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February 20th, 2015

 Sedevacantism is Not the Solution—Hang on in There

From time to time good  people send e-mails expressing deep concern about the desperate state of the Church during the present pontificate. Some are clearly tempted towards sedevacantism.  In my worst moments I feel the attraction of this temptation myself, but I am quite sure it is one that must be resisted—for many reasons. Chief among these is that sedevacantism is a false concept: but even if you are not sure about that, you mustn’t desert the ship: that’s exactly what the Modernists want you to do.

I am not a theologian—just an elderly retired hack journalist (what Belloc called “an unsuccessful literary man, with an indolent expression and an undulating throat”) so I am not qualified to give comfort to the perplexed. However, I have found, not for the first time, that Fr John Hunwicke has some very sound and reassuring  advice which I have taken to heart. Here it is:

I doubt whether acceptance of the authority of the Roman Pontiff has been in as weakened a state as it is now, at least since the Reformation. His authority is questioned on all sides.

During a recent Home Service Sunday programme, the BBC had a Tablet journalist for interview. She said very openly that St John Paul’s proscription of the idea that women could receive sacerdotal Ordination was a great shame, but that she had no doubt that, eventually, Women’s Ordination would come. She exhibited no nervousness that she was thereby contradicting, fully frontally, the requirement that this judgement, as an authoritative expression of the Church’s infallible Ordinary Universal Magisterium, must be seen as definitive tenendum. She did not sound like somebody speaking defiantly in the fear that she would be carpetted the next morning by Authority!

On the other wing, we have among many people a great fear that the Holy Father will oversee either a reversal of Christ’s and the Church’s teaching that Marriage is indissoluble, or else a relaxing of the principle that unrepented adultery, like any other unrepented grave sin, has to be seen as a factor excluding those concerned from the Lord’s Table.

I have read on the Internet an observation: ‘I would become sedevacantist and go off to the SSPX’.

This is an extraordinarily odd thing to say, because the SSPX has a wise long-term policy of excluding sedevacantists from its ranks. But, apart from that, there is here a bad misunderstanding of what Sedevacantism is. Catholic theologians are agreed that a heretic cannot be pope, but have differed about how this principle is to be given practical effect. Some have argued that a heretical pontiff ceases to be pope when he adopts his heresy, but that a direct intervention by the Church is needed to certify that the See of St Peter has thus become vacant. Others judge that the heretical pope does not ipso facto cease to be pope, but has to be deposed by a direct intervention by the Church. In either case, this is not an area for do-it-yourself experts on heresy. Sedevacantism is not an option. If you are the sort of person who can see no reason to accept my authority on this point … because, after all, I do talk a lot but how can anybody be sure my judgements aren’t dodgy? … this might mean that you are also the sort of person who would be more impressed by a series of posts on Bishop Richard Williamson’s blog a few weeks ago in which he exposed the complete inviability of Sedevacantism, its radically vitiating ecclesiological deficit.

Two points. Despite the anxieties entertained by the Intellectuals on both sides of this question … the Traditionalists and the Tablettentendenz … I see no grounds for panic. I see no practical likelihood whatsoever that anything will happen to put into doubt our duty, in our day-by-day Christian life, to adhere obediently to the judgements of the Roman Pontiff. But … let’s be honest … there have been in history occasions when Roman Pontiffs have wobbled in their adherence to orthodoxy …. Liberius and all that. In these circumstances, there does have to be a duty to resist that wobble and to decline to give effect to edicts purporting to enact the wobble. But here is the Red Line: at Vatican I, a great deal of historical work was done to ensure that the Decree on the Infallibility of the Roman Pontiff was so worded as not to be vulnerable on such historical grounds. It is watertight. We can be sure that whatever a pope says ex cathedra is protected by the Holy Spirit from any error (but even here, we are not obliged to believe either that the decree concerned was necessary, or that it expressed things in the best of all possible ways). But it is not unknown for a papal decree which falls short of the ex cathedra status to be flawed. Of course, that cannot be a good position for the Church to be in. But it is not some sort of Ultimate Catastrophe! The Church survived Liberius! And so did the Papacy! And, to the end of time, both will survive!

It is very important to remember the limits of the Papal Magisterium. This is best done by a careful reading of the decree Pastor aeternus of Vatican I. That is the touchstone. Do not exaggerate, overestimate, what a pope can do, and then, when some pope or other goes a bit off the rails, or you think he has, start running around in a frantic fear that you have ‘lost your faith’. The pope is not an Absolute Monarch. Blessed Pius IX made this very explicitly clear. Benedict XVI taught this with determined vigour. This is serious! The Pope is not some God-on-Earth who can never make a mistake! Not a few of them have made quite a lot. There is no reason why the same should not be true in the future. Learn not to fret! Learn to live with it, as so many Catholics in previous generations have done! And if you’re the sort of person who can laugh at it, laugh. In any case, sit yourself down comfortably, pour yourself a drink … and learn the following off by heart:

‘The Holy Spirit was not promised to Peter’s successors so that they should, by His revelation, disclose new teaching, but so that, with His assistance, they should devoutly guard and faithfully set forth the revelation handed down through the apostles, the Deposit of Faith.’


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