Some comments on "Lay" papal elections
The "election" of Fr. Lucian Pulvermacher as "pope" has confused some good Catholics. Here is a man who appeared to be basically a sound, traditional, Catholic priest, of some standing in the remnant Church, despite his obvious faults, who has taken the extraordinary step of declaring himself pope. This amazing event was subsequent to an "election" conducted by telephone, by a small number of laymen who selected themselves by the simple process of excluding those who disagreed with them in any significant particular. Not that too many were unhappy at being excluded!
This schism has now continued for a couple of years and it is producing some further confusion amongst the faithful. It seems worthwhile to present a few basic thoughts on the problem of papal elections in our disastrous times, even if they are both too elementary and too brief, at least they are something. I've done these up as answers to objections, with each objection stated, followed by the relevant answer.
Objection 1: Canon Law does not outlaw lay papal elections.
A lack of negative canonical provisions is hardly proof that something is permissible. Canon Law does not state clearly that a heretic cannot be pope, either, but divine law does. But in this matter there is something more. There are the positive canonical provisions governing papal elections. Electing a pope any other way is certainly contrary to ecclesiastical law.
Of course, I am not arguing that canon law cannot ever be set aside, for grave reasons. But the burden to justify their actions is upon those who wish to do so. The first count against all of the "elections" so far held is that the arguments in favour of them have been entirely too superficial and unconvincing.
Objection 2: The pope is the head of the Church, which retains the power to provide herself with a visible head. Therefore the members of the Church must have the power of electing a pope.
The first sentence of the objection is perfectly true. The second is erroneous by lack of precision. The question is how a valid election can and must be done. The divine law is that the election of the Roman Pontiff is, firstly, the election of the Bishop of Rome. The Bishop of Rome is automatically the Supreme Pontiff. In other words, possession of the papal supremacy is an effect, a concomitant effect, of possession of the See of Rome. And the rightful electors, by divine law, are the Roman Clergy.
Ecclesiastical law has reserved this right to the senior Roman Clergy, the Cardinals (the parochial clergy of Rome). That is, those possessing offices in the Roman diocese. A reasonable approach to our current situation would surely be to work from that point down, progressively. Certainly I think we have to show that one thing is impossible before we consider less traditional things. Now there is no difficulty in showing that an election carried out by cardinals is impossible, since the ones which claim the title are all products of the V2 church.
Objection 3: If there are no cardinals then obviously the laity must and can act.
Not so fast. It is unCatholic to do anything radical unless it is proved that less radical things are impossible. Therefore firstly we must consider less radical possibilities. For example, we might postulate that in the absence of office-holding Roman Clergy the duty and right of electing a replacement bishop devolves upon the rest of the Roman Clergy. Now at first sight we might presume that there are no longer any such, due to the fact that they have all left the Church through heresy.
But in view of the seriousness of the allegation (that Rome no longer has a single true Catholic priest remaining), and the implications for the indefectibility of the Church which that allegation has, I would think that a presumption, even one which appears on the surface to be so reasonable, is not sufficient. I would think proof would be required. And for anyone who has been to Rome (or any large, European city), the difficulty is compounded by the fact that Rome is a labyrinth.
Personally, the idea that various retired priests are living in obscurity in some corner of Rome or other, having remained Catholic, is hardly difficult. Rome has countless suburbs, filled with massive high-rise flats, not to mention almost 1000 churches, most of which had clergy attached to them in the past.
Objection 4: But in the absence of proof that there are such priests, surely then we can say that there are none, and proceed to other possibilities, such as lay elections?
Not at all, because there are the Roman priests who have left the Church by heresy and/or schism, who may yet recover their membership in the Mystical Body by public repentance. I have yet to see a convincing argument which proves that a priest who has lapsed into public heresy, and subsequently publicly repented, is not a member of his diocese. He may not be able to reclaim any offices he might previously have held, but does that mean he is no longer incardinated in the diocese of Rome? That seems to be an extraordinary claim.
It appears that in fact there is nothing to say that a number of former clergymen may not at some point wake up to their errors, repent, and then act to repair the situation. Certainly grace can do anything, and will, if only we pray and sacrifice sufficiently.
Objection 5: What if it can be proved that all of the above solutions are in fact impossible?
If no election by the clergy of Rome is any longer possible, then other possibilities may be considered. One possibility, countenanced by numerous canonists and theologians, is an election by an extraordinary general council (an "imperfect general council" - so called because it would lack the pope's sanction, required for any council to be truly ecumenical). Evidently it remains to be shown whether there are any bishops who retain their offices in the Catholic Church, and who could meet in such a council. To deny that there are any such bishops is implicitly to deny a dogma of the faith - that Holy Church will continue essentially unchanged until the end of time. And her constitution includes the office of bishop as an essential element. Certainly we know she has never been without any bishops at all prior to this era.
Objection 6: What if it can be shown that there are no bishops?
The election of bishops is reserved to the clergy by right. This would appear to be divine law, however that is not certain, other possibilities would then be considered. But there remains the traditional clergy to consider. One would think that before proceeding to such a doubtful, and therefore hazardous, solution, as a lay election, an election by a council of junior clergy, the traditional priests, could be considered. Even this presents serious problems. These men appear unable, for the greater part, to claim the positive sanction of Holy Church. A great deal of research would be needed before such a solution could produce a clear and secure designation of a pope.
Objection 7: Why not simply avoid the difficulties engendered by the status of the traditional clergy, and consider a lay election instead? Perhaps it will prove more reasonable and safe?
A lay election is unheard of in Church history. It is true that on occasion laymen have participated in episcopal elections, even papal elections, but always the clergy also sanctioned the result. Clearly then, these occasions prove nothing - it is entirely possible that the laymen added nothing to the validity of such elections. What would be needed would an example of an election in which the clergy did not participate, and it is not too much to claim that there has never been such an election in the Catholic Church.
Suffice to say that lay elections must be shown to be both licit and necessary. These are two completely separate points, to be proven separately. And the home-election pamphleteers haven't yet done the work required to prove that thesis, in my humble opinion.
Objection 8: If any extraordinary solution were adopted, how would Catholics be sure of its validity?
I think it follows from the loving providence of the Almighty that He would want simple Catholics to be able to identify the Roman Pontiff with some security. So that any extraordinary election must surely be accompanied by some sort of unmistakable signs from heaven, not to give it validity, but to ensure that good men could be certain about so essential a matter as who their pope was.
None of the "elections" so far conducted have resulted in anything like a public and benevolent sign from Heaven. Instead each of them has tumbled from scandal to scandal, not to mention absurdities of the first order. Fr. Pulvermacher, for example, has gained "episcopal orders" by the interesting expedient of simply declaring a man a bishop, by his own "papal" authority, and then having that newly-created "bishop" consecrate him a "bishop" in turn. One would not have believed anything so infantile could be attempted if it hadn't been actually done.
July 17, 2000
St. Alexius, Confessor