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Sedevacantism: An attack on the Church’s Authority Principle

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 21, 2019

Sedevacantism (from the Latin words sede vacante, or “empty chair”) is the theory that the See of Peter is vacant, and that this explains current problems in the papacy and the Church. The attraction of the theory is that it relieves us of the burden of obedience to the alleged pope, who (according to the theory) is not really a pope at all.

I thought I had treated this thoroughly in the past, but when I looked back, I found I had only touched the surface of the problem in my 2013 essay, Sedevacantism: A Conspiracy to Waste Your Time. Since the theory has cropped up again in certain circles—for the fifth time in my lifetime alone!—perhaps I should apply the coup de grace. For not only is sedevacantism a theory typically advanced with genuinely foolish arguments (which was my main point in 2013) but it also strikes a serious blow against what makes the Catholic Church special. It attacks what we call the Authority Principle.

The Principle of Authority in Religion

The question of spiritual authority plagues (or ought to plague) all religions. In the first place, the problem of authority causes intelligent observers to reject immediately the reliability of any religion which does not claim to be revealed by God. If we confine ourselves, then, to those religions which do claim to be revealed by God, we run into a second problem with authority. Even if the initiating Revelation is credible—that is, attested by signs and wonders that can come only from God—how do we know that the religion or church which claims to carry on this revelation can be trusted to elucidate and interpret it correctly over time?

The question of authority lies at the very core of religious belief because, first, we cannot know much about God and His Plan unless He reveals it and, second, we cannot intelligently accept as authentic any custodian of this Revelation unless it can establish its claim to preserve, explicate and interpret the Revelation without error over time. Yes, I know that many people are slipshod in their methods, accepting all sorts of alleged authority without raising intelligent questions. Nonetheless, when put to the test, the question of this authority is paramount.

This is so true that it would be ridiculous to suppose God would claim to complete a self-Revelation in history without finding a way to secure that Revelation against the ravages of human confusion over time. What, after all, would be the point?

Now: It so happens that the Catholic Church is unique among all religions in that it contains within it what we call an “authority principle”. This principle guarantees the veracity of its teaching down through the ages, long after the original Revelation was received. This is so important that any serious reflection upon it enables us to understand immediately that the lack of such an authority principle, in any religion, is a very serious problem indeed.

As a matter of historical confirmation, we can see the difference between having an authority principle and not having one, even within Christianity, by comparing Catholicism to Protestantism. Even casual observers can see that Protestantism has, in its various forms, changed its teachings and beliefs in significant ways, quite literally hundreds of times if not thousands, with the necessary effect that the various sects disagree significantly with each other on even the most central points of faith and morals.

Clearly, this will not do.

The Catholic Authority Principle

The authority principle in Catholicism consists of Christ’s establishment of the Petrine authority, by which the successors of Peter confirm their brethren in the Faith until Christ comes again at the end of time. This principle is rooted in the prayer and promise of Christ, as preserved in Scripture (e.g., Mt 16:18-19; Lk 22:31-32; Jn 21:15-17; Acts 15:7-12) and in Tradition, and as articulated and exercised consistently from the very first by the Church Christ established to bring His salvation to the ends of the earth. It is just this that is the unique claim of the Catholic Church.

When it comes to reliance on the authority principle, it is also vital that Catholics know exactly when it is in active operation, and when it is not. Catholics have always believed, and the Church has defined this clearly, that the vicars of Christ on earth speak infallibly, with the full authority of Christ, whenever they (a) teach (b) on a matter of faith or morals (c) to the whole Church (d) by virtue of their supreme Petrine authority. This guarantee is sufficient to its purpose, which is to maintain integrity of Divine teaching within the Church until Christ’s return. Its essence is that the Pope cannot bind the whole Church to error, and so Christ’s promise to be with the Church until the end of time cannot turn out to be a lie.

The teaching authority of the Pope, then, is guaranteed in its clear and specific operations, by the same Holy Spirit who guarantees the veracity of Scripture itself. To effect its purpose—which is, obviously, to ensure that the Catholic Church remains essentially credible throughout history—it need not be any stronger or more complicated than it is, nor can it be any less.

Notice, then, that this authority principle instituted by Christ, and unique to Catholicism, has been Divinely established without any guarantee that popes will be good men, intelligent men, clear thinkers, or free from confusion, personal errors, and even sinful and scandalous behavior. None of these inevitable human shortcomings affects the authority principle in the slightest. When any pope makes formally clear that he is deliberately “confirming the brethren” in their faith, the truth of his statement is keep free from error by God Himself. Nothing more, and nothing less, is guaranteed, or needs to be guaranteed, in a Church necessarily made up of sinners.

Sedevacantism

The possibility of the active exercise of the authority principle exists, therefore, only when there is a pope in office. The impossibility of its exercise exists, in other words, only when the See of Peter is vacant, and it is just this that brings us to sedevacantism.

The only time the See of Peter can be known to be vacant is during an interregnum, if the Church has not yet elected a successor in accordance with the provisions put into effect by the last pope who modified those provisions. While there could be (and has been) temporary confusion about the existence or outcome of a papal election in periods when rival bodies of cardinals purported to elect alternative popes—and full accounts of the situation were impeded by slow or unreliable communications—it is hard to imagine a case in which such confusion could arise even temporarily in the era of constant news coverage and instant communications.

In any case, we can always tell when the papacy becomes vacant owing to either death or resignation, both of which are possible. And we can always tell whether the next pope has been elected or not and, if so, when, and who he is. Apart from these questions, there is no possibility of the See of Peter being vacant. We may easily admit the fact that the See of Peter is, at some times, vacant. But we cannot accord the same veracity to sedevacantism when it becomes a theory.

The theory of sedevacantism is a ridiculous intellectual tool, used by those who do not like what they see in a particular pope (whether for good or bad reasons), in order to proclaim that one of the following conclusions is true:

  • The ideas held or the actions taken by an ostensible pope prove that he cannot have been elected at all (which can be easily checked); (or)
  • By virtue of the ideas an alleged pope holds or the actions he takes, he has proven he could not be validly elected (which is nonsensical, there being no such conditions); (or)
  • For the same reasons, the alleged pope has ceased to be pope (which is impossible without death or resignation).

This is why I have sometimes characterized sedevacantism as a way some people have of ignoring a pope they do not like. This is true whether or not they dislike him for good or bad reasons. But perhaps it is better to say the theory is a way people have of making themselves comfortable again in the face of a pope they find insupportable. Yet no such comforts are promised by God to any Christian. The tests of fidelity we all face are as many and varied as the human weaknesses on which they depend.

The principle of private judgment at work

The astute reader will see in an instant that any such judgment is a private judgment. For one reason or another, we conclude—based on our own judgment of a pope’s character or impact on the Church or faith or morals—that this person who calls himself “the pope” has either ceased to be the pope or must never really have been the pope. We decide this, then, not by the historical fact of his election, but based on our own fallible reading of another person’s character, our own deficient understanding of faith and morals, and our own presumptuous determination of what God will or will not permit to happen in his Church.

But what God will or will not permit is very clear. He will not permit the vicar of Christ to bind the whole Church to error through an official Magisterial act. Beyond that, He will permit—and has repeatedly permitted—every kind of evil in the men who have been elected to the papacy, for the simple reason that nothing else invalidates His own promises to be with the Church. When we go beyond this guarantee—when we insist that such-and-such a situation is so bad that the supposed occupant of the See of Peter is obviously not a real pope at all—we are simply exercising our own private judgment.

But all such private judgments make us...Protestants. We deny the reality and sufficiency of the authority principle which is unique to Catholicism, in favor of trusting our own judgment (whether from otherwise excellent motives or horrible ones). And in doing so, we throw into question whether we can ever really be obliged to recognize and obey a particular vicar of Christ or not.

Indeed, the sedevacantist theory is really one more form of Protestantism, most commonly a Traditionalist form (Traditionalist separatism, by the way, is very like Protestant separatism). WE see that this alleged papacy is insupportable. It is OBVIOUS TO US (based on whatever criteria we declare entirely on our own to be certain). Therefore, we KNOW that this pope is an impostor, and we reject his authority.

Congratulations to all who do this! They have succeeded in setting up a new religion, just as Luther did. But they have not chosen to base it on a Divine certainty. They have forgotten a wise observation made by a most unlikely critic of the Church. When a young admirer came to Voltaire in great excitement about starting a new religion, Voltaire brought him up short: “If you want to start a new religion,” he said, “begin by getting yourself killed, and then rise again on the third day.”

Suffering under a bad pope is far preferable to sedevacantism. The damage a bad pope can do is limited by Divine decree. The damage we ourselves can do is not.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: John J Plick - Nov. 25, 2019 3:23 PM ET USA

    You are treading a very narrow path Dr. Mirus… Let's just say I am not buying any "Pachamama's" for Christmas presents... The inviolability of the Petrine Office gives only a cold comfort in the shadow of idolatry...! John J Plick

  • Posted by: rdennehy8049 - Nov. 25, 2019 9:47 AM ET USA

    Excellent article. Should be required to be distributed at all churches.