Sedevacantism: The Fatal Flaw
Fatima Perspectives #1284
The sedevacantists, who declare that Francis is not the Pope and that the papal seat is vacant on account of his having fallen into heresy (and who say the same regarding Benedict XVI, John Paul II and Paul VI), never seem to notice the fatal flaw in their argument.
Let this quotation from a “popular” sedevacantist website suffice for a demonstration:
“By saying Francis is Pope but then refusing his magisterium, the would-be traditionalists in the Vatican II Church are doing untold damage to the traditional Catholic doctrine of the Papacy because the papal office was instituted as the sure norm of orthodoxy at every point in time in Church history, guaranteed by Christ Himself. This does not mean that every papal magisterial act is infallible, but it does mean that every papal magisterial act is authoritative, thus binding on consciences and, by the providence of Almighty God, always safe to follow. This means that souls cannot be led astray by any pernicious error if they follow the teaching of the Pope. That safety is guaranteed and caused by Christ Himself.” [emphasis in original]
So, according to sedevacantist thinking, one cannot legitimately recognize yet resist a true Pope because while not every papal magisterial act is infallible, every papal magisterial act is (1) authoritative, (2) binding on consciences, (3) safe to follow, and (4) free from pernicious error. Or, more simply: Not every exercise of the papal Magisterium is infallible, but every exercise of the papal Magisterium is free from error. Or, more simply still: The Pope is not infallible in his every teaching, but he never teaches error.
It is amazing that sedevacantists have made such headway with an argument so blatantly self-contradictory. But then, their entire polemic depends upon this self-contradiction. For once they admit that a Pope can err in a matter of faith and morals if, in the exercise of his free will, he chooses (perversely enough) to depart from Tradition in some particular act, then their critique of the conciliar Popes collapses. For then they would have to concede that while a Pope is capable of error in this or that singular pronouncement, Francis (or Benedict or John Paul II or Paul VI) made too many errors to be considered a Pope. But how many is too many?
What the sedevacantists are really saying, then, is that a Pope who errs in his teaching on a matter of faith and morals, even once, ceases to be Pope (or never was Pope) because every exercise of the papal magisterium must be free from error. This, of course, is not the teaching of the Church, as made clear by the First Vatican Council’s strict definition of papal infallibility as to singular papal pronouncements: i.e., a restriction to solemn definitions of dogma, which can only be based on what the Church has always believed and taught, there being no papal power to enunciate new doctrine, as the Council affirmed.
Here once again the wisdom of Father Gruner is evident. For as he always insisted, and as common sense would counsel in view of what the Church really teaches about the limits of the papacy:
(1) Popes are not inerrant oracles of Christ but only potentially fallible human vicars who are charged to guard a Deposit of Faith that is not theirs to alter.
(2) Barring a solemn definition of what the Church has always believed in any event — e.g. the Immaculate Conception — which is the sole object of papal infallibility, a Pope is capable of error, meaning that in the exercise of free will he might depart from the Church’s constant teaching.
(3) In such a case of error, what a Pope purports to teach cannot by definition be part of the Magisterium. But,
(4) This is not to say that the Pope who utters an extra-magisterial error must not be a true Pope.
To take a remote historical example, Pope John XXII did not cease to be Pope when, contradicting what the Church has always believed, he insisted in a series of sermons that the blessed departed will not see God until Judgment Day — an error he retracted on his deathbed.
Now, the sedevacantist might reply that John XXII protested — but only when challenged — that he was merely expressing his personal opinion and that he had not intended to bind the Church, so that John XXII remained Pope. But that argument would hinge the validity of a given papacy on prompt disclaimers issued by an errant Pope, absent which, according to the sedevacantist argument, the faithful would have been forced to accept as true John XXII’s errant sermons or else declare him to be a false Pope.
Here we see that the sedevacantist error resides in a hyper-papalism that fails to recognize that what guarantees the infallibility of Church teaching on faith and morals is not the personal charism of the presently reigning Pope, but the collective body of solemn definitions issued throughout the centuries (known as the Church’s Extraordinary Magisterium), as well as her constant and ubiquitous traditional teachings (the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium), both of which it is the Pope’s duty to follow — indeed, he above all others. Thus, while it may be necessary to resist a particular Pope in error, one can never resist the constant Church teaching from which an errant Pope may have departed.
Providentially enough, it was Benedict XVI who observed the crucial distinction between the teaching of a true Pope and the teaching of the Church in a comment that would be superfluous if the two teachings were always and infallibly the same:
“The power of teaching in the Church involves a commitment to the service of obedience to the faith. The Pope is not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law. On the contrary: the Pope’s ministry is a guarantee of obedience to Christ and to his Word. He must not proclaim his own ideas, but rather constantly bind himself and the Church to obedience to God’s Word, in the face of every attempt to adapt it or water it down, and every form of opportunism.”
But according to the sedevacantists, in essence, Francis is not a true Pope because he proclaims his own ideas as opposed to what the Church has always taught. It should be obvious that the argument is absurd and leads to absurd conclusions, given the turbulent history of the papacy — not only in our time but in the past.
Francis, in short, provides a dramatic example of the limitations of the papacy — limitations that were always there but had rarely surfaced before Vatican II. These limitations the sedevacantists cannot admit, because the admission would extinguish their entire position.