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Looking at Some Basics of Sede-Vacantism

Atila S. Guimarães

I habitually receive objections, protests or even “excommunications” from sede-vacantists on TIA's position of Resistance. Instead of responding to each of these corrrespondences, I had kept them for some occasion when I could address most of them in a single response. The letter below from a Brazilian reader provides me the opportunity to make an analysis of the principal arguments and documents of sede-vacantism. I believe that this analysis reinforces our position of Resistance. I invite my readers to follow this correspondence.

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Dear Mr. Atila S. Guimarães,

Being a Brazilian reader of the "Tradition in Action" website, I am pleased to recognize your nationality. Also, since I have many doubts about facts that involve our Holy Church, now, finally, I have the possibility of directing some questions to you since I have been studying the Catholic faith for some years now.

In this first contact, allow me to present myself as an admirer of the works of Abbé Georges de Nantes and of Fr. Basilio Méramo. In the past, I was an extreme sede-vacantist and I entered into contact with a community of sede-vacantists in the U.S.

Thanks be to God, I could realize my error and understand that it was possible that the papal heresy was a reality, but any insinuation of vacancy was not supportable. The Bull Cum ex Apostolatus Officio has been a difficult document for me to adapt to our times, since it would seem to decree ipso facto the vacancy of the See of Peter. Either we have to reject the present day application of this bull or have recourse to sede-vacantism as a solution. Still, according to what I have been told, Pope Pius XII restricted the extension of its effects.

Today I consider myself a Catholic who rejects Vatican Council II or a great part of it, who is suspicious of the validity of the mass of Pope Paul VI, who loathes the beatification of Pope John Paul II… In short, I am a man who feels the exhausting sulphurous winds that are spreading through the Church, trying to pollute her.

When you have the time, I ask you the favor to respond – be it briefly or in a longer form – to this humble sinner who loves the Holy Church of Christ.

     God be praised and may the Blessed Virgin protect us.


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Dear Mr. R.U.,

I apologize for my delay in responding to your letter, but it arrived when I was in the last stages of another volume of my Collection on the Council, which I have completed. After much work, it finally arrived from press two weeks ago.

Five progressivist Vatican II Popes

After five progressivist Popes, many Catholics are confused
Thank you for your considerations about the sad situation of Holy Mother Church. Your comments about sede-vacantism and the Bull Cum ex apostolatus officio offer me the opportunity to develop for you and other correspondents some themes I have been asked to address for some time. Therefore, in this response you may find that at times I mention points that are not in your letter; they are responses to the questions of others.

You mention doubts you have about the situation of the Holy Church. In truth, when we have five Popes who have successively abandoned the integrity of the Faith, as they did when they preached universal salvation, for example, it is not surprising that you should be perplexed. A huge disorientation exists everywhere today among Catholics, especially in the better part of the flock of Christ.

It seems to me that to respond to the theory that the See of Peter is vacant because of the heresy of these Popes, one must first distinguish between two basic perspectives in the Church, what is divine in her and what is human.

I. The Church, a divine society

When we take the first and most noble perspective, we try to analyze, understand and judge the present day situation based on the divine factors: the words of Scripture, infallible papal and conciliar documents of the past, as well as the unanimous teaching of Bishops, Saints and Doctors. I believe that a discussion on these points is necessary, but very frequently treacherous, for since a scholar knows that any heretic, upon falling into heresy, disconnects himself from the Church, he is led to apply this to the conciliar Popes and to draw juridical consequences from this fact: The present day Popes are no longer Popes, they lose their jurisdiction, their sacraments are not valid, the Bishops consecrated by them are not Bishops, the priests are not priests, etc.

I have accompanied these studies from afar, and I also know that a heretic cannot be a member of the Church. When I apply this principle to the conciliar Popes, however, I stop at the affirmation that they are heretics. I do not enter into the juridical consequences of this fact. The imperative reason is simple: Pope Boniface VIII in the Bull Una Sanctam clearly interpreted the words of Scripture, “The spiritual man judges all things and he himself is judged by no man” (1 Cor 2:15), as applicable to Popes. And he concluded saying definitively that no one can “judge” a Pope. “To judge,” for Boniface VIII, was not to make a dogmatic or moral appraisal about the thinking or the conduct of a Pope, but rather to attribute to oneself the power of deposing him. Boniface VIII was indirectly dealing with the case of the King of France, Philip the Fair, who pretended he could depose and make Popes.

Now, when someone affirms today that the conciliar Popes are not Popes, that person implicitly is attributing to himself that power. Even when, to avoid such arrogance, a person says that the Pope automatically ceases to be Pope and therefore the See is vacant, it seems to me that he does not have the right to conclude “therefore the seat is vacant” because here he directly enters the prohibited zone.

1. The New Testament

St. Paul told us not to accept a different Gospel, even should it be presented by an Angel from Heaven. Consistent with such teaching, he resisted St. Peter when the latter scandalized the faithful. Such precedent teaches us that we can judge whoever is not in accordance with the Gospel, even if it is a high authority, a representative of Heaven. Thus, we can denounce and resist a Pope when he scandalizes the faithful. However, neither St. Paul nor any other Apostle declared the See to be vacant. We find no example of this in Scriptures.

2. History

When we research History, we see that Pope St. Leo II declared his predecessor Pope Honorius a heretic some decades after the death of the latter. St. Leo II, however, did not annul the juridical or sacramental acts of Pope Honorius.

The two Ecumenical Councils that pretended to have the power to depose Popes – the Council of Constance (1414-1418) and that of Basel (1431-1445) – were later unauthorized exactly in that pretension. Popes Martin V and Sixtus IV annulled the canons of the Ecumenical Council of Constance that ascribed to itself such power and Pope Eugene IV did the same regarding the Ecumenical Council of Basel.

3. The teaching of three ‘infallible’ papal bulls

The two papal bulls most often used in sede-vacantist arguments - Quo primum and Cum ex apostolatus officio – merit special analysis. They are very categorical, some even consider them infallible. I do not discuss these qualifications; I prefer to study their content.

A. Quo primum & Quod a nobis

Reading Quo primum of St. Pius V about the form of the Tridentine Mass, we see the severe condemnations launched at the end of it for those who dare to change that form. At first glance, we would think that no one – not even a Pope – could change the Mass, and if he were to do so, he would automatically be excommunicated and “therefore cease to be Pope.”

A photograph of Pope St Pius X

Despite the prohibition, Pius X serenely changed the Divine Office & Breviary
However, the same St. Pius V wrote the Bull Quod a nobis about the forms of the Breviary and the Divine Office with analogous anathemas against anyone who would change them. Notwithstanding those sanctions, St. Pius X decided to change both the Breviary and the Divine Office, and did so with complete tranquility of conscience when he issued the Constitution Divino afflatu. It has never been reported that he had been excommunicated. It has never even been said that this measure disturbed the process of his canonization, in times when the certainty of the processes of canonization were a reflection of the infallibility of the Church. The analysis of these two bulls by St. Pius V and its “violation” by Pius X leads us to the first conclusion: The sanctions of St. Pius V are not applicable to a Pope.

From this conclusion, it seems to me that some teachings follow: The Popes are the supreme spiritual authorities on this earth, but among themselves the Popes are equal. If one Pope at a given moment in History were to issue juridical, liturgical or sacramental laws to be obeyed by all the Popes to come, he would be breaking this fundamental equality and declaring himself superior to the future Popes: It seems to me that he would be setting himself up as a super-pope. From the fact that St. Pius X did not take into consideration the anathemas of the Bull Quod ad nobis, logically derives a second conclusion: Were a Pope to legislate over future Popes, he would usurp a power that belongs only to Our Lord.

B. Cum ex apostolatus officio

If this is true, the complicated case of the Bull Cum ex apostolatus officio of Pope Paul IV can more easily be understood. In it, we should distinguish the teachings and norms issued when the Pope legislates over those who are inferior to him from the norms issued when he intends to legislate over future Popes.

Pope Paul IV issuing a statute

Pope Paul IV issuing a statute
In the first case, he establishes norms for religious and civil authorities. When he legislates over Catholic civil authorities – Emperors, Kings, Dukes, Marquis, etc. – he automatically excommunicates and deprives of their civil functions, without the need of any further measure, those who have had any adhesion to heresy. Certainly these determinations show that a laudable zeal inspired the Pontiff. But he seems to ignore the reality when he imagines that the simple words of his Bull will have the effect that he desires. Who could objectively prove that such persons have favored heresy unless they have gone through a judicial process? Is it possible for an excommunication latae sententiae – normally reserved in the Church for secret actions – to have a public effect and deprive an authority of its civil functions without any concurrence of the State? No, it is not possible. Thus, at least insofar as he legislates over Catholic civil authorities in so generic a manner, ignoring all indispensable procedures to make his norms effective, Pope Paul IV destines his Bull to remain a dead law, a blank bullet. I leave aside here the application of the Bull for ecclesiastical authorities.

In the second case, another distinction is necessary: When Paul IV declares that no candidate to the Papacy or an elected Pope can be a heretic, he is doctrinally sound. But when he intends to depose a validly elected Pope should he become a heretic, and annul his juridical and sacramental actions, Paul IV is legislating over future Popes. This leads us to draw from the second conclusion above a consequence: Paul IV in Cum ex seems to step outside the ambit of papal authority and set himself up as a super-pope.

Argumentandi gratia

Notwithstanding this shortcoming, argumentandi gratia [for the sake of argument], if one admits that a Pope can legislate over other Popes, one sees that the Bull of Paul IV is omissive, because he does not establish an ecclesiastical body capable of declaring null the pontificate of the validly elected Pope whose election had been invalidated by heresy. In the hypothesis of the election of a heretic Pope, two main cases present themselves: the Pope who would be a public heretic or the Pope who would be a secret heretic.

In the first case, if the Pope had already been a public heretic, the accusation of heresy must also have been extended to the College of Cardinals who elected him. Then, the Bull Cum ex should have supposed such a case and indicated another ecclesiastical body to judge and depose the Pope. This organ should have more power than the validly elected Pope and the College of Cardinals who elected him. Someone could say: Such an organ would have to be an ecumenical council. But, in fact, it had been ruled that ecumenical councils were not authorized to do this, as we said above. Thus, one sees that an organ to depose a Pope does not exist in the Church; it had not been indicated by Paul IV nor by any other Pope. Further, should such an organ exist, it would be doctrinally prevented from deposing a validly elected Pontiff.

Stephen VI judges and deposes the cadaver of Pope Honorius

Pope Stephen VI judges the cadaver of Formosus and deposes him
In the second case of a secretly heretic Pope, the solution seems to be even more complicated because that supposed ecclesiastical organ would need to have further power to annul and undo all the juridical and sacramental acts made by the Pope until his heresy became manifest, which could be a short or long period of time. But if this organ were to exercise such power, it would lead the Church into chaos.

The 15 years that followed the pontificate of Pope Formosus (891-896) provides us an example of the chaos that the annulling of the sacraments ministered by a Pontiff can propitiate (1). As far as I could verify, the Church closed that confused period suspending the discussion about the validity of the papal sacraments without taking the side of any of the factions, and thenceforth avoided entering into juridical-sacramental disputes of this type.

It seems to me that this historical precedent of annulling juridical and sacramental acts of Popes should have showed Paul IV the imprudence of leaving instructions to depose a Pope and to annul his sacramental acts since such actions would lead the Church into chaos.

The analysis of those two cases leads to a third conclusion: An organ to depose a Pope does not exist in the Church; if such organ did exist, it would be condemned in the doctrinal order, and would lead the Church into chaos in the practical order.

From this would come a general conclusion: The juridical and sacramental sanctions of Cum ex referring to the Popes are not applicable.

Historical confirmation

Modern History confirms the infeasibility of the application of Cum ex. In fact, Cardinal Mastai Ferretti was a complete liberal before rising to the Pontifical Throne – some add that he was also a member of Freemasonry. After taking the name of Pius IX and converting, he practically declared Catholic Liberalism a heresy. One may say, therefore, he declared that he was a heretic before he was elected. If the Bull of Paul IV were to be applied to this case, Cardinal Mastai Ferratti never could have been Pope; his election should be annulled and all the juridical and sacramental acts of his pontificate should have been invalidated.

Pius IX at Vatican Council I

Pius IX at Vatican I, a null council if Ex cum is applied...
Now, this seems absurd, since then two dogmas proclaimed by Pius IX would not be valid and the Ecumenical Council Vatican I would also be invalid. I repeat, this seems absurd. No one with a minimum of Catholic sense doubts that Pius IX, after his conversion, was a model Pope. If more confirmation were necessary, I could add some prophecies of Our Lady, such as those of Good Success in Quito, Ecuador, which mention Pius IX as the legitimate Pope. In fact, Our Lady of Good Success foretold a Pope who would declare the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in the 19th century. Therefore, indirectly, Our Lady foretold that Pius IX was a legitimate Pope.

If Cum ex had been applied, the validity of the elections of the archliberal Cardinal Pecci, the future Leo XIII, and the para-modernist Cardinal della Chiesa, the future Benedict XV, must also be declared null. Such hypothesis also appears absurd. In the practical order, it would lead the Church into chaos and would seriously vie for her destruction.

It seems to me, therefore, that the condemnations of these three papal Bulls, with regard to the powers of jurisdiction and orders, are not applicable to a Pope. Thus, I would say that applying these papal Bulls in this way is not conclusive to declare the See vacant.

4. The ordinary Magisterium

When we have recourse to the ordinary Magisterium of the Church, which as you may recall enjoys infallibility when it unanimously affirms the same teaching through the centuries, we do not find a uniform teaching with regard to a heretic Pope.

What we find is a theological discussion examining the question of a heretic Pope placed on the level of quaestio disputata [question open to discussion], that is, each theologian can express the opinion he wishes. These studies were already categorized by St. Robert Bellarmine into five basic opinions. The themes discussed include the following: Can the Pope be a heretic? Does the Pope lose the pontificate when he becomes a heretic? What if he were a secret heretic? What if he were a public heretic? Is it necessary for some ecclesiastical body to declare him a heretic for him to lose the pontificate or does he lose it automatically? If such declaration were made, would not this ecclesiastical body make itself superior to the Pope? If he is deposed automatically, at what moment does this take place? What happens to the Pope’s power of jurisdiction and orders when he is considered a heretic?

St. Robert Bellarmine

Bellarmine only adds his opinion to a question still open to discussion
At the moment, what concerns me is not to make the list of responses to these questions, but rather to emphasize that there has been no definitive teaching on the matter. The opinions of the various theologians are expressed strongly, but with humility, knowing that until the Church speaks, there is no definitive answer.

The important conclusion is that there is not unanimity of opinion among the theologians about what happens should a Pope fall into heresy. Even if there were unanimity, this opinion still would not have infallibility. Infallibility resides only in the extraordinary pontifical teachings or in the ordinary pontifical teachings when unanimous, and also in episcopal teachings throughout the centuries when they are unanimous. Even if the opinion of the theologians were unanimous, it would have a non-definitive weight, but at the present stage of the discussion, even this weight cannot be given to it.

It seems to me that, regarding this discussion, the partisans of sede-vacantism should be more honest with their followers. Instead of presenting partial opinions of this or that Saint or Doctor as if they were definitive certainties, they should show their followers that the topic is a study in progress that will only be closed when the Church leaves the present day crisis and a good Pope gives a final word on the matter.

Concluding this Part I, we see that with regard to the consideration of the Church as divine, we must limit ourselves to saying that the conciliar Popes are heretics, without drawing definitive conclusions about the loss of their powers of jurisdiction and orders.

To shed more light on this sad situation of general apostasy, we will change the perspective and go on to look at the Church as a human society, which is much more simple and brief.

II. The Church, a human society

In its human aspect, the Catholic Church is a societas perfecta, a visible, autonomous and sovereign society that is sufficient in itself and does not depend on any external authority, be it spiritual or temporal. The same laws that govern other visible societies should be applied to her. St. Robert Bellarmine confirms this principle when, in his famous definition of the Church, he affirms that “the Catholic Church is as visible as the Kingdom of France or the Republic of Venice.”

In accordance with the laws of visible societies, the conciliar Popes were chosen by a designated electoral body, the College of Cardinal; they were accepted by the ensemble of the Catholic Hierarchy and by the ensemble of the faithful and were recognized as valid Popes by the whole world. One could say, therefore, that these Popes are de facto Popes.

Cathedra of Peter - Bernini

The Cathedra of Peter glorified by Bernini
Are they also de iure Popes? Just as a temporal ruler acknowledged by all as such has the power of jurisdiction of his office, so also does a conciliar Pope. Therefore, I would say that despite the heresy, they retain the right to command in everything that is not directly heresy.

It seems to me that they also retain the power of orders since this is also linked indirectly to the power of jurisdiction, while directly only to the apostolic succession. The Church has always been very careful before affirming that a validly consecrated Bishop has lost the power of orders after becoming a heretic. Since Protestantism (1517), she still has not declared the sacraments of Lutheran bishops invalid; and only after 300 years did Leo XIII declare the Anglican orders to be invalid. Certainly the same criteria should be applied to the power of orders of the conciliar Popes: It is at the least very early to place in doubt the validity of the sacraments ministered by them.

When does a bad Pope stop being Pope? (I already gave my opinion on this matter in another place with examples; here I summarize it). In the same way that a bad King stops being de facto King. And when does this happen? When a considerable part of his subjects denies him obedience. In the case of the conciliar Popes, when Catholics become convinced that these Popes are heretics, resist their orders and spread the position of resistance until the government of such Popes becomes unsustainable.

It seems to me that this condition of great public notoriety is what some theologians were referring to when they said that the heretic Pope would continue to be Pope until his heresy became “notorious and publicly known.”

These are the fruits we can harvest with regard to the Church as a human society.

III. Conclusion

Concluding and combining the two perspectives – the divine and the human – this is my position:
  1. A heretic Pope loses the pontificate automatically before God, Who knows his innermost thoughts and actions, at the moment when he falls into heresy, or, if he is already a heretic, at the moment when he reaffirms the heresy after his election;

  2. He continues to be Pope before the visible Church until a respectful opposition of the faithful makes his government impossible;

  3. Catholics have the obligation to resist him in all that he does that favors heresy;

  4. They also have the obligation to spread the position of resistance as much as possible;

  5. They should pray much and offer sacrifices asking Our Lord Jesus Christ, the true Head of the Church of which the Pope is only the Vicar, to intervene and bring this great trial for the Church and the faithful to an end.

At this moment these are the considerations that occur to me suggested by your amiable letter and by the questions of other correspondents and readers of our website.

     With consideration,

     In Jesu et Maria,

     Atila S. Guimarães
Footnote 1. After the death of Pope Formosus and the brief pontificate of 15 days of his successor Boniface VI (896), Stephen VI (896-897) was elected. Nine months after his election, under pressure from partisans of a faction opposed to Pope Formosus, he contested the election of the latter, exhumed his body, and then judged, deposed and excommunicated him at the so-called Cadaver Synod (897); he also annulled all the juridical and sacramental acts of his pontificate. However, in a public uprising against the Cadaver Synod, Stephen VI was deposed and thrown in prison where he was strangled.

That same party favorable to Formosus brought the next Pope, Romanus (897) to the throne; he died four months later. His successor, Theodore II, had an even briefer pontificate, but he was able to hold a synod that annulled all the decisions of Stephen VI. The successor of Theodore was Sergius, of the anti-Formosus faction, who held the papal throne for only some months until he was deposed in 898 by a revolution, and John IX (898-900) was elected. This Pope, favorable to Formosus, confirmed all his juridical and sacramental acts. Benedict IV (900-903) followed the same line of John IX. At his death, Leo V was elected; he remained on the papal throne for two months and was deposed by a palace revolution. Christopher, later considered an antipope, took the place of Leo V and threw him in prison. After a few months, Christopher was deposed and imprisoned by Sergius, who had been dismissed in 898. After some time in prison, the two deposed popes, Leo V and Christopher, were executed.

Rising to the pontifical throne with the name of Sergius III (904-911), this pope declared the pontificates of John IX, Leo V and Christopher to be null. Sergius III called a synod in Rome that annulled the decisions opposed to the Cadaver Synod and again installed them in full vigor. With this decision, later contested by historians, the disputes over the validity of the juridical and sacramental acts of Pope Formosus did not resurface. A new era of intrigue in the Papacy, not directly linked to our study, would begin.

One can well imagine the chaotic sacramental consequences for the Church in Rome from this dispute in the Papacy: With each new annulment or rehabilitation of the previous papal acts, the members of the Hierarchy and the clergy lost or regained their episcopal consecrations or priestly ordinations.

Blason de Charlemagne
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Posted November 14, 2011

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