Little Catechism on Sedevacantism – PART 2


By Dominicus

Le Sel de la Terre No 79, Winter 2011-2012

The Cassiciacum Thesis

Can you explain what is meant by being pope “materialiter”?

The main difficulty of sedevacantism is to explain how the Church can continue to exist in a visible manner (for she has received from Our Lord the promise that she will endure until the end of the world) while being deprived of her head.

The partisans of the so-called “Cassiciacum Thesis” have come up with a subtle solution: the current pope was validly designated as pope, but he did not receive the papal authority because there was an obstacle in him (heresy).  He is pope materialiter, but not formaliter.

Can you detail the arguments of this “thesis”?

Here are the arguments as summarized by a priest who professes them:

  • The starting point is an induction: the acts of Paul VI (because it was he at that time who was reigning in Rome) contribute to the destruction of the Catholic religion and its replacement by the religion of man in the form of concealed Protestantism. From this comes the certitude that Paul VI does not have the usual intention of obtaining the good / end of the Church, which is Jesus Christ plenum gratiæ et veritatis.
  • The usual intention of obtaining the good of the Church is a necessary condition (the ultimate disposition) for a subject elected pope to receive the communication of pontifical authority which makes him to be with Jesus Christ and hold the role of His Vicar on earth.
  • Consequently, Paul VI is devoid of all pontifical authority: he is not pope formaliter; he is not Vicar of Christ. In a word, he is not pope 1.
  • This necessitates the affirmation that if Paul VI is not pope formaliter, he yet remains pope materialiter, as a simple elected subject, seated on the Pontifical Seat, neither pope nor anti-pope.

Does this solution resolve the difficulties of “pure” sedevacantism?

It does not resolve the main difficulty of sedevacantism: how can the Church continue to be visible?  For some proponents of “the thesis”, there is no longer any hierarchy at all (“the nominations of cardinals and bishops are acts of pontifical jurisdiction, which is precisely absent and which nothing can replace”).  For others, the pope materialiter has power (how?) to constitute a hierarchy materialiter.  But such a hierarchy, devoid of its “form,” is not the visible hierarchy of the Church (no more than the Orthodox hierarchy is the hierarchy of the Church).  Moreover, this theory sets off new difficulties – at least for those who say that the pope materialiter has the power to constitute a hierarchy materialiter – because it implies that the pope materialiter, devoid of authority, still has enough authority to change the laws on papal election.

What do you think of the arguments upon which this solution is based?

This solution is not founded on Tradition. Theologians (Cajetan, St. Robert Bellarmine, John of St. Thomas, etc.) examined the possibility of a heretical pope, but no one, prior to the Council, ever imagined this theory of “the absence of the usual intention to obtain the good of the Church” that would form an “obex” (obstacle) to receiving the “being-with-Christ,” the form of the papacy.

It plays on the ambiguity of the word “intention”.  Proponents of the thesis recognize that the intention must be in the person of the pope (“this intention is the ultimate disposition of the subject to receive communication of the pontifical authority”), but at the same time they affirm that it has nothing to do with the personal intention of the pope.  We can agree with them when they say that recent popes harm the common good of the Church – and that is precisely what created the state of necessity – but it remains to be proven that such is truly the personal intention of the popes, and then that such an intention deprives them of authority.

The “Una Cum” Question

Aren’t the sedevacantists right to refuse to name the pope at Mass in order to show that they are not in communion with (“una cum”) a heretic (at least materially) and his heresies?

The expression “una cum” in the Canon of the Mass does not mean that one affirms that he is “in communion” with the person of the pope and his erroneous ideas, but rather that one wants to pray for the Church “and for” the pope.

In order to be sure of this interpretation, in addition to reading the erudite studies that have been made on this point, it is enough to read the rubric of the missal for the case of a bishop celebrating Mass. In this case, the bishop must pray for the Church “una cum […] me indigno servo tuo,” which does not mean that he prays “in communion with myself, your unworthy servant” (which does not make sense!), but that he prays “and for myself, your unworthy servant.”

What does St. Thomas Aquinas think of this?

St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica, when he comments on the prayers of the Mass (III, Q. 83, A. 4, corpus) equates “una cum” with the expression “et pro”: then the priest commemorates in silence [it is the beginning of the Canon] first those for whom the sacrifice is offered, that is [it is offered] for the Universal Church, and for “those who constitute it in dignity” [the pope, the bishop, the king]; then particular some who offer or for whom this sacrifice is offered [the memento of the living].

But doesn’t St. Thomas Aquinas say that in the Canon one should not pray for heretics?

St. Thomas Aquinas does not prohibit praying for heretics, but merely observes that, in the prayers of the Canon of the Mass, one prays for those whose faith and devotion are known to and tested by the Lord (quorum tibi fides cognita est et nota devotio) (III, Q. 79, A. 7, ad 2). For, he says, in order for this sacrifice to obtain its effect (effectum habet), those for whom one prays must be “united to the passion of Christ by faith and charity.”  But he does not forbid praying for a non-Catholic.  He only means that this prayer will not have the same efficacy as one for a Catholic, and is not provided for in the Canon.

All that can be concluded from this affirmation of St. Thomas is that, if the pope is a heretic (which remains to be proven), then the prayer for him will not have the foreseen effect, “non habet effectum”.


What final reflection can be taken from these discussions?

It is not suitable to declare that “the Pope is not pope” (materially or formally) in the name of a “theological opinion”.  On this subject, we refer to an interesting article by Fr. Hurtaud that appeared in the Revue Thomiste.  The author shows that Savonarole thought that Alexander VI had been elected with simony and, for this reason, he was not pope. However, as the invalidity of a “simonous” election was only an opinion, Savonarole asked for the convocation of a council where he brought proof that Alexander VI no longer had the Catholic Faith, and it is in this way that it was certified that Alexander VI had lost supreme jurisdiction.

In conclusion, what should we think of sedevacantism?

It is a position that has not been proven speculatively, and it is imprudent to hold it practically (imprudence that can have very serious consequences – think, notably, of people who deprive themselves of the sacraments on the pretext that they cannot find a priest who has the same “opinion” as they do). That is why Archbishop Lefebvre never entered onto this path, and he even forbade the priests of his Society to profess sedevacantism.  We should trust in his prudence and theological sense.

Translated from the original French article (online: by

  1. His acts are therefore devoid of all authority, magisterial as well as canonical; as a result, it can be seen how it is not impossible that the acts of Paul VI are contrary to the Catholic Faith and incompatible with pontifical authority, and that to affirm it is not on any way denying the prerogatives of a pope, in particular his infallibility and his universal and immediate jurisdiction. – However, this proof says nothing about the person of Paul VI, because the intention that is denied him is not his personal intention (finis operantis, which remains out of the picture) but the objective intention that is usually imminent to his actions (finis operis). It therefore does not allow it to be affirmed that Paul VI is personally outside the Catholic Church for reason of a sin of heresy or schism (note from the defender of the “thesis”).