Sedevacantism: Material or Formal Schism

In this article

  1. The Catholic Church will always have a pope
  2. The Catholic Church is not in an interregnum
  3. The Catholic Church will always be visible and will always have a pope who is visible to all
  4. The man whom the whole Church accepts as pope, is the pope
  5. Rash judgment: concluding the pope is a formal heretic
  6. Sedevacantism is un-Catholic because it is revolutionary
  7. Our Catholic duty: resist the harm done by a bad pope but (of course) recognize his authority
  8. Judging the pope’s words and deeds according to Catholic tradition
  9. An example of a pope teaching heresy before his election and during his reign

1. The Catholic Church Will Always Have a Pope

Because the conciliar popes regularly commit shocking scandals, a Catholic might be tempted to the visceral reaction that there is no pope. However, that reaction is an error. The Catholic Church teaches that She will always have a pope, until the very end of the world:

  1. Vatican I infallibly teaches us: If anyone says that it is not by the institution of Christ the Lord Himself (that is to say, by Divine Law) that blessed Peter should have perpetual successors in the primacy over the whole Church; or that the Roman Pontiff is not the successor of Blessed Peter in this primacy, let him be anathema. Vatican I, Session 4, Ch. 2 (bold emphasis and parenthetical words are in the original, italic emphasis added).

  2. The great Doctor of the Church, Saint Francis de Sales, teaches us: St. Peter has had successors, has them in these days, and will have them even to the end of the ages. Catholic Controversy, part 2, art. 6, ch. 9.

  3. Pope Pius XII teaches us: If ever one day . . . material Rome were to crumble, . . . even then the Church would not crumble or crack, Christ’s promise to Peter would always remain true, the Papacy, the one and indestructible Church founded on the Pope alive at the moment, would always endure. January 30, 1949, Address to the Students of Rome, Quoted from The Pope Speaks, Pantheon Books, New York, 1957 (emphasis added).

2. The Catholic Church is not in an Interregnum

Sedevacantists generally hold that Pope Pius XII has had no successors, during the last 57 years. In an attempt to avoid the contradiction between Vatican I’s infallible teaching and their own theory, the sedevacantists simply label the last 57 years as a “papal interregnum”.

But if a sedevacantist would examine his position objectively, he would see that the supposed “facts” he asserts would not constitute a real interregnum but rather would be in an interruption in papal succession. The sedevacantists assert that there will be a pope in some future time. But their theory (viz., no pope now, but there will be a future pope) really supposes there would be (what historians call) a restoration of the (papal) monarchy. See, the history of monarchy in various countries in which the monarchy has been restored, e.g., England and France.

The difference between papal interregnums and the sedevacantist theory.

Throughout Church history, no pope was ever elected until the previous pope dies (or abdicates). Thus, there is always a short interregnum, during which the electors promptly begin the process of choosing a new pope and they continue their task until a new pope is chosen.

Choosing a new pope has often taken only days. But the sedevacantists try to liken the 57-year (supposed) papal interregnum which they assert, to the very extreme and unusual interregnum which ended in Pope Gregory X’s election. This interregnum was 2¾ years and is the longest in Church history. The Primacy of the Apostolic See Vindicated, Bishop Francis Kenrick, 3rd ed., Dunigan & Bro., New York, 1848, p.288.

The election of Pope Gregory X took 2¾ years because the Cardinal electors had a profound disagreement which caused those Cardinals to labor that long electing a new pope. But they kept trying until they succeeded in electing a new pope.

This interregnum (before Pope Gregory X’s election) is very different from the supposed interregnum asserted by the sedevacantists, for five reasons:

  1. The sedevacantists assert an interregnum which is over 20 times longer than the Church’s longest interregnum (ending in the election of Pope Gregory X).

  2. Taking into account the speed of communication of particular times throughout history, never in Church history did virtually every Catholic think we had a pope when we had no pope. By contrast, the tiny sedevacantist “elite” thinks that the Chair of St. Peter is vacant and only this “elite” “knows” it.

  3. In the case of any anti-pope in history, it has never happened that virtually every Catholic throughout the world, has been deceived into believing that an anti-pope was the true pope. In fact, it would be impossible for this to happen, as shown in Section 4 below. But the tiny sedevacantist “elite” wrongly thinks this has occurred today and that only their tiny “elite” “knows” the truth.

  4. In every interregnum beginning with St. Peter’s death, the papal electors promptly set about the task of choosing a new pope. Even in the most extreme case of laboring 2¾ years to choose a new pope, the electors began promptly and did not stop trying until they succeeded.

    By contrast, the sedevacantists assert there has been no attempt to even begin electing a new pope during this 57-year (supposed) interregnum, because the sedevacantists assert that no Cardinal electors remain to elect a new pope because they are all disqualified by (supposedly) ceasing to be Catholic.

  5. During papal interregnums, the Church’s Unified Government continues operating without interruption. But that is not true under the sedevacantist interregnum theory, which results in a concrete denial of Catholic teaching that Unity of Government is an element of the Church’s Mark of Unity. See the discussion below.

The sedevacantist interregnum theory contradicts Catholic Teaching that the Church’s Unity of Government, is part of the Church’s Mark of Unity.

It is basic catechism that the Catholic Church has a Unified, Monarchic Government. See, e.g., Summa Suppl., Q.26, a.3, Respondeo. This Government makes the Church one throughout the world. Summa Supp. Q.40, a.6, Respondeo. This central government is an element of the Church’s Mark of Unity. See, Council of Trent Catechism, article: Marks of the Church, section: Unity, subsection: Unity in Government.

One large Catholic Dictionary explained the need for the Church's unity of government, by setting forth the contrast to the disunited German States of the early 19th Century, which were united under a common language, beliefs and practice, but were not one country:

The Catholic Roman Church ... is one because all her members are united under one visible head .... Some years ago a great deal was said about the unity of Germany, which was eagerly desired by many. Germans had many points in common: they all spoke the same language; the same blood flowed in their veins; they were proud of the same literature; they were bound together by many ennobling recollections, and, in some measure, by common aspirations. But the German States were not one, because they were not under one government.

Catholic Dictionary, Addis & Arnold, Catholic Publication Society, 3rd ed., New York, 1884, article: Church of Christ, page 174.

For the Catholic Church to lose Her Unity of Government, even temporarily, would be to lose an element of the Mark of Unity, at least temporarily. Id. If there were times when the Church did not have this element of the Mark of Unity, then this element would never be part of the Mark, because the Marks of the Church are inseparable from the Church and are signs by which we can always discern the true Church. 1917 Catholic Encyclopedia, article: Unity (as a Mark of the Church); Catechism of St. Pius X, section: Ninth Article of the Creed, Q.13.

Just as the Church is always unified in Faith, She is always unified in Government. Thus, when a pope dies, if the Church’s central Government ceased to function, the Church’s Unity of Government would also cease. That does not happen. Even during papal interregnums, the Church’s central Government continues to function, although under somewhat different rules.

Important Pontifical matters which are not urgent, are deferred until the election of the new pope. See, e.g., St. Pius X’s Constitution Vacante Apostolica Sede, December 25, 1904, title 1, ch. 1, §1. Urgent Pontifical matters are handled by majority decision of the cardinals. See, e.g., Id., §5. Sacred Congregations continue to handle routine matters. Id., title 1, ch. 4. We could give a lot more details about the continuation of the Church’s central Government. See, e.g., Id., title 1, ch. 3, §12, regarding the continued functioning of the offices of Camerlengo and the Grand Penitentiary. In summary, the Church’s central Government always continues functioning and the Church maintains Her Mark of Unity in Her Government even during a papal interregnum.

Above, we use as an example, Pope St. Pius X’s 1904 revision of the rules for the operation of the Church’s central Government during a papal interregnum. But this revision is only one of the various versions of the rules over the centuries. The rules have also been tweaked by Pope Pius IV, Pope Gregory XV, Pope Clement XII and other popes. But regardless of the details, the Church’s central Government always continues to function even during an interregnum (although under somewhat different rules than when a pope is alive).

Because sedevacantists assert that not only the pope but everyone else in the Church’s government (Cardinals, Chamberlains, etc.) is outside the Catholic Church, the sedevacantists’ interregnum theory results in the (supposed) destruction of the Unity and the Continuity of the Church’s central Government, for 57 years now. This results in a concrete denial of Catholic teaching that Unity of Government is an element of the Church’s Mark of Unity, since the Church’s Marks are never lost, even temporarily.

Conclusion

The past 57 years are much different than a papal interregnum and the sedevacantist theory destroys the Unity and Continuity of the Church’s Government, which is an element of the Mark of Unity.

The truth is, that the Catholic Church will always have Unity and Continuity in Her central Government even during a papal interregnum, but this does not mean that She will always be governed well.

Whoever the pope is (which is a different question), we must have a pope because St. Peter will have perpetual successors, he has them in these days and there is a pope who is alive at the moment. (Quoted from Section 1 above.)

3. The Catholic Church Will Always Be Visible And Will Always Have a Pope Who is Visible to All

Knowing that we must have a pope, there are a few tiny dispersed groups who so despise the pope in the Vatican, that they concoct theories that there is a hidden pope, whom only their tiny “elite” “knows” about.

These tiny “elite” groups are disunited in their views about who the hidden “pope” is. Some hold that he lives in a farmhouse in Kansas, others that the “pope” is in Montana, Croatia, Argentina, Kenya, Spain or elsewhere. Each of these “popes” is “known” and recognized only by his own tiny group.

The Catholic Church is visible and will always be visible.

But we know from our catechism that the Catholic Church will always be visible. This is why Pope Pius XI declared that the one true Church of Christ is visible to all. Mortalium Animos, January 6, 1928. ¶10.

Pope Leo XIII identified the cause of this visibility: the Church is visible because she is a body. Satis Cognitum, ¶3.

Pope Pius XII affirmed this same truth, quoting these words of Pope Leo XIII. Mystici Corporis Christi §14.

St. Francis de Sales replied to his adversaries who would maintain that the Church is invisible and unperceivable that he consider[ed] that this is the extreme of absurdity, and that immediately beyond this abide frenzy and madness. He then proceeds to discuss at length eight clear proofs that the Church is always visible. Catholic Controversy, Part 1, ch. 5.

Thus, because the Catholic Church will always be a body, she will always be visible.

This visible Church will always have a visible government with a visible head.

Because the Church will always be visible, and because Unity of Government is an element of the Mark of Unity by which the Church can always be known, the Church will always have a visible government, so that the true Church can be recognized by this Mark of Unity of Government. See, Section 2 above.

Because the Church’s government is visible and monarchical, the Church, being a visible body, must have a visible head and centre of unity. Catholic Dictionary, Addis & Arnold, Catholic Publication Society, 3rd ed., New York, 1884, article: Church of Christ, page 176.

This is obviously true. For the Church is not one, with a visible government, if it is unknown “who is in charge”. In fact, governing authority is the efficient cause giving unity as one body, to any society of men. Summa Supp., Q.40, a.6, Respondeo. For there is not one visible society if it consists of men united only by ideas and not by one, visible government. That is why even basic catechisms teach us that the Catholic Church is under one visible head. See, e.g., Baltimore Catechism #4, Q.115.

Such a visible head has always been necessary but even more evidently so, as the Catholic Church spread throughout the world. A Full Catechism of the Catholic Church Joseph Deharbe, S.J., Catholic Publication Society, New York, 1889, p.132.

That is why Pope Pius XII sums up Catholic teaching by declaring that it is absolutely necessary that the Supreme Head, that is, the Vicar of Jesus Christ on earth, be visible to the eyes of all. Mystici Corporis, ¶69.

Conclusion

We have no assurance that the pope will be holy or will govern well. However, we do know that the Catholic Church is a visible body and that her head, the pope, is visible to all. Thus, the pope is not living unknown and hidden from the attention of the world, in some Kansas farmhouse or similar place.

Further, it is clear that the pope is also not someone such as Cardinal Siri (who a tiny group had supposed to have been a secret pope). Such supposed “pontificate” was not visible. In other words, he was not the pope who is visible to the eyes of all. Mystici Corporis, ¶69.

Thus, we have a pope who is visible to all.

4. The Man Whom the Whole Church Accepts as Pope, Is the Pope

Because the pope must be visible, a necessary corollary of this truth is that whoever is accepted as the pope by virtually all Catholics, we know must be the pope by that very fact, since the pope must be visible to the Church as the pope. This is true because, if virtually all Catholics accepted the legitimacy of an anti-pope, then the true pope would be “invisible”, i.e., unknown to the Church. Thus, because the pope must be visible to all, whoever is accepted as pope by virtually all Catholics, we know must be the pope.

St. Alphonsus de Liguori, Doctor of the Church, explained this truth as follows:

It is of no importance that in past centuries some Pontiff was illegitimately elected or took possession of the Pontificate by fraud. It is enough that he was accepted afterwards by the whole Church as Pope, since by such an acceptance he would become the True Pontiff.

Verità della Fede Part 3, Ch.8, §9, emphasis added.1

When teaching this same truth, Cardinal Louis Billot identified the cause of this truth, viz., the indefectibility of the Church:

Beyond all doubt, it ought to be firmly held, that the adhesion of the universal Church would, in itself, always be an infallible sign of the legitimacy of a particular pope, and even for the existence of all conditions which are required for his legitimacy as pope. Nor does it take long to identify the reason for this fact. For the reason is taken directly from the infallible promise of Christ and from Providence: The gates of hell shall not prevail against Her [the Church]. And again: Behold, I am with you all days, which is equivalent.

Cardinal Billot, Tractus De Ecclesia Christi, Book 1, Q.14, De Romano Pontifice, Thesis 29, §3; emphasis added.

When discussing the invalidity of simoniacal elections to the papacy, Bishop Kenrick teaches that the Church’s acceptance of a pope cures any defect in his election but that the pope nonetheless has a moral duty to resign:

Should the contemplated case unfortunately occur, the guilty individual must know that he cannot conscientiously exercise the papal power. . . . [T]he acquiescence of the Church heals the defect as far as the faithful are concerned, although it does not relieve the delinquent from the necessity of abdicating the high office which he sacrilegiously assumed.

Bishop Francis Kenrick, The Primacy of the Apostolic See Vindicated 3rd Ed., 1848, Dunigan & Bro., New York, pp. 287-8.

There are Five Consequences of the Fact that Whoever the Whole Church Accepts as Pope, is the Pope.

  1. Pope Francis is the pope now.

    More than 1.2 billion people worldwide, profess to be Catholic.

    Virtually all 1.2 billion Catholics accept Pope Francis as pope. Thus, we know that Pope Francis is the pope currently, i.e.,., in 2015.

  2. Pope Benedict XVI is no longer pope.

    The fact that Catholics universally accept Pope Francis as pope, is one of many reasons why it is wrong to suppose that Pope Benedict XVI did not “really” resign, and is still pope (instead of Pope Francis). Virtually the whole Church accepts Pope Francis as pope, and the whole Church could never accept an anti-pope.

  3. Each of the other post-conciliar popes was pope, in his turn.

    Over the last 57 years, the whole Church accepted each of the other post-conciliar popes, as pope, in his turn. Thus, we know each was the pope.

  4. This is a further reason we know Cardinal Siri was not pope.

    It is clear that Cardinal Siri was not pope (as a tiny group supposes). Not only was his supposed “pontificate” invisible, but it would have opposed the pontificate of the pope universally accepted by Catholics.

  5. This further shows the impossibility of the Church being now in a papal interregnum.

    The Church accepts Pope Francis as pope and accepted each of his post-conciliar predecessors. This is one of many compelling reasons why we know the Church is not in a papal interregnum because, when the Church accepted each post-conciliar pope in his turn, each one became the true pope (if he wasn’t pope already). St. Alphonsus de Liguori, Verità della Fede Part 3, Ch.8, §9.

5. Rash Judgment: Concluding the Pope is a Formal Heretic

Trying to escape the fact that the pope in the Vatican is visible to all and is accepted as pope by virtually all Catholics, a tiny group holds that no “real” Catholics exist besides the members of their own tiny group. Thus, they assert that the pope in the Vatican is not the “real” pope because he is not accepted as pope by the “real” Catholics (who are exclusively members of their own tiny group). Or alternatively, they assert that their own “pope” (accepted only by their own tiny group) is visible to “all” Catholics and accepted by “all” Catholics, because their tiny group is the only group of “true” Catholics.

Therefore, in order to reach the result they seek, this tiny group judges the 1.2 billion people who profess to be Catholic. This tiny group decides that the Faith and morals of those 1.2 billion people show they are not “real” Catholics. Similarly, this tiny group also judges the pope in the Vatican and decides that his Faith (and morals) show he is not “really” the pope.

The distinction between material heresy and formal heresy.

It is true that many people who profess to be Catholics, hold objective errors against the Catholic Faith. This problem occurred in past centuries also, even if it is more common today than in (at least some) past centuries. For example, a child might believe that God has a body. Or an adult might profess the Pelagian heresy (about grace and free will).

But we would not be forced to conclude that such a person (who professed himself Catholic but has always held the Pelagian heresy), has never really been Catholic. For a person ceases to be Catholic when he holds a position against the Catholic Faith which he knows to be incompatible with what he must believe in order to be Catholic.

If a man held the Pelagian heresy, but wrongly believed that he held the Catholic Faith (concerning matters of grace and free will), then that man would be a material heretic. That is, the man would hold the “material” of heresy (i.e., a heretical opinion) not knowing it was heresy. But this man would not be a formal heretic because he would not know his position was against the teaching of the Catholic Church (and God).2

Definitions—In summary:

Thus, a material heretic can be a Catholic. However, a formal heretic cannot be Catholic, because he rejects the Church’s (God’s) authority by denying part of the Faith, knowing the Church (God) teaches it.

Holding formal heresy always places a person into the state of mortal sin and outside the Church, even if no one else knows of the formal heresy. By contrast, holding material heresy neither places a person in mortal sin nor outside the Church because the person holds the error against the Faith blamelessly, i.e., without knowing his opinion is against the Faith.

Material heresy does not exclude someone from the Church, no matter how public the heresy is, no matter how much harm the heresy causes, and no matter how unshakably he professes it. Thus, the very fact that a person professes a heretical opinion does not, in itself, tell us if he is interiorly culpable for a sin against the Faith. In other words, professing heresy does not, in itself, tell us if the person is a formal heretic or if he is Catholic.

This distinction between formal heresy and material heresy, is a matter of common sense and is the same type of distinction we make in everyday life, between an objectively sinful act and interior culpability for the sinful act.

When leaving a restaurant, suppose a man takes an umbrella which does not belong to him but which he innocently believes to be his own. He has committed an objectively sinful act of theft (i.e., wrongfully taking someone else’s property), but interiorly he has not sinned.3 There is no sin of theft on the man’s soul (i.e., no interior culpability) because taking the umbrella was an innocent mistake.

This man is like the material heretic, who innocently believes a statement which is objectively false (i.e., heresy). Thus, the material heretic is objectively wrong but interiorly blameless for the sin of heresy. By contrast, the formal heretic knows he believes something contrary to the Church’s (God’s) teaching, like a person who takes someone else’s umbrella knowing it is not his own. The formal heretic is interiorly culpable for his heretical opinion.

Thus, people who profess heresy could be material heretics only, or they could be formal heretics. If they profess themselves to be Catholics and are material heretics only, their clinging (however tightly and publicly) to objective heresy does not put them outside the Church, since they do not deny the Church’s teaching, knowing the Church (God) teaches the statement infallibly. Such material heretics are merely Catholics who are mistaken about some aspect of the Faith.

By contrast, a person is outside the Church (and is a formal heretic) who rejects a statement of the Faith in its formal aspect, knowing the Church (God) teaches the statement infallibly. This rejection is a rejection of the Church’s (God’s) authority.

If we were to judge someone to be a formal heretic (which always brings interior culpability for mortal sin), we would be judging the sin on his soul, not merely judging that he made an objective error against the Faith (which might be blameless). Judging someone to be a formal heretic is to conclude that such a person really “knows” he denies what the Church (God) teaches, but he won’t admit this “fact”.4

It is Rash Judgment to Judge a Person’s Interior Culpability

God wills men to know the unchanging truth especially of the Faith, and this knowledge perfects our intellects. In other words, truth makes our intellects good. In seeking the truth, we should strive to be completely objective in knowing things exactly as they are.5 For this reason, when determining whether a particular statement is against the Catholic Faith, we should judge the statement with complete objectivity.

By contrast, when we judge the motives or culpability of persons, we must judge in the best possible light, not with complete “even-handed objectivity”. This is true even if we were usually wrong about such a person’s culpability. Judgments about the culpability of our neighbor are singular, contingent facts (in contrast to eternal, universal truth) and such singular facts do not perfect our intellect. It is better to be usually wrong making too-favorable a judgment about a person’s culpability than to be wrong even occasionally, making too negative a judgment.6 Such an unproven, negative judgment about a person’s culpability is called rash judgment. Summa, IIa IIae, Q.60, a.2, Respondeo.

For this reason, when determining whether a person is blamable for holding a heretical opinion, we should not judge his interior culpability with complete objectivity but rather, in the best possible light (if we judge at all). For, as St. Thomas explains: Our Lord forbids rash judgment, which is about the inward intention or other uncertain things, as Augustine states (De Serm. Dom. in Monte ii, 18). Summa, IIa IIae, Q.60, a.2, ad 1.

If a man says he is a Catholic and that he believes that a Catholic is permitted to hold the opinions he does, we should judge him in the best possible light and not assume he “knows” his position is contrary to the Catholic Faith, but won’t admit the “fact”. Nor should we assume that, just because we are unsuccessful in changing his opinion, that this means the man “knows” his position is contrary to what he must believe in order to be Catholic.

Thus, it is good to judge objectively the errors themselves, taught by Pope Francis (or others), because the truth of statements should be judged objectively. But it is rash to judge Pope Francis’ culpability with objective “even-handedness” and assume he certainly “knows” that he holds heresy and thus, is not “really” Catholic (and pope).

To the extent we judge Pope Francis’ interior culpability at all, we must judge in the best possible light. Thus, we would judge him to be a material heretic (not a formal heretic) and judge him to still be Catholic (as he professes he is) and to still be the pope (as he professes to be).

Similarly, whatever objective heresies are held by the 1.2 billion people who profess to be Catholic, we should judge their interior culpability in the best possible light (if we judge at all). We should not conclude they are formal heretics and are not “real” Catholics. Thus, their acceptance of Pope Francis is an alternate way to prove he is the pope. See, section 4 above.

When can We Conclude Someone is a Formal Heretic?

We could conclude Pope Francis was a formal heretic if he told us that he did not believe what the Church (God) teaches, that a Catholic must believe now. We would not be judging him rashly because we would merely believe what he tells us about himself.

However, it is rash to judge the interior culpability of Pope Francis (or anyone else) and conclude he is a formal heretic simply because he is a material heretic, i.e., has heretical opinions and refuses to be corrected by traditional Catholics.

Protecting Ourselves from Evil without Judging Interior Culpability

Of course, even when we judge someone not be a formal heretic (if we judge him at all), this does not mean we should accept him as our child’s catechism teacher. For our child would be harmed by his errors, however interiorly blameless the man might be for professing his heresy.

Without judging someone’s interior culpability, we should take into account the person’s wrong-doing (which we must judge objectively). For, when a man is prone to take other people’s umbrellas, we should keep a close eye on our own umbrella (when he is present) even if he innocently took the other umbrellas in the past.

Likewise, we should warn people not to attend sermons of a particular priest who professes errors against the Faith, even if he teaches these errors innocently. We should be wary and warn others, simply based on the priest’s proneness to teach error, whether he is culpable or not.

Judging any person to be interiorly culpable for his sinful act only results in concluding his soul is lower with regards to our own soul, than would be true if he were not culpable. Summa, IIa IIae, Q.60, a.4, ad 2. But our rashly judging his interior culpability does not allow us to protect ourselves any better than if we didn’t judge him.

But isn’t it “Obvious” that Pope Francis is a Formal Heretic?

But “rash judgers” will exclaim that it is “obvious” that the man (in the example above) knows he is taking someone else’s umbrella (and is interiorly culpable), because his own umbrella is a different color or because he did not bring his own umbrella with him today, etc. Notice the hidden assumptions in the “rash judger’s” conclusion. He assumes that the “umbrella thief” remembers which umbrella he brought today, etc. St. Thomas replies about such rash judgment: “it is better to err frequently through thinking well of a wicked man, than to err less frequently through having an evil opinion of a good man”. Summa, IIa IIae, Q.60, a.4, ad 1.

Similarly, “rash judgers” say the pope is “obviously” a formal heretic. They say he “must” know he denies Church teaching because he was trained in the Catholic Faith before Vatican II or that his errors have been pointed out to him, etc. Notice the hidden assumptions in the “rash judger’s” conclusion. He assumes that the “heretic” had a good (or at least an average) Catholic education, etc. St. Thomas replies to these “rash judgers” that we must not judge based on such probabilities and assumptions. Summa, IIa IIae, Q.60, a.4, ad 1.

We are not obliged to search for an explanation of how the pope (or anyone else) might not be blamable for whatever objective heresy he holds. The members of the post-Vatican II hierarchy are not stupid, but they received an extremely bad philosophical formation, including the principle (which is at the root of modernism) that all truth evolves. By contrast, all correct reasoning (and the Catholic Faith) rely on the philosophical principle that there is eternal, unchanging truth.

In his masterful treatment of modernism, St. Pius X explained that modernists profess that all truth changes:

[T]hey have reached that pitch of folly at which they pervert the eternal concept of truth .... [They say] dogma is not only able, but ought to evolve and to be changed. ... Thus far, Venerable Brethren, We have considered the Modernist as a philosopher.

Pascendi Dominici Gregis, Pope St. Pius X, September 8, 1907, §§13-14.

Thus, because of bad philosophy, modernists think a dogma used to be true (and used to be taught by the Church) but is no longer true or taught by the Church. This explains why the present hierarchy treats the Church’s past teaching, not as false at the previous time, but as “obsolete” or no longer binding. For example, Cardinal Ratzinger treated the (truly infallible) teachings in the syllabi of Pope Pius IX and Pope St. Pius X as if they were now-outdated and no longer true. He says that:

[T]here are decisions of the Magisterium that cannot be a last word on the matter as such, but are, in a substantial fixation of the problem, above all an expression of pastoral prudence, a kind of provisional disposition. Its nucleus remains valid, but the particulars, which the circumstances of the times have influenced, may need further ramifications. In this regard, one may think of the declarations of popes in the last century about religious liberty, as well as the anti-Modernist decisions at the beginning of this century, above all, the decisions of the Biblical Commission of the time. As a cry of alarm in the face of hasty and superficial adaptations, they will remain fully justified. A personage such as Johann Baptist Metz said, for example, that the Church's anti-Modernist decisions render the great service of preserving her from immersion in the liberal-bourgeois world. But in the details of the determinations they contain, they become obsolete after having fulfilled their pastoral mission at the proper moment.

Cardinal Ratzinger, June 27 1990 L’Osservatore Romano, p.6 (emphasis added).

Again, we are not obliged to search for an explanation of how post-Vatican II Catholics (including the pope) avoid being formal heretics. It suffices that we judge them (if at all) in the most favorable light. Even if a modernist were absolutely clear in denying a dogma (such as our Lady’s Assumption), it would not necessarily mean he was a formal heretic and he ceased to be Catholic. This is true even assuming that he knows the Church defined the Assumption as a dogma. For a modernist could think the particular dogma had been true and Catholics used to be required to believe it, but that this particular truth has changed.

Such changeability of truth is a philosophical error underlying modernism. However, the unchangeability of truth is not itself a dogma of the Faith. Of course, the philosophical principle that truth does not change, underlies Church dogma and all natural truth. A person who holds a (materially) heretical position does not become a formal heretic unless he knows that the Catholic Church not only used to teach a particular dogma, but still teaches it and that we must believe it now, in order to be Catholic now.

A modernist could think that Catholics of a past age would have been required to be martyred rather than deny a particular dogma even though that “former” dogma is now no longer even true. The false philosophy underlying modernism corrodes the mind but can be one of many reasons why various modernists are material heretics but not formal heretics. For us, though, it is better to err frequently through thinking well of a wicked man, than to err less frequently through having an evil opinion of a good man. Summa, IIa IIae, Q.60, a.4, ad 1.

A Superior who Punishes his Subordinate in the External Forum, for the Good of the Community, is not thereby Judging Rashly

Civil and ecclesiastical authorities cannot read the interior souls of their subordinates any more than parents can read the souls of their children. But because these authorities have a special duty to care for the community over which they have charge, they have a duty to punish the wrong-doing of their subordinates, for the good of the whole community.7 They must use their best efforts to administer justice, although they could be wrong in their particular judgments. God will judge them according to their efforts.

Thus, a civil judge has a duty to punish murderers (and other criminals), although it is possible for him to be mistaken in his judgment. The judge is judging outwardly, i.e., in the external forum. He must do the best he can, and judges based on the evidence in front of him.

Similarly, Church authorities have a duty to protect the community over which they have been placed, although they could be mistaken in their judgments. These authorities must punish persons who spread heresy even though these authorities could be mistaken, just as a civil judge could be mistaken. Among other punishments, a superior can separate from the flock (excommunicate) the person who spreads heresy. Of course, the easiest way for a superior to protect his flock, is often to try to convince the material heretic that he is wrong, rather than inflict punishment.

Here is how St. Pius X explains the duty of ecclesiastical superiors to judge in the external forum and punish their subordinates’ evil deeds, even though the subordinate might not be interiorly culpable for any sin:

Although they [the Modernists] express their astonishment that We should number them amongst the enemies of the Church, no one will be reasonably surprised that We should do so, if, leaving out of account the internal disposition of the soul, of which God alone is the Judge, he considers their doctrines, their manner of speech, and their actions [which are the outward, objective criteria upon which a man judges in the external forum].

Pascendi, St. Pope Pius X, §3 (emphasis and bracketed words added).

Thus, as St. Pius X explains, a superior might be mistaken about the internal disposition of the soul, of which God alone is the Judge but nonetheless, the superior must protect the community over which he has authority, by judging the outward conduct of wrong-doers under him (and punishing, where necessary).

Sedevacantism is Schism

Schismatics are those who refuse to submit to the Sovereign Pontiff, and to hold communion with those members of the Church who acknowledge his supremacy. Summa, IIa IIae, Q.39, a.1, respondeo. That is what sedevacantists do, viz., they refuse to submit to the current pope, asserting that he has no authority over them because he is not “really” the pope.

We should not confuse the sin of schism (which is refusing submission to the authority of the current pope), with the sin of heresy, viz., rejecting as a matter of principle the authority possessed by the papal office (e.g., that a pope is infallible when speaking ex cathedra).8

In contrast to the course taken by sedevacantists, traditional Catholics have a duty to recognize that the current pope has authority over us. Even though we frequently cannot do what the pope commands us, we must acknowledge his supremacy, as St. Thomas teaches we must. Summa, IIa IIae, Q.39, a.1, Respondeo. We do what the pope commands us to do, if we can do so in good conscience. Thus, for example, if Pope Francis commanded Catholics to recite at least five decades of the rosary each day, under pain of sin, we would be bound in conscience to do this, under pain of sin.9

Thus, schism severs a man from the Church. Summa, IIa IIae, Q.39, a.1, ad 3 (quoting St. Jerome). But when a man holds this false position that we have no pope, he does so either culpably (i.e., he “knows better”) or it is an innocent error. If the sedevacantist is blameless for his error, then he has no interior culpability (no sin on his soul), like the man who commits the objective act of theft by innocently (although wrongfully) taking someone else’s umbrella.

So sedevacantism is always an act of schism. But it is material schism only, if the particular sedevacantist is not interiorly culpable for his false opinion that we have no pope. By contrast, the sedevacantist is a formal schismatic, if he has interior culpability because he truly “knows better”. This distinction (between material and formal schism) is analogous to the distinction between material and formal heresy.

For the reasons set forth above (concerning the sin of rash judgment), we must not judge particular sedevacantists to be formal schismatics, unless they tell us they are schismatics (in which case, we would merely believe them). But, if we judge individual sedevacantists at all, we must judge them in the best possible light, even if we would err frequently through thinking well of them. Summa, IIa IIae, Q.60, a.4, ad 1.

The Common Root of Schism and Rash Judgment, is not an Accident

As St. Thomas teaches, schism is a sin against charity. Summa, IIa IIae, Q.39, a.1, ad 3, (quoted above).

Rash judgment also, is a sin against charity. One way to see this is true, is that we would want our neighbor to judge us (if at all) in the best possible light. If we do not judge our neighbor this same way, we fail to “do unto others”, as we would have them “do unto” us. Matt. 7:12. Thus, we are not loving and treating our neighbor as ourselves, as required by the Second Great Commandment. Matt. 22:39.

Further, our judgments should always be made with a habit of charity. Summa, Q.60, a.4, respondeo & a.2, ad 1. We must judge our neighbor (if at all) according to our goodwill toward him, ready to believe the best of him. Summa, IIa IIae, Q.60, a.4, ad 2. For charity believeth all things. 1 Cor. 13: 7. Our Lord forbids judgment which proceeds not from benevolence but from bitterness of heart. Summa, Q.60, a.2, ad 1.

Although we do not judge the interior culpability of particular sedevacantists, it is not by chance that schism and rash judgment are both, at their root, sins against charity. This connection is no more by chance than the fact that gluttons tend to commit other kinds of sins connected to gluttony, such as pampering their flesh through inordinate attachment to bodily comfort. (These connections between sins are objectively true, regardless of a particular person’s culpability.)

Summary

A person could profess heresy but still be Catholic, if he were a material heretic only. We must not judge a man’s interior culpability. Therefore we must not judge a man to be a formal heretic if he professes to be Catholic and says he believes what a Catholic must believe now, in order to be Catholic now. We must judge in the most favorable light (if at all) the interior culpability of the pope or the 1.2 billion people who profess to be Catholic. We must not judge they are not “real” Catholics.

Thus, we must judge Pope Francis to be a material heretic, not a formal heretic, and that he is the pope. We must judge (if at all) that the 1.2 billion people who profess to be Catholic, are material heretics. Thus, their acceptance of Pope Francis is a further proof he is pope. See, section 4 above.

Finally, sedevacantists are in schism—material or formal—depending on whether they are culpable for their error.

6. Sedevacantism is Un-Catholic because it is Revolutionary

When someone in authority commands something evil, it is one thing to refuse to consent to that superior’s command, but it is a further step to use that evil command as a basis for rejecting the ruler’s authority as such. This further step is to revolt.

For example, the American revolutionaries considered it evil that King George III imposed taxes on them without their consent and did many other things to which they objected. But the American revolutionaries not only refused such commands of King George but also used the commands as a (purported) justification for revolution.

In their Declaration of Independence, the revolutionaries objected to many things such as their king quartering large bodies of armed troops among us; imposing taxes on us without our consent; and depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of trial by jury.

After listing their grievances, the American revolutionaries then did what all revolutionaries do: they said that their ruler was to blame for their own revolution because his conduct caused him to lose his status as their king. The American revolutionaries declared that King George III whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

The American revolutionaries then did something else which revolutionaries always do: they declared that it was their right (or duty) to revolt:

[W]hen a long train of abuses and usurpations ... evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is [the colonies’] right, it is their duty, to throw off such government.

Finally, the American revolutionaries did more that revolutionaries always do: they declared that their ruler has lost all authority over them:

[T]hese United Colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved.

This is what it is for a person to be a revolutionary: to reject not just particular (perhaps evil) commands but to also reject the very authority of his ruler.

The American revolutionaries followed the same pattern as countless other revolutionaries, e.g., in France, Russia, Latin America, and by the Protestant revolutionaries. In all human history—civil as well as religious—there is not even one revolution which the Catholic Church recognizes to have been praiseworthy and not sinful.10

In summary, revolutionaries follow a common pattern:

  1. they assert that their ruler committed wrongs (actual or merely imagined); and then
  2. they use such wrongs as a basis to declare that their ruler’s own conduct has resulted in his losing his authority to rule them.

The Cristeros were Not Revolutionaries

On a superficial level, a person might have the false impression that the Mexican Cristeros were revolutionaries because they took up arms against their government. But the Cristeros’ goal was to defend their priests, their churches and the Catholicism of their families. The Cristeros resisted the many wrongs committed by their anti-Catholic government. But unlike revolutionaries, the Cristeros did not use such wrongs as a basis to declare that their government had lost all authority over them.

Sedevacantists are Revolutionaries

Unlike the Cristeros, sedevacantists are revolutionaries. Sedevacantists correctly recognize that the pope has committed many wrongs. Instead of resisting only the wrongs committed by the pope, they follow the pattern of other revolutionaries by using these wrongs as a basis for rejecting the pope’s authority as such. Like other revolutionaries, they blame the pope for their own revolt, saying that his words and actions have caused him to lose his authority over them.

Some sedevacantists vainly attempt to avoid their status as revolutionaries, by saying they are not revolting against any ruler (the pope) because his conduct makes him not their real ruler (pope). But they fail to see how they beg the question, just like any American revolutionaries who might have said they are not revolting against their ruler (King George) because his conduct makes him not their real ruler. Such circular “reasoning” merely assumes their conclusion as a premise for their “argument” that they are not revolutionaries. In other words, they claim that they do not deny the authority of the ruler over them because they deny he has the authority of the ruler over them.

Of course, the Church is several rulers (popes) past the beginning of the sedevacantist revolution. Having revolted against Pope John XXIII, sedevacantists now take as a “matter of course” the rejection of the current pope’s authority, just as the American Revolutionaries took as a “matter of course” that King George III’s successors had no authority over them.

A person might wrongly believe that sedevacantists are not revolutionaries, based on the superficial supposition that revolution must involve physical fighting. But what is essential to revolution is for persons to declare that their ruler has lost his authority to rule them. A revolution need not involve physical fighting. For example, the Hawaiian Revolution of 1893 did not involve any physical fighting. Likewise, any physical fighting was not essential to the Protestant Revolution against the Catholic Church.

Also, a person might wrongly believe sedevacantism is not revolutionary, based on the superficial supposition that revolution must involve deposing a ruler from his throne or office. However, what is essential to revolution is the rejection of a ruler’s authority, but this might pertain to only certain persons or places. For example, in the American Revolution, the colonists did not cause King George III to lose his throne entirely. They succeeded merely in revolting against his authority in the thirteen American colonies. Similarly, the Protestant Revolution did not depose the pope from his throne but the Protestant revolutionaries merely rejected his authority among certain persons or places.

Revolution is Always Wrong

It is un-Catholic to be a revolutionary. All authority comes from God, regardless of the method by which a ruler is chosen to wield civil or religious power. St. Paul taught:

[T]here is no power but from God: and those [powers] that are, are ordained of God. Therefore he that resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God. And they that resist, purchase to themselves damnation. ... For [the ruler] is God’s minister. ... Wherefore be subject of necessity, not only for [the ruler’s] wrath, but also for conscience’s sake.

Romans, 13:1-2, 4-5 (emphasis added).

Pope Pius IX faithfully echoed St. Paul:

[A]ll authority comes from God. Whoever resists authority resists the ordering made by God Himself, consequently achieving his own condemnation; disobeying authority is always sinful except when an order is given which is opposed to the laws of God and the Church.

Qui Pluribus, November 9, 1846, §22.

Pope Pius IX taught this same doctrine in his infallible condemnation of the following proposition:

It is permissible to refuse obedience to legitimate rulers, and even to revolt against them.

Quanta Cura, proposition #63 (emphasis added).11

Pope Leo XIII taught the same doctrine as St. Paul and Pope Pius IX:

If, however, it should ever happen that public power is exercised by rulers rashly and beyond measure, the doctrine of the Catholic Church does not permit rising up against them on one’s own terms, lest quiet and order be more and more disturbed, or lest society receive greater harm therefrom.

Encyclical, Quod Apostolici muneris, December 28, 1878, §7 (emphasis added).

Because it is sinful to even willfully desire to sin, Pope Leo XIII taught that even the “desire for revolution” is a “vice”. Auspicato Concessu, §24.

Although revolution is forbidden, Pope Leo XIII gave us the remedies of patience, prayer and resistance to the particular evil commands of a bad ruler:

Whenever matters have come to such a pass that no other hope of a solution is evident, [the doctrine of the Catholic Church] teaches that a remedy is to be hastened through the merits of Christian patience, and by urgent prayers to God.

But if the decisions of legislators and rulers should sanction or order something that is contrary to divine and natural law, the dignity and duty of the Christian name and the opinion of the apostles urge that we ought to obey God, rather than men (Acts 5:29).

Quod Apostolici muneris, December 28, 1878, §7 (bracketed words added).

St. Thomas offers the same remedy to persons who suffer the evil of a bad ruler:

[S]ometimes God permits evil rulers to afflict good men. This affliction is for the good of such good men, as St. Paul says above (Rom. 8:28): All things work for the good, for those who love God.

Commentary on Romans, ch.13, lect.1.

The Example of the Saints shows Revolution is Wrong

Look at the example of Catholics, including great saints like St. Sebastian, who served bravely and faithfully even in the army of the pagan emperors of Rome. They did not revolt, even when their emperor openly sought to kill all Catholics.

Here is Pope Gregory XVI’s praise for the Catholics of the Roman Empire, who were faithful to God first but also to their emperor (whenever the emperor’s commands were not themselves evil):

[T]he early Christians ... deserved well of the emperors and of the safety of the state even while persecution raged. This they proved splendidly by their fidelity in performing perfectly and promptly whatever they were commanded which was not opposed to their religion, and even more by their constancy and the shedding of their blood in battle. Christian soldiers, says St. Augustine, served an infidel emperor. When the issue of Christ was raised, they acknowledged no one but the One who is in heaven. They distinguished the eternal Lord from the temporal lord, but were also subject to the temporal lord for the sake of the eternal Lord.

St. Mauritius, the unconquered martyr and leader of the Theban legion had this in mind when, as St. Eucharius reports, he answered the emperor in these words: We are your soldiers, Emperor, but also servants of God, and this we confess freely . . . and now this final necessity of life has not driven us into rebellion. ...

Indeed the faith of the early Christians shines more brightly, if we consider with Tertullian, that since the Christians were not lacking in numbers and in troops, they could have acted as foreign enemies. We are but of yesterday, he says, yet we have filled all your cities, islands, fortresses, municipalities, assembly places, the camps themselves, the tribes, the divisions, the palace, the senate, the forum. ... For what war should we not have been fit and ready even if unequal in forces—we who are so glad to be cut to pieces—were it not, of course, that in our doctrine we would have been permitted more to be killed rather than to kill? ... [Y]ou have fewer enemies because of the multitude of Christians.

These beautiful examples of the unchanging subjection to the rulers necessarily proceeded from the most holy precepts of the Christian religion.

Encyclical Mirari Vos, August 15, 1832, §§ 18-19 (emphasis added), quoting and relying on the teaching of St. Augustine (Doctor and Father of the Church), as well as St. Mauritius and Tertullian (Father of the Church).

Prohibition against All Revolution, Especially Forbids Rebellion against the Pope’s Authority as such

Since the Catholic Church’s ruler, above all others, has authority from God, the sin of revolution most especially applies to revolt against the pope’s authority, as such.

Thus, St. Robert Bellarmine explains that it is licit to resist the Pontiff who ... tries to destroy the Church. I say that it is licit to resist him by not doing what he orders and by impeding the execution of his will; it is not licit, however, to judge him, to punish him, or depose him, for these are acts proper to a superior. De Summo pontifice Book II, ch. 29 (emphasis added).

Sedevacantism is an Oversimplification

Addis & Arnold characterize the traits of revolutionaries in this way:

The methods of the Gospel are not revolutionary; they do not deal in those sweeping general assertions which fuller experience always shows to be but half truths.

A Catholic Dictionary, Addis & Arnold, The Catholic Publication Society, New York, 1884, pp.767-68 (emphasis added).

The sedevacantist exhibits such revolutionary traits. He “leaps” from the truth that the pope has done much evil, to the declaration that we have no pope. Thus, the sedevacantist oversimplifies the truth through sweeping general assertion and half-truth about his ruler.

Conclusion

Without judging sedevacantists’ interior culpability, it is nonetheless plain that sedevacantists follow the objectively sinful pattern of revolutionaries. They assert that the wrongs committed by their ruler are (purported) justification for declaring their ruler has lost his authority to rule them.

7. Our Catholic Duty: Resist the Harm Done by a Bad Pope But (Of Course) Recognize His Authority

Two different mortal sins prevent an informed Catholic from being a sedevacantist:

  1. If we rashly judge the pope to be a formal heretic because he is a material heretic, this is a mortal sin (because it is the sin of rash judgment on a grave matter). See, Section 5 above.
  2. If we revolt against the pope’s authority as such, this is a mortal sin of revolution. See, Section 6 above.

Therefore, because Catholics must neither be rash-judgers nor revolutionaries, we must recognize the authority of the pope who is in the Vatican.

Although Recognizing the Pope’s Authority, We must also Recognize His Evil Conduct

When judging a person’s interior culpability, it must be done (if at all) in the most favorable light. By contrast, we judge a person’s statements and actions objectively and we must resist objective evil and error, however blameless its proponent might be. Summa, IIa IIae, Q.60, a.4, ad 2.

Thus, we assume the best (if we assume anything) about the pope’s interior, subjective culpability, but we also must recognize that the current pope’s words and deeds are often objectively evil.

True Obedience is Subordinate to Faith and Must Conform to Faith

The virtue of obedience is a subordinate virtue under the Cardinal Virtue of Justice. Summa, IIa IIae, Q.104. a2. Faith and Charity are superior. Summa, IIa IIae, Q.4 a.7 sed cont. & ad 3; IIa IIae, Q.23 a.6.

Because obedience is subordinate to Faith, the Apostles told the Jews that we ought to obey God, rather than men. Acts, 5:29.

Pope Leo XIII faithfully echoed the Apostles in teaching this truth:

[W]here a law is enacted contrary to reason, or to the eternal law, or to some ordinance of God, obedience is unlawful, lest, while obeying man, we become disobedient to God.

Libertas Praestantissimum, §§ 11 & 13.

For this reason, anyone who obeys the sinful command of his superior, commits the sin of disobedience to God’s law. Summa, IIa IIae, Q.33, a.7, ad.5 (...ipse peccaret praecipiens, et ei obediens, quasi contra praeceptum Domini agens...).

But What Should We Do, While the Pope Harms the Church (in Her Human Element)?

When a superior (e.g., the pope) commands that we do something wrong (including the instruction to believe something false), the Catholic response is: We resist! This is why Pope St. Gregory the Great taught:

Know that evil ought never to be done through obedience, though sometimes something good, which is being done, ought to be discontinued out of obedience.

De Moral., bk. XXXV, §29 (emphasis added).

When we resist a superior’s sinful conduct (or command), we do not thereby reject the superior’s authority as such, but only his evil conduct (or command). St. Thomas made this crucial distinction when he discussed St. Paul resisting St. Peter, the first pope, to his face. Galatians, 2:11. St. Thomas explained that the Apostle opposed Peter in the exercise of authority, not in his authority of ruling. Super Epistulas S. Pauli, Ad Galatas, ch.2 lectio III (emphasis added).

The Duty to Resist a Pope’s Abuse of Authority, Pertains to Matters of Faith and Morals as well

The principle of resisting any superior’s evil command, applies to any evil command—whether to do something, to say something or to believe something.

Thus, a pope might command us to believe his errors on matters of Faith. The pope can make such errors whenever he is not speaking ex cathedra. The First Vatican Council carefully listed the conditions for papal infallibility, because only when the pope fulfills all of the conditions, is he infallibly prevented from erring on matters of Faith or morals. At any other time, the pope might err on those matters, triggering a Catholic’s duty to resist the error.

In A Catholic Dictionary, Addis & Arnold explain:

Even when he [viz., the pope] speaks with Apostolic Authority [which is only one of the conditions for papal infallibility], he may err. The Vatican Council only requires us to believe that God protects him from error in definitions on faith or morals when he imposes a belief on the Universal Church.

A Catholic Dictionary, under the topic “Pope”, Addis & Arnold, The Catholic Publication Society, New York, 1884, pp.767-68 (bracketed comments added).

St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that, when St. Paul resisted St. Peter to the face [Galatians, 2:11], the impending danger of scandal St. Peter caused, was with respect to the Faith. Summa, IIa IIae, Q.33, a.4, ad 2.

Pope Paul IV tells us we are right to resist the pope whenever he deviates from the Faith:

[T]he Roman Pontiff, who is the representative upon earth of our God and Lord Jesus Christ, who holds the fullness of power over peoples and kingdoms, who may judge all and be judged by none in this world, may nonetheless be contradicted if he be found to have deviated from the Faith.

Cum Ex Apostolatus Officio, §1 (emphasis added).

Likewise, St. Robert Bellarmine assures us that we are right to resist a pope who uses his office to attack souls (whether through false doctrine or bad morals):

Just as it is licit to resist a Pontiff who attacks the body, so also is it licit to resist him who attacks souls or destroys the civil order or above all, tries to destroy the Church. I say that it is licit to resist him by not doing what he orders and by impeding the execution of his will. It is not licit, however, to judge, to punish, or to depose him, for these are acts proper to a superior.

De Romano Pontifice, St. Robert Bellarmine, Bk.2, ch.29 (emphasis added).

St. Thomas explains the reason for this distinction St. Robert Bellarmine makes, viz., that we are right to resist (correct) the pope or other superior, but we cannot punish or depose him:

A subordinate is not competent to administer to his prelate the correction which is an act of justice through the coercive nature of punishment. But the fraternal correction which is an act of charity is within the competency of everyone in respect of any person towards whom he is bound by charity, provided there be something in that person which requires correction.

Summa, IIa IIae, Q.33, a. 4, respondeo.

Juan Cardinal de Torquemada (revered medieval theologian responsible for the formulation of the doctrines that were defined at the Council of Florence) teaches:

It is necessary to obey God rather than men. Therefore, where the Pope would command something contrary to Sacred Scripture, or to an article of Faith, or to the truth of the Sacraments, or to a command of the Natural Law or of the Divine Law, he ought not to be obeyed, but such command ought to be despised.

Summa de Ecclesia, bk.2, ch.49, p.163B.

Conclusion

Because Catholics must not be rash-judgers or revolutionaries, we recognize the authority of the pope. But because we must obey God rather than men when they abuse their authority, we must resist a bad pope when he does harm.

8. Judging the Pope’s Words & Deeds According to Catholic Tradition

It is (objectively) a mortal sin of rash judgment for a person to decide that the pope is a formal heretic. See Section 5 above. It is (objectively) a mortal sin of revolution for a person to declare the pope has lost his authority as such. See Section 6 above.

On the other hand, it is also clear that we have a duty to resist the pope’s errors and the harm he causes. See Section 7 above.

However, we are not Church Doctors or popes. How do we know what is true (and what to believe), unless we simply believe whatever the pope teaches us? But on the other hand, if we do not decide for ourselves what to believe, then how do we know when we have a duty to resist what the pope says or does?

One false argument many sedevacantists use, is to present the following false alternatives:

This sedevacantist “argument” relies on a false understanding of papal infallibility.

The pope’s ex cathedra infallibility

We know the pope’s words are infallible (viz., from the very fact that he utters them), only when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when:

  1. in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians,
  2. in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority,
  3. he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals,
  4. to be held by the whole church.

Dogmatic definition quoted from Vatican I, Session 4, ch.4. (We will treat elsewhere concerning the teachings of a Church Council.)

Here is an example of Pope Pius IX speaking ex cathedra, fulfilling these conditions, in Quanta Cura (with its syllabus of errors):

We, truly mindful of Our Apostolic duty, and especially solicitous about our most holy religion, about sound doctrine and the salvation of souls divinely entrusted to Us, and about the good of human society itself, have decided to lift our voice again. And so all and each evil opinion and doctrine individually mentioned in this letter, by Our Apostolic authority, We reject, proscribe and condemn; and We wish and command that they be considered as absolutely rejected, proscribed and condemned by all the sons of the Catholic Church.

The post-conciliar popes have taught nothing false which fulfills these rigid conditions for ex cathedra infallibility.

Popes can err in all other teachings

Popes can err in any other teachings, unless those teachings are themselves a faithful repetition of truth contained in infallible Catholic Tradition. No pope (or anyone else) can err when faithfully repeating the teachings of Catholic Tradition.

But popes cannot teach any new doctrine infallibly. As the First Vatican Council declared: the Holy Ghost was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by His revelation, make known some new doctrine. Vatican I, Session 4, ch.4 (emphasis added).

We must measure all doctrine according to its fidelity to Catholic Tradition

Catholic catechisms distinguish between the pope’s infallible and non-infallible teachings because infallible teachings cannot conflict with the Catholic Faith (but rather, are part of it), whereas non-infallible teachings might conflict with the Catholic Faith. This distinction warns Catholics to accept all infallible teachings without possibility of error, but to accept the non-infallible ones only provided that they do not conflict with Catholic Tradition, i.e., the consistent teachings of the Catholic Church through the ages.

This distinction (between the pope’s infallible and non-infallible teachings) also shows that Catholics must both understand their Faith and measure other teachings against that standard (viz., infallible Catholic Tradition).

This is why St. Paul instructed his flock to hold fast to the traditions which you have learned, whether by word, or by our epistle. 2 Thess., 2:14. St. Paul is telling Catholics to measure all doctrine according to Catholic Tradition.

St. Paul further warned his flock to reject all new or different doctrines, which do not fit with the Tradition he taught them: If anyone preach to you a gospel, besides that which you have received, let him be anathema. Galatians, 1:9.

In the year 434, St. Vincent Lerins, gave this same rule to all Catholics: viz., to adhere to Catholic Tradition and reject what is contrary:

[I]n the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense “Catholic” .... [I]f some new contagion were to try to poison no longer a small part of the Church, but all of the Church at the same time, then [a Catholic] will take the greatest care to attach himself to antiquity which, obviously, can no longer be seduced by any lying novelty.

Commonitorium, ch. 2 & 3 (emphasis added).

St. Athanasius, Doctor of the Church and Patriarch of Alexandria, told his flock that faithful adherence to Tradition shows who is Catholic: Even if Catholics faithful to Tradition are reduced to a handful, they are the ones who are the true Church of Jesus Christ. St. Athanasius’ letter to his flock (emphasis added).

This Catholic duty to judge all doctrines according to Catholic Tradition, is described in Liberalism is a Sin:

[B]y use of their reason[,] the faithful are enabled to suspect and measure the orthodoxy of any new doctrine presented to them, by comparing it with a doctrine already defined. If it be not in accord, ... they can lawfully hold it as perverse and declare it such, warn others against it, raise the cry of alarm and strike the first blow against it. The faithful layman can do all this, and has done it at all times, with the applause of the Church.

Liberalism is a Sin, by Fr. Felix Sarda y Salvany, 1886, ch.32.

Not only does the Church instruct us to measure new doctrines according to Catholic Tradition, but even the way God made the human mind requires this measurement. When we understand a truth of our Faith, we understand there is a connection between the particular subject and predicate which form that truth. For example, we understand that our Faith teaches us there is the link between “God” and “omnipotent”, so that we profess that “God is omnipotent”. For this reason, we know the opposite statement (i.e., de-linking this subject and predicate) must be false, viz., that “God is not omnipotent”.

If a person wrongly supposes that a Catholic is forbidden to compare current conciliar teachings, with Catholic Tradition, this position would forbid a Catholic from understanding what he is saying (and believing) when he is professing his Faith. (In the above example, it would forbid a Catholic from noting that “God is omnipotent” is the opposite of “God is not omnipotent”.) Similarly, by knowing what the Church has always taught and knowing the conciliar church’s teaching, a Catholic cannot help but notice these teachings are often opposites.

To say that a Catholic is forbidden to notice this opposition would be simply to say that Catholics are forbidden to understand, and must simply memorize the sounds of words without understanding their meaning. In other words, Catholic Tradition judges the conciliar church’s teachings. Faithful Catholics merely notice this fact.

In contrast to our duty to measure all doctrines according to Catholic Tradition, Protestants wrongly set their own private judgment as the measure and rule of all faith. So a Protestant chooses what he wants to believe (i.e., either the new or the old teaching). But God chooses what Catholics must believe (Catholic Tradition) and we must measure everything according to this standard.

Catholics do not have a “cut off” date, after which they ignore papal teaching.

Because sedevacantists deny the post-conciliar popes’ authority as such, they ignore all papal words and deeds after the “cut off” date they choose based on when they (wrongly) decide that the Church last had a pope. Beginning on that date, they ignore what the pope says, regardless of what he says. This sedevacantists’ attitude is what makes them schismatic (at least materially). See Section 6 above.

The post-conciliar popes—like all popes—have the duty to teach the Faith. If the present pope were to teach doctrine with all of the conditions of ex cathedra infallibility (as set forth in Vatican I), then this teaching would be infallible.

Further, if a post-conciliar pope teaches without fulfilling the conditions for ex cathedra infallibility, then what he teaches might be wrong. Traditional Catholics would have to carefully consider what the pope taught, to measure the pope’s teaching according to Catholic Tradition. So Traditional Catholics (unlike sedevacantists) do not have a “cut off” date for papal teachings, after which they automatically ignore such teachings.

It is true that traditional Catholics approach a post-conciliar pope’s teaching with much greater wariness than they do the teaching of Pope St. Pius X. There is good reason for this wariness. It is not that a post-conciliar pope is not pope. But faithful Catholics approach his teachings warily, like a child would approach his own father who in the past has attempted to lead the child into sin. The father has not ceased to be the child’s father (with a father’s authority), but it is good and reasonable for the child to be more wary about his father who has attempted to lead the child into sin in the past, as compared to the lack of such reserve in the child who has a saintly father.

So a true Catholic does not refuse submission to the pope’s authority but must refuse to “obey” the pope’s abuse of his authority. If the pope is bad enough, it might appear that there is hardly anything in which the pope should be obeyed. In this way, there might be the superficial appearance that faithful Catholics and sedevacantists have the same position. But this appearance is wrong. Faithful Catholics do not forget the pope is their superior, even when they cannot follow what he teaches or does. By contrast, sedevacantists revolt against the pope’s authority as such, judge his interior culpability, and declare he is not Christ’s vicar. This contrast is the difference between Catholicism on the one hand, and revolution and (at least material) schism on the other hand.

We Catholics (and that child, in the above example) must hold ourselves ready to obey our superior whenever we can. So, e.g., if the bad father told the child to add an extra Hail Mary to his night prayers, the child must obey. Likewise, if a post-conciliar pope told us to begin abstaining from meat on an additional day of the week (e.g., Wednesday), we would have to obey.

Conclusion

Catholics must measure the pope’s words and deeds against the standard of Catholic Tradition. We must accept what conforms to Tradition and reject what conflicts with Tradition. Thus, sedevacantists are wrong that, just because Catholics recognize the authority of the pope, we must accept everything he says and does.

9. An Example of a Pope Teaching Heresy Before His Election and During His Reign

We know that it is (objectively) a mortal sin of rash judgment for a person to decide that the pope is a formal heretic (and thus is no longer the pope). See, Section 5 above. But although we recognize the pope’s authority, we know that we have a duty to resist his errors and the harm he causes. See, Section 7 above. We know it is possible for a pope to teach heresy if he is not speaking ex cathedra. (This is the whole reason Vatican I listed the conditions for the pope’s ex cathedra infallibility because, by fulfillment of those conditions, Catholics know that a particular papal teaching must be true and cannot be heresy.)

But a person could wonder if any pope before Vatican II ever really denied a doctrine of the Catholic Faith and publicly taught heresy—or had such possibility merely been theoretical? If such a pre-Vatican II pope did publicly teach heresy, then did that pope remain pope or did he somehow lose his papal office by teaching heresy? The answer is that prior popes have publicly taught heresy and did retain their papal office. The case of Pope John XXII (1316-34) is a useful example.

It is a dogma of the Catholic Faith that the saints see the Beatific Vision immediately after they die (and after they have been purged in Purgatory, if necessary). Council of Florence, Pope Eugene IV, Bull Laetentur coeli, 1439; Pope Benedict XII Benedictus Deus, 1336, Denz. #530-531.

Pope John XXII lived before this dogma was defined by the Church’s Extraordinary Magisterium. He publicly denied that the saints immediately see the Beatific Vision after they die, i.e., before the General Judgment. Catholic Encyclopedia, entry: “Pope John XXII”.

Before Pope John XXII became pope, he wrote a book publicly denying this doctrine of the Catholic Faith (viz., that the saints see the Beatific Vision immediately after they die (and after they have been purged in Purgatory, if necessary). Id. Instead, he taught the opposite heresy. Id. Yet both before and after this doctrine was defined, the Church has always recognized the validity of Pope John XXII’s election as pope. Id.; see also, the Annuario Pontificio editions 1939, 1942 & 1959. In other words, his public teaching of this heresy did not prevent his election as pope.

During Pope John XXII’s papal reign, he caused a great commotion by denying this same doctrine of the Catholic Faith on several occasions and again publicly teaching the opposite heresy. Catholic Encyclopedia, entry: “Pope John XXII”. Yet he reigned as pope until his death. Id.; see also, the Annuario Pontificio editions 1939, 1942 & 1959.

We know that any dogma which was defined by the Church’s Extraordinary Magisterium was already true and was always a doctrine of the Faith, even before the dogma was defined. In other words, the Church’s extraordinary definition does not “make” a doctrine true (and part of the Faith).

An extraordinary definition of a doctrine of Faith merely gives certitude to anyone in doubt concerning a truth which was already a doctrine of the Catholic Faith. This is why the First Vatican Council declared: the Holy Ghost was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by His revelation, make known some new doctrine. Vatican I, Session 4, ch.4 (emphasis added).

Thus, we know that the dogma Pope John XXII denied was always true and was a doctrine of the Faith at the time he denied this doctrine.

When the Church gives an extraordinary definition of a truth of Faith, the doctrine is not thereby made “more true” than it was before then. However, it is less likely that Catholics (including the pope) could deny the doctrine without knowing they are denying something they are required to believe in order to be Catholic. The Church’s extraordinary definition of a dogma gives Catholic teachers a strong tool to convince doubters and gives ecclesiastical superiors a powerful tool to judge in the external forum whether it is likely they will succeed in correcting a subordinate who denies the particular doctrine of the Faith. See, Section 5 above.

However, a Catholic might possibly deny a dogma (defined by the Church) without becoming a formal heretic. For example, suppose this Catholic denies the doctrine because he has the philosophical confusion causing him to believe that truth changes and that the dogma had been true but is no longer true. This is the error Pope St. Pius X ascribes to modernists. Id.

As shown in Section 5 above, we must judge things and statements objectively without giving any “benefit of the doubt”. Id. Thus, in the case of Pope John XXII, we judge his error objectively and know he taught heresy and denied a doctrine which has always been part of the Catholic Faith.

But we would commit the sin of rash judgment if we judge that Pope John XXII is subjectively (i.e., interiorly) culpable for teaching this heresy and conclude that Pope John XXII “knew better” and had the sin of heresy on his soul. Id. To avoid rash judgment, we must judge his subjective (i.e., interior) culpability for teaching heresy in the best possible light (if we judge his culpability at all) and so we do not conclude that he was a formal heretic and that he ceased to be Catholic and ceased to be pope. Id. In fact, despite publicly promoting heresy, the Church identifies him as the pope reigning from 1316 till his death in 1334. See, the Annuario Pontificio editions 1939, 1942 & 1959.

In other words, we should say about Pope John XXII what the Catholic Encyclopedia says about Pope Honorius (a different pope who committed serious doctrinal error): He was a heretic, not in intention [i.e., knowingly, subjectively or formally], but in fact [i.e., objectively and materially]. Catholic Encyclopedia, article: “Pope Honorius” (bracketed comments added).

As scandalous as it was for Pope John XXII to publicly teach heresy, he was elected pope and reigned as pope while professing this heresy. In contrast to what is really known about Pope John XXII, if (hypothetically) he had actually known that the doctrine he denied was one he was required to believe in order to be Catholic, then his denial would have caused him to cease to be Catholic. See, Section 5 above.

But Pope John XXII never admitted that he denied a doctrine he knew he was required to believe in order to be Catholic. So if we judge him at all, we judge he was pope and was a material heretic (and not a formal heretic). Id.

Likewise, the post-conciliar popes have never admitted that they denied any doctrine that they knew they were required to believe at that time in order to be Catholic. So if we judge them at all, we judge that each was pope in his turn and not a formal heretic.


  1. This entire work of St. Alphonsus is available in an online library, for free, in Italian. Here is the original Italian version, of the sentences quoted above: Niente ancora importa che ne’ secoli passati alcun pontefice sia stato illegittimamente eletto, o fraudolentemente siasi intruso nel pontificato; basta che poi sia stato accettato da tutta la chiesa come papa, attesoché per tale accettazione già si è renduto legittimo e vero pontefice.
  2. A formal heretic denies the formal aspect of Faith, which is the authority of God. The material heretic denies only the material aspect of Faith. Here is how St. Thomas explains this distinction between the Faith’s formal and material aspects:

    If we consider, in the Faith, the formal aspect of the object, it is nothing else than the First Truth. For the Faith of which we are speaking, does not assent to anything, except because it is revealed by God. Hence, the mean [i.e., the middle term of the syllogism] on which Faith is based is the Divine Truth [i.e., God’s authority].

    If, however, we consider materially the things to which Faith assents, they include not only God but also many other things ....

    Summa, III, Q.1, a.1, Respondeo (emphasis and bracketed words added).

    In other words, the formal aspect of the Faith is God alone, because God is the infallible authority of revealed Faith. The material aspect includes many other things, e.g., our Lady’s Assumption into heaven, because the material aspect of the Faith includes all the various revealed truths of our Faith.

  3. Here is how the Summa Theologica explains that ignorance can excuse a person from culpability for an act which is objectively sinful:

    An act is said to be excused ... on the part of the agent, so that although the act be evil, it is not imputed as sin to the agent, or [in the case of an agent who had some culpable negligence] at least not as so grave a sin. Thus, ignorance is said to excuse [interior culpability for] a sin wholly or partly.

    Summa Supp., Q.49, a.4, Respondeo (emphasis and bracketed words added).

  4. We are not discussing the case of a non-Catholic (e.g., a Lutheran) who denies a truth of the Catholic Faith and tells us (by his very adherence to Lutheranism) that he is not Catholic and does not believe everything the Catholic Church teaches. Instead, we are treating of a man who professes to be a Catholic but denies part of the Catholic Faith.
  5. Here is how St. Thomas explains this principle:

    [W]hen we judge of things ... there is question of the good of the person who judges [viz., the good of his intellect], if he judge truly, and of his evil [viz., of his intellect] if he judge falsely, because the true is the good of the intellect, and the false is its evil, as stated in [Aristotle’s] Ethics, bk.6, ch.2. Wherefore everyone should strive to make his judgment accord with things as they are.

    Summa, IIa IIae, Q.60, a.4, ad 2 (emphasis and bracketed words added).

  6. Here is how St. Thomas explains this important point:

    It is one thing to judge of things and another to judge of men. ... [W]hen we judge of men, the good and evil in our judgment is considered chiefly on the part of the person about whom judgment is being formed. For he is deemed worthy of honor from the very fact that he is judged to be good, and deserving of contempt if he is judged to be evil. For this reason we ought, in this kind of judgment, to aim at judging a man good, unless the contrary is proven. ... [We] may happen to be deceived more often than not. Yet it is better to err frequently through thinking well of a wicked man, than to err less frequently through having an evil opinion of a good man, because in the latter case an injury is inflicted, but not in the former. ... And though we may judge falsely, our judgment in thinking well of another pertains to our goodwill toward him and not to the evil of the intellect, even as neither does it pertain to the intellect's perfection to know the truth of contingent singular facts in themselves.

    Summa, IIa IIae, Q.60, a.4, ad 1-2 (emphasis added).

  7. Here is how St. Thomas explains this principle:

    [J]ust as a law cannot be made save by public authority, so neither can a judgment be pronounced except by public authority, which extends over those who are subject to the community [i.e., subject to the particular public authority]. Wherefore, even as it would be unjust for one man to force another to observe a law that was not approved by public authority, so too it is unjust, if a man compels another to submit to a judgment that is pronounced by anyone other than the public authority.

    Summa, IIa IIae, Q.60, a.6, respondeo.

  8. Here is how St. Thomas explains this distinction:

    Heresy and schism are distinguished in respect of those things to which each is opposed essentially and directly. For heresy is essentially opposed to faith, while schism is essentially opposed to the unity of ecclesiastical charity. Wherefore, just as faith and charity are different virtues, although whoever lacks faith lacks charity, so too schism and heresy are different vices, although whoever is a heretic is also a schismatic, but not conversely. This is what Jerome says in his commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians: I consider the difference between schism and heresy to be that heresy holds false doctrine while schism severs a man from the Church.

    Summa, IIa IIae, Q.39, a.1, ad 3.

  9. Incidentally, Pope Francis professes to recite 15 decades per day.
  10. Generally, political revolt is called by the name “sedition” and revolt against the Church, by the name “schism”. But at the root of all such revolts, there is the same “non serviam!” which echoes that of Satan, the father of all revolutionaries.
  11. Pope Pius IX used his ex cathedra (infallible) authority to condemn this error as part of a list of errors contained in the syllabus of Quanta Cura. Regarding these condemnations, the pope said:

    We, truly mindful of Our Apostolic duty, and especially solicitous about our most holy religion, about sound doctrine and the salvation of souls divinely entrusted to Us, and about the good of human society itself, have decided to lift our voice again. And so all and each evil opinion and doctrine individually mentioned in this letter, by Our Apostolic authority We reject, proscribe and condemn; and We wish and command that they be considered as absolutely rejected, proscribed and condemned by all the sons of the Catholic Church.

    Thus, Pope Pius IX’s condemnation fulfills the conditions for infallibility set out in Vatican I’s document, Pastor Aeternus, because the pope was: 1) carrying out his duty as pastor and teacher of all Christians; 2) in accordance with his supreme apostolic authority; 3) on a matter of faith or morals; 4) to be held by the universal Church.