The Problem with Sedevanctism

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(With Father James Altman’s recent declaration on the question of sedevacantism, here is a re-post of something I wrote earlier in the summer, and why we must tread with great caution in declaring a papacy, or any given pope, null and void. Whatever good intentions there be, and whatever reservations we have, even deep and abiding ones, we are basically deposing a Pope in declaring the Apostolic See ‘vacant’. Anon, read on, and comments and criticisms are, as always welcome).

On this solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul – and a blessed one to all our readers – it seems a propos to discuss the notion of ‘sedevacantism’, which seems to be spreading through the Church. Sede-vacans is simply the Latin phrase for ‘empty seat’. When applied to the papacy, it is the natural state of things inter-regnum – between reigns – when a Pope dies or, more rarely, resigns and a new pope is elected.

Sedevacantism, on the other hand – like most ‘isms’ – implies some sort of aberration, and usually refers to the belief that although the seat of Peter is apparently occupied, it is in reality empty, for the Pope is not really the Pope at all.

One may hold this belief for various reasons. The occupant may not have been validly elected, as many believed of the fractious conclave of Urban VI at the beginning of the Great Western Schism. Or the Pope may have been a real Pope, but has ceased to be so due to ‘heresy’. Or, as some conspiracists believe of Paul VI, the real Pope may have been secretly removed, and an imposter put in his place.

There are, of course, significant problems with any of these positions, as they would put the very structure of the Church in a perilous state. In general, I would posit that God has more care and providence for His Mystical Bride than all that would imply.

Like marriage, we must presume the validity of any papal election, unless there is clear and manifest evidence of grave canonical irregularity, as proven by the proper authorities themselves, as set up by law. We as individuals are not permitted, based on vague rumours and hearsay, to declare any given election invalid. Part of the reason conclaves are held under such strict secrecy – literally, under lock and key – is to ensure their legitimacy, in themselves, and in the eyes of the faithful.

Perhaps even more problematic is thinking a Pope has ceased to be Pope because of deficiencies in how he carries out his office. After all, who are we to judge? I don’t mean to be facetious, for it is natural to ‘rate’ a Pope, and of course we’re going to ‘judge’ him to some extent, at least his actions, to sift how we might apply his pronouncements through the medium of our own conscience, and to compare him to others who came before. But we cannot ‘judge’ a Pope in the sense of acting as jury and executioner, and ‘deposing’ him in our own heart and mind.

Oh, true enough, Popes have been deposed before, at least before certain laws governing the papal office were put in place. In the tumultuous ninth century, Emperor Otto I yanked more than one unworthy pope from the Chair of Peter, during the nadir of the papacy called the saeculum obscurum, also called, for obvious reasons, the ‘pornocracy’.

Although this was indirectly willed by God as a fait accompli such imperial violence could not become the norm, which was one of the reasons that Pope Nicholas in 1059 in his constitution In Nomine Domini clarified how popes were elected and themselves consecrated.

Once he is in office, no power on earth can remove a pope. Saint Catherine of Siena had her own dealings with the languid Popes lolling around Avignon, firmly under the heel of the French king, Philip IV – but they were all still Christ’s vicars.

The authority of the papacy was further clarified at the Council of Constance in 1415, which ended the confusion of the three popes during the aforementioned Great Western Schism. There was an attempt to give Councils authority over the Pope, even to the point of deposing an unworthy occupant. As the First and Second Vatican Councils eventually clarified, however, the Pope has ‘full, supreme, universal’ authority in the Church, with any Council or Synod in the Church subordinate to his authority. Indeed, any Council is only decreed legitimate and ecumenical, and any decision or document from within a Council only considered magisterial and authoritative, when promulgated and approved by the Pope.

If a Council or a cabal of cardinals cannot depose a pope, how can any given member of the faithful, even privately, and in their own hearts? I wrote of this a few years ago, and although I may tweak those thoughts a bit in what has transpired in the meantime, the essential principle holds: There is no earthly or hierarchical body currently established to remove a pope, for heresy, malfeasance, incompetence or any other reason. Perhaps such could be set up (e.g., if a Pope developed dementia), but such would create a cascade of other questions and problems.

If I were to set up a Church – for which I have zero authority, and would botch the whole endeavor and my soul in the process – I would most definitely not give any one office so much authority and un-removeability.

But Christ did.

The Pope can’t be fired and there’s no Trump, or trump card, to do so. There are only two canonically valid ways to remove a Pope: death, or resignation.

In the spirit of typology, we may hearken back to the Old Testament, to the story of Saul, who, filled with promise as a young man standing ‘head and shoulders above his kinsmen’, as king descended into cowardice, madness, lust and occultism, and, at least for a time, became one of the worst. David could easily have deposed him – there he was, spear in hand, and Saul ‘indisposed’ at his mercy – but David waited for God to take Saul. After all, as he put it, who was he to lay hands on the Lord’s anointed?

Just so, we’re blessed, or burdened, with the popes we have, until God Himself decrees otherwise.

Ah, but the sedevacantists make it so easy – just delete/cancel/cast into oblivion the Pope, and use one’s subjective conscience to qualm one’s uncertainties. Much like those who decide ‘in their hearts’ that their marriage ‘must be invalid’, and act accordingly, by entering another relationship they consider more amenable and licit.

But if we cast off the constitution of the Church, and each of us acts according to our own lights and whims – for we will all judge the Pope according to different criteria – what winds will blow, and where will be the barque of Peter that will see us through the storm?

With that all said, a couple of caveats:

The Pope himself is bound by the definitive teachings of previous popes, which have clarified the content of the Deposit of Faith. Francis, for example, cannot reverse the consistent and tradition teaching on contraception and other sexual mores, as clarified and defined most recently by Paul VI and John Paul II, and I don’t think he will try.

A certain website labels those who consider Francis to be the Pope ‘definitelypopers’, and I have been so labeled. In response, I will say that the only things I am absolutely definite about are the truths of our Catholic Faith, and a few axioms of reason. For the rest, I have slivers of doubt about all sorts of things. If it turns out Francis’ election was invalid, well, we can only trust the truth will be revealed, but perhaps not until the end of time. In the meantime, we must act with what moral certainty we have, within the structure, constitution and laws of the Church. If any given Pope fulfills his office poorly – or worse – he will face the judgement of God, far more searing, just and terrible than any earthy court. It is presumptuous to pre-empt that, and that same ecclesial structure will provide correction soon enough, in God’s good providence, as it has for two millennia.

Christ may seem to be asleep in the prow, but when he awakens, and finds our own lack of faith… well, you know how it goes.