False Principles of Sedevecantism (Part 1)

The difficulty of tackling Sedevacantism is that Sedevacantist ideas are generally developing into different areas, or as a friend of mine has mentioned, they are "upping the ante". Some, like the Dimond brothers, have embraced a heretical Feeneyism, while declaring other Sedevacantists, such as Cekada's enterprise, as heretical. However the same false principles employed by the Dimond Bros. are also employed by all sedevacantists, simply to a different degree: derogating authority from the Church to themselves to interpret doctrine, and a lack of philosophical and theological understanding of doctrine in general, and papal authority in particular.

One key claim of the Sedevacantists is that it is possible for the Chair of Peter to remain vacant for an extended period, more than a generation.


To assert that the Pope would lose his office for more than a generation is contrary to the principle of perpetual unity. The Pope is the essence of the unity of Catholicism. While Christ is the head of the Church, the Pope is the visible head who holds His keys. When Christ comes again He will resume the visible headship and that which is visible in the papacy will come to an end. Without a visible head, the principle of unity would in fact be lost.

Perpetual principle of unity

The Pope is the essence of the unity of Catholicism. While Christ is the head of the Church, the Pope is the visible head who holds His keys. When Christ comes again He will resume the visible headship and that which is visible in the papacy will come to an end. Without a visible head, the principle of unity would in fact be lost.

The Catechism of the Council of Trent teaches:

"The Church has but one ruler and one governor, the invisible one, Christ, whom the eternal Father hath made head over all the Church, which is his body; the visible one, the Pope, who, as legitimate successor of Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, fills the Apostolic chair.

It is the unanimous teaching of the Fathers that this visible head is necessary to establish and preserve unity in the Church. This St. Jerome clearly perceived and as clearly expressed when, in his work against Jovinian, he wrote: 'One is elected that, by the appointment of a head, all occasion of schism may be removed'. In his letter to Pope Damasus the same holy Doctor writes: 'Away with envy, let the ambition of Roman grandeur cease! I speak to the successor of the fisherman, and to the disciple of the cross. Following no chief but Christ, I am united in communion with your Holiness, that is, with the chair of Peter. I know that on that rock is built the Church. Whoever will eat the lamb outside this house is profane; whoever is not in the ark of Noah shall perish in the flood.'

The same doctrine was long before established by Saints Irenaeus and Cyprian. The latter, speaking of the unity of the Church observes: 'The Lord said to Peter, I say to thee, Peter! thou art Peter: and upon this rock I will build my Church. He builds His Church on one. And although after His Resurrection He gave equal power to all His Apostles, saying: As the Father hath sent me, I also send you, receive ye the Holy Ghost; yet to make unity more manifest, He decided by His own authority that it should be derived from one alone, etc.'

Should anyone object that the Church is content with one Head and one Spouse, Jesus Christ, and requires no other, the answer is obvious. For as we deem Christ not only the author of all the Sacraments, but also their invisible minister; He it is who baptizes, He it is who absolves, although men are appointed by Him the external ministers of the Sacraments so has He placed over His Church, which He governs by His invisible Spirit, a man to be His vicar and the minister of His power. A visible Church requires a visible head; therefore the Saviour appointed Peter head and pastor of all the faithful, when He committed to his care the feeding of all His sheep, in such ample terms that He willed the very same power of ruling and governing the entire Church to descend to Peter's successors. (Catechism of the Council of Trent, tan ed. pg. 104, my emphasis)

Vatican I declared also, and more forcefully:

"The Eternal Shepherd and Guardian of our souls {I Pet. 2:25}, in order to render the saving work of redemption lasting, decided to establish His holy Church that in it, as in the house of the living God, all the faithful might be held together by the bond of one faith and one love. For this reason, before He was glorified, He prayed to the Father not for the Apostles only, but for those also who would believe in him on their testimony, that all might be one as the Son and the Father are one {John 17:20}. Therefore, just as He sent the Apostles, whom He had chosen for Himself out of the world, as He Himself was sent by the Father {John 20:21}, so also He wished shepherds and teachers to be in His Church until the consummation of the world {Matt. 28:20}. Indeed, He placed St. Peter at the head of the other apostles that the episcopate might be one and undivided, and that the whole multitude of believers might be preserved in unity of faith and communion by means of a well-organized priesthood. He made Peter a perpetual principle of this two-fold unity and a visible foundation, that on his strength an everlasting temple might be erected and on the firmness of his faith a Church might arise whose pinnacle was to reach into heaven. But the gates of hell, with a hatred that grows greater each day, are rising up everywhere against its divinely established foundation with the intention of overthrowing the Church, if this were possible. We, therefore, judge it necessary for the protection, the safety, and the increase of the Catholic flock to pronounce with the approval of the sacred council the true doctrine concerning the establishment, the perpetuity, and the nature of the apostolic primacy. In this primacy, all the efficacy and all the strength of the Church are placed (Vatican I, Pastor Aeternus, chapter 1)"

Perpetuity is purposely emphasized because its meaning is obvious. It means forever. Both Trent and Vatican I are clearly teaching that the Popes will reign perpetually.

But Sedevacantists would have us believe that the office of the papacy has fallen vacant, which would mean that this "perpetual" principle of unity has been removed. What happens if that principle of unity is removed? There can be no true visible head, or unity, which is contrary to all of Catholic teaching. Neither trailer-park monastery nor St. Gertrude the Great Church in Ohio can constitute the principle of Unity any more than Constantinople or Moscow. Only the successor of St. Peter can maintain this principle.

Denial of Vatican I

Ultimately, Sedevacantists deny the teaching of Vatican I. Sedevacantists fail to understand and differentiate the differences of Papal teaching, when it is infallible and when it is not.

No one can claim that those drafting the definition of papal infallibility at Vatican I were ignorant of history and could not anticipate a situation when a pope might speak error. Every instance of history was examined. Pope Liberius confessed Arianism and excommunicated St. Athanasius. For that matter, so did St. Ostius of Cordoba under the whip, who was one of the heroes of Nicaea. Pope Vigilius was put into power by Justinian's prostitute wife Theodora to profess the monophysite heresy. Vigilius was a probably a monophysite heretic, and he supported the restoration of apostate patriarchs because he knew it would be a chance to win favor with Justinian. And he was elected Pope. But after his election the grace of the Papal office worked on him, and he refused to restore monophysite heretics to their eastern sees and furthermore returned the money paid to him to declare monophysitism true. No contemporary and neither did any historical commentator claim that he was elected invalidly due to being a heretic, or that Liberius lost his office, or that Ostius lost his episcopal office.

Pope Vigilius' situation is more telling since when he was elected he was an anti-Pope because the true Pope was still alive in Justinian's jail. When he died, the clergy re-elected Vigilius pope, and at that time he still professed monophysitism, not to mention that he was most likely involved in the murder of his predecessor. No one ever said he lost his office.

Pope Honorius I permitted a cousin heresy of monophysitism, monothelytism (that our Lord had only one divine will and not a human will also) to be taught. He wrote so in a document and was condemned by a future Pope, Pope St. Agatho and an ecumenical council. No one suggested that Honorius lost his office, and neither that he ceased to be pope after writing his infamous letter, for his letter did not meet the conditions for infallibility.

Likewise with Pope John XXII, who professed a heresy that particular judgment of the soul was delayed until final judgment. Scholastic theologians did not say that John XXII lost his office. The latter submitted his position to a commission of theologians who said that he taught error. No one said that John XXII had lost his office, not even Cardinal Orsini who was a true schismatic and supported an anti-Pope. His claim was that John XXII was invalidly elected, not that by heresy he lost his office. Had Sedevacantism been believed, all of these figures would have been deposed. They weren't and no one suggested they ought to be.

What we gain from this consideration is that the Vatican I, studying all of this, saw the demonstration of the principles which they later laid down, and was able to safely decree there would be a valid succession of Popes forever. Every generation.

Therefore, faithfully adhering to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith, to the glory of God our savior, for the exaltation of the Catholic religion and for the salvation of the Christian people, with the approval of the Sacred Council, we teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable. (Vatican I, 4th session, chap. 4, no.9)


By laying down the principles by which the Pope is infallible, Vatican I by extension is admitting when he is not infallible, and in those instances he can say something heretical. It doesn't matter what saint has theorized about the loss of papal office. The Church teaches us infallibly that there will be a valid succession of Popes for every period until the end of time.

Different Degrees of Papal Teaching

Vatican I clearly lays down the conditions for the Pope to exercise the extraordinary magisterium, which is in itself de fide. If it was possible for the Pope to lose his office through some form of heresy, Vatican I would have indicated that this could happen. The fact is that in history Popes have indeed taught error, but Vatican I never declares that these Popes lost their office. Moreover, Vatican I lays down distinctions between degrees papal teaching to account for when Popes state things outside of the guarantee of infallibility, namely in their private opinions, even those stated publicly as pope, and those organs of teaching which are not ex cathedra statements.

A perfect example of this is a declaration of the Council of Florence, approved by the Pope, that the form of Holy Orders is the handing of the chalice and paten to the new priest. Pope Pius XII, utilizing historical research, taught in his encyclical Sacramentum Ordinis that this teaching was incorrect and promulgated the correct teaching. Therefore even if it was the case that in an encyclical a Pope teaches heresy (as Sedevacantists maintain) this does not constitute infallible teaching which must be adhered to without question, and moreover it does not cause the Pope to lose his office. If it were otherwise, Vatican I would have taken it into account when it formulated its doctrine on the papacy. The best theological minds of the 19th century came together and examined the issue, and moreover, something that gave laymen the ability to judge the Pope would have been useful to the opponents of papal infallibility, for apostates such as Acton who never recanted their denial of the dogma.

Cum ex Apostolatus and the loss of office


In 1559, Pope Pius IV wrote a bull on the loss of offices due to heresy which is frequently cited by Sedevacantists in support of their heresy. Some historical background on this is necessary. This bull was originally written on account of the escalation of Protestantism and the possibility that some churchmen might be secret protestants. Thus, Pope Pius IV felt it necessary to decree that those guilty of heresy would lose their offices, whether in religious orders, or for benefices (salaries which priests could draw for some canonical appointment or property), or even dioceses. For Sedevacantists, this document is their Magna Charta, which is used as frequently and invalidly as Quo Primum to attack the Novus Ordo.

Pope Pius IV declares simply:

"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:

(i) the promotion or elevation, even if it shall have been uncontested and by the unanimous assent of all the Cardinals, shall be null, void and worthless; etc." (Cum Ex no.6)

Note my emphasis. One of the principles of canon law is that when a legal document is restricting a law it is read restrictively, and whenever it is permitting something it is read in the widest possible sense. This is a restrictive document, and hence is interpreted restrictively. Pius IV explicitly, mentions only the election of a heretic. Why? Wouldn't it be wise to mention also a Pope who apostatized?

There are two possibilities:

1) Once the Pope is elected, he is judged by no man as he has no earthly superior, and therefore could not be removed except by God or condemned by a future Pope or

2) A Pope could be deposed by the Church (more on this later).

However Pius IV tells us exactly what he is talking about:

(i) Anysoever who, before this date, shall have been detected to have deviated from the Catholic Faith, or fallen into any heresy, or incurred schism, or provoked or committed either or both of these, or who have confessed to have done any of these things, or who have been convicted of having done any of these things.

(ii) Anysoever who (which may God, in His clemency and goodness to all, deign to avert) shall in the future so deviate or fall into heresy, or incur schism, or shall provoke or commit either or both of these.

(iii) Anysoever who shall be detected to have so deviated, fallen, incurred, provoked or committed, or who shall confess to have done any of these things, or who shall be convicted of having done any of these things.

These sanctions, moreover, shall be incurred by all members of these categories, of whatever status, grace, order, condition and pre-eminence they may be, even if they be endowed with the Episcopal, Archiepiscopal, Patriarchal, Primatial or some other greater Ecclesiastical dignity, or with the honour of the Cardinalate and of the Universal Apostolic See by the office of Legate, whether temporary or permanent, or if they be endowed with even worldly authority or excellence, as Count, Baron, Marquis, Duke, King or Emperor. (Cum Ex, no. 2)

In that list, the Roman Pontiff does not appear once. Hence we must restrict those who lose their office for heresy to these categories, namely everyone below the Pope, because they all have earthly superiors. I would contend if Pius IV intended to teach that the Pope could lose his office due to heresy, or if this was believed by the Fathers, he would have said so. This is the perfect opportunity. Rather, he only mentions the election of a heretic.

Even those are canonical sanctions which can be undone by future Popes, and in fact they were. Pope Pius XII declared, that for the purposes of papal election Cardinals otherwise interdicted could or be elected:

None of the Cardinals may in any way, or by pretext or reason of any excommunication, suspension, or interdict whatsoever, or of any other ecclesiastical impediment, be excluded from the active and passive election of the Supreme Pontiff. We hereby suspend such censures solely for the purposes of the said election; at other times they are to remain in vigor. (The Apostolic Constitution Vacante Sede Apostolis)

So now, what magisterial teaching can Sedevacantists point to which validates the proposition that the Pope can lose his office for heresy? The writings of some saints. One of the most frequently quoted by the Dimond brothers is from St. Francis de Sales:

"Now when he [the Pope] is explicitly a heretic, he falls ipso facto from his dignity and out of the Church..." (The Catholic Controversy, pg. 305)

In fact, that is quoted often by Sedevacantists, but they have never written the whole passage, which picking up from the dotted line reads:

...and the Church must either deprive him or, as some say, declare him deprived, of his Apostolic See, and must say as S. Peter did: Let another take his bishopric. (ibid, pg. 306)

Note the emphasis: The Church, assuming the opinion St. Francis is in fact correct, does the judging, and the Church does the deposing. Not a couple "brothers" living in a trailer park in upstate New York, not a priest and a schismatic Bishop in Ohio, or various priests who are ordained in defiance of the authority of the Church, who have never spoken to the Pope, who have never tried to "present him with orthodox teaching", who have never even written him a letter. According to St. Francis de Sales, it is the Church herself which will remove the Pope and put another one in place. But is it for any heresy? St. Francis goes on, relating a historical example:


"When he [the Pope] errs in his private opinion he must be instructed, advised, convinced; as happened with John XXII who was so far from dying obstinate or from determining anything during his life concerning his opinion, that he died whilst he was making the examination which is necessary for determining in a matter of faith, as his successor declared in the Extravagantes which begins Benedictus Deus. But when he is clothed with the pontifical garments, I mean when he teaches the whole Church as shepherd, in general matters of faith and morals, then there is nothing but doctrine and truth. And in fact everything a king says is not a law or an edict, but that only which a king says as king and as a legislator. So everything the Pope says is not canon law or of legal obligation; he must mean to define and to lay down the law for the sheep, and he must keep the due order and form. Thus we say that he must appeal to him not as to a learned man for in this he is ordinarily surpassed by some others, but as to the general head and pastor of the Church: and as such we must honour, follow, and firmly embrace his doctrine, for then he carries on his breast the Urim and Thummim, doctrine and truth.

"Theologians have said, in a word, that he can err in questions of fact, not in questions of right; that he can err extra cathedram, outside the chair of Peter, that is, as a private individual, by writings and bad example. But he cannot err when he is in cathedra, that is when he intends to make an instruction and decree for the guidance of the whole Church, when he means to confirm his brethren as supreme pastor, and to conduct them into the pastures of the faith. For then it is not so much man who determines, resolves, and defines as it is the Blessed Holy Spirit by man which is Spirit, according to the promise made by our Lord to the Apostles, teaches all truth to the Church." (Ibid, pg. 306-307)


Therefore, if we break this down, in light of Vatican I's clarification, St. Francis is saying virtually the same thing. Not that for merely believing something heretical does the Pope lose his office, but for obstinately teaching the whole Church in an erroneous manner. At that time it would be clear, and the whole Church could then depose such a man, according to St. Francis. St. Francis is not saying that a Pope who may believe this or that which is ambiguous, which taken in a strict sense would be heretical will lose his office, and that the Popes for an entire generation would lose their office! And even if he did, a saint's opinion does not matter in comparison with Vatican I's teaching. Note also St. Francis does not teach that the papal chair can be vacant for a generation; he states that were a pope to be removed, he would be replaced immediately by the Church. St. Francis never envisions a situation where the See of Peter is vacant for an extended period of time.

Loss of the marks of the Church

The Church teaches us infallibly at Vatican I there will be a continual succession of popes; Peter's reign is perpetual. The loss of jurisdiction means the loss of Apostolicity, which is one of the marks of the Church. Without it the Church is unable to sanctify her people. Holy orders are simply not enough; one needs jurisdiction as well. With the loss of Apostolicity the Church loses the other marks (unity, catholicity, holiness). As we noted above the Pope is the perpetual principle of Unity, through which apostolicity continues. Without apostolicity Holy Orders could not be passed down from generation to generation, and moreover the Church could not sanctify the Church, thus the mark of holiness is lost.

Thus during a Papal interregnum (when a sede vacante is possible) ordinary jurisdiction continues through the Church herself. The longest Papal interregnum in history is 2 and 1/2 years. Every generation has received the faith from a successor of St. Peter, without exception. The jurisdiction granted by Jesus Christ to Peter and the Apostles has been handed down by the successors of St. Peter in all generations. This is what Vatican I means when it says the Popes shall reign in perpetuity. Those Bishops and Cardinals entrusted with jurisdiction by Pius XII are dead, all of those empowered by the 1917 code of canon law are gone, and if the thesis on the invalidity of the new ordination rite is true (which I do not grant because the argument is silly) then those in the Vatican cannot hold office because they are not ordained. Therefore, apostolicity would be gone, not because Holy Orders were gone but because Jurisdiction would be gone.

Some people will stop and say "oh, the Church supplies jurisdiction", but that is not accurate. Supplied jurisdiction comes about through a confusion due to a particular law, and it flows from the Church's ordinary jurisdiction. If a whole generation has had no Pope, then Ordinary jurisdiction has been lost, which means there cannot be supplied jurisdiction. Ergo, the gates of hell would have prevailed against the Church.

Those who pass on Holy Orders have apostolic succession, but not formal succession, and therefore they cannot maintain the mark of apostolicity, and likewise unity; this is why heretics and schismatics may pass on Holy Orders and stand in the succession in one sense but not in a formal, juridical manner. Therefore Sedevacantist priests and bishops (presuming their orders are valid) cannot be the Church. If (God forbid!) by some delusion I were to go and receive Holy Orders tomorrow by a rent-a-Bishop of sorts, indeed I would receive the sacrament of order as the Apostles did, but I would not receive formal succession and the act in itself would be wound in the Church's jurisdiction.

In our next article, we'll take up more of the faulty principles that underpin Sedevacantist theory, specifically whether the teaching of Post Vatican II Popes is in fact "manifest heresy".

Originally published by Ryan Grant on the blog Athanasius Contra Mundum on 21 January 2009