Further adventures in the foothills of sedevacantism

Elsewhere, it is objected: “Sitting in Rome does not make a man a pope. I am not changing my beliefs because some heretic wearing a costume declares that the faith handed down from the apostles is no longer valid and must be replaced by something new.”

The proposition that there is no validly-elected incumbent of the Bishopric of Rome defines and unifies sedevacantists, although they disagree among themselves on why and for how long it has been vacant, and what that vacancy portends. This low buy-in makes it attractive to discontented Catholics, and when popes say and do stupid things—especially popes elected in anomalous and dubious circumstances—it can’t help but chum the waters for sedevacantism, to which my general response might be summarized as “walk away from the light.” I doubt that my interlocutor in that conversation considered himself a sedevacantist, any more than did my interlocutor in the conversation that is reported in The Foothills of Sedevacantism, 1 but the upshot of the reasoning in both cases leads there.

When I have encountered sedevacantists of late, my response has typically proceeded in three parts that may be worth rehearsing here. 

The first part is to establish my “creds”: I yield to no one in my hostility toward Francis, I tell them, whom I regard as a stupid, dangerous, misguided, undisciplined, arrogant, gabby oaf, very possibly a heretic, a mediocre prelate from the worst place of the worst era, 2 plunged suddenly into a job in which he is in way over his head. Don’t like him; don’t trust him; have gone so far as to strip him of the courtesy-style “pope.” 3 I have dismissed him metaphorically as “the erstwhile Tom Marvolo Card. Riddle.” He is a bad pope. No one, and I do mean no one, can accuse me of defending the Catholic imperative of adherence to the Bishop of Rome on the basis that I just like Pope Francis and want to clear away opposition to him.

The second part is fundamentally a due-process argument. Some of you have heard me make this kind of argument before. I agree that “sitting in Rome does not make a man a pope.” What makes a man pope is that he be the duly-elected successor of St. Peter, chosen by the duly-appointed Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church insofar as that is currently the duly-assigned method by which the Church chooses her pope. Whether any of us like it or not, Francis is the duly-elected pope. The only basis for even calling that into question—let alone deciding that his election was void—is the extraordinary circumstance of our beloved Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation. If that act was invalid, and if we set aside concerns to be treated in a few moments, Francis would seem to be an unwitting antipope, and any allegiance to him might seem void insofar as he would not then be the duly-elected incumbent of the See of Rome. But no one has produced anything that demonstrates the invalidity of Benedict’s resignation. Speculation about death threats—a dime a dozen for such high-profile officials—will not do it. Nor will speculation on formal problems with his resignation. 4 Heartbroken bewilderment is understandable but insufficient.

The third part is a jurisdiction problem, and it’s here that sedevacantism really founders. The gravamen of this point is that we don’t get to sit in judgment of a pope’s orthodoxy and declare his election void if we are displeased. I agree with my interlocutor that any normal Catholic may listen and discern that a given statement is heresy. With apologies to Potter Stewart, we do know it when we hear it. 5 But that capacity does not empower or authorize us to divest a prelate of his office, any more than a trial jury’s capacity to find facts empowers it to pronounce a sentence, and it’s that lack of jurisdiction that holes sedevacantism below the waterline.

It may help to provide a concrete example to serve as a needle about which to turn this yarn. Pope Paul IV’s 1559 bull Cum Ex Apostolatus Officio provides that

if ever at any time it shall appear that any Bishop, even if he be acting as an Archbishop, Patriarch or Primate; or any Cardinal of the aforesaid Roman Church, or, as has already been mentioned, any legate, or even the Roman Pontiff, prior to his promotion or his elevation as Cardinal or Roman Pontiff, has deviated from the Catholic Faith or fallen into some heresy: the promotion or elevation … shall be null, void and worthless.

From this the sedevacantist reasons that a pope who has arguably lapsed into heresy (or, presumably, can be argued to have lapsed into heresy at any point in his life) is no longer pope ipso iure. What is defective in this argument is its assumption that such a provision must be self-executing . But there is a canonical presumption against self-execution, 6 and in a matter so delicate and precarious as the validity vel non of a man’s possession of the See of Rome, it seems to me that we should insist on a clear statement rule. Cum Ex Apostolatus does not meet this standard. If the Holy See wishes to plunge the Church into the chaos that would ensue from such a rule, “it must speak more clearly than it has,” making its intention unmistakably-clear in the language of the law. 7

To be sure, it’s possible that the sedevacantists are right that a heretical pope in fact loses his office, just as does a heretical bishop. But in the case of the heretical bishop, there is a competent forum superior to the bishop who has jurisdiction and may therefore authoritatively adjudge the question and depose the bishop. But in the case of a heretical pope, there is, in his lifetime, no competent forum superior to him who can authoritatively judge the question and depose him. 8 A subsequent pope could do so; Pope Pius XIII, after his election, might turn around and say that Francis I was an antipope, that he invalidated his office as of such and such a date, and that all his acts are therefore void. But we may not. We don’t have the authority. (Nor does a council, by the way, for if a council could depose a pope, the implication would be that a council is a hierarchically-superior forum to the pope, which is the heresy of conciliarism into which the Council of Basel lapsed in 1439.)

The bottom line is that it isn’t even vaguely clear that Francis, odious though he may be, is an antipope, and even if it was, we don’t have the authority to make that call. Do not let yourself be driven into error by horror at the sight of a pope leading others into error! Do not flee the storm into the fire!


  1. 4 MPA __ (2014), https://simondodd.org/blog/?p=1311
  2. For useful commentary on these points, see Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, Pondering Francis, Fr. Z’s Blog (olim WDTPRS), Sept. 27, 2014, http://wdtprs.com/blog/2014/09/pondering-francis (last visited Sept. 29, 2014); Rev. Christopher Smith, Mutual Enrichment and the Coexistence of Varying Models of Liturgy in the Church, The Chant Cafe, Sept. 25, 2014, http://www.chantcafe.com/2014/09/mutual-enrichment-and-coexistence-of.html (last visited Sept. 29, 2014).
  3. Simon Dodd, Terminology note: Pope, 4 MPA __, https://simondodd.org/blog/?p=1272.
  4. For example, a text circulating on Facebook and elsewhere (e.g. http://www.suscipedomine.com/forum/index.php?topic=4700.0 (last visited Sept. 27, 2014)), attributed to”J. Alberto Villasana,” argues that there is a deliberate syntax error in Benedict’s resignation which invalidates the resignation:

    “At the core of the resignation it reads: ‘Declaro me ministerio Episcopi Romae Successoris Sancti Petri, mihi per manus Cardinalium die 19 aprilis MMV commissum renuntiare’ (‘I declare to resign the ministry of the Bishop of Rome, successor of St. Peter, which has been entrusted to me by the hands of the cardinals on April 19, 2005.’) This sentence is totally unintelligible, containing a grammatical error, as ‘commissum’, which depends on ‘ministerio’, is the object of the verb ‘renuntiare’, so it should be in dative, according to it—that is, it should say ‘commisso’.

    “Now, in canon law, all legal writing containing a fault of Latin is null. Already Pope St. Gregory VII (cf. Registrum 1.33) declared null a privilege accorded to a monastery by his predecessor Alexander II, ‘due to corruption in the Latin’.”

    I would like to see a reliable authority for the asserted canonical principle that “all legal writing containing a fault of Latin is null”—a principle central to the argument—that predates and is independent of Benedict’s resignation. But even with that principle granted, it’s an awfully thin reed on which to rest so weighty a question. If Pope Pius XIII declares that Benedict’s resignation was void for that reason, I’ll be the very first to buy that argument as a rationale, but I’m chary to today buy it as an argument, for the obvious reason that sedevacantism (or sede-wasn’t-vacant-ism) and schism are too weighty a pair of matters to get into without the most clear and convincing evidence.

  5. Cf. Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184, 197 (1964) (Stewart, J., concurring).
  6. See Simon Dodd, “That is what you call a bishop who’s not afraid to bishop,” 4 MPA __, __ n.2 (2014), available at https://simondodd.org/blog/?p=1385
  7. McNally v. United States, 483 U.S. 350, 360 (1987); cf. Atascadero State Hospital v. Scanlon, 473 U.S. 234, 242 (1985).
  8. See 1917 CIC 1556 (“Prima Sedes a nemine iudicatur”); 1983 CIC 1404 (same); cf. Encyc. Magnae nobis, no. 9 (Benedict XIV, 1748) (“The Roman Pontiff is above canon law, but any bishop is inferior to that law and consequently cannot modify it”). It’s vitalto cite the Pio-Benedictine Code in discussions with sedevacantists because on their premises, the 1983 code was not validly-promulgated.