Due to the unorthodox actions and statements of several recent popes, some have been led to believe that these popes have separated themselves from the Church by heresy, ipso facto vacating the seat of the papacy (sedes vacans, literally, empty seat). However, the fact is that formal (obstinate, or willful) heresy, the only heresy bearing with it the effect of excommunication, cannot be claimed, much less proven in the case of the pope, as there is no higher ecclesiastical authority which may censure or reprimand him.
In the face of the scandal of a pope who can radically change the liturgy of the Mass, codify a new ecclesiology, or make himself the protagonist for an aberrant ecumenism, etc., some have concluded that the last popes cannot have been true popes, or else that they have lost the pontificate because of such scandals. They refer to the discussions of the great counter-Reformation theologians on the loss of the pontificate (through abdication, insanity, heresy, etc.) and argue thus:
But then again, the argument continues, the same scandals are true of all the world’s diocesan bishops, who are also consequently non-members without authority; and the Catholic Church must be identified only with those who have not compromised the Faith and who refuse communion with these “popes” or “bishops.” A minority of these will elect their own “pope” (e.g., the communities at Palmar de Troya, Spain, or St. Jovite, Canada).
The argument’s strength is in the real scandal of the Conciliar authorities’ impetus given to the Church’s “new direction”; its weakness is in not being able to prove that any of these authorities are formal heretics.
Now, the ordinary way for the Church to ascertain pertinacity and enforce the consequences of one’s heresy by either excommunication and/or loss of office, is through authoritative monitions* to the delinquent which he spurns (1983 Code of Canon Law, canon 2314, §1). But nobody can authoritatively admonish the pope (canon 1556), and the bishops can only be admonished by their superior, the pope (canon 1557), who has not done so.
Therefore, pertinacity, and following upon that, formal heresy, cannot be proven.
*To have canonical force, they must come from one's superior (cf., canon 2233). The point is not only the crime but also its imputability must be notorious (canon 2195; 2197).
Perhaps; but not socially (i.e., as regards loss of office, etc.), which must not be presumed but proven, otherwise societies would collapse.
The argument does not prove its point, and becomes less probable when you consider that there are other explanations for the “material heretic” pope [see section a below], and it becomes quite improbable when you consider its dangers [b] or consequences [c].
a. The liberal mindset of a Pope Paul VI or a Pope John Paul II can be an explanation of their wanting to be Catholics and their simultaneous betrayal in practice of Catholicism. They accept contradictions; with a subjective and evolutive mentality, this is to be expected.* But such a frame of mind can be convinced of heresy only by way of authority.
*A little example: "At the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church committed herself irrevocably to following the path of the ecumenical venture, thus heeding the Spirit of the Lord, who teaches people to interpret carefully the 'signs of the times'" (Ut Unum Sint, §3). If it is because of the "signs of the times" that the Conciliar Church has launched herself into ecumenism, how are we to know that the venture will be irrevocable? What does a Pope John Paul II mean by such absolute terms?
b. The Church is indefectible (principle 3) not only in her faith and means of sanctification, but also in her monarchical constitution (principle 4), comprising governing power (i.e., jurisdiction), hence Vatican I’s profession that Peter will have perpetual successors. A break in the line of popes from the death of one to the election of the next may be understandable, but is indefectibility preserved if there is no pope since 1962 or if there is no one with ordinary jurisdiction whom the sedevacantists can point out as such? The Church is visible (principle 3) and not just a society composed of those who are joined by interior bonds (state of grace, same faith,...). A society is recognized and maintained as such by its authority (its efficient cause).
c. If the Church has not had a pope since the days of Vatican II, then there are no more cardinals legitimately created. But then how is the Church to get a pope again, as the current discipline grants only to cardinals the power to elect a pope?
A few sedevacantists hold that he has been or will be directly designated by private revelation from heaven.
There are spiritual consequences of sedevacantism:
*Consider the arguments from "Bishop" Vezelis, the Schuckardt movement, etc.: It is said that Cardinal Lienart, who ordained Archbishop Lefebvre a priest and consecrated him a bishop, was Freemason, and so all his ordinations were invalid; and so we must consider invalid all the sacraments of those he ordained, and of those they ordained... In fact, whereas that Lienart was a Freemason is only an unproven allegation of one writer; and Church teaching is that we must accept as valid his sacraments anyway, if he used the correct external rite (unless he revealed a contrary internal intention, which he did not). Moreover, Archbishop Lefebvre was consecrated by three bishops in 1947, which sacrament was surely therefore valid. Cf. On rumors and their source for more information on this matter.
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