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Pope Francis at November 2016 consistorySteve Jalsevac/LifeSite

November 9, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – There have always been a small number of Catholics since the Second Vatican Council who, looking at the apostasy, heresy, impiety, and desolation widespread in the Church, have reached the conclusion that there is not a legitimate Pope seated on the throne of Peter. Such Catholics are called “sedevacantists,” from the Latin for “empty seat.”

Sedevacantists come in many varieties, but generally they hold that there has been no valid pope since the death of Pope Pius XII in October 1958. “Sedeprivationists,” on the other hand, maintain that all the popes of the past sixty years have been popes “materially” but not “formally”: they have been appointed by God to serve as popes, but they have refused to accept the duties of their office and have thus paralyzed their functionality. This view is held by a minority even within the minority.

One can sympathize with the lamentations and dismay of Catholics who are appalled by the infidelities of churchmen after the Council, but the position they advocate is untenable.

The real root of sedevacantism is ultramontanism – the very problem under which we have been suffering since the First Vatican Council. Because none of the popes after Pius XII has lived up to the heights of doctrinal perfection and personal sanctity that ultramontanists unreasonably expect in the Vicar of Christ, they are therefore tempted to conclude that these popes must not really be popes. But what is needed, instead, is a gritty realism that recognizes how seriously popes can mess up.

Just how seriously is something that cannot be spelled out in advance of history showing it to us. I’m sure prior to Honorius there would have been people saying “A pope can never endorse heresy.” Well, along comes Honorius and upsets that apple-cart. (He’s not the only one to upset it, either.) Sure, all kinds of elaborate defenses and distinctions can be made to show that Honorius or the other doctrinally dubious popes did not attempt to enforce heresy on the faithful by an ex cathedra pronouncement (etc.), but this does not modify the fact that a successor of Peter and a Vicar of Christ can, in fact, think erroneously about matters of faith and morals, and utter those erroneous opinions in a non-binding manner. Knowing that this is indeed possible is enormously helpful when confronted with a pope like Francis, who is swimming in the deep end of error on all manner of things.

Maybe another person in Church history might have said: “Christ would only choose for his Vicar a man worthy of the office.” Well, along comes the Dark Ages and we have simoniacs, nepotists, murderers, fornicators, and warlords occupying the throne of Peter. Just as infallibility doesn’t attach to most papal utterances, neither does impeccability attach to papal incumbents.

Needless to say, Pope Francis is now pushing the bounds of papal deviancy far beyond anything we have ever seen before – and instead of denying this crisis, theologians need to accept it as an invitation to re-think, from the very foundations, the specious ultramontanist narrative that has been operative for the past 150 years or more. It invites all Catholics to recommit themselves to the Faith of our Fathers.

The basic problem with sedevacantism is that it is a “tidy” explanation that does not actually admit the depth of the problem – and also has no solution for it. What I mean by the first part of this claim is that it is easier for a sedevacantist to dismiss sixty years of “bad popes” measured against a Platonic standard than to face up to the horrifying reality of a true pope who is nevertheless a heretic or a bad man. What I mean by the second part is this: If there haven’t been popes for decades, how are we ever supposed to get a new pope? Will he drop from the sky? None of the cardinals would be legitimate cardinal-electors; indeed, the entire hierarchy of the Church would be fatally compromised.

No, the truth is that we have a pope and will always have a pope. The Church will never fail to have a visible head, so that the visible Church may reflect the full stature of Christ, who is made up of head and members. Obviously, there are periods in between pontificates (usually quite short) as a decision is reached about who will succeed the deceased pope, but for Our Lord’s promises to Peter to hold good, such a popeless period must be limited, temporary, and easily brought to an end. The longest conclave in history was the one that elected Clement IV, which met from November 1268 to September 1271. Three years, although frightfully long, is still rather short compared to the 60 years demanded by the sedevacantist position.

I shall be blunt about this: If the Catholic Church has not had a pope for 60 years, then the promises of Christ have failed, and this Church is not the true Church. Moreover, if the Catholic Church is not the true Church, there is no true Church, since no other institution has nearly as good a claim on this title (and I include in this assessment the Eastern Orthodox). Since we know, as a matter of divine and Catholic faith, that the Church cannot be merely invisible and cannot be lacking an earthly head who is the image of the heavenly head and the successor of Peter in the college of the Apostles, we should have no difficulty as baptized members of Christ confessing that we have a pope and will always have a pope—namely, the one who is recognized and acknowledged as such by the worldwide episcopate and the body of the faithful in genere.

Yes: habemus papam. He just happens to be a very bad one, by every standard ever applied to assess papacies in the past 2,000 years.

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Peter Kwasniewski, Thomistic theologian, liturgical scholar, and choral composer, is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College in California (B.A. Liberal Arts) and The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC (M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy). He taught at the International Theological Institute in Austria and the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austria Program, then helped establish Wyoming Catholic College in 2006. There he taught theology, philosophy, music, and art history and directed the choirs until leaving in 2018 to devote himself full-time to writing and lecturing.

Today he contributes regularly to many websites and publications, including New Liturgical Movement, OnePeterFive, LifeSiteNews, Rorate Caeli, The Remnant, and Catholic Family News, and has published thirteen books, including four on traditional Catholicism: Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis (Angelico, 2014, also available in Czech, Polish, German, Portuguese, Spanish, and Belarusian), Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness (Angelico, 2017), Tradition and Sanity (Angelico, 2018), and Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright: The Genius and Timeliness of the Traditional Latin Mass (Angelico, 2020). His work has been translated into at least eighteen languages.

Kwasniewski is a scholar of The Aquinas Institute in Green Bay, which is publishing the Opera Omnia of the Angelic Doctor, a Fellow of the Albertus Magnus Center for Scholastic Studies, and a Senior Fellow of the St. Paul Center. He has published over a thousand articles on Thomistic thought, sacramental and liturgical theology, the history and aesthetics of music, and the social doctrine of the Church.

For news, information, article links, sacred music, and the home of Os Justi Press, visit his personal website, www.peterkwasniewski.com.

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