Is sedevacantism Catholic? (2)

Is sedevacantism Catholic?

Part 2 (of 4)

The next four popes lived in Avignon which, along with their extreme French nationalism, reduced the papacy to a very low level of respect.[7] St. Bridget of Sweden spent the last 30 years of her life in Rome. She wrote to the popes at Avignon and told them that she feared that if they didn’t soon return to Rome they would lose their temporal and spiritual authority.[8] St. Catherine of Siena persuaded Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome in 1377.[9] This ended a 41-year absence from Rome by the popes. But the loss of respect for the papacy was to continue, for Gregory XI continued to practice extreme French nationalism by imposing Frenchmen over the Italians, and this caused many riots.

The events which brought about the Great Western Schism had been established by:

  • Loss of respect for the papacy,
  • Concern of churchmen for other than the Church, and
  • Establishment of the non-Catholic philosophy of Gallicanism and its ideals (sedevacantism).

Upon Gregory XI’s death, Pope Urban VI was elected in Rome while mobs outside, and some inside, were demanding the selection of a Roman or at least Italian pope. The cardinals did elect Urban VI, an Italian, but before he could get to Rome to accept the position, the mobs became violent. For fear of their lives (note this was after the new pope had been elected), they dressed an Italian cardinal in the robes of the pope and presented him to the crowd as the new pope. The fake pope protested such deception, but to no avail. Once Urban VI arrived he was announced as the pope and was accepted by all.

Urban appeared to be a very easy-going fellow before being elected to the papacy, but once he was elected he became extremely aggressive in attacking those improperly using the Church. Cardinal Robert told the pope that, as he (the pope) was diminishing their power and respect, they (the cardinals) would diminish the pope’s power.[10] The French cardinals, who comprised most of the Sacred College, were tired of deadly Roman fevers and the dilapidated Rome and wanted to return to Avignon where it was more comfortable.[11] Soon the cardinals, mostly French, met outside of Rome and decided that, even though they had elected, accepted and announced Urban to the world as the pope, they would now take the position that the election had been forced and that they now regarded the Holy See to be vacant.[12] They proceeded to elect Cardinal Robert as the anti-pope to rule from Avignon.

St. Catherine of Siena’s letter to these cardinals stated:

You clearly know the truth, that Pope Urban VI is truly pope, the highest pontiff, chosen in orderly election, not influenced by fear, truly rather by divine inspiration than by your human industry.  And so you announced it to us, which was the truth. Now you have turned your backs, like poor, mean knights; your shadow has made you afraid. You have divided yourselves from the truth which strengthens us, and drawn close to falsehood, which weakens soul and body, depriving you of temporal and spiritual grace. What made you do this? The poison of self-love, which has infected the world. This is what has made you pillars lighter than straw-flowers which shed no perfume, but stench that makes the whole world reek!  ...This is not the kind of blindness that springs from ignorance. It has not happened to you because people have reported one thing to you while another is so.  No, for you know what the truth is; it was you who announced it to us, and not we to you. Oh, how mad you are!  For you told us the truth, and you want yourselves to taste a lie!  Now you want to corrupt this truth, and make us see the opposite saying that you chose Pope Urban from fear, which is not so; but anyone who says it—speaking to you without reverence, because you have deprived yourselves of reverence—lies up to his eyes.[13]

There is a saying: “The ultimate punishment of a liar is that he believes his own lies.” Once a liar believes his own lies, he has no way to correct his errors because he can’t recognize them. So the Great Western Schism began as the different nations decided which of the popes to accept.

The world soon realized the Church was in turmoil and wanted the schism ended. When pope or anti-pope died, the new popes were required to agree to do what they could, even resign, if the counter-part would do the same so a new pope could then be elected to resolve the question of who was the real pope.  In their embarrassment and anger, the French theologians dealing with the issue began to take positions contrary to the immemorial traditions and teaching of the Church, which in time became the full-fledged heresy of “conciliarism."[14] This philosophy had evolved from Gallicanism. The solution was said to be that of a council to depose the popes and elect a new pope who would then be unquestionably received as the true pope by all, thereby uniting the Church again. Note: This was not a Catholic ideal, but a solution they came up with to try and correct the problem without condemning those who started the schism.

It was said that pope and anti-pope were in heresy because they were a party to the schism, but there were those who sounded the warning that “no mere human being has any right to judge him (the reigning pope) ...nor has an assembly of bishops, and still less, one of the cardinals ...They are trying to force the hand of the Holy Ghost!"[15] In spite of tradition and other warnings, a council was called at Pisa. The two popes were invited but neither attended. Their hierarchy did attend, but, without a pope to convene the council, they were obviously working in opposition to the true pope.

At the Council of Pisa, “all were stirred when the Patriarch of Alexandria, Simon de Cramaud, addressed the august meeting”:

Benedict XII and Gregory XII, [the two popes at the time] are recognized as schismatics, the approvers and makers of schism, notorious heretics, guilty of perjury and violation of solemn promises, and openly scandalizing the universal Church. In consequence, they are declared unworthy of the Sovereign Pontificate and are ipso facto deposed from their functions and dignities and ever driven out of the Church. It is forbidden to them henceforward to consider themselves to be Sovereign Pontiffs, and all proceedings and promotions made by them are annulled. The Holy See is declared vacant and the faithful are set free from the promise of obedience.[16]

Sounds like some sedevacantists of today. In June of 1409, Cardinal Philarghi was unanimously chosen to fill the presumably vacant papal chair:

His legitimacy was soon questioned and the world was chagrined to find that instead of two popes it now had three.[17]

There were now three popes, and three colleges of cardinals, in some dioceses three rival bishops, and in some religious orders three rival superiors.[18]

In spite of previous lessons, the world still looked toward another council to correct the problem. In 1413 Sigismund (King of Germany) invited all three popes to a council. He had an agreement from John XXIII (the replacement pope after the death of the Pisan pope, an anti-pope) that he would issue the convocation bull to open the Council of Constance. John had the largest support and at first dominated the council.[19] John resigned and then changed his mind and fled. He latter was captured and brought back to the council and submitted to the council.

The legitimate pope, Gregory XII, even though his obedience had practically vanished, then resigned with the dignity expected from a true pope.[20] Before he resigned, Gregory convoked the council and authorized its succeeding acts. Two years later, before the election of a new pope, Gregory XII died in the odor of sanctity.[22] Even though the true pope had resigned and the council was in place to elect the new pope, it appears that the Holy Ghost’s hand was not to be forced as the new pope wasn’t elected until the chair was truly vacant, due to Gregory’s death.

The Council of Constance agreed to establish an assembly divided into six nations, each speaking a different language, who then elected six representatives from each nation to vote for a new pope along with the 23 cardinals.[22] So the Church, still divided by a schism, was to be reunited by a council started by nationalism and convoked by a schismatic. Moreover, the council was under the guidance of a civil authority and consisted of an electorate made up of 30 out of 53 electors who had been selected by their respective nations. Often we find in history that the way problems are resolved are the reverse of how they came about. Cardinal Odo Colonna of the famous (and sometimes infamous) Colonna family, which was party to starting the schism by undermining the true pope, was elected Pope Martin V by the Council of Constance.

The Colonna family went to work to restore the Church. The Church was relieved to be rid of the Great Western Schism, but the problems caused by Gallicanism and sedevacantism had not been solved.

In 1904 the Gerarchia Catholica reaffirmed that the popes of Rome were the legitimate popes and that the anti-popes of Avignon were not the true popes. Future legitimate popes took the names of the anti-popes of Avignon.[23] We see that through declining respect for the papacy and confusion on the issues relevant to the papacy the Great Western Schism was brought about. Future councils addressed the relevant issues and condemned many of the supporting errors that brought about this confusion.

A temporal kingdom would have succumbed thereto; but the organization of the spiritual kingdom was so wonderful, the ideal of the papacy so indestructible that this, the most serious of schisms, served only to demonstrate its indivisibility.[24]

part 3 >


7 The Glory of Christendom, p.390.

8 Fr. John Laux, Church History (Rockford: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1989, originally 1930), p.401.

9 Church History, p.401.

10 The Glory of Christendom, p.431.

11 Church History, p.404.

12 The Glory of Christendom, p.433.

13 Ibid., p.425.

14 Ibid., p.460.

15 Ibid., p.471.

16 Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. XII, “Pisa, Council of,” p.113.

17 Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. I, “Alexander V,” p.288.

18 Church History, p.407.

19 Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. VIII, “John XXIII,” p.435.

20 Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. IV, “Constance, Council of,” p.289.

21 Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. VII, “Gregory XII,” p.1.

22 Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. IV, “Constance, Council of," p.290.

23 Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. XIII, “Schism” p.541.

24 Ibid., p.541.