Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The sedevacantist problem

Recently, Father Dwight Longenecker, a former Anglican priest (and the most prominent of a relative handful of married men to be ordained within the Latin rite) has been writing some angst-ridden blog posts concerning his former communion. The most recent was a “personal offer” to Anglo-Catholics, exhorting them to follow the logic of their position and cross the Tiber: “If you were to become a Catholic it would be both more glorious and more awful than you think. Awful because you really do submit yourself to the Catholic Church and that is hard. More glorious because the graces you will receive through this submission and this step of faith will overwhelm you with goodness.”

Most of the respondents, at the time of this composition, were to the point, discussing the reasons why they went either Catholic or Orthodox. However, one troll, exercising the freedom of the Internet to engage in hysterical jeremiads, let loose with this screed:

Apostate! You are not remotely Catholic. The last 5 “popes” have been antipopes and we are in the Great Apostasy prophesied in the Bible. Vatican II was a false and heretical council. Things are completely out of control right now and most people don’t even know what’s going on or even have a clue about it.
Don’t believe me, then go to vaticancatholic.com and read all the files there carefully, and VERIFY if what is said there is true or not—it all is—don’t simply reject it because you won’t like it, VERIFY if what is said there is true or not. All is backed up by the very teaching of the Church, so there’s no way it can be false and it is not.
Behold! We are in the Great Apostasy!
Of course, what the website contains is quite a few quotations from John Paul II and Benedict XVI taken out of context, compared to pre-Vatican II papal statements taken equally out of context, with no serious attempt to distinguish pious generalities from formal, ex cathedra definitions. It is, in fact, little better than most Protestant anti-papist websites.

The troll, “Gaza” by pseudonym, is one of a small segment of reactionary Catholics known as “sedevacantists” (sedes “seat” + vacans “vacant”). The sedevacantists believe that Vatican II taught heretical propositions, and that by formally approving the Council’s documents, John XXIII and all the popes after him became formal apostates. The position that “Gaza” and vaticancatholic.com take is simply the most extreme variety; most sedevacantists of the +Marcel Lefebvre/Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) stripe pay at least lip service to the current Successor to Peter, and make no attempt to strip the name “Catholic” from those who have received the sacraments under the Novus Ordo Mass of Paul VI.

The most important thing to understand about Vatican II is that, unlike ecumenical councils before it, there were no definitions formally put forth or anathemas pronounced. Because of this fact, nothing contained in any of the documents can be held to contradict or modify any previous dogmatic or doctrinal statement made by any previous pope or council. It’s possible to criticize the equivocal vagueness of certain passages; for the sake of brevity, and because the topic goes beyond my current competence, I won’t go into any detail here. However, because of the documents’ non-dogmatic nature, such dubious passages must be interpreted in harmony with the religious truths that preceded them. (Benedict XVI has called this principle “the hermeneutic of continuity”, in contrast to the “hermeneutic of rupture” which professes that there is—or ought to be—a doctrinal difference between what the Church taught prior to 1965 and after.)

In other words, the sedevacantist who attempts to read a rejection of the principle “No salvation outside the Church” into the Declaration on Religious Liberty is as much in error as the liberal who tries to do so for his own purposes.[1] The Council did not teach heresy; rather, the sedevacantist indulges in a sin against charity by making the charge of heterodoxy against the bishops and Paul VI who promulgated the document.

Almost as repugnant to the sedevacantists as V2 is the Novus Ordo Mass, celebrated in the vernacular and relatively stripped down in terms of rubrics, which replaced the Tridentine Latin Mass in all but a scattered few parishes in 1973. Many priests and parishes have taken impermissible liberties with the NO liturgy, which is not a problem with the Mass itself but rather with the theological and liturgical predilections of the people involved. A more substantive criticism is that the language the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) used to translate the Latin editio typica often dumbs down the prayers at the expense of theological precision.[2]

However, no number of imprecisions add up to a single heresy; so long as nothing in the Mass explicitly teaches a heterodox position, the Mass itself can’t be heretical. While there are principles that must be maintained, particularly during the confection of the Eucharist, and while the liturgy must be adhered to as written (say the black, do the red, as Father Z puts it), the liturgy considered as a whole is not a matter of dogma but of discipline. That is, it can be changed by consecutive popes—and even by the same pope—without violating the principle of papal infallibility, which only applies to ex cathedra definitions on matters of faith and morals. Much can be said about the beauty and gravity of a Latin Mass in what’s now called the Extraordinary Form; much can be said about the impropriety and imprudence of folk/rock “praise and worship” music and liturgical dancing. Yet so long as the norms of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) are followed, the NO Mass is still both licit and valid.

But let’s ask what the case would be if the Pope were a heretic. The sedevacantist position rests largely on the theological opinion of St. Robert Bellarmine, that “a pope who is a manifest heretic by that fact ceases to be pope and head” [On The Roman Pontiff, 2:30].[3] But as Fr. Brian Harrison, OS, has pointed out, even under the 1917 Code of Canon Law and the rules of papal election in force in 1958 (when Cdl. Roncalli was elected John XXIII), the imputation of heterodoxy or mortal sin could not prevent any cardinal from either electing or being elected as pope. Moreover, there exists within the Church no competent authority to excommunicate the pope, or even to recognize an excommunication latae sententiae (that is, an automatic excommunication brought about by the very fact of the sin itself and not by juridical sentence). “So while this pope would offend God gravely by exercising his office while under an (undeclared) excommunication, all his official acts still would be juridically valid and binding on the Church’s members” (“White Smoke, Valid Pope”, This Rock 12:3, March 2001).

The matter of “competent authority” is at the heart of the sedevacantist problem. Although St. Paul made much of the fact that he had been set apart as an apostle directly by Jesus Christ Himself, he would have been merely the first, most brilliant heretic to plague the Church had St. Peter and the other apostles not recognized the authenticity of his calling. There have been many private revelations which have proven fruitful for the spiritual lives of the faithful; but private revelation can’t validate or nullify any conclave. The ultimate irony is that the sedevacantists are replaying the role of Martin Luther, whose overweening intellectual pride led him to hold his own opinions superior to fourteen centuries of scholars and saints (“Thus I will it; thus I command it; my will is reason enough. … Doctor Luther will have it so, and he is a doctor above all doctors in the whole of Popery.”)

The final irony of the sedevacantist position is that it betrays a lack of trust in Jesus’ promise to St. Peter in the district of Caesarea Philippi that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against” the Church (Mt 16:18) , and in his promise that the Holy Spirit would guide the Church into all truth (Jn 14:26, 16:13). They have followed the logic of their position into becoming … Protestants.


[1] In fact, the Declaration simply affirms that people should not be coerced by government into either joining or separating from any particular church, communion or religious belief system; it doesn’t attempt to make all religious beliefs equally efficacious in securing salvation, justification or sanctification.
[2] The new English translation of the most recent Latin revision issued in 2000, which is due to replace the current liturgy November 27, 2011, is expected to cure this problem.
[3] The author of the webpage referenced in the link opines sententiously, “ … [I]n the spirit of Christian humility we ought not to go against the mind of any Doctor of the Universal Church without very grave reasons (if ever).” I’ll content myself with noting that even Doctors of the Church are not protected by a imputation of infallibility; that charism belongs solely to the Pope and to the bishops assembled in council in communion with him.