Finishing With Sedevacantism?
- ENGLISH Article by Fr. Martin Stepanich -
(Kirche zum Mitreden, 11.01.2004)
[PRHL: Written in March 2001 and published as a supplement to the St. Gertrude the Great Newsletter, this text is republished with permission from http://www.traditionalmass.org
Finishing With Sedevacantism?
A redemptorist anti-sedevacantist publication (with a Scotland address), bearing the title Catholic and professing to be affiliated with the Society of St. Pius X, published some articles under the pretentious general heading, "Finishing With Sedevacantism. "
That heading by itself already indicates that the writers have no clear idea of what sedevacantism really is in its full meaning. The only thing they seem to know is that the word sedevacantism speaks of vacancy of the Chair of Peter, but they don't pay attention to the fact that vacancy of Peter's Chair can occur in two ways: either by the death of a pope or by a pope deposing himself from that Chair through public and notorious heresy, thus making the Chair vacant. They surely must believe that the Papal Chair becomes vacant when a pope dies and, if they do, they know the original meaning of the word sedevacantism - that is, sedevacantist is the fact that the death of a pope brings about the vacancy of Peter's Chair.
Therefore, sedevacantism is a fact which the writers of the articles mentioned cannot deny, nor can they "finish with it," nor ever be done with it. They surely know that the death of popes gave rise to the Latin expression, sede vacante (literally, "the Chair being vacant") and that it was from that Latin term that our much used, and much misused, English term, sedevacantism, was eventually derived. Interestingly enough, anti-sedevacantists don't call themselves anti-sedevacantists, even though they make it clear that that's what they are, and they don't - perish the thought! - call themselves sedevacantists, even though they believe that Peter's Chair becomes vacant when a pope dies. So then, what are they? A bit of both? You figure.
There should be no problem for the writers of "Finishing With Sedevacantism" (Let's call them "Finishers," for short) in regard to the first meaning of the word sedevacantism. It bothers them so much that they completely forget the first meaning of the word sedevacantism and concentrate exclusively on the second meaning, and they thus end up giving sedevacantism only a partial meaning, not its full meaning.
To their credit, the "Finishers" do give brief attention to the possibility that Peter's Chair could become vacant because of public and notorious heresy of a pope. They know the saying of theologians, "A heretic pope is no pope." But - and this is not to their credit - they hastily get away from that idea, making the alibi that it's just "too simple" to put it that way. It could hardly be stated more, precisely than that - "A heretic pope is no pope" - yet, to them, it is "too simple."
Some anti-sedevacantists even try to get away from that central fact by quibbling about the meaning of the words "public" and "notorious." Their excuse is that it is "not clear" exactly what these words really mean, because no one in authority has ever issued an official interpretation of their meaning. So far, though, we have not heard of anyone saying that "it depends on what you mean by the is when you say that Peter's Chair is vacant."
The "Finishers" think they have found the solution of their dilemma. They first make bold to say that it is "not certain" that the present occupant of Peter's Chair is a public heretic, and this despite overwhelming evidence of his countless brazen departures from the True Faith! Since it is, therefore, "not certain" that Peter's Chair is now vacant, as they imagine, they conclude that is "safer" to hold that the Chair of Peter is still occupied by a real pope, such as he may be, and is not vacant. To try to justify that belief, they appeal to an otherwise sound theological principle, which states that "in serious matters we are obliged to 'follow the safer course'." They know, for example, that priests are obliged to "follow the safer course" whenever there is question about the validity of the Mass and Sacraments. But they try, in desperation, to stretch that "safer course" principle so as to make it apply also to their questionable idea that Peter's Chair is not now vacant.
The "Finishers" never do show just why it would be "safer" to have a public heretic sitting on the Chair of Truth, rather than see that Chair free of error. For them, it is supposedly "safer" just to have that Chair occupied, even if by a heretic, rather than letting it stand vacant.
But some anti-sedevacantists venture to give a supposedly definite reason why it is "safer" to have Peter's Chair occupied, even if by a public heretic. For them, the big word is "chaos" for the Novus Ordo Church. But, since everything is apparently still well-organized in that church, it shows that, according to them, Peter's Chair is still occupied, even if by a man who has done so much that is contrary to the Catholic Faith.
The trouble with the "chaos" argument is that its anti-sedevacantist promoters fail to distinguish between "external chaos," which upsets the external order of things, and "internal chaos," which affects the Faith of the members of the Church. The Novus Ordo Church may seem to have a deceptively well-organized setup of things, all the way from its summit and down to the lower levels where are to be found such un-Catholic oddities as "eucharistic ministers" and "ministresses", and even "altar girls."
But let us not be deceived! Where is the True Faith in the apparently well-functioning Novus Ordo Church? Is the True Faith being taught in its entirety, without change, without it being mixed with other so-called "faiths?" Why is it that so many Catholics have left the Church since Vatican II, including even priests and religious in vast numbers? If this isn't tragic "chaos," what is it? Just looking at the inside of "chaos-free" Novus Ordo churches and at their strange Novus Ordo performances means looking at sickening "chaos." And to have a heretic pope ingloriously reigning over all this is "chaos" of the worst kind.
Anti-sedevacantists have long resorted also to the "visible Church" argument against those who insist that the Chair of Peter is now vacant. It is true that Our Lord established a visible church, one that has a visible head and hierarchy and organization. But anti-sedevacantists fail to realize that the visible church which Our Lord established is a visible church with the True Catholic Faith intact. Of what use for salvation is a highly visible Novus Ordo church without the True Faith in its entirety? We can never forget how well St. Athanasius said it in the days when Arian heretics controlled so much of the visible church possessions. He said, "They have the church buildings, but we have the Faith."
The "Finishers," like other anti-sedevacantists, have problems with words like "judge" and "judgment." No one but a "future pope," so they insist, would have the right to judge whether the Chair of Peter had been vacant before his time. No one else has any business making judgments about the status of Peter's Chair nor about its occupants, so they argue.
The "Finishers" again fail to distinguish properly - in this case, to distinguish between judging lawfully and judging unlawfully. They forget that God gave those of the True Faith the ability to see when something is in accord with the Faith and when it is contrary to the Faith, just as He gave men in general the ability to form judgments about right and wrong, good and evil, and sin and virtue. With knowledge and understanding of the True Faith, we not only can recognize and judge when a pope has strayed notoriously from the True Faith, but we have the obligation to do so as well as to say so, even publicly.
The "Finishers" think they have a knockout argument against those who judge that a pope has fallen from the True Faith, and from the Chair of Peter, by citing Canon 1556 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which states with devastating finality: "Prima Sedes a nemine judicatur" - that is, "The First See is judged by no one." The "First See" of Canon 1556 is one that' is occupied by a genuine Catholic Pope, who teaches and defends the True Catholic Faith without change and who does not mix the Catholic Faith with other religions. A pope who has fallen into public heresy cannot possibly represent the "First See" of Canon 1556. Heresy and the True Faith of the "First See" cannot possibly go together.
One of the most contradictory arguments used by the "Finishers" is the weird idea, long since discredited, that we must accept and obey a pope as long as he abides by the traditional teachings of the Church, but we must refuse to obey him when he publicly goes against Catholic tradition and teaching. But the monstrous thing that the "Finishers" are there-by creating is the equivalent of a Double Pope, one who both abides by the Faith and who goes-against it. There is just no way that the Catholic Church could ever have such a Double Pope. There is no way that the Church could have an on-again and off-again pope, one who stays on Peter's Chair when he stays with the True Faith and one who vacates that Chair when he goes against the Faith.
Things get a bit comical, really ridiculous, when the "Finishers" bring in the "homemade popes," as if to make their grand finale triumphal argument against sedevacantism. They even name them - at least ten such "homemade popes" (and perhaps still counting?). And they provide pictures of most of them, too. Their point is that the "homemade popes" are all sedevacantists, and look what happens to sedevacantists! But the "Finishers" don't tell you those "popes" are wrongheaded and wrong-way sedevacantists who took things out of God's hands, and into their own hands, then proceeded to go off the deep end, where there is no Chair of Peter.
The "Finishers" could have had some fun by suggesting that the "homemade popes" arrange a "convention of homemade popes" somewhere, maybe in Florida, where they could have an honest election for "homemade pope No. 1." And since there isn't room for all of them to sit on Peter's Chair, at least not all at the same time, some big-hearted carpenter might be persuaded to build them a long enough bench for them all to sit on at the same time, and they could call it "Peter's Bench."
To bring all this anti-sedevacantist fiasco to conclusion, let us simply say that the "Finishers" succeeded only in "finishing themselves off" as reliable and reputable authorities on Sedevacantism.
Fr. Martin was ordained in 1941, and holds a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from Catholic University, Washington DC. He offers the traditional Latin Mass, and since Vatican II has carried on an extensive correspondence with Catholics throughout the United States who resist the changes. He celebrates his 60th priestly anniversary in May.