I came across two fair-minded articles on a way by which some Roman Catholics try to get round the fallibility of the Pope and the modern Church without dismissing it all as nonsense. These recent articles are Sedevacantism and Solution for Sedevacantists! Obviously the author of this blog called Rad Trad is a convinced Roman Catholic and I won’t dispute him on that. How he balances it all out and stops himself going mad is his concern. I respect his freedom.

I have had a little experience with this way of thinking. In spite of the theological jargon and the use of proof texts, the logic is cogent. The Popes up to the death of Pius XII were running a “perfect” Church that never failed to teach true doctrine due to the charisma of infallibility. Not only solemn definitions would be “covered” by this “guarantee”, but also the ordinary magisterium, the various Papal teachings not referred to as “infallible” ex cathedra definitions like the Immaculate Conception in 1854 and the Assumption in 1950. Whilst everything seems to be going well as the Pope looks like a deity for the pious faithful, that’s the way it looked. God was up there in his heaven working the controls, and would follow anything the Pope said or did, with all the binding and loosing.

Now all of a sudden, we get Vatican II and Paul VI. The Council affirms religious freedom in direct contradiction of Quanta Cura by Pius IX. Paul VI gets the man who has been in charge of liturgy since 1948 to do his stuff, and he promulgates the new rite of Mass, completely fabricated, and trashes liturgical tradition. We know the rest by heart.

Contradiction! Everything is in this word.

The principle of non contradiction is a fundamental principle of logic and the scholastic method of theology and apologetics. Two contradictory statements cannot both be true. One is false and the other true, or they are both false. That principle applied to the Church shows that an infallible Pope is not infallible because he has contradicted an infallible Pope. There is a scene in Star Trek where Spock succeeds in getting a robot to admit that everything it said was a lie. Going to the end of the logic, the machine had only to blow its circuits.

Also, a heretic cannot hold office in the Church and is automatically deposed, and this principle is applied to the Pope. If he is a heretic, he is not the Pope. The sedevacantists usually use Pius IV’s Cum ex Apostolatus Officio of 1559 as a proof text.

If there is no Pope, there is no source of authority on which the bishops depend. The Church has collapsed, or is there a way priests and laity can continue having Mass, the Sacraments and something like a normal Catholic life? The answers range from a flat no to yes, but according to certain rules. In the second article to which I linked, a suggestion is made to restore authority – by electing a Pope in an alternative way. This has been attempted, and the results have been quite colourful. See Conclavism and Palmar de Troya.

That is about it in a nutshell, and you can get quite a lot of information about the precise arguments on the internet. There are different ways we can react.

The first is my own. The doctrine of Papal infallibility and the ideology that emerged around the person of Pius IX in the nineteenth century and perpetuated itself up to our own times – are nonsense. The Church is founded on the Episcopate and the bishop in his own diocese, and there are historical primacies of honour associated with sees directly established by the Apostles. The Pope has a role, but no more than that of the Patriarchs of Antioch, Alexandria and certain other sees. This role is historical and symbolic. The Roman Catholic Church needs to be rid of this nonsense once and for all, and revive the old view of conciliar ecclesiology, learning some lessons from Anglicanism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

Sedevacantism has gone nowhere, and conservatism that tries at all costs to defend infallibility whilst the Pope approves of Anglicanism, Orthodoxy and the Reformed and Evangelical denominations (namely contradicts the belief that the Roman Catholic Church alone is the one true church and no one can be saved unless he was a formal member of it in good canonical standing) stretches credibility beyond the limit. If the Pope is infallible, the sedevacantists are right. Get rid of Papal infallibility, and the legs are chopped of the stool of many Catholics trying to do a balancing trick. Then we can “limit” infallibility to try to establish that Pius IX, Pius XII, John Paul II and Francis had everything in common. In a certain way, they did, as leaders of a communion that gradually and as a whole departed from Catholic orthodoxy longer ago than many of us would like to admit. The dried-out old corpse is beginning to crumble, and nothing is replacing it in many places.

It should be noted that I am analysing the problems of an ecclesiastical system and not criticising the sincere Christians who happen to belong to that Church because they were brought up in it or subscribed to its claims in good faith and innocence. Many clergy and faithful of that Church are Christ-like and do a lot of good in the world and holiness is found everywhere. Precisely, there is something above and beyond the ecclesiastical system, and the source of something great would come from there. I’m not saying the ecclesial body I belong to is “the true church”. We unworthily participate in the truth but we don’t own it.

Here is an article I wrote a long while ago about the problem of ecclesiastical authority as it relates to Anglicanism – Sessio and Missio.

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4 Responses to Sedevacantism

  1. Michael Frost says:

    Thanks for such a cogent epitome of this complex subject. Really brings out the paradoxes!

  2. Father Anthony,

    What you write here about Papal Infallibility is helpful. This was a major sticking point for many members of the Church of England considering application for membership of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. As you and regular commenters (that might be American English usage) know there has been a constant flow of not insignificant numbers from the C of E to the RCC since the early nineties.

    Both they and more recently people departing for OLW I suspect make extensive use of the doctrine of Supremacy of Informed Conscience in this matter. I think back to opinions I have heard expressed by folk during their C of E membership prior to departure.

    I was personally tempted to join OLW but like a host of others could not stand before a Christian Altar and knowingly make an untrue declaration at the time of admission. As a layman I’m not in a position to discuss this doctrine in depth. The RC Christians I know personally don’t themselves believe it. I speculate whether there is some way of reinterpreting the doctrine to rectify it.

    I agree with you when you describe the doctrine as nonsense. Personally I respect and pray for the Pope as the Western Patriarch but not in any sense as an Infallible Supreme Governor of the Christian Church.

    I will not comment on Sedevacantism as I have made a self denying ordinance on the use of polemic.

  3. The Rad Trad says:

    I am a convinced [still somewhat Roman] Catholic, but the title of my blog is actually a bit facetious!

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