Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Apologetics toolbox: Sedevacantists

“The other Protestants"

What is sedevacantism?

Sedevacantism describes a segment of people who, while holding themselves out to be Catholics, maintain that the documents of Vatican II teach heresy. As a result of this, the popes and bishops responsible for this council were de facto excommunicate; by extension, since heresy impedes priestly and episcopal functions, there were no true apostolic successors after that point, and the Chair of Peter is an empty seat (sede vacante).

Excepting for our current purposes the Eastern and Orthodox Churches, we can state that Protestantism begins with the rejection of the authority of the Pope and the bishops of the Catholic Church, and assumes that the identity of the true Church of Christ is transferable (i.e., Martin Luther would have never separated himself from Rome if he weren’t convinced that he and his followers were the true Church).

If we accept this model, then the central problem becomes clear: sedevacantism is a form of Protestantism. The only real difference is that, where the Anglicans, Lutherans, Calvinists and their descendants prop their rebellion on the twin pillars of sola scriptura and sola fide, the sedevacantists support theirs through appeal to their interpretation of Catholic dogmatic statements and comparison with their interpretation of the Vatican II documents.

The cardinal difficulty of sola scriptura also bedevils the sedevacantists: Either the bishops, when gathered in communion with the Pope, are infallibly guided by the Holy Spirit or they aren’t. If the Holy Spirit guides the Church (Jn 14:26, 16:13), and the Holy Spirit’s guidance is reliable (Rom 3:3-4; 2 Tim 2:13), then the Church’s teachings are reliable. You can’t impute error — especially heresy — into the Council’s final documents without implying that the Holy Spirit abandoned the Church in contravention to God’s promise (Mt 28:20) or that the Holy Spirit isn’t reliable.

Sedevacantists attempt to avoid this dilemma by positing a “Vatican II cult” founded in 1965 that took over the Church. The similarity to the Protestant “golden thread” story is immediately apparent: The real Church is subverted by false Christians, absconding with Church property and driving the real Christians into the margins.

Like the Protestant “golden thread” story, though, this is a notional construct not backed by an unbiased evaluation of the history of the Council, highly dependent on taking statements out of context, misconstruing them and positing changes where they have not occurred.

Also like Protestants, there’s no way they can challenge the authority of the Pope and bishops without bringing their own authority into scrutiny. Sedevacantists have only the apparent advantage over other Protestants of holding dogmatic statements of prior councils to be authoritative. This advantage, however, disappears when we realize a basic fact: A third party doesn’t gain authority for himself simply by having documents available to him, let alone authority sufficient to declare popes and bishops invalidly consecrated.

Just as Protestants can’t successfully answer the question, “Who gave you authority to propose an interpretation of Scripture in conflict with the apostolic successors’?” the sedevacantist can’t answer the question, “Who gave you authority to propose interpretations of Council documents in conflict with the bishops’?”

Father Joe Schmuckatelli of Our Lady of Righteous Persecution may be a clever fellow indeed; however, even if he’s been consecrated as a bishop by a bishop in a valid line of succession, he doesn’t become a magisterium unto himself. The same dogmas and canons to which he appeals prevent us from recognizing him as competent to pass judgment on the Church or her bishops.

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). The major weakness of this underpinning is that even a saint recognized as a Doctor of the Church isn’t protected by the mantle of infallibility, unless that saint was a pope acting as stated in the First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ § 4:9 (“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”).

In this case, St. Robert Bellarmine can’t trump Bl. John XXIII … or even the infamous Alexander VI. 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, 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. “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.

It’s possible to characterize this line of argument as the logical fallacy of poisoning the well. However, it’s no such fallacy to recognize that the well is already poisoned, just as the man who directs your attention to a dead body doesn’t by that fact alone commit murder.

Wherefore it is incumbent to obey the presbyters who are in the Church — those who, as I have shown, possess the succession from the apostles; those who, together with the succession of the episcopate, have received the certain gift of truth, according to the good pleasure of the Father. But [it is also incumbent] to hold in suspicion others who depart from the primitive succession, and assemble themselves together in any place whatsoever, [looking upon them] …  as schismatics puffed up and self-pleasing …. For all these have fallen from the truth. … But those who cleave asunder, and separate the unity of the Church, [shall] receive from God the same punishment as Jeroboam did (1 Kgs 14:10).
—St. Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies 4:26:2

Points to remember:
  • The sedevacantist can’t argue the heresy of Vatican II in whole or part without implicitly arguing that the Holy Spirit abandoned or failed to guide the Church, in contradiction to both Scripture and the infallible nature of the Church’s teaching magisterium.
  • The sedevacantist has no Scriptural, traditional, canonical or ecclesial grounds to presume the authority necessary to pass a binding judgment of heresy on any pope or bishop.