B an infallible or inerrant doctrine or decree. According to this line of sedevacantist argument,

A ® B

but not B

therefore not A

underlying principle:

if A ® B then not B ® not A

In my earlier paper, I had referred to this mode of argument simply as a posteriori reasoning, i.e., reasoning backwards from the not B to the not A. Put more simply, if a pope cannot teach error to the Church, then, if error has been taught to the Church, said individual who taught error cannot really be a pope.

Certainly, this argument embodies and, in some way, addresses the problem that confronts all Traditional Catholics. Traditional Catholics, by definition, are those who deny or reject some teachings or decrees of the Vatican II hierarchy as incompatible with the Traditional teachings of the Holy Catholic Church. Basically, Catholics cannot just go around rejecting B (as referenced above)--since that would dissolve anything that separates Catholics from all else who call themselves Christians. If we reject B, we're in real trouble unless we can demonstrate compelling reasons, based on Catholics princples, about why we have and can, in some circumstances, do so. How can we justify our rejecting B? Let's continue for now, but we'll come back to this burning question. Sedevacantists propose that they do not reject B because what they reject are not really B at all. What do other Traditionalists say?

First of all, if you look closesly at the argument, A really consists of two parts. Not everything a pope says should be considered an infallible pronouncement. If a pope says something to a friend whereby he expresses an opinion on Catholics doctrine, that statement cannot be construed as teaching to the Church. According to Vatican I, the pope must be teaching ex cathedra, i.e., in his official capacity as pope. Interpretations differ as to when a pope should be understood as teaching in this capacity, but, suffice it to say, for now, that a pope must not only be a legitimate pope, but must also be teaching as pope, before his teaching would be construed as infallible pronouncements. Going back now to our diagram,

(A + B) ® C

where A is legimiate pope

B is his teaching as pope

C is infallible teaching/pronouncement

or, another way to look at it would be

A ® (B or C)

where A is legimiate pope

B is infallible teaching

C is non-infallible teaching

In other words, a legimate pope can produce infallible teachings or non-infallible teachings, depending upon whether or not he acts in his official teaching capacity. Non-Sedevacantists Traditionalists argue that what they reject fall under the category of C (immediately above) and not B. Sedevacantists, however, criticized this approach as a "sifting" of the magisterium. In other words, the process by which we determine whether any given teaching is B or C relies upon the private judgment of individuals who, in this scenario, become empowered to decide which teachings they must accept and which ones they are free to reject (under certain circumstances). In my paper, "Pope-Sifting: Difficulties with Sedevacantism," I turned the criticism back on them by arguing that not only do sedevacantists employ private judgment in determining which teachings to reject or accept, but they further extend this judgment (through their method of argument) to determining which popes they can reject or accept, i.e., that they "sift" not only teaching pronouncements but even popes.