Little Catechism on Sedevacantism  –  PART I

By Dominicus

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

A first edition of this little catechism appeared in Le Sel de la terre 36.  This second edition, revised and noticeably enhanced, takes into account the debates and objections raised by the first edition.

Introduction: between Scylla and Charybdis

In the strait of Messina, between Sicily and Italy, there are two formidable reefs: Scylla and Charybdis. It is important, when crossing, to avoid both reefs. Many imprudent or unskilled navigators, wanting to avoid one, were shipwrecked on the other: they fell from Scylla to Charybdis.

Currently, facing the crisis in the Church, there are two errors to avoid: modernism (which, little by little, makes us lose the faith) and sedevacantism (which leans toward schism). If we want to remain Catholic, we must pass between heresy and schism, between Scylla and Charybdis.

In this “Short Catechism”, we study one of the two reefs. But the other must not be forgotten. Under pretext of avoiding the dangers of sedevacantism, the dangers of modernism disseminated by the conciliar Church must not be minimized.

The Position of Archbishop Lefebvre

The position that we are going to put forward is that of Archbishop Lefebvre and that which, at Avrillé, we have always defended.  Here is a short summary:

1)  Abp. Lefebvre publicly asked himself the question:

      • “We find ourselves truly before an excessively grave dilemma that, I think, has never arisen in the Church. That he who is seated on the Throne of Peter participates in religions of false gods, I do not think that this has ever occurred in the entire history of the Church (Easter 1986).  If someone says that the pope is an apostate, a heretic, a schismatic, according to the probable opinion of the theologians (if it were true), the pope would no longer be pope and, consequently, we would be in the “Sede Vacante” situation. It is an opinion; I do not say that it cannot have some arguments in its favor” (18-3-1977).
      • “It is not impossible that this hypothesis will one day be confirmed by the Church, for it has some serious arguments. Many indeed are the acts of Paul VI that, accomplished by a bishop or a theologian twenty years ago, would have been condemned as suspect of heresy, favoring heresy” (24-2-1977).

2) However, after reflection, he preferred the opposite solution:

      • “But I do not think that it is the solution that we should take, that we should follow. For the moment, I personally think that it would be a mistake to follow this hypothesis” (18-3-1977).
      • “But this does not mean, for all that, that I am absolutely sure to be correct in the position that I take; I am placing myself there in a prudential manner. It is rather under this area that I place myself, more than under the theological domain, purely theoretical. I think that God asks us to have clear ideas not only from a purely theoretical and theological viewpoint, but also in practice, when things are very difficult and delicate, and to act with a certain wisdom, a certain prudence that can seem a bit in contradiction with certain principles, not to be of pure logic” (5-10-1978).
      • “As long as I do not have the proof that the pope is not the pope, well, I presume that he is, that he is pope. I do not say that there cannot be arguments that can put one in doubt in certain cases. But one must have the proof that it is not only a doubt, a valid doubt. If the argument is doubtful, we do not have the right to take enormous consequences away from it!” (16-1-1979).
      • “The Priestly Society does not accept [this] solution, but, based on the history of the Church and the doctrine of the theologians, thinks that the pope can promote the ruin of the Church by choosing bad collaborators and letting them act, signing decrees that do not use his infallibility, sometimes even by his own admission, and that cause considerable damage to the Church. Nothing is more dangerous for the Church than liberal popes, who are in continual contradiction” (13-9-1982).
      • “In practice, this does not have influence on our practical conduct, because we firmly and courageously reject all that is against the faith, without knowing from whence it comes, without knowing who is guilty” (5-10-1978).

Questions and Answers

What are we talking about?

What is sedevacantism?

Sedevacantism is the opinion of those who think that the most recent popes, since Second Vatican Council, are not true popes. Consequently, the See of Peter is not occupied, which is expressed in Latin by the formula sede vacante.

Where does this opinion come from?

This opinion was caused by the very grave crisis which has been occurring in the Church since the last Council, a crisis that Archbishop Lefebvre justly called “the third world war.”

The main cause of the crisis has been the dereliction of the Roman Pontiffs, who teach or allow to be propagated very serious errors on the subjects of ecumenism, religious liberty, collegiality, etc.

The sedevacantists think that real popes could not be responsible for such a crisis, and consequently they consider them not to be “real popes”.

Could you briefly explain what the crisis in the Church consists of?

I will do this by quoting Fr. Gleize:

    • “That which speaks the most is all the speeches published in the Osservatore Romano that constantly reaffirm the principle of religious liberty, state secularism and ecumenism, a principle that is in formal contradiction with the constant and unanimous teaching of the pontifical magisterium from before Vatican II. […]
    • “In the past, it was possible that some popes were not equal to their mission. They could fail to keep, at one time or another, their pastoral role, putting in more or less serious, more or less direct danger the unity of the faith in the Holy Church. But this attitude explains itself for essentially moral reasons. None of these popes were attached to error by intellectual conviction. They all fell short without a fundamentally intellectual adherence to error, and this came sometimes from a lack of courage in the middle of persecution, such as with Liberius, sometimes from a certain naiveté and an excess of mediation, as with Honorius and Vigilius, sometimes even from a sort of theological intemperance as with John XXII. The most serious attitude of all, that of Pope Honorius, warranted the favens hæresim  [editor:  “favoring heresy”]  censure. It did not cause this pope to be condemned as a formal heretic […]
    • “But in view of these isolated cases, the consistent attitude of all the popes since the Second Vatican Council has an entirely different appearance. The daily preaching of these sovereign pontiffs is constantly spotted with false principles of religious liberty, ecumenism and collegiality. These are grave errors, and they are the consequence of this “heresy of the 20th century,” to use the expression of Madiran, the heresy of neo-modernism. Constant and repeated errors, from John XXIII and Paul VI to Benedict XVI, errors that are not the consequence of passing weakness or naiveté, but, on the contrary, are the expression of a fundamental adherence of the intelligence, the affirmation of an informed conviction. This is why such a situation is really and truly without precedent.” – cf. Fr. Gleize, Vu de Haut 14 (2008), p.95-96.

Do the sedevacantists agree amongst themselves?

No, far from it. To use the terms of a sedevacantist: the “sedevacantists” are scattered along at least six dividing lines.


1 Total vacancy

as opposed to

formal vacancy and material permanence (“Cassiciacum Thesis”)
2 Acceptance of consecrations without apostolic mandate

as opposed to

refusal of these consecrations
3 Rejection out of the Church of all those who are not sedevacantists

as opposed to

refusal of such a rejection
4 Ecclesiastical laws keep their imperative force

as opposed to

the laws are stripped of executory force
5 Acceptance of the principle of a conclave outside of the Roman line

as opposed to

refusal of such a possibility


And one more cause of division among them is the question of just how long has the vacancy of authority lasted  (i.e. when did it begin)?

6 since the death of Pius XII since Pacem in Terris   [ Editor:  an encyclical by John XXIII (April 11, 1963) ] since the death of John XXIII since the proclamation of religious liberty (December 7, 1965) [and our sedevacantist forgot yet one more theory: since the replacement of Paul VI by a double]

This gives us, unless I am mistaken, 160 possibilities.

But that which is common among all sedevacantists is that they think that one must not pray for the pope in public.

Sedevacantist Arguments

On what arguments do sedevacantists base their theories?

They have a priori arguments and a posteriori arguments.   [Editor:  An a priori argument is (roughly speaking) an argument from the causes.   An a posteriori argument is (roughly) an argument by examining effects, and looking backwards.]

A priori, they say, the pope being a heretic, he cannot be a true pope, which can be proven in a theological manner (a heretic cannot be the head of the Church, but John Paul II is a heretic, therefore…) or in a legal manner (Church laws invalidate the election of a heretic, but Cardinal Wojtyla – or Ratzinger – was a heretic at the time of his election, therefore…).

A priori, they say again, the current “pope” was consecrated bishop with the new episcopal consecration rite invented by Paul VI, so he is not a bishop. But to be Pope, one must be Bishop of Rome. Therefore…

A posteriori, they say finally, we note that the actions taken by the popes are bad or erroneous, while they should be covered by infallibility.  Therefore, these popes are not really popes.

* The Theological Argument of the heresy of the Pope :

But isn’t it true that a pope who becomes a heretic loses the pontificate?

St. Robert Bellarmine says that a pope who formally and manifestly became a heretic would lose the pontificate. For that to apply to John Paul II, he would have to be a formal heretic, deliberately refusing the Church’s magisterium; and this formal heresy would have to be manifest in the eyes of all. But though the popes since Paul VI, and especially John Paul II, make heretical affirmations or statements that lead to heresy rather often, it cannot easily be shown that they are aware of rejecting a dogma of the Church. And as long as there is no sure proof, then it is more prudent to refrain from judging. This was Archbishop Lefebvre’s line of conduct.

If a Catholic were convinced that John Paul II (or another Pope after Vatican II) is a formal, manifest heretic, should he then conclude that he is no longer pope?

No, he should not, because according to the “common” opinion (Suarez), or even the “more common” opinion (Billuart), theologians think that even a heretical pope can continue to exercise the papacy. For him to lose his jurisdiction, the Catholic bishops (the only judges in matters of faith besides the pope, by Divine will) would have to make a declaration denouncing the pope’s heresy.

“According to the more common opinion, Christ, by a particular providence, for the common good and the tranquility of the Church, continues to give jurisdiction to an even manifestly heretical pontiff until such time as he should be declared a manifest heretic by the Church” (Billuart, De Fide, diss. V, a. III, § 3, obj. 2).

Now, in so serious a matter, it is not prudent to go against the common opinion.

But how can a heretic, who is no longer a member of the Church, be its leader or head?

Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, basing his reasoning on Billuart, explains in his treatise De Verbo Incarnato (p. 232) that a heretical pope, while no longer a member of the Church, can still be her head. Indeed, what is impossible in the case of a physical head is possible (albeit abnormal) for a secondary moral head. “The reason is that – whereas a physical head cannot influence the members without receiving the vital influx of the soul – a moral head, as is the [Roman] Pontiff, can exercise jurisdiction over the Church even if he does not receive from the soul of the Church any influx of interior faith or charity.”

In short, the pope is constituted a member of the Church by his personal faith, which he can lose, but he is head of the visible Church by jurisdiction and authority that can co-exist with heresy.

* The canonical Argument of the Heresy of the Pope

The sedevacantists base their position on the apostolic constitution Cum ex Apostolatus of Pope Paul IV (1555-1559). But some good studies have shown that this constitution lost its legal force (even sedevacantist priests recognize it: “We cannot use the bull of Paul IV to prove that the Holy See is currently vacant, but only to prove the possibility that it can happen…” (Fr. F. Ricossa, Solalitium 36, May-June 1994, p. 57-58, note 1). That which remains valid in this constitution is its dogmatic aspect. And, consequently, it cannot be made to say more than the theological argument already examined.

Yet the Code in the Gasparri edition refers in a note to the Cum ex apostolatus constitution.

[Editor:   The “Gasparri edition” refers to a special edition of Canon Law compiled and annotated with footnotes by the Italian cardinal, Pietro Gasparri.  In those notes to the 1917 Code, he provides many links to the sources of that very code.]

Counter-Argument 1:  These notes of the code in the Gasparri edition mention the sources of the Code. But this does not mean that all of its sources are still in force!

Counter-Argument 2:  The 1917 Code says in Canon 6 (5°) that the punishments that are not mentioned in the code are abrogated. Now, the Cum ex apostolatus constitution was a penal law, because it inflicted the revocation of an ecclesiastical office, and the punishments that it prescribed were not picked up again in the code.

Counter-Argument 3:  There is more: even before the new Code, St. Pius X had already abrogated Paul IV’s constitution by his consitition Vacante sede apostolica of December 25, 1904 (§ 29), which declares null any censure able to remove the active or passive voice from the cardinals of the conclave. And Canon 160 of the Code declares that the election of the pope is regulated only by this constitution of St. Pius X.

Counter-Argument 4:  The constitution of Pius XII of December 8, 1945, Vacantis Apostolicæ Sedis, which replaced that of St. Pius X, takes the same position on this subject: “No cardinal may be excluded in any way from the active and passive election of the sovereign pontiff, under no pretext nor for cause of excommunication, suspension, interdiction or other ecclesiastical impediment. We lift the effect of these censures for this type of election only, keeping them in force for everything else” (n. 34).

* The Argument of the nullity of the Pope’s Episcopal Consecration

Some sedevacantists argue that the current pope was consecrated bishop with the new rite invented by Paul VI, a rite that they deem invalid; thus, Benedict XVI (or all the popes consecrated bishops with the new rite) is not a bishop or pope.

The new ritual of episcopal consecration comes from a prayer found in Apostolic Tradition, a work apparently from St. Hippolytus and dating from the beginning of the third century. Even if this attribution is probably, it is not agreed upon by all; some think that it is an “anonymous compilation containing elements of different ages”. As for St. Hippolytus, he is thought to have been an antipope for some time before reconciling with Pope St. Pontian at the moment of their common martyrdom (in 235). It is from that same work that Canon number 2 of the new mass issues.

Yet, this prayer of the consecration is taken up again with a few variations in two oriental rites, the Coptic rite used in Egypt and the Eastern Syrian rite, used notably by the Maronites. It was therefore adopted by post-conciliar reformers to manifest the unity between the traditions of the three great patriarchates: Rome, Alexandria, Antioch.

By reason of this closeness to two Catholic rites, it cannot be affirmed that Paul VI’s prayer is invalid.

Isn’t it true that the new rite of Paul VI is close to the Anglican rite that was declared invalid by Leo XIII?

It is true that the rite of Paul VI is close to the Anglican rite, but not to the rite condemned by Leo XIII. The Anglican and Episcopalian churches also introduced a new consecratory prayer, taken from St. Hippolytus, with the aim to have a rite acceptable to Catholics, after the condemnation of the Anglican ordinations by Leo XIII.

* A Posteriori Arguments

Don’t the sedevacantists claim to find a confirmation of their opinion in the errors of the Council and the harmful liturgical and canonical laws of the Conciliar Church?

Indeed, the sedevacantists think, in general, that the teaching of the Council should have been covered by the infallibility of the ordinary universal magisterium (OUM), and consequently should not contain any errors. But, since there are errors, for example, on religious liberty, they conclude that Paul VI had ceased to be pope at that moment.1

In reality, if one accepted this reasoning, then it would be necessary to say that the whole Catholic Church disappeared at that moment and that “the gates of hell had prevailed against her”.   For the teaching of the ordinary, universal magisterium is that of all the bishops, of the whole teaching Church.

It is simpler to think that the teaching of the Council and of the Conciliar Church is not covered by the infallibility of the ordinary, universal magisterium for the reasons explained in the article on “The authority of the Council” that appeared in Le Sel de la terre 35 (winter 2000-2001).

Can you summarize the essential parts of this argument [Editor:  that is, the argument given in that article from Le Sel de la Terre]?

The main reason for which conciliar teaching on religious liberty (for example) is not covered by the OUM is that the conciliar magisterium does not present itself as teaching truths to be believed or held in a firm and definitive manner. Conciliar teaching no longer presents itself as “necessary for salvation” (this is logical, since those who profess it think that it is possible to be saved even without the Catholic Faith).

Since it is not imposed with authority, this teaching is not covered by infallibility. The same thing can be said of liturgical laws (the new mass; new canonizations…) and canonical laws (the new Canon Law…) set forth by these latest popes: they are not covered by infallibility, although normally they should have been.

To be continued…

Translated from the original French article by     (online:  ).

  1. Sedevacantist Argument of Fr. B.:
    1.  The Universal Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, alone or with the bishops united to him in the council, is infallible.
    2.  Now, Paul VI, alone and in the council, exercised such a magisterium by all appearances; John Paul II, who carries on the work, also.
    3.  By all appearances, their teaching is therefore infallible.
    4.  Now, a contradiction exists between the content of that which they teach or prescribe for the Universal Church, and the doctrine defined before in an irreformable manner.
    5.  Given that proposal #1 is of faith, the conclusion is forced: the teaching of Vatican II promulgated and applied by Paul VI and confirmed by John Paul II is not the teaching of the Church, and neither Paul VI nor John Paul II can be recognized as popes.