Do-It-Yourself Popes: the Wacky World of Sedevacantists
One Sunday in 1997 I went up to London to join a television audience at a general election special. As my train rolled into Victoria Station I knew I had some time to kill, so I didn't go into the Underground station straight away. Instead, I set off down Victoria Street in the direction of Westminster Cathedral, the center of Catholic life in England.
As I was passing the last block before the Cathedral piazza, I came upon two rather lonely-looking characters manning a wooden stall, strategically placed so as to be able to waylay any Catholics who might be on their way to Mass—or even Catholics like me, who weren't. I immediately recognized them as devotees of one of those radical traditionalist sects that try to appear Catholic but aren't. (It may be unfair to besmirch Catholics who consider themselves "traditionalists"—those with an attachment to the Tridentine liturgy licitly celebrated under the 1988 papal indult Ecclesia Dei—by using the same word to describe these wacky groups, but let the word "radical" suffice to make clear the distinction.)
Search the Internet and you will find most of these radical groups—which are invariably tiny—listed. Some are "sedevacantist," recognizing the See of Peter on the understanding that it is technically vacant. Others, including some whose priestly orders are disputed, are not in obedience to Pope John Paul II, whether or not they pay him lip service. The following list is not exhaustive, and there are certainly several more of these groups.
At least four have popes of their own. Two of them claim to be inspired by the approved apparitions of Our Lady at La Salette: the Order of the Magnificat of the Mother of God, led by Brother John (a.k.a. Pope Gregory XVII); and the Catholic Church under the French-based Msgr. Maurice Archieri, (whose infallibility evidently doesn't cover Latin grammar, judging by his title of "Vicarius Christus [should be "Christi"] Pierre II").
Then there are the ones I met that Sunday in London. In fact, I had met them many years before as a lapsed Catholic undergraduate student, when one of them collared me on almost the same spot and gave the mainstream Catholic Church a serious shellacking. This time, feigning ignorance in order to break the ice a little, I asked them what their denomination was about. They said in no uncertain terms that the current order of the Mass is invalid and a Satanic abomination and that both popes since Paul VI have been impostors.
Their main man, "Pope" Gregory XVII of the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and Palmarian Church, is Clemente Dominguez y Gomez, who resides at Palmar de Troya in Spain. He owes his glittering career to a set of alleged apparitions of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which began on March 30, 1968, amid a host of alleged healings, stigmata, and other signs, wonders, and prophecies. Several different seers were involved, including Clemente himself, from September 30, 1969.
The local hierarchy soon condemned the apparitions and all their works. The supernatural message from Palmar was that Pope Paul VI was being kept a drugged prisoner in the Vatican. The real rulers of the Church were a clique of Freemasons and Communists who were playing havoc with the doctrine and worship of the Church. (Amid all this mayhem, it is truly a wonder that Humanae Vitae, dated July 25, 1968, ever escaped into the light of day)
The maverick Vietnamese archbishop Ngo-Dinh Thuc ordained Clemente to the priesthood and consecrated him a bishop in January 1976. Four months later the unfortunate Clemente lost his sight in a car accident. But this did not prevent him seeing Jesus come to him with news of his promotion to the novel post of Sub-Vicar of Christ, a kind of coadjutor to the non compos mentis Paul VI. Sure enough, after Paul's death, Jesus came with Peter and Paul to give Clemente the biggest goody bag in history: They crowned him Pope Gregory XVII and promised that he would one day become a great sword-swinging, world-conquering emperor as well.
The Palmarian deception is easy for any well-instructed Catholic to spot. Its top error is that God has taken the office of Peter from the Bishop of Rome and given it to the "Bishop" of Palmar de Troya. If Clemente was more on the ball he would have known that the office of Peter cannot be taken from the Bishop of Rome, and the smart move for him would have been to claim to be the titular Bishop of Rome.
What is uniquely amiss with the Palmarian sect is that they break rule number one of private revelations. Authentic or bogus, private revelations are of no value for making judgments about the validity of laws of the Church or the state. No private revelation can establish that this or that pope is legitimate.
A fourth do-it-yourself pope is a former Capuchin priest, Lucian Pulvermacher, now gloriously reigning from a post office box in Kalispell, Montana. He claims that the Church has been without a true pope from the death of Pius XII until October 24, 1998, when, to a resounding "Habemus Papam," Pulvermacher was "elected" as Pius XIII. His Urbi et Orbi address the following week contained accusations that made the Nuremberg indictments look like a list of traffic violations: John XXIII was secretly a Rosicrucian Freemason. His election was invalid and so were the Second Vatican Council and all its works. Pope Paul VI was a "minion of Satan" and "the Antichrist." The order of the Mass and ordination according to the current rite are, of course, invalid.
Rejection of the current order of the Mass and of Vatican II is common to all these radical traditionalist sects. It is based on faulty sacramental theology and an erroneous understanding of the powers of the supreme authority of the Church.
First, the sacramental theology: In order to be valid, a sacramental sign must have the essentials needed to signify what the Church does. The first of these is the correct matter, which is something with which or to which the form is applied to effect a sacrament: water for baptism, bread and wine for the Eucharist, oil for confirmation. The second essential is the form, namely the words and gestures that specify the sacrament. The third essential is the intention on the part of the minister at least of doing what the Church does when it confers the sacrament.
A final requirement for the validity of a sacrament is that it must be free from any invalidating impediment established by Church law. If it is, and if the requisite matter, form and intention are present, then it is valid even if it is otherwise administered in violation of Church law. The Church is perfectly competent to make laws on the non-essential (ceremonial) parts of the liturgy and to determine the requirements of validity in cases of doubtful form.
Remember that the Church, once established by Christ in the Holy Spirit, is his mystical Body where man is brought and kept in union with God as was the physical body in which Christ walked this earth. This union was beyond even sinless human nature. Christ's divine power kept his human body and soul in union with his divinity. In the same way, no one can ever enter the visible company of the Church or remain within it without the assistance of the power of the Holy Spirit. It should be noted that the Holy Spirit never withdraws this assistance unless a party chooses to leave the Church by performing a deliberate, formal act of defection.
Church membership is a supernatural gift of God, given at baptism together with the sanctifying grace that makes us pleasing to God and fit for heaven. The two are not the same, and either grace can often exist without the other in the same person. The grace necessary to remain in the fullness of baptismal and Eucharistic communion in the Church, and in submission to the successor of Peter, comes only from participation in the sacraments and above all in the Eucharistic Body and Blood of Christ. Lex orandi, lex credendi. as you pray, so you believe. Catholic worship generates Catholic faith.
The radical traditionalists cannot be right about the current rite of Mass because, if they were, it would mean that many millions of Catholics receive ordinary bread and wine that they are fooled into thinking is the Body and Blood of Christ. In that case their worship would no longer be authentically Catholic. In very short order, they would have defected from the Church just as the first Protestants did.
If a community calls itself Catholic but has an invalid Eucharist, it is only a matter of time before it breaks visible communion with the universal Church, since it has ceased to draw on the life which flows from the Eucharist itself. This important insight tells us that the sacraments of the current rite are indeed valid, since they are celebrated in unbroken communion with Churches that celebrate the Eastern liturgies. Only the Latin liturgy was affected by the changes decreed by the Second Vatican Council. The Eastern Catholic Churches worship in the same way after the council as they did before, and as they have done for ages. When I ran this point past the Palmarians I met near Victoria Station, they closed the conversation down so hard you would think they had lost the argument and knew it.
The sedevacantists—and the elect-your-own-pope brigade in particular—commonly claim that every pope after Pius XII (or at least the most recent ones) was not validly in office. Paul VI and his successors, they say, excommunicated themselves by heresy or apostasy and could not therefore hold any office in the Church. Pulvermacher additionally claims that John XXIII excommunicated himself the day he allegedly joined the Freemasons. These allegations prove nothing except that the sedevacantists do not know their canon law. They ignore the fact that, under canon 1331 section 1 of the current Code of Canon Law (and canon 2264 of the 1917 code), excommunication only prevents a person from lawfully exercising an ecclesiastical office. Only if a superior has imposed or declared the excommunication can he, under section 2, not validly assume a new office or exercise powers of Church governance. In any case, it is a matter of historical record that no pope has ever obstinately professed heresy or apostasy.
The radical traditionalists' rule bending also extends to twisting the truth concerning the powers of the pope and the College of Bishops. Specifically, they ascribe infallibility to legislative documents such as the decree Quo Primum of Pius V on the Tridentine liturgy, and to papal encyclicals from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The truth is that they are not infallible at all and can therefore be reformed. Nothing a pope or a council does is irreformable except for infallible definitions.
The pope is the only earthly ruler who rules specifically by divine right. His office has been expressly established by Christ, who has given him full powers to command whatever is necessary or useful for the good of the Church, subject to no limits except the rule of faith and the moral order. In the ecclesiastical sphere, only those commands of his that are contrary to faith or to morals are void. Otherwise, he exercises powers that are attached to the office by divine mandate, and which not even the pope can sever from it.
A pope cannot bind his own future actions, or those of a future council, or any of his successors by anything other than an infallible and definitive teaching on faith or morals. This is why it was perfectly lawful to revise the Tridentine liturgy.
The number of Catholics who have been deceived into following radical traditionalist sects is mercifully small. The fact that these groups exist at all is perhaps a signal to us who follow the true successor of Peter to ensure that we are as well instructed in the theology of the sacraments and of Church authority as we are on more familiar Catholic topics.
© This Rock, Catholic Answers, P.O. Box 17490, San Diego, CA 92177, (619) 541-1131.
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