A Refutation of the Heresy of Sedevacantism

Written by I. Shawn McElhinney

The Visibility of the Church is directly linked to the Roman Pontiff. 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. [Brother Andre Marie M.I.C.M]
While this author has more than a few problems with the flawed theology of Saint Benedict's Center, the above statement by the SBC's Brother Andre Marie is on the money. The necessity of the Roman pontiff was noted by Vatican II in the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium which declared that:
The Roman Pontiff, as the successor of Peter, is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful.(30) [1]
Footnote 30 of the Dogmatic Constitution notes that this teaching was a reaffirmation of an earlier teaching from Vatican I:
30. Cfr. Conc. Vat. I, Const. Dogm. Pastor aeternus: Denz. 1821 (3050 s.) [2]
Therefore, both Vatican Councils taught the perminence and the source of unity of the Church and its visible foundation depended on the perpetual existence of the Roman Pontiff. Now it is true that the majority of self-styled 'traditionalists' take the position that there is a valid pope today in Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) regardless of what they personally think about him. However, not all 'traditionalists' take this stance. A more consistent strand of 'traditionalists' styling themselves as "sedevacantists" hold a minority position in the movement but one that is nonetheless necessary to address since this is the logical outgrowth of 'traditionalist' philosophy. (Much as agnosticism is the natural outgrowth of religious skepticism in general.) Therefore, this essay will be devoted to refuting the heresy of sedevacantism.

To address the sedevacantists claim (that the See of Peter is vacant), we will start by reflecting upon what Our Lord did in his time when amongst the wicked leaders of Israel. This is not a claim that the popes since John XXIII have been wicked of course. But let us grant the sedevacantist their premise briefly to therefore refute their foolishness. Let us look at how Our Lord handled Himself in the days of the Pharisees. Now Our Lord theologically was of the Pharisaic movement himself - being of the more conservative school of Hillel. (As was the Apostle Paul.) When speaking of the authority of the Scribes and the Pharisees shortly before issuing scathing rebukes against them, consider how He approach the authority that they claimed to wield. According to the Douay-Rheims Bible, He commanded obedience to the Scribes and Pharisees when they are seated on Moses' Seat (Matt. 23:1-3). Since he castigated them for personal failing and for following their own traditions in numerous places of the New Testament (see Matt. 15:1-9; Mark 7:1-13), it is strange that He did not claim that through their errors that they had "forfeited" their positions of authority to teach. But maybe the sedevacantists do not use a translation mirroring the Douay-Rheims Bible. Perhaps in the "Holy Bible: Revised Sedevacantist Version" Jesus addressed the problem in the following manner:

Matthew 23
1 Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, 2 Saying The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: 3 All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; unless you think they are teaching erroneously upon which ye may depose them for their seat is thus vacanted. 4 (Upon such a vacancy you must adhere to the teachings of the Pharisees of "the Eternal Sanhedren" which you should have no problem determining for yourselves even if your level of theological knowledge be no more than that of a small child's.) [3]
Yes the actions of Our Lord at the time must have been endorsing a deposing of the High Priest and declaring the Seat of Moses vacant. There is a lesson here that needs to be taken into account and it is this: if Jesus did not usurp the lawful authority of the very high priest who had Him put to death (Matt. 26:57-64), if He counselled the Jews to obey the teaching of the Scribes and the Pharisees, then the reader needs to ask how these sedevacantists get off thinking that they can disobey Church authority and be in like with the teachings of Christ. How can they "hear the Church" or "if they refuse to heed the Church be treated as the heathen and the publican" if the individual can decide when and under what conditions they will be faithful??? The answer is they cannot but instead the same error of private judgment that so ensnared the Jansenists and the Protestants - and even the majority of self-styled 'traditionalists' - is magnified in the case of the sedevacantist. And it is magnified to the point that what is a defacto heresy for others constitutes actual heresy objectively speaking for the sedevacantist. Let us start from Chapter I in the Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus which to the knowledge of this author is from a Council that even the sedevacantists recognize as a valid Ecumenical synod.

In Pastor Aeternus, the First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ promulgated at Vatican I, we are taught about the indefectibility and perpetual visibility of the Catholic Church. These two principles are intertwined in a Dogmatic Constitution of a General Council for a reason. Note carefully the context please:

Session 4: 18 July 1870 First dogmatic constitution on the church of Christ
Pius, bishop, servant of the servants of God, with the approval of the sacred council, for an everlasting record.
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. [4]
The perpetual principle of the Roman Pontiff is tied into the visible foundation of the Church. Likewise the canon following the first chapter which solemnly reaffirms the following:
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. [5]
Chapter I and its accompanying canon declare 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 - an indefectibility that sedevacantism denies by logical extension. 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 which is denied by sedevacantist theology. Therefore, they are by this reason heretics unless they cease being contumacious in their denial of the above doctrine both de facto as well as de jure. But that would mean ceasing to be a sedevacantist of course.

Chapter II of Pastor Aeternus is about the perpetual primacy and succession of the See of Peter. Here is the text of additional points fatal to the sedevacantist position:

That which our Lord Jesus Christ, the prince of shepherds and great shepherd of the sheep, established in the Blessed Apostle Peter, for the continual salvation and permanent benefit of the Church, must of necessity remain for ever, by Christ's authority, in the church which, founded as it is upon a rock, will stand firm until the end of time {See Mt 7, 25; Lk 6, 48}.

For no one can be in doubt, indeed it was known in every age that the holy and most blessed Peter, prince and head of the apostles, the pillar of faith and the foundation of the catholic church, received the keys of the kingdom from our lord Jesus Christ, the saviour and redeemer of the human race, and that to this day and for ever he lives and presides and exercises judgment in his successors the bishops of the holy Roman see, which he founded and consecrated with his blood {From the speech of Philip, the Roman legate, at the 3rd session of the council of Ephesus (D no. 112)}.

Therefore whoever succeeds to the chair of Peter obtains by the institution of Christ himself, the primacy of Peter over the whole church. So what the truth has ordained stands firm, and blessed Peter perseveres in the rock-like strength he was granted, and does not abandon that guidance of the church which he once received {Leo 1, Serm. (Sermons), 3 (elsewhere 2), ch. 3 (PL 54, 146)}.

For this reason it has always been necessary for every church--that is to say the faithful throughout the world--to be in agreement with the Roman church because of its more effective leadership. In consequence of being joined, as members to head, with that see, from which the rights of sacred communion flow to all, they will grow together into the structure of a single body {Irenaeus, Adv. haeres. (Against Heresies) 1113 (PG 7, 849), Council of Aquilea (381), to be found among: Ambrose, Epistolae (Letters), 11 (PL 16, 946)}.

Therefore, if anyone says that it is not by the institution of Christ the Lord himself (that is to say, by divine law) that Blessed Peter should have perpetual successors in the primacy over the whole Church; or that the Roman pontiff is not the successor of blessed Peter in this primacy: let him be anathema. [6]

To culpably deny this solemn recapitulation of Chapter II of the Dogmatic Constitution is to espouse formal heresy. Vatican I said so; ergo, the sedevacantist must either repudiate Vatican I or selectively choose which parts they will accept. Either choice sets them outside the Catholic Church since the visibility of the Catholic Church is tied to the visible foundation of the Roman Pontiff. Sedevacantists deny this explicitly in claiming that the Papacy has, de facto disappeared for 25 years, 45 years, or whatever arbitrary period they choose. Therefore, to be a sedevacantist is to renounce the Catholic faith. Quid pro quo.

There have been four elections to the Chair of Peter since 1958 which have been accepted both by the Catholic Church as well as the world at large. Sedevacantists declare them to be invalid elections. This author asks them then to point out who has held the papal chair since 1958 if not for Roncalli, Montini, Luciano, and Wojtyla. To be a Catholic one must affirm the permanence of the primacy of the Roman pontiff: a prerogative impossible to do under the sedevacantist theology. Since the sedevacantist seems to consider themselves and their allies as competent judges of what is and is not orthodox we must ask them this question: who has the responsibility of saying that the pope's election was doubtful??? As there has been no answer definitively set forth by the Church, no one is obligated to believe that an election is invalid simply because a little sliver of theologically inept dissidents feel as if somehow they have been vested with supreme theological acuity to see what the Magisterium of the Church supposedly does not see. The reality is, the only way that Vatican II or the post Pius XII popes can be shown to have "erred" is a process that Protestant apologists use consistently with popes and Councils of the pre-Pius XII period.

It is just as easy to prove that Constance "contradicted" Vatican I or that Trent "contradicted Florence" as it is to prove that Vatican II contradicted any doctrine of previous popes. Anyone can prooftext. Yet proof-texting without taking into account the sitz im leben of a document is to play the role of a self-anointed Protestant pope. And self-styled 'traditionalists' practice the very private judgment that Fr. Luther used at the Diet of Worms and that the Jansenists used in opposing themselves to the "Humanist influenced" Council of Trent. Yes, just as Vatican II has been labeled by so-called 'traditionalists' as "Modernist-influenced", so too was Trent labeled as "Humanist-influenced" by the Jansenists. They were the originators of the idea that they could determine when the Pope was infallible and (if they declared he was not), they sought to justify ignoring his authority and decrees. A sedevacantist is no less a heretic than Calvin and company if they stubbornly persist in promulgating the sedevacantist lie in the face of at least 2 solemn de fide declarations of the Church.

The sedevacantist may claim that the four popes elected since Pius XII were (and are) invalid because the person elected was not a legitimate candidate for the office. (The lie about Pope John XXIII being a freemason comes to mind.) But for argument's sake, let us concede the argument that Papa John was a freemason. First of all, by the very Apostolic Constitition Vacante Sede Apostolis issued by Pope Pius XII in 1945 it was made quite clear that even freemasons would be eligible for election not only to the College of Cardinals but also in the conclave they could be validly elected as pope:

None of the Cardinals may in any way, or by pretext or reason of any excommunication, suspension, or interdict whatsoever, or of any other ecclesiastical impediment, be excluded from the active and passive election of the Supreme Pontiff. We hereby suspend such censures solely for the purposes of the said election; at other times they are to remain in vigor. [7]

"Active" in this context would seem to mean that such a Cardinal can vote in the election, while "passive" would seem to mean that he himself can be elected. This type of provision has been substantially the same in all papal conclave legislation for the past few centuries. And by all accounts it would be unavoidable that the governing Constitution of the 1958 Conclave - even if Papa John was a freemason - would have allowed him to be a validly elected pope. And in such a circumstance, he would have full authority and jurisdiction as any other pope. He would not govern licitly of course; however he would govern validly. And as a validly elected pope, he would have the authority not only in disciplinary and governmental faculties (such as the appointing of Cardinals such as Archbishop Giovanni Battista Montini of Milan) but ratifying as binding magisterial teaching on the Church. With regards to Pope John XXIII it is not as much him that the sedevacantists seek to deny but the binding authority of the constitutions, declarations, and decrees of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. (Solemnly promulgated by John XXIII's successor Pope Paul VI.) This is what sedevacantists seek to deny with their claims of a "vacant seat" in Rome. If they spent more time taking a fully orbed understanding of the Catholic faith (and not limiting themselves to the overly-juridical Western Aristotelian tradition common to the second millennium) they might see the Eastern mysticism that permeated many parts of Vatican II. (This is most notably in the Dogmatic Constitutions Lumen Gentium/Dei Verbum, and the Constitutions Sacrosanctum Concilium/Gaudium et Spes.) This writer has covered elsewhere the amateur manner in which self-styled 'traditionalists' read and properly comprehend magisterial documents. The logical extension of the dogmas on perpetual primacy of the Apostolic See were outlined in the following manner by Dr. Ludwig Ott in his theology manual Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma:

That the Primacy is to be perpetuated in the successors of Peter is, indeed, not expressly stated in the words of the promise and conferring of the Primacy by Our Lord, but if flows as an inference from the nature and purpose of the primacy itself. As the function of the Primacy is to preserve the unity and solidarity of the Church; and as the Church, according to the will of her Divine Founder, is to continue substantially unchanged until the end of time for the perpetuation of the work of salvation, the Primacy also must be perpetuated. But Peter, like every other human being, was subject to death (John 21, 19), consequently his office must be transmitted to others. The structure of the Church cannot continue without the foundation which supports it (Mt. 16, 18): Christ's flock cannot exist without shepherds (John 21, 15-17). [8]

It is impossible to embrace sedevacantism and not to be a heretic. Peter has perpetual successors in his primacy for all time according to Vatican I. Where are they??? If Roncalli, Montini, Luciano, and Wojtyla are not the valid successors than the sedevacantist has just conceded that Christ Jesus was a liar and that Vatican I erred. The Fathers and Scholastics and post-Scholastics would have condemned as heretical or at least savouring of heresy someone who dared to controvert the decrees of a General Council as self-styled 'traditionalists' so often do.

Even the earliest of Fathers in the era of the General Councils declared that controverting a General Council was a crime (the very word used by St. Athanasius the Great). Thus, though Vatican II stands controverted by the self-styled 'traditionalist' who rejects its teachings, due to the lack of promulgated dogmas of faith, a charge of heresy cannot be levied for this except indirectly. (Since denying the authority of the Second Vatican Council is to reject the indefectibility of the universal church.) Thus while rejecting Vatican II can be at most schismatic and proximate to heresy, denying the dogmas outlined above which were taught by the First Vatican Council is perfect grounds for a censure of heresy. That is really all that is needed to refute sedevacantism as a viable alternative. For as (i) Vatican I defined as divinely revealed not only the universal jurisdiction of the Roman pontiff (ii)  his perpetual necessity by Divine design, there is no ground left that is solid for the sedevacantist to stand on. So (iii) there is no need to entertain this sedevacantist heretical foolishness any longer.

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)

[1] Vatican II: Dogmatic Constitution "Lumen Gentium" §23 (November 21, 1964)

[2] Vatican II: Dogmatic Constitution "Lumen Gentium" §23, footnote 30 (November 21, 1964)

[3] Matthew 23:1-4 (Revised Sedevacantist Version). Credit for the concept goes to Gary Hoge who developed this theme into a "Holy Bible: Revised Protestant Version" parody back in 1999.

[4] Vatican I: Dogmatic Constitution "Pastor Aeternus" §1 (July 18, 1870)
[5] Vatican I: Dogmatic Constitution "Pastor Aeternus" §1 (July 18, 1870)

[6] Vatican I: Dogmatic Constitution "Pastor Aeternus" §2 (July 18, 1870)

[7] Pope Pius XII: Apostolic Constitution "Vacante Sede Apostolis" §34  (December 8, 1945)

[8] Dr. Ludwig Ott: "Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma" pg. 282 (c. 1960)

Additional Notes:

The citations from the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution "Lumen Gentium" were obtained at the following link: http://www.rc.net/rcchurch/vatican2/lumen.gen

The citations from the First Vatican Council were obtained at the following link:  http://www.ewtn.com/library/COUNCILS/V1.HTM

The author originally read Pope Pius XII's Apostolic Constitution "Vacante Sede Apostolis" online back in early 2000 but has since been unable to find it again. The citation from that work referenced in this section was therefore obtained at the following link: http://www.rtforum.org/lt/lt87.html

The citation from Dr. Ludwig Ott was taken from his theology manual "Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma", Tan Books Fourth Edition (c. 1960)

With only the most minor of alterations, this essay is identical to the section titled A Refutation of Sedevacantism from the author's treatise A Prescription Against 'Traditionalism'  which is available for reading in its entirety here.

©2003, 2001 "A Refutation of the Heresy of Sedevacantism", written by I. Shawn McElhinney. This text may bedownloaded or printed out for private reading, but it may not be uploaded to another Internet site or published,electronically or otherwise, without express written permission from the author.

To all visitors Grace of Christ to you!

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