Is sedevacantism Catholic? (3)

Is sedevacantism Catholic?

Part 3 (of 4)


Gallicanism: This term is used to designate a certain group of religious opinions for some time peculiar to the Church of France, or Gallican Church, and the theological schools of that country. These opinions, in opposition to the ideas which were called in France “Ultramontane,” tended chiefly to a restraint of the pope’s authority in the Church in favor of that of the bishop and the temporal ruler.[25]

These ideas stemmed from times when the popes made concessions to Pepin and Charles the Great in the ruling of the Church in their countries which were to be exercised only under papal control.[26] These ideals were brought forward and promoted more to promote an argument than as a “deliberate opinion maturely conceived and conscious of its own meaning.”[27]

The first glimmerings of the Gallican ideas surfaced during the conflict between Philip the Fair and Boniface VIII in the 1300’s.[28] In 1681 a General Assembly of the French clergy summoned by Louis XIV, King of France, obtained the “Declaration of the Four Articles,” known as the Four Gallican Propositions, namely that:

  • The pope may not interfere directly or indirectly with the temporal concerns of princes.
  • In spiritual matters a General Council is superior to the pope.
  • The rights and customs of the Gallican church are inviolable.
  • The Pope is not infallible, even in matters of Faith, unless his decision is confirmed by the consent of the Church.[29]

From the second proposition or ideal came the idea that a pope can be judged by a council and of course if a council can judge the pope then so can individuals because individuals make up the councils. This Gallican proposition is the tap root of sedevacantism:

Stricken to death, as a free opinion, by the Council of the Vatican (I), Gallicanism could survive only as a heresy; the Old Catholics have endeavored to keep it alive under this form.[30]

It is from the roots of the Old Catholics that some of today’s sedevacantist bishops come.


In considering sedevacantism, one of the key issues is that of infallibility, not just of the pope, but also of councils and of the Church as a whole.

The issue isn’t so much whether or not the pope is infallible, but rather whether the Church will always have a pope that remains infallible. Some of the authorities say such things as: “To be taught to all men in all ages to every generation”[31] and, “Hence, St. Peter is here promised the authority necessary to keep the Church together and to make it endure. Unless this is so, Christ’s words are meaningless,”[32] and the Church was not made for a single generation alone. She was to continue according to Christ’s promise, “until the consummation of the world.” What had been instituted by Christ, in Peter, must necessarily, when St. Peter died, be left to the heirs of his power. It is an undeniable historical fact that these heirs were the bishops of the City of Rome[33] and the headship must also endure until the end of time. The divinely established constitution of the Church cannot be changed; otherwise the Church would cease to be Christ’s Church. If a visible authority was needed so close to Christ’s own lifetime, it was surely necessary when the Church had grown with the passage of time,[34] and on the practical plane:

As a nation has its  responsible ruler, a judiciary its supreme court, an army its commander-in-chief, and a ship its captain so must the Catholic hierarchy have a responsible, recognized head, who shall give a final decision in matters of faith and morals. And this has always been the case.[35]

It seems there should be no question but that there is to be a pope in all ages. The longest period of time in the history of the Church (even in times of extreme persecution) for the seat of Peter to be vacant was a little over two years.

Once one agrees that there will always be a pope, the question may remain: “When is the pope infallible?” A quotation from the dogmatic Vatican Council I describes the condition for the infallibility of his extraordinary (or ex cathedra) Magisterium:

That is why, by attaching ourselves faithfully to the tradition which comes down to us from the origins of the Christian faith, for the glory of God our Savior, the exaltation of the Catholic religion and the salvation of the peoples, with the approval of the sacred Council, we teach and define that it is a divinely revealed dogma that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra—that is, when exercising his office as Shepherd and Teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals which is to be held by the universal Church—thanks to the divine assistance promised to blessed Peter, he enjoys that infallibility which the divine Redeemer wished to confer on His Church in the definition of doctrines of faith or morals; and therefore the definitions of the same Roman Pontiff are, by themselves and not by virtue of the consent of the Church, irreformable.[36]

This does not mean that the Pope cannot make a mistake or commit a sin or that he can teach on any subject which strikes his fancy or that he is inspired by God. It does mean that under certain conditions the Pope is preserved from error, namely:

  1. When he speaks ex cathedra, as supreme shepherd and teacher of all Christians, and successor of St. Peter;
  2. When he defines a doctrine, i.e., when he makes it clear that the doctrine must be believed with a firm, interior assent of faith;
  3. When the doctrine defined concerns faith or morals, i.e., when it belongs to the doctrinal teachings or the moral principles of the Catholic religion as found in Scripture or Tradition;
  4. When he speaks thus to the whole Church, intending to bind all its members throughout the world.

 The pope does not claim to speak infallibly unless all of these conditions are simultaneously present.[37]

As we saw in a study of the times of the Great Western Schism, popes in the past have taken positions contrary to the teaching of the Church but never has there been a pope who has spoken ex cathedra (with authority) against the teaching of the Church.[38] To drive home the point, here is another quote on the subject of the conditions of infallibility:

The conditions required for ex cathedra teaching are mentioned in the Vatican [I Council] decree:

  • The pontiff must teach in his public and official capacity as pastor and doctor of all Christians, not merely in his private capacity as a theologian, preacher or elocutionist, nor in his capacity as a temporal prince or as a mere ordinary of the Diocese of Rome. It must be clear that he speaks as spiritual head of the Church universal.
  • Then it is only when, in this capacity, he teaches some doctrine of faith or morals that he is infallible....
  • Further it must be sufficiently evident that he intends to teach with all the fullness and finality of his supreme Apostolic authority, in other words that he wishes to determine some point of doctrine in an absolutely final and irrevocable way, or to define it in the technical sense....
  • Finally for an ex cathedra decision it must be clear that the pope intends to bind the whole Church, to demand internal assent from all the faithful to his teaching under pain of incurring spiritual shipwreck.[39]

The teachers of sedevacantism tell us that if the pope errs and takes a position contrary to the teaching of the Church, then he is no longer a Catholic and therefore is not the pope, therefore the Chair of Peter would be vacant.  Not true, as the histories of Pope John XXII,[40, 41] Pope St. Liberius, Pope Honorius and Pope Vigilius[42] have shown us, and the above imprimatured statements truthfully show.

But the teachers of sedevacantism say that the Church is infallible and cannot err, and that the Novus Ordo Church teaches error, therefore it is not Catholic, and that any man who claims to be the pope of such a church is not Catholic, therefore the Chair of Peter is vacant. They base their ideas on some truth but it is twisted and distorted. The following quotation contains some of the basis for their ideas:

We said already that the pope uses his infallibility when the conditions requisite for its exercise are present. He is personally infallible; no other bishop is. But, as a body, united to their head, the pope, the bishops are infallible when they teach peremptorily. This they can do in two ways:

  • By their ordinary day-to-day united teaching by means of catechisms, ceremonies, traditional liturgical rites, pastoral letters, general condemnations, provincial or plenary councils, the tacit approval of the unanimous teachings of theologians. When the bishops are morally unanimous in teaching a doctrine as a of faith or morals, or in reprobating one as a heretic they are infallible in their ordinary teaching;
  • By assembling in general or ecumenical councils. A general council is a gathering of the bishops of the whole world, or of so many of them that they represent the whole world. To be ecumenical a council must be convoked by the pope; presided over by the pope, either in person or through his legates; ratified by the pope. An assembly of bishops without the pope would not be ecumenical or infallible.[43]

The element of truth here is the unanimous teachings of the Church as guaranteed by the infallibility of the ordinary Magisterium. The Second Vatican Council, however,  does not fit the criteria of unanimity in time and place. The Arian heresy proved that most of the Church could accept error with even the pope failing to condemn it.[44, 45, 46] The Church, like the pope, may establish infallible dogma in a dogmatic council, but neither are impeccable.

Since the pope has the potential of being infallible and that infallibility comes from God and not from any action of man, it is a function of infallibility that man can not judge the pope. The Eighth General Synod put it quite well:

If a universal synod be assembled and any ambiguity or controversy arise concerning the Holy Church of the Romans, the question should be examined and solved with due reverence and veneration, in a spirit of mutual helpfulness; no sentence should be audaciously pronounced against the supreme pontiff of the elder Rome.[47]

I have heard it said that if the pope says that he does not believe a proclaimed dogma of the Church then we would know that he is a heretic and therefore he would no longer be the pope. This is not true. For one thing, we do not know what is in the heart or mind of the pope and have no right to judge. Even if the pope is 100 percent a heretic, it doesn’t prove that he is not the pope. Just because some have said that if the pope becomes a heretic he then loses the authority of the papacy, this doesn’t make it so. The Church has never taught this, for to do so would undermine the papacy. Such a thing has never happened in all the history of the Church though, as we saw in the times of the Great Western Schism, men have made themselves believe this did happen, but I am sure the pope will never be a manifest heretic because it stands against the purpose of the papacy.

In the case of John XXII, as we saw in the times preceding the Great Western Schism, he took a view which was contrary to the tradition of the Church, and it was a heretical position, but a heretic may not understand the malice of his position until the Church officially corrects the heretic, as the University of Paris did John XXII. Upon receiving notice of the Church’s teaching, John XXII had a study made of the issue and corrected his error. As a result, he never was a formal heretic. To make a mistake is expected of humans, but to hold to that mistake when shown one’s mistaken belief is where guilt of heresy is established.[48]

The Church teaches that, when the pope speaks ex cathedra (infallibly), we are required to follow his teaching or lose the Faith. The personal opinions of a pope may stray from defined dogma but the Church remains the same and we are obliged to follow the dogmas and traditions of the Church.

If sedevacantism were simply a misunderstanding about whether or not the present pope is pope, there wouldn’t be much reason to spend time or energy in exposing and opposing it, for men make wrong choices all the time. However, sedevacantism doesn’t simply stand by itself, but has supporting ideals which oppose the Faith. Sedevacantism must be exposed and opposed, as we saw with Gallicanism, because of its disrespect for the pope and the desire for the right to judge the pope.


The strongest reason for opposing sedevacantism is that it stands against the visible Church. We have had popes who have been anti-popes but this occurred while there were true popes. The confusion was with men, not the Church...: is clear that the Church founded by Christ is a visible church not a purely spiritual association. The Church of Christ is a public society consisting of rulers and subjects. This society had to be public and visible in order that those desirous of salvation might be able to find it and join it.[49]

...Christ established a society ruled by a single supreme head. We have seen also that that society was to endure until the end of time. Therefore, the headship must also endure until the end of time [my emphasis]. The divinely established constitution of the Church cannot be changed; otherwise the Church would cease to be Christ’s Church.[50]

Sedevacantism says that the chair can, in a way that would be misleading, be vacant. This violates the first quotation which reminds us that one of the main purposes of the Church is to be visible so those seeking the Faith can find it. In the second quotation, we are reminded that the Church is to endure to the end of time and thus the papacy. True, we have seen that the papacy was vacant for some time, but all knew it was vacant and anxiously awaited a new pontiff. So the position being vacant didn’t serve to confuse as to where the one true Church was. There had been imposter popes who caused confusion as to which pope was the true pope, but there was no confusion as to what was the one true Faith. The belief of sedevacantism that the accepted pope could no longer be the pope while the faithful still believed he was would lead men not to the Faith but to a false religion which opposes the purpose of the Church.

Some other similar sources state the importance of the visibility of the papacy:

Moreover, it is entirely necessary that there should be a supreme head, visible to all.[51] ...Him who is the visible foundation of the Church’s indefectibility.[52]

From the Council of Trent:

...the visible one, the pope, who as legitimate successor of Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, fills the Apostolic chair... It is the unanimous teaching of the Fathers that this visible head is necessary to establish and preserve unity in the Church.[53]

From the I Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution:

He made Peter a perpetual principle of this twofold unity and a visible Foundation.[54]

...the Church, besides an invisible Head in heaven, must have a visible head on earth.

The body and members of the Church are visible; why not also the Head?

The Church without a supreme Ruler would be like an army without a general, a navy without an admiral, a sheepfold without a shepherd, or like a human body without a head.[55]

Again from the Council of Trent, “A visible Church requires a visible head...”[56]; and finally, “As St. John Chrysostom so truly said: ‘It is easier for the sun to be quenched than for the Church to be made invisible.’”[57]

part 4 >


25 Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. VI, “Gallicanism,” p.351.

26 Ibid., Gallicanism, p.352.

27 Ibid., Gallicanism, p.353.

28 Ibid., Gallicanism, p.353.

29 Church History, p.508.

30 Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. VI, “Gallicanism,” p.355.

31 Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. VII, “Infallibility,” p.791.

32 Rev. Francis J. Ripley, This Is the Faith (Guild Press, Inc., 1960, first published in 1951), p.147.

33 Vladimir D’Ormesson, The Papacy (Hawthorn Books, 1958, as volume 81 of the Twentieth Century Encyclopedia of Catholicism), p.113.

34 This Is the Faith, p.160.

35 Stoddard, Rebuilding a Lost Faith, p.144. Quoted in,  Rev. John Laux, M.A., A Course in Religion (Benzinger Brothers, Inc., 1934), p.118.

36 The Papacy, pp.114 and 115.

37 This Is the Faith, p.170.

38 Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. VII, “Infallibility,” p.799.

39 Ibid., p.796.

40 Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. VIII, “John XXII,” p.433.

41 The Glory of Christendom, pp. 371-373.

42 Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. VII, “Infallibility,” p.798.

43 This Is the Faith, pp.172-173.

44 Warren H. Carroll, The Building of Christendom (Christendom College Press, 1987), pp.15-53.

45 Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. I, “Arianism,” pp.708-710.

46 Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. II, “St. Athanasius,” pp.37-40.

47 Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. IV, “Councils,” p.435.

48 Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. XIII, “Schism,” pp.540-541.

49 Rev. John Laux M.A., A Course in Religion, Part IV (Benzinger Brothers, Inc., 1934), p.96.

50 This Is the Faith, p.160.

51 Msgr. Joseph Clifford Fenton, The Catholic Church and Salvation (The Newman Press, 1958), p.82.

52 Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. VII, “Infallibility,” p.797.

53 Catechism of the Council of Trent (Madan Publications, 1972), p.102.

54 Jesuit Fathers of St. Mary’s College, The Church Teaches (Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1973, originally published, 1955), p.95.

55 Cardinal James Gibbons, The Faith of Our Fathers (Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1980, originally 1876), p.80.

56 Catechism of the Council of Trent, p.104.

57 This Is the Faith, p.126.