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Defending the Papacy

Opposing the Sedevacantist Enterprise


by Christopher A. Ferrara

This essay refutes a thesis that has been advanced by a few Catholics as an explanation for the profound crisis of faith and discipline in the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council: the thesis of sedevacantism, a term derived from the Latin phrase for "empty seat".

The proponents of the sedevacantist thesis generally agree that all the popes since 1958 — John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I1, John Paul II, and now Benedict XVI — cannot be true popes because they are "manifest heretics" or because they approved harmful changes in the Church, which no true Pope would have done. To quote a leading sedevacantist spokesman:

Traditional Catholics have tried to explain in various ways how the errors and evils of the officially-sanctioned Vatican II changes could have 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 through personal heresy.2

As we can see, the basic proposition is inherently plausible if one accepts as true the premises that (a) the "errors and evils" of the "Vatican II changes" were actually imposed de jure on the Church by the Pope and his ecclesiastical subordinates, who acted in areas within the scope of the Church’s infallibility, and (b) the popes and other ecclesiastics involved in the "Vatican II changes" were manifestly guilty of the personal sin of heresy. For how could an infallible Church be fallible, or how could Catholic ecclesiastics, including the Pope, be Catholics if they are heretics?

A Patent Absurdity

That the premises, and thus the conclusions, are demonstrably false will be shown later. But even without such a demonstration, it must be stressed at the outset that the sedevacantist thesis is plainly untenable, because when all is said and done the thesis comes down to the following claim: that since 1958 the entire membership of the Catholic Church has been adhering to a series of impostor popes and a hierarchy of impostor bishops, except a few sedevacantists who alone have noticed what is "manifest" about these ecclesiastics — that they are all formal heretics. For the Church’s entire membership to adhere for nearly half a century to five consecutive heretical, impostor popes and an impostor episcopacy would make a mockery of the promises of Christ to His Church that "the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matt. 16:18) and that He will be with His Church "all days unto the consummation of the world" (Matt. 28:20). Without the Pope at its head and bishops in communion with him, the visible Church would cease to exist, and Christ would have been made a liar.

Granted, it may well be that the Church is ultimately reduced to a very tiny remnant by the time Antichrist appears and asserts himself. But that remnant will still have a Pope at its head and some number of bishops in communion with him. Otherwise that remnant would not be the Church, but a headless and diffuse "body of believers," just as the Protestants imagine the Church to be. Quite simply, if there is no Peter, there is no Church. As Pope Leo XIII taught in his monumental encyclical on the Church, Satis Cognitum: "[I]t is clear that by the will and command of God the Church rests upon St. Peter, just as a building rests on its foundation. Now the proper nature of a foundation is to be a principle of cohesion for the various parts of the building. It must be the necessary condition of stability and strength. Remove it and the whole building falls."3

Now of course there are interregnums between the death of a Pope and the election of his successor, during which the Church is temporarily without a Pope. But the sedevacantist thesis maintains that the last five elected popes have not been popes, and there is no end in sight to its claims of papal imposture and a vacant Chair of Peter. This idea contradicts the infallible definition and anathema of the First Vatican Council, which insisted upon the perpetuity and visibility of the papal succession:

But, that the episcopacy itself might be one and undivided, and that the entire multitude of the faithful through priests closely connected with one another, might be preserved in the unity of faith and communion, placing the blessed Peter over the other apostles, He [Christ] established in him the perpetual and visible foundation of both unities, upon whose strength the eternal temple might be erected ...

Moreover, what the Chief of pastors and the Great Pastor of sheep, the Lord Jesus, established in the blessed Apostle Peter for the perpetual succession and perennial good of the Church, this by the same Author must endure always in the Church which was founded upon a rock and will endure firm until the end of the ages …

If anyone then says that it is not from the institution of Christ the Lord Himself, or by divine right that the blessed Peter has perpetual successors in the primacy over the universal Church … let him be anathema.

Hence it appears that the sedevacantists are flirting with the Vatican I anathema, which condemns and excludes from the Church anyone who would call into question the perpetual succession of the papacy as the visible foundation of the entire Church. Far from being "the only coherent explanation" for the current ecclesial crisis, the sedevacantist thesis is unthinkable — if not heretical.

Never in Her history has the Church, even for a moment, been without a successor of Peter, validly elected upon the death of his validly elected predecessor. Indeed, the longest interregnum between two popes in Church history was only two years and five months, between the death of Pope Nicholas IV (1292) and the election of Pope Celestine V (1294). Even during the Great Western Schism, which lasted some 38 years (1379-1417), there were always true popes reigning at the same time as the series of anti-popes, until the entire schism was resolved with the resignation of anti-pope John XXIII and the election of Martin V in 1417. Yet, the sedevacantists would have us believe that the Church has been afflicted by a series of no fewer than five anti-popes which virtually the entire Church has somehow recognized as legitimate, with no true pope reigning since 1958 – a span of 47 years without any successor of Peter. It is hard to imagine a more blatant contradiction of the infallible teaching of the First Vatican Council on the perpetuity of the Petrine succession.

In the face of the divine promises and the infallible teaching of the Church, therefore, the sedevacantist position, no matter how "logical" it might seem to its adherents, can only be dismissed as patently absurd.

Defending the patently absurd is a task that certain renowned lawyers, for example, are paid handsomely to perform, for it takes a great deal of skill to persuade a judge or a jury to believe that an obvious absurdity (such as the innocence of a certain Mr. S.) is reasonable. But even if the endeavor succeeds, what is absurd is still absurd. Such is the case with the sedevacantist thesis. As the late Michael Davies said with admirable succinctness: "Could any true Catholic, anyone with a sense of what it means to be a Catholic, give any consideration, let alone serious consideration, to such madness?"4

In his masterpiece Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton observed: "A madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason." Such a man, wrote Chesterton, "is in prison; the prison of one thought." Having developed all of the logical arguments in support of that one thought, "The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory." Hence, Chesterton concluded, "if you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment."

So it is with the ever multiplying and ever more elaborate arguments of the sedevacantists. It is not that sedevacantists are literally mad in holding their beliefs. That is not at all what I mean to suggest, nor is it what Chesterton meant to suggest concerning the workings of the modern mind, trapped by the "logic" of the materialist system. It is, rather, that sedevacantists exhibit the impenetrable self-enclosed reasoning of the madman, even if they themselves are quite sane, and in many cases highly intelligent. Sedevacantism is perfectly logical to sedevacantists, but perfectly insane to any Catholic who, viewing their inherently plausible system from the outside, exercises informed good judgment in assessing its claims.

From "Small" Beginnings

The first publications of what I would call "the sedevacantist enterprise" (hereafter simply the Enterprise) emerged around 1976, as a reaction against the undeniably disastrous course of the post-Vatican II "reform" of the Church authorized or tolerated by Pope Paul VI in the name of the Council convened by Pope John XXIII. The Enterprise began by taking up a theological hypothesis of St. Robert Bellarmine which is commonly accepted by theologians: that a Pope would lose his seat if he were to become a true and proper formal heretic, that is, if he notoriously and pertinaciously (openly and obstinately) denies or doubts an article of divine and Catholic faith, such as the existence of three Persons in the Holy Trinity. (The profession of some lesser theological error is not formal heresy, for not every Catholic teaching is an article of Faith.)5

Did Paul VI lose his seat due to formal heresy or even fail to attain to it due to preexisting heresy? Did John XXIII likewise fall, or fail to ascend, due to heresy? Would this explain how these two occupants of the See of Peter could have approved or allowed such damage to the Church — i.e., that they were both impostors on the throne? These were questions the Enterprise would soon answer in the affirmative, although, as we shall see, the Enterprise is hardly unified at the theoretical level. From these "small" beginnings the Enterprise has mushroomed into what it is today: a vast system of argumentation which proposes not only that we have had no Pope (literally or at least "formally") since the death of Pius XII in 1958, but also that no Cardinals have been validly created since then, and that no priests have been validly ordained or bishops consecrated under the "invalid" rites approved and/or used by "anti-Popes" Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

In other words, the Enterprise proposes not only that the Church has had no head for 47 years, but also that there are almost no priests, bishops or Cardinals left alive in the Church’s official structure of canonical dioceses, and that even the few "official" clerics who were "validly" ordained under the pre-conciliar rites have probably lost their offices due to "manifest" heresy in their adherence to "the Vatican II changes" and the "impostor popes". Some at the fringes of the Enterprise even question the validity of the priestly ordinations and episcopal consecrations of the clergy of the Society of Saint Pius X (due to alleged impediments to the episcopal consecration of its founder, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre).6 The Enterprise thus effectively declares that only a handful of sedevacantist priests and bishops, viewed as legitimate by the Enterprise, are the truly faithful members of a vestigial Catholic hierarchy.

In consequence, the Enterprise informs us, it will be impossible to elect a valid Pope again without a "miraculous" intervention by God. Effectively, the Church no longer exists as a visible institution, as it no longer has a head or governing hierarchy. The promises of Christ are ignored in favor of a hypothetical deus ex machina that will supposedly bring the Church back from veritable extinction.

In the Enterprise’s best publications these propositions are supported by seemingly plausible arguments and even some impressive scholarship. But if these propositions do not belong to the category "patently absurd," then nothing does. And yet, it is necessary to discuss the merits of the sedevacantist thesis, because in this time of ecclesial confusion many Catholics do not recognize a theological absurdity when they see one. They can be taken in by facile arguments and seemingly overwhelming documentation. So let us proceed to a refutation of the Enterprise’s claims in the hope of providing aid to the unwary.

Judging Papal "Heresy"

It is certainly inherently plausible that if the Pope were to become a heretic he would thereby cease to be Pope, for heretics are not Catholics, and non-Catholics cannot be Popes. As already noted, theologians commonly accept this theoretical possibility. St. Robert Bellarmine summed up the theological consensus thus: "A pope who is a manifest heretic ipso facto ceases to be pope and head, just as he ceases automatically to be a Christian and a member of the Church …"7

The problem, however, is two-fold: First, the Pope must have uttered a truly manifest heresy, which requires denial of an article of divine and Catholic faith, such as the Trinity, not just any error against the teaching of the Church. Second, the Pope must, in uttering that heresy, actually be guilty of the personal sin of heresy in that he knowingly and pertinaciously (obstinately) denies an article of faith. One who thinks his false belief is consistent with the Catholic faith cannot be guilty of the sin of formal heresy. He is only a material heretic who remains a member of the Church.

Given the maxim Prima Sedes a nemine iudicatur — "no one may judge the First See" — how is any isolated member of the Church to determine on his own that the conditions for formal heresy have been met? That no one may judge the Pope — that is, his personal sin of heresy as opposed to the heretical import of his words — is a fundamental truth of our religion, as well as a dictate of reason. This is because by the will of the Church’s divine Founder there is no office on earth above the papal office.

That being the case, how would isolated members of the Church know for certain that a Pope who uttered a heresy had not lost his mind, made some awful mistake in his choice of words, been subjected to some compulsion such as a threat on his life, or had somehow persuaded himself that his erroneous opinion was not contrary to the Faith? Absent a procedure to investigate the papal statement and the surrounding circumstances, including direct questioning of the Pope himself with an opportunity to retract, it would be impossible to judge the matter fully and fairly. Indeed, even Martin Luther was summoned to defend his views and then given sixty days to retract his 41 distinct heresies before finally suffering the sentence of excommunication.8 Who exactly would afford the Pope this due process? Or are we to believe that the holder of the papal office is entitled to less justice than the likes of Martin Luther?

A Remedy

This does not mean the Church would be without a remedy in the case of some manifestly heretical Pope who would publicly deny one or more dogmas of the Faith. Although this remedy has yet to be employed in practice against a living pope,9 an accepted theological view, taught by St. Anthony of Florence and St. Alphonsus Liguori, a doctor of the Church, provides that should a Pope really pronounce or teach a "manifest" heresy, a general council could assemble to verify the statement or statements allegedly uttered by the Pope. If such a council were convoked, the Pope would be given an opportunity to explain his words or retract them, and his refusal to appear at the council could be considered proof of pertinacity. The council could then declare that the Pope, by his own act, had excluded himself from the Church, thereby ceasing to be Pope, so that the election of a new Pope could proceed with safety. This procedure would not entail a judgment on the Pope’s person, but merely a declaratory sentence verifying what the Pope had done to himself by embracing heresy and refusing to explain or retract it when given the opportunity to do so. Once it has been verified as a fact that a pope knowingly and obstinately denies a defined dogma of the Faith, knowing that his personal theological view contradicts the Faith, the dogmatic definition itself (ex sese, to use Vatican I’s term) constitutes a sentence against the Pope. This is because dogmatic definitions of the Church are irreformable or "unalterable"10, as Vatican I declared in defining the infallible magisterium of the Roman Pontiff (which applies also to the infallible definitions of ecumenical councils confirmed by a Pope). Hence dogmatic definitions are generally attached to anathemas which declare of anyone who denies the defined dogma: "Let him be anathema" — that is, let him be accursed and excluded from the Church.

But even assuming for argument’s sake that one or more of the Popes since Pius XII had uttered manifest heresy, no general council was convoked to investigate any such statements or determine pertinacity on the part of the accused Pope. But the Enterprise does not even get to first base since, as we shall see, despite its indefatigable efforts it has failed to identify any "manifest" heresy among the many ambiguous pronouncements and disturbing (even scandalous) actions of John Paul II or Paul VI; and much less has it succeeded in the case of John XXIII or John Paul I. For example, a tract entitled "101 Heresies of Anti-Pope John Paul II," which is typical of the Enterprise’s literature, merely catalogues tendentious interpretations of ambiguous papal statements without quoting any plainly heretical propositions, or else it lists as "manifest heresies" scandalous papal actions such as John Paul II’s kissing of the Koran.11 (The latter did not amount to formal heresy, as the kissing of the Koran was not the pertinacious denial of an article of divine and Catholic faith, but rather a probably impetuous and certainly outrageous gesture of respect to the Islamic delegates who had presented the Pope with the book.)12

That John Paul II alone stands accused by the Enterprise of at least sixty more "manifest heresies" than the infallible Magisterium at the Council of Trent was able to find in the writings of Martin Luther, probably the worst heretic in Church history, does not give the Enterprise’s amateur heresy sleuths the least pause for reflection. On and on they go, detecting one papal "heresy" after another on which they unhesitatingly affix the label "manifest".

Remember, we are defining manifest heresy as: First, the denial of an article of divine and Catholic faith, such as the Trinity, not just any error against the teaching of the Church. Second: the Pope must, in uttering that heresy, actually be guilty of the personal sin of heresy in that he knowingly and pertinaciously (obstinately) denies an article of faith. Again, one who thinks his false belief is consistent with the Catholic faith cannot be guilty of the sin of formal heresy. He is only a material heretic who remains a member of the Church.

Compare the Enterprise’s lack of success in finding "manifest" heresy in the pronouncements of the conciliar popes with the historical example of Pope John XXII. In 1331, certain French theologians and Cardinal Orsini denounced John XXII as a heretic when, in a series of sermons, he taught that the souls of the blessed departed, after finishing their appointed time in Purgatory, do not see God until after the last judgment. Cardinal Orsini called for a general council to pronounce the Pope a heretic, precisely in keeping with the teaching of St. Alphonsus Liguori and St. Anthony of Florence, already noted, which proposes such a council to deal with a truly manifest papal heresy. Confronted in this manner, John XXII replied that he had not intended to bind the whole Church to his sermons, and he impaneled a commission of theologians to consider the question. The commission informed the Pope that he was in error, and he did retract the error several years later, the day before his death.13 Yet despite being denounced as a heretic and threatened with a general council to declare his heresy, John XXII never ceased to be regarded by the Church as Pope, and Church history duly records him as such.

Another instructive historical example is that of Pope Honorius I (625-638). Honorius approved ambiguous formulas propounded by Sergius, Patriarch of Constantinople, which favored the Monothelite heresy, i.e., the error that Christ possessed only one divine will rather than distinct human and divine wills. Although laboring under a misunderstanding of the import of Sergius’s formulae, Honorius "had laid himself open to accusations of heresy."14 Hence the Third Council of Constantinople (680-81) posthumously condemned Honorius, along with Sergius, for having held the heresy. Pope Leo II confirmed the Council’s condemnation, but wished it to be understood in the sense that "Honorius … did not, as became the Apostolic authority, extinguish the flame of heretical teaching in its first beginning, but fostered it by his negligence," in that he had agreed to ambiguous formulae so that "the whole matter should be hushed up."15 Yet although Honorius was posthumously condemned for heresy by a general council, the Church does not consider him to have ceased to be Pope, even though he stood accused of heresy during his very reign.

Popes May Be Resisted

The examples of John XXII and Honorius show us the Catholic way to address a Pope who is in error or takes some action that threatens harm to the common good of the Church: one may resist a wayward Pope, but (absent the measure of a general council that issues a purely declaratory sentence) one may not privately judge him or declare his seat vacant.

St. Thomas Aquinas teaches the positive duty to rebuke and correct even the Pope when there is danger to the Faith, but not to declare his authority to have been forfeited. In the Summa Theologica, under the question "Whether a man is bound to correct his prelate," St. Thomas concludes as follows: "It must be observed, however, that if the Faith were endangered, a subject ought to rebuke his prelate even publicly. Hence Paul, who was Peter’s subject, rebuked him in public, on account of the imminent danger of scandal concerning faith …" (Peter had scandalized potential converts and threatened the mission of the Church by appearing to follow Mosaic dietary laws and refusing to eat with Gentiles.) St. Thomas here observes that the public rebuke of a prelate "would seem to savor of presumptuous pride; but there is no presumption in thinking oneself better in some respect, because, in this life, no man is without some fault. We must also remember that when a man reproves his prelate charitably, it does not follow that he thinks himself any better, but merely that he offers his help to one who, ‘being in the higher position among you, is therefore in greater danger,’ as Augustine observes in his Rule quoted above."16

Implicit in Saint Thomas’s teaching, however, is that the Pope who commits "scandal concerning the faith" remains the Pope, though he may be rebuked and corrected, as was John XXII. This same Catholic principle is summarized by the great Doctor of the Church, St. Robert Bellarmine, who wrote in his work De Romano Pontifice:

Just as it is licit to resist the Pontiff that aggresses the body, it is also licit to resist the one who aggresses souls or who disturbs civil order, or, above all, who attempts to destroy the Church. I say that it is licit to resist him by not doing what he orders and by preventing his will from being executed; it is not licit, however, to judge, punish or depose him, since these acts are proper to a superior.17

One sedevacantist, quoting the passages preceding this oft-cited quotation, argues that in context St. Bellarmine is treating only resistance by "kings or councils" to a Pope "who upsets the political order or ‘kills souls by his bad example’," and that Bellarmine’s teaching does not apply to cases of heresy. But nowhere does Bellarmine teach that "kings or councils," much less isolated members of the Church, can judge a Pope guilty of heresy. Indeed, if, as this sedevacantist himself admits, Bellarmine teaches that kings or councils may not judge or depose the Pope even for a manifest violation of the political order or manifest immorality, but may only resist him, by what right would they judge the Pope or deem him deposed18 in the far more serious matter of heresy — a matter which, moreover, is beyond the expertise of kings and councils? And, again, how would an accused Pope receive the due process even heretics like Martin Luther are accorded if any Pope could privately be judged a heretic, shunned and de facto deposed by rank and file Church members?

The renowned Sixteenth Century theologian Francisco Suarez, called a pious and eminent theologian (eximius et pius) by Pope Paul V, explained the principle of resistance to a wayward Pope thus:

And in this second way the Pope could be schismatic, if he were unwilling to be in normal union with the whole body of the Church, as would occur if he attempted to excommunicate the whole Church, or, as both Cajetan and Torquemada observe, if he wished to overturn the rites of the Church based on Apostolic Tradition … If [the Pope] ... gives an order contrary to right customs, he should not be obeyed; if he attempts to do something manifestly opposed to justice and the common good, it will be lawful to resist him ...19

It is remarkable that in the 16th Century an esteemed theologian would matter-of-factly discuss the possibility that the Pope could be guilty of schismatic acts his own subjects would be forced to resist. But nowhere does Suarez teach that any member of the faithful, even a priest or bishop, may declare that a Pope is actually in schism and has ceased to be the Roman Pontiff. On the contrary, Suarez speaks entirely in terms of resisting one who remains the Pope despite his schismatic acts.20

Clearly, then, absent the hitherto unused device of a general council, resistance — not judgment or deposition — is the only possible option in dealing with an apparently heretical Pope. The mind of the Church on this point was expressed at the level of the papal Magisterium by Pope Paul IV in his Bull Cum Ex Apostolatus Officio (1559). Gravely concerned that, in the midst of the Protestant rebellion, a future Pope might succumb to a Protestant heresy, Paul IV declared that "the Roman Pontiff, who is the representative upon earth of our God and Lord Jesus Christ, who holds the fullness of power over peoples and kingdoms, who may judge all and be judged by none in this world, may nonetheless be contradicted if he be found to have deviated from the Faith."

This is a remarkable statement for two reasons: First, it confirms the constant teaching of the Church that no one may judge the First See, even when confronted with alleged papal deviations from the Faith. Second, it nevertheless admits the possibility that a Pope might deviate from the Faith while remaining Pope. In such case the erring Pope may only be contradicted, but not judged. We shall return to this Bull later to discuss Paul IV’s provisions concerning someone who is a known manifest heretic before a conclave elects him Pope, but for now it suffices to say that here the Magisterium confirms that while the faithful may resist a wayward Pope, they have no right to judge him guilty of the personal sin of heresy and declare his seat to be vacant.

The Fundamental Problem

This, then, is the fundamental problem with the Enterprise: that its entire position rests upon a private judgment, truly worthy of Protestants, that the conciliar Popes are all heretical impostors, when the very nature of the papacy precludes such a judgment. While there is the possibility of a general council to declare that a Pope has excommunicated himself due to heresy, the Enterprise’s position is nothing but a jumble of unverifiable and purely debatable private opinions (often based on conjecture, hearsay or rash judgment on the Pope’s personal motives) on the existence and consequences of alleged papal "heresy" or other papal failures.

The Enterprise, then, simply refuses to recognize the limits on what a Catholic may do when confronted with the extraordinary event of papal words or deeds that appear to be contrary to the Faith or the good of the Church. These limits provide entirely sufficient freedom of action for dealing in conscience with the current crisis in the Church. Hence, the Enterprise is useless for dealing with the crisis. Worse still, it is a massive waste of time and intellectual energy that could be devoted to a truly constructive movement of opposition to the crisis. Moreover, the Enterprise is siphoning off financial and other resources that could be used for the true defense of the Church against scandal and heresy, while causing senseless division among Catholics who are trying to work for the Church’s restoration.

Why the Enterprise Must Be Opposed

But, as I have already suggested, it is not enough to dismiss the Enterprise as useless and leave it at that, for the opinions it circulates are not mere academic exercises. With superficially plausible logic and a mountain of documents, the Enterprise has led some of the faithful into true and proper schism. This schism has arisen with the illicit and suspect ordination of bishops and priests, who justify their putative offices on the basis of the Enterprise’s doctrine of a vanishing Pope and hierarchy.

Since 1976 the Enterprise has illicitly consecrated more than 100 bishops scattered throughout the world. The "genealogy" of these bishops began with the illicit consecration in 1976 of five bishops at Palmar de Troya, Spain, by Bishop Ngo-Dinh-Thuc (1897-1984), the late titular Archbishop of Hué (Vietnam). Archbishop Thuc was reconciled with the Vatican in 1977 only to relapse into sedevacantism almost immediately, followed by still more illicit episcopal consecrations. In 1982 Archbishop Thuc issued the so-called Munich Statement, declaring that "the See of the Catholic Church at Rome is vacant, and that it is fitting that I as a bishop do all that I can so that the Catholic Church may continue for the salvation of souls." Here we see the Enterprise’s belief that it is continuing the existence of the Catholic Church.

The bishops consecrated by Thuc have consecrated "successors," some of whom have in turn consecrated further "successors." Another line was begun by the illicit episcopal consecration in 1995 of Fr. Clarence Kelly (formerly of the Society of St. Pius X) by Alfredo José Isaac Cecilio Francesco Mendez-Gonzalez, C.S.C., retired Roman Catholic Bishop of Arecibo, Puerto Rico. Kelly has not, thus far, consecrated his "successor," although this seems inevitable.

The bishops of the Enterprise are hardly united as a body, but rather question each other’s doctrine and legitimacy, even if they share the same basic conclusions about the state of authority in the Church. For example, Bishop Kelly contests the validity of the "Thuc line" consecrations, and some Thuc line bishops contest the validity of Kelly’s consecration. At the theoretical level, Bishop Donald Sanborn (a Thuc line bishop consecrated by "Thuc line" Bishop Robert McKenna in June 2002) and his followers depart from the strict sedevacantist line — that the See of Peter has been literally empty since 1958 — and hold that the popes since Pius XII are validly elected "material" popes, but not "formal" popes due to their heresy. This argument, devised in an effort to avoid the absurd results of the sedevacantist thesis, will be discussed further below.

Society of St. Pius X is Not Sedevacantist

To be distinguished radically from the bishops of the Enterprise are the four non-sedevacantist bishops consecrated for the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1988. (The Society has argued vigorously against the sedevacantist thesis.) The Vatican recognizes all four episcopal consecrations as valid (but does not accept that they are licit), as well as the priestly ordinations performed by SSPX bishops. Further, the SSPX bishops have engaged in discussions with the Vatican on possible "regularization" of the status of the Society, notwithstanding the 1988 motu proprio of John Paul II, Ecclesia Dei Adflicta, which declared the latae sententiae (automatic) excommunication of Archbishop Lefebvre and the four bishops (but not SSPX’s priests or lay adherents) for violation of Canon 1382, which prohibits consecration of bishops without a papal mandate.

Here it must be noted that the same Code of Canon Law which imposes an automatic penalty of excommunication for consecrating a bishop without a papal mandate also exempts from Latae sententiae (automatic) penalties such as excommunication one who acts out of what he believes is necessity, even if his good faith belief in the state of necessity is mistaken. Canon 1323 4°, 7°. Since Archbishop Lefebvre professed that he acted in the good faith belief that the consecration of four traditional Catholic bishops was an urgent necessity during this unparalleled crisis in the Church — and no one is in a position to judge his state of mind on the question — it can be said in his defense that this belief exempted him from the automatic operation of the penalty, even if his belief were wrong.21 Ironically enough, the Enterprise bishops cannot appeal to the cited canon, since the Enterprise declares the 1983 Code of Canon Law to be a "heretical" product of the "false council" Vatican II, and thus void.22 Moreover, Archbishop Lefebvre’s violation of Canon 1382 was arguably merely technical, as the Vatican had assured the Archbishop that there was no objection in principle to the consecration of at least one traditionalist bishop from within the ranks of the SSPX and that a papal mandate would be granted. Not so with the bishops consecrated by the Enterprise.

In stark contrast to its view of the SSPX clerics, the Vatican refuses to recognize as valid any of the consecrations of Enterprise bishops or the priestly ordinations they have performed — a number of which took place under suspect circumstances, such as the ritual being performed in a private house without a public ceremony or the traditional co-consecrators, whose participation insures validity. In consequence, when an SSPX priest decides to "regularize" his situation by leaving SSPX, the Vatican simply finds him an assignment somewhere, whereas (reportedly) priests of the Enterprise may be "regularized" only as laymen.

The Ultimate Aberration

The expanding parallel hierarchy of the Enterprise has led to the ultimate aberration of "conclavism". According to the "conclavist" brand of sedevacantism, since the official structure of the Church has effectively ceased to exist, it falls to the sedevacantist remnant to elect a pope. Thanks to the "conclavists", there are about 20 known anti-popes throughout the world, with at least five claimants to the throne of Peter in America alone (yet another testament to America’s entrepreneurial spirit). [It should be noted that "Pope" Clemente Dominguez y Gomez (consecrated by Archbishop Thuc) was not elected by a conclave. As he tells it, God personally informed him he was Pope. Clemente who dubbed himself "Pope" Gregory XVII has also held "councils" and made "Cardinals".]23

While conclavist sedevacantism is an aberrant spin-off of the Enterprise that even the Enterprise "officially" disowns, it is the inevitable outgrowth of the Enterprise’s own logic. For if, as the Enterprise contends, the sedevacantists are the only part of the Church that recognizes the "manifest heresy" of the last four or five popes, why should this remnant of true believers not elect a pope instead of waiting indefinitely for a "miracle" to provide one?

In sum, schism is the poisoned fruit of the Enterprise. The Enterprise does not merely disseminate academic notions about the state of authority in the Church, but rather promotes grave errors with serious ecclesial consequences. The Enterprise’s members have constituted themselves the last vestige of the believing Church. Moreover, they tend to think, or declare outright, that Catholics who will not join the Enterprise have lost the Faith and that those who accept John Paul II or Benedict XVI as Pope are "going to hell". For all these reasons, and despite the patent absurdity of its conclusions, the Enterprise must be opposed for the good of the Church.

Three Lines of Sedevacantist Argument

The Enterprise follows three basic lines of argument in contending that the See of Peter has been strictly vacant since the death of Pius XII.24

(1) The primary line of argument, which we have already sketched, is that the ostensible pope in question was a heretic, either before he was elected, in which case the election was null and void, or he became such at some point after his election, in which case he fell from office due to heresy, as no heretic can be a pope; or

(2) Closely related to the primary argument is the claim that the ostensible pope in question could not have been a true Pope since he promulgated harmful universal legislation for the Church, something no true Pope could have done; or

(3) The papal election itself was invalid due to some impediment in the person of the ostensible pope or some defect in the election procedure.

As if to give their position greater strength, spokesmen for the Enterprise combine these arguments into one presentation, like a lawyer who uses "fall back" positions in a legal brief: The ostensible Pope was a heretic and thus not Pope. Or, even if we assume for the sake of argument that he was not strictly a heretic, he could not have been Pope because of his harmful legislation for the Church, which no true Pope could have enacted. Or, even if we assume that no strict heresy or harmful legislation was at issue, still the election itself was invalid due to impediment or procedural defect.

In this way the Enterprise builds concentric rings of argument around its central contention that John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, and now Benedict XVI, are not true popes. These rings of argument render "fortress sedevacantist" virtually impregnable in the minds of its defenders, since no objector can succeed to their satisfaction in breaching all three rings of defense of the central contention. For them, the central contention has become practically non-falsifiable, a veritable axiom impervious to refutation.

For those who are not committed to the Enterprise and are reasonably well-informed about the Faith, however, refutation is a simple matter. In the next part of this essay I will make a more detailed examination of the first of the Enterprise’s three basic arguments: that the See of Peter has been vacant since 1958 due to "manifest" papal "heresy."


1. The 33-day reign of John Paul I is generally included in the sedevacantist thesis, even though this poor Pope barely lived long enough to move into the papal apartments.

2. All quotations by sedevacantist spokesmen are taken verbatim from their own sources, which are in my files. The quotations will generally be without attribution, since the identities of the spokesmen are not relevant to the aim of this essay.

3. Satis Cognitum (1896), n. 12.

4. Michael Davies, "The Sedevacantists," The Angelus, February 1983, Vol. VI, No. 2.

5. A "material" heretic, unlike a formal heretic, is not aware that he is contradicting an article of Faith, but thinks his heretical belief is Catholic. See discussion below.

6. Some sedevacantist theorists, demonstrating their endless inventiveness, argue that Archbishop Lefebvre’s consecration of the four bishops in 1988 was invalid because he himself was not a bishop! They maintain that Cardinal Liénart, who consecrated Archbishop Lefebvre as a bishop, was a Mason and thus excommunicated and unable to confer an episcopal consecration. These theorists overlook the fact that there were two co-consecrators with Liénart, so that any disqualification of Liénart is irrelevant. This, indeed, is precisely why Tradition requires multiple consecrators of new bishops, even if only one consecrator is strictly necessary. Moreover, even if Liénart had been the sole consecrator, the excommunication for membership in Masonry would not have deprived him of the power to consecrate another bishop, any more than schismatic Orthodox bishops are deprived of this power. Some sedevacantists argue that Archbishop Lefebvre could not have been made a bishop because he was not a priest! He was not a priest, they conclude, because he was ordained by the same Cardinal Liénart, an alleged Mason. That Liénart may have been a Mason did not deprive him of the power of ordaining a priest. To this the sedevacantists reply with yet more unfounded speculation: Liénart, they argue, must not have had the intention to make Lefebvre a priest even if he had the power to do so, because a Mason would never wish to ordain a valid priest. Of course, one can never reason with people who endlessly invent arguments supported by nothing but speculation about hidden motives. At any rate, these sedevacantists seem unaware that when Marcel Lefebvre was consecrated a bishop by Liénart and the two co-consecrators (thus eliminating any possible invalidity), he received ordination to the priesthood even if he did not receive it before, since episcopal consecration confers the fullness of the priesthood as well as the powers of the office of bishop. (Under Church law, ordination to the diaconate and the priesthood are each to be conferred separately, but if one is immediately and directly consecrated a bishop, he is also a priest, although that procedure would be irregular.) Here the sedevacantists reveal an ignorance of sacramental theology.

7. De Romano Pontifice. II-30.

8. "The Bull of ex-communication, Exsurge Domine, was accordingly drawn up July 15. It formally condemned forty-one propositions drawn from [Luther’s] writings, ordered the destruction of the books containing the errors, and summoned Luther himself to recant within sixty days or receive the full penalty of ecclesiastical punishment." From "Martin Luther," Catholic Encyclopedia (1917). The Enterprise evidently believes it can condemn the conciliar popes as heretics without even an opportunity to recant!

9. But see the historical example of the posthumous condemnation of Pope Honorius I by a general council, discussed below.

10. First Vatican Ecumenical Council, Session IV, Dogmatic Constitution I on The Church of Christ, Chapter 4; Denzinger, 1839.

11. Not every apparent breach of orthodoxy amounts to formal heresy. The Catholic Church employs different "censures" depending on the different degrees of error against Church teaching. As explained in Father Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma: "The usual censures are the following: A Heretical Proposition (propositio haeretica). This signifies that the proposition is opposed to a formal dogma; a Proposition Proximate to Heresy (propositio heresi proxima) which signifies that the proposition is opposed to a truth which is proximate to the Faith (Sent. fidei proxima); a Proposition Savouring of or Suspect of heresy (propositio haeresim sapiens or de haeresi suspecta); an Erroneous Proposition (prop erronea), i.e., opposed to a truth which is proposed by the Church as a truth intrinsically connected with a revealed truth (error in fide ecclesiastica) or opposed to the common teaching of theologians (error theologicus); a False Proposition (prop. falsa), i.e., contradicting a dogmatic fact; a Temerarious Proposition (prop. temeraria), i.e., deviating without reason from the general teaching; a Proposition Offensive to pious ears (prop. piarum aurium offensiva), a Proposition badly expressed (prop. male sonans), i.e., subject to misunderstanding by reason of its method of expression; a Captious Proposition (prop. captiosa), i.e., reprehensible because of its intentional ambiguity; a Proposition exciting scandal (prop. scandalosa)." See Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, (Tan) p. 10.

12. As Catholic Patriarch Bidawid of Iraq told a Vatican Press Agency: "On May 14th I was received by the Pope, together with a delegation composed of the Shiite imam of Khadum mosque and the Sunni President of the council of administration of the Iraqi Islamic Bank. At the end of the audience the Pope bowed to the Muslim holy book the Koran presented to him by the delegation and he kissed it as a sign of respect. The photo of that gesture has been shown repeatedly on Iraqi television, and it demonstrates that the Pope is not only aware of the suffering of the Iraqi people, he has also great respect for Islam." (Fides news agency, Rome, 4 June 1999) Some Catholics obstinately deny that the incident occurred, while others explain it away. Photographs of the event abound. See e.g., www.garykah.org/html/Pope koran.htm

13. Eric John, The Popes: A Concise Biographical History (1964; repr., Harrison, NY: Roman Catholic Books, 1994), p. 253.

14. Ibid., p. 115.

15. Hubert Jedin, Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church: An Historical Survey, trans. Ernest Graf, O.S.B. (New York: Herder and Herder, 1960), pp. 47-48; Warren H. Carroll, A History of Christendom, vol. 2: The Building of Christendom (Front Royal, VA: Christendom College Press, 1987), pp. 252-54; "Honorius I, Pope," Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913.

16. Summa Theologica, Q. 33, Art. V, Pt. II-II.

17. St. Robert Bellarmine, De Romano Pontifice, Book II, Chapter 29.

18. The Enterprise never admits that it is declaring the deposition of the five alleged impostor popes, but insists it is merely "observing" their supposed self-deposition through "manifest" heresy. The "observation", however, is invariably accompanied by detailed explanations of the "heresy" that is supposed to be "manifest". Thus, the Enterprise is really issuing articulated private judgments of deposition, rather than merely "observing" a manifest fact. This artifice will be discussed more fully in the next part of the essay.

19. De Fide, Disp. X, Sec. VI, N. 16.

20. Nor, it must be noted, did Paul VI ever actually "legally overturn the rites of the Church based on apostolic tradition." In appearing to promulgate the New Mass, Pope Paul never legally abrogated the traditional Mass. As reported in Latin Mass magazine, Catholic Family News and The Fatima Crusader, John Paul II was advised of this fact by the commission of Cardinals he convened to consider the legal status of the traditional Mass in 1986. The commission, by a vote of 8-to-1, determined that Paul VI had never legally prohibited the traditional Mass. By a vote of 9-to-0, the commission determined that every priest was free to use the traditional Missal. The existence and votes of the commission were publicly disclosed by Cardinal Alfons Stickler, one of the nine Cardinals on the commission.

21. In fact, the 1983 Code of Canon Law is even more forgiving than this. Canon 1324 further provides:

§1 The perpetrator of a violation is not exempted from penalty, but the penalty prescribed in the law or precept must be diminished, or a penance substituted in its place, if the offense was committed by:

5° one who was compelled by grave fear, even if only relative, or by reason of necessity or grave inconvenience, if the act is intrinsically evil or tends to be harmful to souls;

8° one who erroneously, but culpably, thought that some one of the circumstances existed which are mentioned in Can. 1323, nn. 4 or 5;

§3 In the circumstances mentioned in §1, the offender is not bound by a latae sententiae penalty. Thus, Pope John Paul II’s own Code of Canon Law provides that one is not bound by a latae sententiae (automatic) penalty for a violation even if one’s belief in the state of necessity was both erroneous and culpable, and even if the violation is intrinsically evil or tends to be harmful to souls. While this provision of the Code seems lenient, it reflects a legitimate abhorrence of automatic penalties without a canonical trial. In such a case, there is no penalty until a trial or legal proceeding takes place to declare the penalty. Archbishop Lefebvre never had the benefit of either process. Thus Church law itself precludes an automatic penalty against him or the bishops he consecrated. And no penalty can be inflicted without a legal process.

22. As one Enterprise bishop put it: "The Second Vatican Council manifested itself to be a false council … the heretical nature of this council is confirmed by … the 1983 Code of Canon Law … which demonstrate[s] heresies concerning the unity of the Church …"

23. Cf., Sedevacantism: A False Solution to a Real Problem, (Angelus Press: Kansas City, MO, 2003), pp. 8-9.

24. As already noted, we will defer to a separate section of this essay discussion of the theory of "material" popes versus "formal" popes.

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