Is sedevacantism Catholic?

This article by Richard Cure was originally printed in the March 1998 issue of The Angelus magazine.

Is sedevacantism Catholic?

Part 1 (of 4)

Our priest, at that time, had circulated a talk given by a traditionalist priest which stated that we, as Catholics, do not have the right to judge the pope. In spite of this information being made available to me and my having listened to the tape twice, I still didn’t take an anti-sedevacantist position. Not until we had moved to a town where a Society of St. Pius X chapel was located and where the priest took a very negative position towards sedevacantism, did I take a serious look at this subject or my position. In talking to many sedevacantists, I have found the beginnings of sedevacantism follow much the same path in others.

After being confronted with the necessity of making a decision about just what was the right position, I started doing some research into the subject. It wasn’t easy since there was nowhere in Catholic writing that I could find the term "sedevacantism" even mentioned, other than in writings since Vatican II. It seemed a little unusual for a so-called traditionalist to be taking a position, in favor of traditionalism, when that position titled "sedevacantism" couldn’t even be found. The position of sedevacantism (that of believing that the chair of Peter is vacant even though the Church Militant doesn’t know it) could be found as an example in history just before and during the Great Western Schism, which illustrates the fruit of sedevacantism.

After reading many different imprimatured articles and rereading many articles in support of the sedevacantist position, it became clear to me that there was a great deal of confusion and that there needed to be an article written quoting the imprimatured articles and books that I had found in my research. This article is an attempt to summarize what ended up being a small book of mostly quotations.

Sedevacantism's most influential era: the Great Western Schism

The purpose of our looking at history is at least two-fold:

  1. To understand tradition, and
  2. To better understand our times.

Since tradition would likely be the historical position of the Church, it is imperative that a traditionalist understand history in order to truly be a traditionalist. If we are to apply the traditional teaching of the Church to our times, we must understand history and whether or not sedevacantism is in conformity to the teaching of the Church or rather a departure from the teaching of the Church.

One has to look at history with some understanding of how history arrived at the point one wishes to study. If one doesn’t understand the background of that point in history, then one can’t understand why the events took place or actually even what did take place. So that the target point in history can be understood, some background information is necessary.

During the Great Western Schism, the Church was the world power in that the Church controlled, more than anyone else, the countries of the world. As a result, anyone who was very ambitious knew that the place of power was in the Church as a member of the hierarchy. So we see in the times of the Great Western Schism very bad churchmen in high places who very much scandalized the Church then, and who are scandalous to us poor souls today who try to read the historical accounts. It is not my intent to scandalize anyone, let alone the Church. But it is important to understand how corrupt things were so that one can understand why such things could happen and so better understand that things today aren’t necessarily quite as they appear.

During the Great Western Schism there were many times when the different factions believed the pope to be a heretic who should be deposed, but, in every case, history has proven that those judging the pope were not only wrong in their conclusion but were also wrong in their belief that they had a right to judge the pope as the turn of events proved; for by judging the pope, they only caused confusion and schism with as many as three claimants to the papacy at one time. These churchmen had other than the Church’s interest at heart; instead, it was usually their own personal gain or nationalism.

By 1294 the Church had had a number of popes who were poor churchmen and some who had been scandalously corrupt. But the good cardinals upon the death of the reigning pope elected Peter Morone, a pious, saintly hermit, to the papacy as Pope Celestine V. The hermit had no experience in such matters and in a short time had made quite a mess of things. He had protested upon being elected. He hadn’t wanted to leave his hermitage and wanted only to return to it. After a short time, Celestine V resigned so that another pope could be elected.

Boniface VIII was the replacing pope. Since Boniface’s enemies were saying that Celestine hadn’t or couldn’t resign, Boniface had Celestine apprehended so that there wouldn’t be a schism.[1] Celestine died while in custody and was later canonized. These events clouded the beginning of Boniface’s pontificate. When additional events are added, the people of the time, who where so inclined, had reason to question the papacy of Boniface.

During the reign of Boniface VIII, Philip the Fair, the king of France, wanted to take possession of some of the Church’s properties and piling rights so as to increase his power and ability to tax. Philip used some arguments based on what the Church had allowed in France, discussed later under the title Gallicanism. Boniface countered with the idea that the pope had the right to rule the states because the kings had come to the pope to be crowned. Boniface prepared to excommunicate Philip.

Anticipating these developments, Philip had made plans to capture the pope and bring him before a council to be judged and deposed.[2] As a result of Gallicanism, Philip had rationalized that he had the right to commit these atrocities against the Church. Philip sent two thousand mercenaries who captured Pope Boniface VIII and held him captive for three days. After having been freed, the pope lived only ten days. The next pope also opposed Philip the Fair and died suddenly, it is believed by poisoning. He was later canonized. These episodes much weakened respect for the papacy and brought about Gallicanism and sedevacantism which can only survive in an atmosphere of disrespect for the pope and the papacy.

During the reign of the next couple of popes, Philip tried to force the popes to condemn the dead Boniface, which they would not do. After the death of Boniface’s personal enemies, even the French accepted the legitimacy of the reign of Boniface.[3] We often see in history how men or groups of men will paint a distorted picture of someone or some event which then affects history for some time.

Rome had been a world center for many centuries and with the coming and going of so many people, it was a hotbed of disease. Since it was also a center of power, a convergence of factions almost like separate nations within the city caused free movement and dissemination of information to be a problem. Because of the heat and humidity of summer, the hierarchy liked to leave the city.[4] This along with the extreme nationalism (particularly French), led to the establishment of a papal palace at Avignon which was on the border of France.

Pope Clement V took up residence in Avignon beginning what was termed "the Babylonian Captivity" because the reign from Avignon lasted about as long as the Babylonian Captivity and was under the influence of the French court. France had been controlling the papal elections, electing Frenchmen to the office. This is one of the reasons the papal palace had been set up in Avignon.

After Clement V died, there was a two-year, three-and-a-half month period during which there was no pope. John XXII was finally elected to the papacy, but damage to the respect for the papacy resulted from such a long vacancy.

Pope John XXII took the same position as Boniface in that he insisted that kings had no right to rule until the pope had given the Bestowal of Imperial Dignity. King Louis of Bavaria would not submit to Pope John so the pope excommunicated him. The king then went to Italy and had one of the pope’s enemies proclaim John XXII a heretic, usurper, and oppressor of the Church and deprived John XXII of all his papal dignities, supposedly. The king then proclaimed an enemy of the pope, anti-pope Nicholas V. Through his position on papal right to rule nations, John XXII caused quite a stir, but it wasn’t anything compared to what was to come.

Pope John XXII had stated before his election that he believed the soul didn’t posses the Beatific Vision upon death. He also gave a series of five sermons stating his belief. At the University of Paris, a group of theologians gave the opinion that the pope was seriously wrong, but that he had not made an ex cathedra statement. As a result, it was not binding and was simply a private belief of the pope. John stated that he had not intended to teach contrary to Holy Scripture or the rule of Faith and before his death declared his belief that souls separated from their bodies enjoyed the Beatific Vision.[5] Clearly the pope was not imposing his views or teaching ex cathedra.[6] Here we have an example from history of a pope taking positions contrary to the traditions of the Church, but history shows that the man was still Catholic and indeed the pope. We all err, but to be obstinate in our errors after being shown our error or after being obstinate after being shown by the Church that one is in error is when one rejects the Church’s teaching. Even though John XXII corrected his wrong, much disrespect for the papacy resulted from his actions.

part 2 >

Footnotes

1 Warren H. Carrol, The Glory of Christendom (Christendom Press, 1993), p.335.

2 Catholic Encyclopedia, (1913),  Vol. II, “Boniface VIII,” p.668.

3 Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. IV, “Clement V,” p.21.

4 Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. IV, “Clement V,” p.20.

5 Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. VIII, p.433.

6 The Glory of Christendom, p.372.