Sede Vacantism: A Conspiracy to Waste Your Time
A friend passed along a message from someone arguing that recent popes have not really been popes at all—in other words, that the See of Peter is vacant—which conveniently explains all the problems we have. The theory is called sede vacantism (from sede vacante, or empty chair). I wrote out a quick answer, and then decided I might as well publish it in case it would be of use to others. Perhaps it is not as polished as my usual commentaries, but here goes:
Dear Mrs. X –
People who hold the views in the email are already deep into conspiracy theory. They are not rational, and there is nothing to be gained from arguing with them. Catholics need to know when they are being baited, and should refuse to be drawn in unless they want to waste huge amounts of their time. These messages are much like the constant messages you get warning about computer viruses. The message IS the virus. It is designed, in effect, to clog your brain, to waste your time. I don’t mean the individual sender intends this; but the Devil certainly does.
For some peculiar reason, people who subscribe to such theories seem to be able to pile up instance after instance of this or that which “proves” their theory. Taken as a whole, the sheer volume of instances begins to sound plausible. The trouble is that, as far as they are concerned, virtually everything proves their theory (kind of like the jokes about global warming). This is classic conspiracy theory monomania. You might remember the John Birch Society and other conspiracy theory groups who in the fifties, sixties and seventies were convinced that the Communists were directly responsible for everything wrong with American society. They divided people into three groups: Communists, dupes, and true believers. The best way to summarize this intellectual myopia is that when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem begins to look suspiciously like a nail.
Still, even though it would constitute a very unusual sort of calling to take the time to refute these things point by point—because it is a task that would never end—there are certain classic mistakes that the sede vacantists make in all their reasoning. For example:
- They will cite private views expressed by a pope or views expressed before he was pope as evidence against the possibility of his being the pope. But such views are irrelevant.
- They will almost always take statements, both theological and dogmatic, out of context, understanding them in ways that were not intended by the author or are not intended by the Church.
- They will cite as heresies ideas that they believe contradict certain teachings of the Church, but without fully understanding what the relevant statements of the Magisterium actually require us to affirm or deny. (They are certain that they know what the Church means by X when they haven’t studied all the Magisterial statements which bear on X in order to gain a proper understanding.)
- They will cite older statements of the Magisterium against later statements of the Magisterium, claiming there is a conflict. But both statements are equally guaranteed by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, any conflict is caused by our misunderstanding. The correct understanding of any Catholic teaching is always an understanding which allows for the truth of all Scriptural and Magisterial statements which bear upon it. To allege a contradiction is to argue circularly; it is to assume what you are trying to prove—namely that the later Magisterium has erred. If we assume, as we must, that the later Magisterium has not erred, then the proper task emerges: to find an understanding which satisfies all Magisterial statements.
- They will cite saints against the Magisterium. St. Thomas Aquinas said X, they may argue, and so the Second Vatican Council was wrong when it said Y. But saints have no guarantees of theological accuracy. What saints do is accept Magisterial correction if they make a mistake. Thus St. Thomas Aquinas, at a point in history when the question was still unsettled by the Magisterium, thought it to be false that Mary was immaculately conceived. He was wrong. It happens to the best of us, but it does not happen to the Magisterium.
- They fail to properly identify cause and effect. Because the rapid secularization of modern culture (which has been in process for half a millennium but with a vengeance in the last part of the 20th century) infected the Church and caused all kinds of problems, and because ecclesiastical discipline has been lax, they assume the Magisterium has taught error, or the alleged pope must be a heretic or the See of Peter is vacant, or some such thing.
- In all, then, they are historically and culturally blind. They do not understand complex cultural problems and, in particular, they have no sense of the grave and even endemic problems the Church has suffered in many, probably most, preceding periods. In the end, they fail to distinguish between the sins of the members of the Church and the divine guarantees the Church still possesses as the bride of Christ, without spot or wrinkle (Eph 5:27), with whom Christ promised to be present until the end of time (Mt 28:20).
In closing, it may be helpful to remember the humorous bit of evidence the sede vacantists were fond of trotting out some twenty or thirty years go. Believing the papacy to have been validly staffed until the implementation of the Second Vatican Council, they argued that a properly-elected Pope Paul VI had been kidnapped. They provided “before” and “after” pictures of what was obviously the same person except for changes in age. They noted that the Pope’s nose was slightly thinner and more angular in the “after picture”, and presented this as proof that Paul VI had been replaced with a substitute, and that the plastic surgery had been imperfect.
This was said about a man who was constantly followed by the press, and was known personally to huge numbers of people, much like an American president. We might expect to see this in a movie, perhaps, but even there we would enjoy it only if it were well done enough for us to succeed in suspending our disbelief!
As I said, you do not want to be drawn in unless you have a lifetime to spend, and you enjoy arguing without results. There really is a sort of madness to these assertions. It is a dangerous road.
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Posted by: koinonia -
Feb. 09, 2013 10:46 AM ET USA
Sede Vacantism is a path of least resistance. Yes, there is a fundamental problem in "suspending our disbelief." Catholics must apprehend reality and reality is inseparable from catholicity. Thus entertaining the fantastic as reality is fundamentally uncatholic. (This is the argument of Bishop Fellay when he dismisses Sede Vacantism). Additionally, the secular infiltration argument-in isolation- is also lacking. There is (in all reality) a certain mystery in what the Church endures today.
Posted by: lovison4584 -
Feb. 08, 2013 7:07 PM ET USA
Sedevacantism is more that a waste of time. It has kept good Catholics in schism since the 1960's.
Posted by: Jason C. -
Feb. 08, 2013 1:42 PM ET USA
Perhaps the best summary of this position is a comparison to Luther: Luther usurped the role of the Magisterium as interpreter of Sacred Scripture and proclaimed a contradiction between Scripture and the Church, and the sedevacantists (and other radical traditionalists) usurp the role of the Magisterium as interpreter of Sacred Tradition and proclaim a contradiction between Tradition and the Church. In both cases, the answer is simple: Who Decides?
Posted by: jacquebquique5708 -
Feb. 08, 2013 11:01 AM ET USA
The problem with your logic is the writings of Malalchi Martin. He predicted all of the problems generated through Vatican II. There is no doubt at all that the good intentions of VII were hijacked. JPII was able to stop the decay and Benedict followed up with great bishopric appointments. There are still grave rebellions fighting the reform of the Church. The gravest of these is the move by the laity to take over the Church as the "priesthood of the laity" and a merging with govt socialism.
Posted by: -
Feb. 08, 2013 3:20 AM ET USA
What is interesting is that sedevacantists and "Catholic" radicals, have a similar attitude to Church history, dividing it into a bad period, from which the Church needs to be liberated and a good period. The Sedevacantists place the good period in the pre-Conciliar past."Catholic" radicals believe the exact opposite: the past was benighted, the Council could have been liberating, but only a "new" Council can "renew" the Church. Both deny that throughout history, the Lord protects His Church.
Posted by: Jason C. -
Feb. 07, 2013 12:12 PM ET USA
And I frequently find sedes will have other conspiracy theories they hold to--everything's Jews-this, Masons-that, Communists, etc. I guess it's kind of a package deal for radically conservative/traditional Catholics, buy one get the rest half-off or something. I'm sympathetic because it really is a certain mentality or personality that is affected by or attracted to these ideas, and no doubt a constant source of temptation for them: we all want to make sense of a totally messed-up world.