Rich: John, what is your position on sedevacantism. I have heard sedevacantists speak and have read a lot of their material. They are very intelligent people and are quite convincing. How are we to respond to their position?
J. Salza:Rich, “sedevacantists” should change their name to “capitavacantists” (empty heads) because their heads must be empty to argue that we have no pope. I don’t mean to denigrate these people, and I acknowledge that many of them are very intelligent. But I completely reject their position. They have overreacted to the crisis in the Church in a way that is Protestant, not Catholic. This is how I approach the subject.
First, it was in connection with the appointment of Peter over the Church that Christ promised the gates of hell would not prevail against her (Mt 16:18). Thus, if there is no Peter, there is no Church, and the gates of hell have prevailed. If the sedevacantists are right (that we have no pope and we don’t know where the next pope will come from), then this makes the Savior’s promise a lie and Christianity a false religion.
Second, the First Vatican Council infallibly teaches that the Church endures always because Peter has “perpetual successors.” The Council makes it clear that the Church’s perpetuity exists, not because of the office of Peter, but because of the person of Peter, for the office would mean little without the person. Anyone who denies this teaching is anathema. Again, if the Sedevacantists argue that there is no person in Peter’s office, then the Church no longer exists because her perpetuity depends upon Peter’s successors. Such a position is anathema.
Sedevacantists rebut by saying we can have a gap in papal successors because we have gaps (interregnums) in papal successors after a pope dies. But don’t you think Vatican I took this into account when it taught that there must be perpetual successors to Peter’s chair? Don’t you think the council knew about interregnums? Of course it did. The First Vatican Council has already dealt with the issue of Sedevacantism by infallibly declaring that Peter would always have perpetual successors, notwithstanding required interregnums after the death of a pope. Sedevacantists deny that the Church has perpetual successors because they claim we haven’t had a pope in 48 years and don’t know where the next pope is coming from.
No one is denying that a pope can lose his office if he becomes a formal heretic. Robert Bellarmine, a doctor of the Church, taught that a pope would lose his seat if he were to deny or doubt an article of divine and Catholic faith and obstinately persist in his belief. I am not aware of any reputable theologian who denies Bellarmine’s teaching. Note that the pope must not only deny Catholic truth, but he must also do it knowingly and pertinaciously. In other words, he must be confronted about his heretical beliefs still persist in his error. This means that the pope must be a formal (not just a material) heretic.
The issue is not whether a pope can lose his office for formal heresy; he can. The issue is how do we determine when the pope loses his office for formal heresy. How do we determine when this happens? This is the sole issue on the question of Sedevacantism.
The Sedevacantists would have us believe that this determination can be made in an unofficial, informal capacity by a .00001 percent of the Catholic population in factious, grass roots efforts made up primarily of lay people. Not only is this illogical, but no where in the Church’s 2,000 year history is there any precedent for such a position.
Instead, the Church has indicated that such a determination would have to be made in a formal, official capacity such as the invocation of an ecumenical council. This is the teaching of Sts. Anthony of Florence and Alphonsus Liguori, the latter being a doctor of the Church. In fact, this has been the practice of the Church when investigating the heresy of a pope.
For example, when Pope John XXII in 1331 taught in a series of sermons that the holy souls do not see God until the Last Judgment, Cardinal Orsini called for a general council to declare the pope a heretic. As a result, the pope stated that he had not intended to bind the Church to his teaching and retracted his error the day before he died.
Similarly, when Pope Honorius (625-638) in an informal letter approved Sergius’ formula that Christ had one will, the Third Council of Constantinople (680-681) posthumously condemned Honorius and Sergius for heresy. Pope Leo II affirmed the council’s condemnation (Honorius’ teaching was unofficial and thus did not invoke the Church’s charism of infallibility).
These two examples demonstrate that when a pope is suspected of heresy (which could cause him to lose his office), the determination of whether the pope is in fact a heretic must be done in a formal and official capacity, presumably through a general council. Moreover, even though Honorius was condemned by a pope and an ecumenical council, he was never declared to be an anti-pope! Honorious was still considered the pope!
There is nothing in the Church’s tradition that says the determination of whether a pope is in heresy can be made by the public opinion of .00001 percent of the Catholic population, made up mostly of lay people who have no formal role within the Church’s official, ecclesiastical structure. Further, even where a pope is condemned for heresy (like Honorius) by a general council, the heresy must be formal (i.e., knowingly denying an article of Catholic faith) for the pope to lose his office. Such a situation, while possible, is quite unimaginable. Even Martin Luther, the psychotic alcoholic who called the Vicar of Christ an “ass-head,” was given a chance to explain himself before the Church condemned him. Shouldn’t the Holy Father get the same due process?
Sedevacantists rebut by saying that an official determination cannot be made since all (or most of) the Cardinals and bishops are imposters. This, of course, begs the question. Who made that determination? And if that were really true, then they dig themselves an even deeper hole. Not only are there no perpetual successors to the chair of Peter, there are no cardinals available to elect a new successor! This means that there is no more Catholic Church and the gates of hell have prevailed.
We should also point out the difference between judging the pope and resisting him. In the Bull Cum Ex Apostolatus (1559), Pope Paul IV declared that the pope is “judged by none in this world,” but “may nonetheless be contradicted (resisted) if he be found to have deviated from the faith.” Thus, there is a distinction between judging or deposing a pope, and resisting a pope. The esteemed 16th century theologian Francisco Suarez even taught that a pope could be a schismatic and hence resisted, but would still retain his office as successor to Peter. Indeed, there must be an official determination of formal heresy by the Church hierarchy before a pope can be deposed and lose his office.
In short, the Sedevacantist thesis rests entirely upon the private judgment of its own adherents. Sedevacantism is, in fact, nothing more that Protestantism by professing Catholics – a hodge-podge of private opinions by splintering factions without any internal controls. This is why various branches of sedevacantism have already elected about 20 different popes throughout the world! They are sure that we don’t have a true pope, but they cannot even agree on who the real pope is!
All this, of course, puts the cart before the horse. That is because the Sedevacantists have not proven that John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II or Benedict XVI have become formal heretics (nor do they have the authority to make such a determination). In fact, they have not even proven that these popes have taught formal heresy. I will admit that a few of Pope John Paul II’s words and actions have been ambiguous at times. The popes, just like the rest of us, succumb to weakness. But this does not prove heresy. And it certainly does not prove the personal sin of formal heresy for no individual is the pope’s judge.
Moreover, none of the five popes mentioned above have bound Catholics to anything contrary to the faith. Although we are experiencing a liturgical and theological crisis in the Church, the fact is that Catholics are free to practice the faith as they always had before 1958. Sedevacantists argue that true popes would not have allowed such harm to come to the Church. Says who? God Himself warned us that the Church would house wolves in sheep’s clothing. The Church’s esteemed theologians teach that a pope can indeed cause harm to the Church, and when he does so he must be resisted. Sedevacantists should also look back to the Arian crisis when almost the entire Church – except for a handful of bishops – embraced the Arian heresy. Even the pope flirted with the heresy. But no one declared that the Church lacked a pope.
While I sympathize with their concerns, Sedevacantism is an over-reaction to the theological, liturgical and disciplinary crisis in the Church (which I heartily acknowledge exists). Just as Protestants criticize every wayward utterance of the pope to prove that the Catholic Church is false, Sedevacantists do the same thing to prove that the Catholic Church has no pope. They are both in grave error.