Written in preparation for a talk on sedevacantism, available from our bookstore on CD or MP3
II. Visibility and Indefectibility of the Church
III. Valid Elections
IV. Papal Sovereignty
V. The Problem of An Heretical Pope
VI. The Problem of an Evil Pope
VII. Some Practical Problems
The Holy Roman Catholic Church has for its earthly head the Sovereign Pontiff, the Bishop of Rome. So important is this office, that one of its greatest holders, the elect of God, Boniface VIII infallibly stated, “Indeed we declare, say, pronounce, and define that it is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.” But there exist in our day many radically different opinions regarding the present Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, as well as of his immediate few predecessors.
Among Catholics who would label themselves in any way “conservative,” “orthodox,” or “traditional” there are these two divergent assessments: One view says that the Holy Father is a living saint, he can do no wrong, and that we as Catholics should obey him in all things and not criticize anything he says or does. After all, he is infallible, and, under the direct influence of the Holy Ghost, he is leading the Church on to even greater conquests.
Another viewpoint takes the opposite stance. The Pope is not leading the Church back to her former prominence but is in fact destroying the Spouse of Christ before our very eyes! How can he do this? The Pope is infallible, but what he is doing a Pope can’t do, therefore he isn’t the Pope! The Chair of Peter is vacant!
This last view is known as the sedevacantist position and it is the subject of my present talk. (A small digression is appropriate here for an etymology lesson. The words “sede vacante form in Latin what’s called an ablative absolute. This grammatical construction functions in a sentence as if it were borrowed from another sentence. Literally, it means “the throne being vacant.” It is found in Church law, where the canons give the proper procedures for action during the vacancy of any bishopric, including a Papal interregnum, the period of time in-between the death of one pope and the election of another. Those who think that the Chair of Peter is currently in a state of sede vacante are called sedevacantists.)
How can two such vastly different viewpoints about the Pope arise? Given the present situation in the Church, rampant liberalism everywhere, perverse degeneracy in the clergy and religious life, the general decline of morals in the world, and a general increase of wickedness of all sorts, is it a surprise to anyone that the devil, the father of lies, can deceive even those who are in possession of the truth; that is, even Catholics? I say from the outset that sedevacantism would not be with us today were there not a scandalous mess in the Church caused, in large part, by the pastors whom we sinners have deserved to have over us; but I take exception with the sedevacantist position, because it is a problem, not an answer.
In doing so, I take umbrage with many fellow traditionalists who are sedevacantists. This is done in the spirit of fraternal charity.
At the crux of the matter is the nature of Christ’s Church. Two attributes of that nature are the Church’s Indefectibility and her perpetual Visibility. As we shall see, these two are related. The Church’s indefectibility is based on Her visibility, for Her very foundation is a visible one.
In Pastor Aeternus , the First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ, promulgated at Vatican I, we are taught about this Indefectibility and perpetual Visibility. Please excuse the length of the following passage, but in the interest of thoroughness, I present to you this teaching in the words of the Council:
“The Eternal Shepherd and Guardian of our souls [I Pet. 2:25], in order to render the saving work of redemption lasting, decided to establish His holy Church that in it, as in the house of the living God, all the faithful might be held together by the bond of one faith and one love. For this reason, before He was glorified, He prayed to the Father not for the Apostles only, but for those also who would believe in him on their testimony, that all might be one as the Son and the Father are one [John 17:20]. Therefore, just as He sent the Apostles, whom He had chosen for Himself out of the world, as He Himself was sent by the Father [John 20:21], so also He wished shepherds and teachers to be in His Church until the consummation of the world [Matt. 28:20]. Indeed, He placed St. Peter at the head of the other apostles that the episcopate might be one and undivided, and that the whole multitude of believers might be preserved in unity of faith and communion by means of a well-organized priesthood. He made Peter a perpetual principle of this two fold unity and a visible foundation, that on his strength an everlasting temple might be erected and on the firmness of his faith a Church might arise whose pinnacle was to reach into heaven. But the gates of hell, with a hatred that grows greater each day, are rising up everywhere against its divinely established foundation with the intention of overthrowing the Church, if this were possible. We, therefore, judge it necessary for the protection, the safety, and the increase of the Catholic flock to pronounce with the approval of the sacred council the true doctrine concerning the establishment, the perpetuity, and the nature of the apostolic primacy. In this primacy, all the efficacy and all the strength of the Church are placed.”
In this introduction we see the visible foundation of the Church directly connected to the perpetual principle of the Roman Pontiff. The visible nature of the Church is inextricably tied to the existence of the Pope as head of the Church.
The Canon following Chapter I of the same decree reads as follows:
“Therefore, if anyone says that the blessed Apostle Peter was not constituted by Christ the Lord as the Prince of all the Apostles and the visible head of the whole Church militant, or that he received immediately and directly from Jesus Christ our Lord only a primacy of honor and not a true and proper primacy of jurisdiction: let him be anathema.”
Chapter I and its Canon define that the Pope is the visible head of a visible Church, and that the gates of hell shall not prevail against Her. This last phrase forms the basis of the attribute of indefectibility that the Church possesses. And, this means that the Church as a visible organization will stay a visible organization to the end of time. Consequently, she will have a visible head of the Church leading her to the end of time. This is a defined doctrine of the faith that all Christians are required to profess and to hold integrally. Chapter II of Pastor Aeternus and its Canon make this teaching ‘De Fide .’ I quote the canon:
“Therefore, if anyone says that it is not according to the institution of Christ our Lord Himself, that is, by divine law, that St. Peter has perpetual successors in the primacy over the whole Church; or if anyone says that the Roman Pontiff is not the successor of St. Peter in the same primacy: let him be anathema.”
Summarizing then: The visibility of the Catholic Church is tied to the visible foundation of the Roman Pontiff. If the Pope disappears so does the Church, and therefore the gates of hell have prevailed over her. The Church has defined for our belief and adherence the dogma that the Papacy shall never fall because it is such an integral part of the nature of the Church. Therefore, any idea or suggestion that does not take this infallible premise into account is by default untenable. One aspect of sedevacantism is the belief that the Papacy has, de facto disappeared for around 39 years (depending upon which reckoning you use). Therefore, in this aspect, sedevacantism is erroneous.
However, the claim is made: “We are still in the period of ‘sede vacante ‘; no valid pope has been elected since Pope Pius XII.”
To this statement a few things can be said. First, a question: Who has the responsibility of saying that the pope’s election was doubtful? The layman in the street? A Bishop? The College of Cardinals? A Council? There is no clear answer to this question. So, just because someone says an election is invalid, this does not make the election invalid. Have there been elections to the papacy since Pope Pius XII? Yes, there have been 4 elections to the Chair of Peter.
How can we look at these elections? Certain sedevacantists say that they are invalid because the person elected was not a legitimate candidate for the office. For argument’s sake, let us briefly entertain this possibility to show why it in no way would jeopardize the last four pontificates. I defer to the theologian Cardinal Billot, the Doctor St. Alphonsus De Liguori, and the great Benedictine Abbot, Prosper Guéranger. They give the following rule: “The peaceful and universal acceptance of a pope by the whole Church is a sign and effect of a valid election.”
Cardinal Billot (the great Jesuit theologian of the first half of this century) states:
“Finally, what one may think of the possibility or the impossibility of an heretical pope, there is at least one point absolutely clear which no one can put in doubt, and it is that the acceptance, the adherence, of the Universal Church to a pope will always be, by itself, the infallible sign of the legitimacy of such-and-such a pontiff; and consequently of the existence of all the conditions required for legitimacy.” And this is based on the Church’s attribute of Indefectibility as defined by “the promise of the infallible Providence of Christ [that] ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail against it’ and ‘Behold, I am with you all days even unto the end of the world.’ For the adherence of the Church to a false pontiff would be the same thing as its adherence to a false rule of Faith, since the pope is the living rule of the Faith that the Church has to follow, and that in fact, She always follows.”
“God some times can allow that the vacancy of the Apostolic See be for a certain time. He can allow also that a doubt may come concerning the legitimacy of such-and-such an election, but He cannot allow that the whole Church accept as a pontiff one who is not really legitimate. Therefore, from the moment that the pope is accepted by the Church and is united to Her as the head to the body, we can no longer raise the doubt on the possible bias of election or the possible lack of the necessary conditions for legitimacy. Because this adherence of the Church heals in its root all faults committed at the moment of election, and proves infallibly the existence of all the conditions required.”
For example, if a Cardinal would have “bought” the papacy (by simony), and the Church accepts the election, that person would be validly pope. There is strong evidence to suggest that this, in fact, did happen with the election of Pope Alexander VI.
St. Alphonsus states that:
“It doesn’t matter that in past centuries some pontiff has been elected in an illegitimate fashion or has taken possession of the pontificate by fraud: it suffices that he has been accepted after as pope by all the Church, for this fact he has become the true pontiff.”
St. Alphonsus follows the principle that if the whole Church, and mainly the clergy of Rome accept this man as pope, the man is the pope.
Another authority to which we will refer is Dom Prosper Guéranger, the Abbot of Solemnes, and the great 19th century authority on the Papacy, whose study, Pontifical Monarchy, helped Pius IX to make the definition of Papal Infallibility. In his Liturgical Year , for the feast of Pope St. Silverius, whose election to the pontificate was doubtful, Dom Guéranger writes,
“The inevitable play of human passions, interfering in the election of the Vicar of Christ, may perchance for a while render uncertain the transmission of spiritual power. But when it is proved that the Church, still holding, or once more put in possession of, her liberty, acknowledges in the person of a certain Pope, until then doubtful, the true Sovereign Pontiff, this her very recognition is a proof that, from that moment at least, the occupant of the Apostolic See is as such invested by God himself.” (Abbot Guéranger, O.S.B., The Liturgical Year , Vol XII, pg. 188)
Silverius’ pontificate was doubtful because it was forced by the hand of an Arian Emperor. Abbot Guéranger holds that the Roman Clergy would have been free to reject the pope elected as an impostor, since he was thus put in office; but because Silverius was a good and worthy man, and because he was unaware of the violence and evil which brought about his election, they accepted him — and by that acceptance, he was the true Pope.
Therefore, by this principle and the doctrine of the Perpetuity of the Papacy, John XXIII, Paul VI, John-Paul I, and John-Paul II, have been elected to the Chair of Peter, regardless of their supposed illegitimacy. Because they were accepted by the Visible Church as pontiffs, they became true popes.
A proper understanding of Authority is of absolute necessity to our subject. This idea has lost its true meaning because of philosophies that have cropped up since the Reformation. It seems the world today has a false notion of authority, which is based upon the thinking of the Enlightenment. I don’t want to sound anti-American here (since I’m not), but the ideas inherent in our Constitutional Republic have completely changed the common thinking on what authority is. Everything from the source of that authority to how the state wields that authority has been changed. When Catholics today look at the Papacy and “see” the Pope violate canon law and scandalize the faithful, it is easy to say that he can’t be the pope because he is violating the law, and nobody is above the law!!! These Catholics base this thinking not upon a proper understanding of sovereignty and authority, but upon a modern conception of how authority operates. A true understanding of authority and sovereignty can be found in St. Thomas. I quote from the Summa:
“The sovereign is said to be ‘exempt from the law’, as to its coercive power, since, properly speaking, no man is coerced by himself, and law has no coercive power save from the authority of the sovereign. Thus then is the sovereign said to be exempt from the law, because none is competent to pass sentence on him if he acts against the law… Again, the sovereign is above the law in so far as, when it is expedient, he can change the law and dispense with it according to time and place.” (Summa Theologica , Ia IIae, Q. 96, Art. 5)
I give you the example of the Paula Jones civil case against President Clinton. The arguments presented to the Supreme Court by the plaintiff (Paula Jones) stated that the President should be liable to a lawsuit even if he is in office because he is not above the law. They argued that if he were considered so, it would be changing the essence of the Presidency to that of a Monarch. The Justices agreed and have stipulated that Paula Jones can sue the President while he sits in office. But the Pope is not the President of the United States. He is a sovereign, and therefore very much above the law.
A case in point is the promulgation of a new rite of Mass by Pope Paul VI. Some would say that, in light of Quo Primum , Pope Paul had no right to do this. They would then conclude that he was an anti-Pope. They would hold this: “Since in Quo Primum , Pope Pius V forbade Latin Rite priests to celebrate any other Missal than his, Paul VI was out of his bounds to institute a new rite.” Strictly speaking, this is not so. No pope can bind a future pope in a matter of Church Law. (This does not mean that I in any way like the Novus Ordo or encourage attendance at it. I don’t go to it. I won’t go to it.) My simple point is that the pope has the right to amend, obrogate, or downright abrogate the Bull Quo Primum . To say otherwise is to diminish his prerogatives as supreme legislator of the Church. Anyone who doubts this should realize that his stance falls under Alexander VIII’s condemnation of the third Gallican Article, which claimed that the Pope could not change previously established law.
Now let us discuss a few problem situations. We begin with the problem of an heretical pope. Regarding a pope who, while in office, may become heretical, Saint Robert Bellarmine posits five opinions for consideration:
1. The pope cannot be heretical.
2. The pope, falling into heresy, even purely internal heresy, ipso facto loses the papacy.
3. Even if the pope falls into heresy, the pope would not lose the papacy.
4. An heretical pope is not removed ipso facto , but must be declared deposed by the Church.
5. An heretical pope is deposed ipso facto at the moment that his heresy becomes manifest — that is, public and widely known.
Various theologians have chosen their favorite opinion, but no one consensus is reached by all. St. Robert prefers the fifth postulate.
For argument’s sake, let’s say that St. Robert’s opinion is the definitive teaching in the matter of a Pope falling into heresy. Have Popes John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, and John Paul II exhibited a manifest, public, and formal heresy? The sedevacantist would say yes, and therefore the Pope has fallen from his office and a False Shepherd is leading the Church. Or more precisely, the whole hierarchy have lost their offices since they are heretics and were appointed by a non-pope; therefore, the Church is completely decapitated in Her government. We know by De Fide teaching (the visibility of the Church, and the primacy of Peter) that this is impossible. (If the Church is now without a visible leader, the Church then becomes invisible. We know that the very essence of the Church depends on her being a visible organization, so the idea that she can exist in the world in an invisible sense is a contradiction of defined teaching.) Therefore, the contrary must be true. That is, these popes are true popes and haven’t manifested formal heresy.
The Code of Canon Law defines a heretic as one who after baptism, while remaining nominally a Catholic, pertinaciously doubts one of the truths which must be believed by divine and catholic faith. A “truth that must be believed by divine and catholic faith” is one that has been infallibly declared by the Church to be revealed by God — a doctrine that is “de fide divina et catholica “. Pertinacity is defined as the conscious and intentional resistance to the authority of God and the Church; it is the obstinate adhesion to a particular heretical tenet. As long as one remains willing to submit to the Church’s decision he remains a Catholic Christian, and his wrong belief remains material only. If the quality of pertinacity is missing, there is no formal heresy.
So, based on this definition of a heretic then, can we say that the last four popes have manifested formal heresy? No, we cannot. Formal resistance to the teaching authority of the Church, which resides in the Pope is hardly possible when the man in question is the pope himself. I propose that the note of pertinacity is, therefore impossible in a pope (unless he’s a schizophrenic). If the note of pertinacity is impossible, then so is formal heresy.
Perhaps someone could criticize this argument as being too subtle, hinging as it does on the note of pertinacity. Even then, the judgment of formal heresy is a serious one, and one which must be established by a competent authority. To be a formal heretic, one’s will must be set against God and his Church. One must make a conscious act of the will to reject Catholic dogma. For someone to be excommunicated in public forum as a heretic the judgment must be made by a competent bishop; not even a priest can accuse a person of such a thing. All a priest can do, and all that you or I can do, is tell a person he is wrong; he is erring; and he is committing a sin against Faith. As a missionary, I can tell a person, in very strong language, “look man, you are wrong, and your error will lead you to hell.” In that respect, I can make a judgment of truth and error based on the evidence put before me. But I cannot declare a person formally excommunicated from the Church. And I thank God that it’s not within my competence to do so.
And neither is it in the competence of anyone to so accuse the Pope of formal heresy.
Regarding the possibility of an heretical pope and his consequent loss of office, I would like to present another argument. Supposing we were to follow the opinions of certain authors that if a pope were to fall into heresy, he would then lose his office. Then suppose that we were to apply that opinion to a certain pope. At best, what we have accomplished is to establish, based upon theological speculation, the possibility that the See of Peter could be vacant. That is all we could do, given the uncertain nature of this situation. At this point, the individual Catholic is at a moral juncture: Either accept a man as the Roman Pontiff whom he thinks might not be pope, or reject him. If he realizes that the claimant to the Apostolic See might be the pope — and he has to admit that he might be — then rejecting the claimant constitutes a schismatic act.
Let me explain. This is what is known in moral theology as a “practical doubt.” About this “practical doubt” the Jesuit moralist, Father Slater, says the following. “If I eat meat with a practical doubt as to whether it is not forbidden on that day by the Church, I commit a sin of the same kind and malice as if I ate meat knowingly on a day of abstinence.” Apply this to the pontificate. If I refuse my subjection to the Roman Pontiff with a practical doubt as to whether or not he is the pope, I commit an act of schism. It’s a form of spiritual Russian Roulette.
Have these popes said things that are obviously erroneous and scandalous to the faithful? Yes, they have. Have recent popes acted in a manner opposed to the way they should be acting as supreme pastors of the Church? Yes, they have. But just because sinful and scandalous actions emanate from a priest, bishop, or pope, does not mean that they are outside of the Church! Have these Popes violated the Church’s attribute of Infallibility? No, they have not. Can the pope act in a manner which is harmful to the faithful? Yes, he can. Is he to be resisted for so acting? Absolutely! Are the faithful to pray that his “diabolical disorientation” is dispelled and he works to correct the wrong that has been done? Absolutely! “Pray for the Pope”, as Venerable Jacinta of Fatima has told us.
I would like to point out something else concerning the thinking of some Catholics on this issue. One man, after criticizing Saint Benedict Center for not being sedevacantist, and claiming that “only the sedevacantists have the courage to call a heretic a heretic” said the following: “I wonder what position Christ would have taken. Can we get a hint out of Scriptures? Maybe he should have ‘dialogued’ with the Pharisees more and ignored the moneychangers in His Father’s House — they were there with the approval of authority, after all.”
My answer, I admit, was not without sarcasm: “Yes, and we all know what our Lord did. He deposed the high priest and declared the Seat of Moses vacant! Didn’t He?” The point is simply this: If the Man-God himself had enough respect for the sovereign pontiff of the law of types and figures as to say of the heretical Jew who was soon to murder Him, that he sat “in the seat of Moses,” how does anyone in the present law, the more perfect law, dare to do the opposite?
Let me spell this out. Our Lord was not a sedevacantist. The evil deicide heretic who had authority over the “church” of Israel, was still the head of the true Religion. The religious society of the Old Law was still intact. Anyone wishing to save his soul could look to this office for leadership. Its sacrifices were accepted by God, and despite the abusive use to which it was put, the prophetical office was even maintained by this man. What did St. John say about Caiphas’ prophesy of our Lord’s death? “And this he spoke not of himself: but being the high priest of that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation.” No matter how you view it, the present Pope’s actions come nowhere near the iniquity of Caiphas.
Next after the problem of an heretical pope we have that of an evil pope. I’m not saying that any of these popes are “evil,” but merely for the sake of argument, let’s assume that they are (after all, it is possible for a pope to be evil, and the whole Catholic world has recognized certain historical popes — like the notoriously immoral John XII — to have been evil.) An evil pope could be one who changes canon law for the worse, thus introducing laxity and possibly poor morals. An evil pope could be one who gives scandal to people. He could be a Freemason; he could introduce new and even protestantized liturgical rites. Is he still a pope, despite these evils?
Yes! As far as changing Church law, the pope is supreme legislator of the Church and is above the law, as we mentioned before. The Pope’s infallibility is over Faith and Morals only. Law is not the proper subject of infallibility, and therefore bad laws can come into the Church.
What if a Pope is a Freemason?
May God forbid it, but it is a possibility. I don’t wish to give any credence to any of the various lists which exist — lists that incriminate this cardinal or that bishop or such-and-such a pope of having been a Mason. I certainly would not want to be guilty of either calumny or detraction leveled at the person of the pope. Just entertaining the possibility for the sake of argument is all I’m trying to do.
A Freemason or any other person is deprived of his office by due canonical process. When it comes to the Roman Pontiff, there is no such process.
Indeed the possibility of an evil pope, an unworthy or vicious pope has never been ruled out by the Church. Yet the literature of many sedevacantist partisans is filled with explicit or implicit accusations that the pope’s behavior has somehow dethroned him. If any of you are handed sedevacantist books, look at the pictures. If there are any pictures, I could probably describe to you what they will be: The pope hiking in alpine shorts, the pope making a funny face at newspaper photographers, some overweight man that looks like the pope picnicking with a family, the pope at one of his ecumenical affairs. There are probably a dozen stock photographs that you can see in their literature. The implication, stated or unstated, is this: “Look at this picture! This man can’t be the pope! This is evil!”
Personally, I thought the mocking of irritating newspaper photographers was pretty funny, so I applaud the Holy Father’s sense of humor. But I won’t defend the syncretic ecumenical fiascoes. These are truly scandalous, and I am very sensitive to this scandal. I have spoken with Jews, Pagans, and Protestants who have pointed to the Holy Father’s actions as an apologetic for why they don’t have to be Catholic. If I tell them, “you must be a Catholic to save your soul”; I am met with, “but your pope called Luther a ‘profoundly religious man,’ or “your pope is a good man, he doesn’t think like you do; he prayed with my guru” or “The Pope likes us Jews, He called us your ‘elder brothers in the Faith.’” I can repeat these instances ad nauseam , but I would rather not. The only reason I bring it up is to show that, while these actions are indefensible, they do not make him an anti-pope.
The Council of Constance defined against this notion of loss of papal office due to sin, even publicly manifest scandal. The heretic was John Hus, one of the precursors of Protestantism, whose ideas about the Church militant helped form the basis for Protestant ecclesiology. (I will be speaking tomorrow of the doctrine of the Mystical Body, and how the Protestants destroyed the notion of a visible, hierarchical Church. Hus paved the way for these errors.) [See this article in Issue #39 of From the Housetops. – Ed.] The council listed thirty errors of Hus, which they condemned as “Not Catholic… heretical….erroneous,…audacious and seditious, … [and] offensive to pious ears.” Number twenty of these thirty errors reads verbatim as follows:
“If the pope is wicked and especially if he is foreknown, then as Judas, the Apostle, he is of the devil, a thief, and a son of perdition, and he is not the head of the holy militant Church, since he is not a member of it.” (Denz . 646. See also Denz . 661)
Remember, what I have just read is infallibly condemned as an error. The authority of an ecumenical council teaches us that even if the pope is foreknown to be a son of perdition, he is still the pope.
I refer you all to Volume 5 of Dr. Ludwig Pastor’s History of the Popes from the close of the Middle Ages (drawn from the Secret Archives of the Vatican and other original sources), pp. 381-386. Here, a detailed description of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia’s purchasing of the Papacy is exposed. This immoral act is called simony. Regarding simony in the Church, Pope Callistus II speaking authoritatively at Lateran Council I, held about 500 hundred years previous to Borgia’s actions, stated the following in Canon I on Simony, Celibacy, Investitures and Incest:
“‘Following the examples of the Holy Fathers’ and renewing the duty of our office ‘we forbid in every way by the authority of the Apostolic See that anyone by means of money be ordained or promoted in the Church of God. But if anyone shall have acquired ordination or promotion in the Church in this way, let him be entirely deprived of his office.'” (Denz. 359)
Yet Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia was elected pope! And he became the Pontiff as Alexander VI!
Alexander VI was not alone. There have been other simoniacal popes throughout history. This shows that, no matter what canons exist about heretics or others under certain ecclesiastical censures being deprived of their offices, the rule we established from the beginning has been the operating norm throughout the Church’s history: “The peaceful and universal acceptance of a pope by the whole Church is a sign and effect of a valid election.”
I said above that sedevacantism is a problem and not an answer. Here are a couple of reasons why. First, if we have no pope, how is one to be elected? According to most sedevacantists, there has not been a pope since Pius XII. Since this is the case, there are no valid cardinals. The College of Cardinals must be vacant too, since anti-popes have been appointing these men to their positions. It is recognized that, after the College of Cardinals, the Roman clergy have authority to elect the pope. Let’s say the whole college was blown up by some Muslim during an extraordinary meeting they were holding. In that extreme circumstance, the Roman Clergy could elect the pope, since he is their Bishop. But alas there is another problem. You see, the Roman Clergy is also vacant. Only Bishops can lawfully appoint clergy, and if there were no valid popes, there are no bishops with jurisdiction, therefore no lawful diocesan clergy. It’s a ruthless catch-22.
There are those who answer this objection by saying that God will intervene directly and appoint a Pope. Besides the fact that this would be a first in Church history; and the fact that it contradicts God’s established order for running the Church, this presents yet another problem: Who will know if it has been accomplished? What objective criteria are there? Will the miracle of the sun accompany such a prodigious papal election? Will there be miraculous white smoke coming out of St. Peter’s? Will a choir of angels place the tiara on the new pope’s head? I don’t know how it could be done, and neither do the adherents of this position. This practical problem is best illustrated by the fact that there are some sedevacantist groups who already have their own Popes: Popes who were elected in irregular, and yes, sometimes miraculous ways. Thus we presently have the mystic, stigmatist, Pope Gregory XVII in Palmar de Troya Spain, Another Pope Gregory XVII in St. Jovite, Canada, Pope Michael, somewhere in the American Midwest, and a small host of others all of whom claim to be the divinely appointed Vicar of Christ.
Other sedevacantists have resolved this problem with a more careful, theological approach. They have said that, while the Holy See is not materially vacant, it is formally vacant. As soon as the Pope does the right thing, then he will formally assume the office. But other practical considerations enter here. How will we know? What competent authority is there to declare the Holy See once more formally occupied? And is this the same authority that was competent to declare the Pope deposed in the first place? Once more, we are down to the subjects of authority and visibility. There is no “balance of powers” in the Church as there is supposed to exist in our Republic. There is no Judicial Branch of the Church comprised of canonists who wait to see if a Pope is real or not.
Among the theologians of the past who speculated on a pope losing his office, this issue of who declares the See vacant is a point of disagreement. Some say that it would be an ecumenical Council. They are careful to note that the ecumenical council can neither judge nor depose the pope, but at most can examine the case, and declare to the Catholic world what has already happened, that is, that the pope has lost his office. But, there is a big problem with this position; notably, that for a council to be ecumenical it has to be convened and ratified by the Roman Pontiff. There being no Roman Pontiff, how can the council be valid? All the bishops could do is deliver their sentence to the dubious pope and ask him to please ratify it. Others are of the opinion that the college of Cardinals can declare the See vacant. But what procedure will they take? Will a simple majority decide? Will two-thirds? And suppose a faction rises up within the College of Cardinals and declares the pope’s deposition invalid? This will set us up for another Avignon Papacy.
I would like to point out that even if an ecumenical council had the authority to declare the pope deposed, or even if the College of Cardinals had that authority, the fact remains that neither has happened. No ecumenical council has passed such a declaration any of the last four popes, and the College of Cardinals seems rather content with the present status quo. So we fall right back into the situation of Father so and so, declaring from his independent chapel that the Roman See is vacant and has been for x number of years. No priest has this authority. Priests aren’t part of the hierarchy. They have nothing to do with the government of the Church, except at a very limited, local level, that is, within their parish, if they are duly appointed pastors.
I would like to wrap things up with a brief review what has been said. The Visibility of the Church is directly linked to the Roman Pontiff. This has been taught at the Church’s highest authority, and cannot be contradicted by the opinions of any theologians, past or present, of whatever reputation for orthodoxy or holiness. And while during an interregnum the church is “Popeless,” for a short period of time, this is not a part of the ordinary constitution of the Church and must necessarily be of short duration. The longest interregnum in the Church to date is less than three years. If the sedevacantists are right, then the present interregnum is ten times greater than that one. Thus the visibility of the Church, embodied in the person of the Roman Pontiff is non-extant. In this awful scenario, the only true Church is constituted of individual priests and bishops in their respective chapels, none of whom have valid jurisdiction, and none of whom report to anyone higher than themselves as authorities. This is not a visible Church; it is a Protestant Church.
At this point, I would like to give a very brief summary of each of our major points. The Indefectibility of the Church means that the Church cannot defect in her constitution. She cannot fail in her function of leading people to heaven. No matter how you examine it, the sedevacantist idea — the idea that the Church has been decapitated for almost 40 years, thus producing invalid sacraments, a false priesthood and an ecclesiastical structure totally devoid of grace — this idea is contrary to the Church’s indefectibility.
Next, we discussed papal elections. All four of the past popes were validly elected. But even if they weren’t, according to the weighty authorities cited above, the moral unanimity of the Catholic world in recognizing in them the true Roman Pontiff is, in itself, a sound argument for their validity.
Not only were they validly elected, but, according to our next point, we established that they are sovereign in matters of Church discipline and that they are “above the law” in all matters not pertaining to the natural moral law, or the divinely revealed law. Thus, while they are capable of sinning in breaking the natural moral law or the divinely revealed law, they are monarchs in their own right when it comes to ecclesiastical discipline. Therefore, if they “break the law,” they incur no ecclesiastical censure, least of all, that of excommunication.
Then we discussed the two problems of an heretical pope and an evil pope. The practical difficulties involved here rule out a papal vacancy. The realistic impracticality of determining a pope’s formal heresy, coupled with the fact that no one is competent either to declare this sentence, or to depose him, assure us that the Roman See cannot be vacant on this account. Given the speculative nature of such a vacancy, the Catholic who refuses his submission to the pontiff is in grave danger of the mortal sin of schism.
Finally, the numerous practical problems associated with the idea that we have been popeless for forty years confirm us in our position that this alleged vacancy is an impossibility.
“Pray for the Pope!” This is what little Jacinta of Fatima told us to do. I can’t agree with her more. Will God refuse to hear our prayers? Will he turn a deaf ear to us who have been faithful to Him in his teaching Church? Let us, with confidence, approach the throne of Grace, and with the help of our Lady, humbly beg the Trinity for special graces to be shed on the Roman Pontiff, and the whole flock of the Church.
I would like to conclude with a prayer for the Holy Father. It’s an oration from the Mass for the Coronation of a pope, found in our beloved Roman Missal:
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
God, the shepherd and ruler of all the faithful, look propitiously upon Thy servant John Paul, whom Thou hast been pleased to appoint pastor over Thy Church, grant, we beseech Thee, that both by word and by example he may edify those over whom he is placed, and, together with the flock committed to his care, may attain unto life everlasting. Amen.
Saints Peter and Paul, pray for us.
St. Joseph, patron of the Universal Church, pray for us.
Mary, Mother of the Church, pray for us!