Pope Sifting - Difficulties with Sedevacantism
by Laszlo Szijarto
Taken from Angelus Press Magazine October 1995
Some theologians hold that a pope would lose his office ipso facto [by the very fact] by falling into manifest heresy. l Sedevacantists have devoted much time and effort to pointing this out. According to the principle papa a nemine judicandus, [the pope is to be judged by no one] no declaration by the Church could effect the deposition of a pope. Catholics, however, do not have the right to make a determination on their own as to the fact of whether deposition had actually taken place in this manner.
Although manifest heresy would ontologically effect deposition ipso facto, a determination would have to be made by the Universal Church about that very fact embodied in the expression ipso facto most probably through the declaration of a General Council before individual Catholics could arrive at such a conclusion criteriologically.
Knowing When Deposition Has Taken Place
Canonists distinguish between a sententia (iudicialis) privationis [sentence of (judicial) deprivation] and a sententia (mere) declaratoria [sentence merely declaratory] Pope Innocent III first applied this distinction between iudicari [to be judged] and iudicatus ostendi [to be held as judged] to the case of a heretical Supreme Pontiff. While the Church could not issue a sententia privationis to effect the deposition of an heretical pope (iudicare) [to judge], not only would there be nothing to prevent it from declaring that a pope had ipso facto defaulted from his office (judicatum ostendere)[to show him as already judged], but it would have to do so before Catholics could make that determination for themselves.
Why do Catholics not have the right to arrive at such a conclusion on their own? Let me illustrate this point through some of its practical implications. On one occasion, a sedevacantist friend of mine suggested that Pope Pius IX had fallen from the papacy. On what grounds? He had discovered “heresy” in an encyclical letter issued by that Supreme Pontiff–a conclusion based of course upon his misreading the document. He proceeded from there to allege that even St. Peter himself might have at one point lost authority (i.e., when he denied our Lord). Fortunately, however, St. Peter eventually recovered his office. Various sedevacantists have denied the legitimacy of Pius XII, Pius XI, Benedict XV, and (yes!) even St. Pius X. Now Pius IX and St.Peter himself? Where will it stop? Take out Pius XII and you uproot the dogma of our Lady’s Assumption. Eliminate Pius IX and you undermine the Immaculate Conception, Papal Infallibility, and the entire First Vatican Council. Is this how we are to defend the magisterium?
Legitimacy as a Dogmatic Fact
Theologians classify papal legitimacy among dogmatic facts, that is to say, theological conclusions so intimately connected with the Faith that their denial would lead to the undermining of revealed doctrine. Just try to imagine the chaos that would inevitably result if there were conceded to individual Catholics the right of deciding about legitimacy. Let us suppose, hypothetically, that a certain Pope had just defined a dogma. Upon examining the dogma (under the lights of private judgment), a certain Catholic decides that the dogma contradicts Tradition. Said Catholic therefore feels bound to conclude that aforementioned Pope had fallen from the papacy. According to this principle (absolutely fundamental to sedevacantism), every dogmatic pronouncement would be subject to the private judgment of individual Catholics as its ultimate criterion.
Who Has the Authority to Decide Such a Question?
Dogmatic facts regarding legitimacy work a priori [in prior time] to dogmatic definitions. If it were possible to argue a posteriori [in after time] from a perceived “false” teaching to the non-legitimacy of a pope, the a priori infallibility of any given dogmatic definition would be completely undermined. Dogmatic definitions would be accepted ultimately in reference to a private judgment about their truth or falsehood. Sedevacantism renders impossible any a priori infallibility whatsoever, even in the case of solemn definitions.
Quid prodesset enim in abstracto profiteri infallibilem conciliorum oecumenicorum aut Pontificum R. auctoritatem, si licitum esset dubitare de legitimitate cuiuslibet concilii aut Pontificis? What good would it be to profess the infallible authority of Ecumenical Councils or Roman Pontiffs in the abstract if it were permitted to entertain doubts about the legitimacy of any given Council or Pontiff?
[Facta dogmatica] “[e]jus modi sunt, e.g., Scripturam s., qua utimur, esse genuinam; concilia nicaenum, ephesinum, tridentinum etc., fuisse legitima; Pius IX, Leonem XIII etc. Iegitime fuisse electos ac proinde legitimos Petri in episcopatu romano successores. Sane fac quidpiam horum in dubium vocetur, illico consequetur, editas definitiones in conciliis incertas, incertum esse centrum unitatis catholicae, scil. consequetur ipsius fidei excidium revelationisque pernicies....
[Dogmatic facts] include things of this sort: that the Sacred Scrip- tures we use are genuine; that the Councils of Nicaea, Ephesus, Trent, etc. were legitimate; that Pius IX, Leo XIII, etc. were elected legitimately and consequently were legitimate successors to Peter as Bishops of Rome. Just see what would result if you would let any of these things be called into doubt. Defini- tions issued during Councils would not have certainty. There would be no sure way of determining the center of Catholic unity. In short, what would result is the uprooting of faith itself and the destruction of Rev- elation. [my emphasis]
Sedevacantism does not defend the infallible magisterium, but undermines it in a very serious way! Faith depends upon the Church’s authority. Scripture itself would not have any weight had the Church not proposed it as containing God’s revelation. If doctrines are to be endowed with the Church’s authority, however, the legitimacy of those who promul- gate them must also be founded upon no less an authority. Conversely, if the legitimacy of those who promulgate doctrines were left up to the private judgment of indi- vidual Catholics, no doctrine could ever be endowed with that author- ity which constitutes the formal motive of faith (according the principle of logic peiorem semper partem sequitur conclusio) [conclusions are based on the worst facts].
...[H]isce factis ita implexae veritates revelatae, ut illis nutantibus hae ipsae nequeant consistere: revelationis de- positum unitasque fidei sarta tectaque servari non poterit, nisi Ecclesia judicio supra omnem dubium [facta dogmatica] judicare possit.
Revealed truths are so inter- twined with [dogmatic] facts that, if the latter do not rest on a sure foundation, the former cannot re- main standing either. Neither the Deposit of Revelation nor the unity of Faith could be kept safe and
sound unless the Church were able to judge about [dogmatic facts] with a judgment beyond all doubt.
If questions about legitimacy depend upon the judgment of indi- vidual Catholics, then–since indi- vidual Catholics cannot “judge about” them “with a judgment be- yond all doubt”–“neither the Deposit of Revelation nor the unity of Faith could be kept safe and sound.”
What Constitutes a Judgment by the Church?
Problems for Indefectibility
Only the Universal Church can make judgments about legitimacy– not individuals, not portions of the Church, not even a majority, but only the Universal Church. Why? Because only the Universal Church can decide such matters “beyond all doubt,” i.e., infallibly.
“Papa dubius, Papa nullus.” Porro verum est duntaxat, si dubium et propter dubium secessio est totius Ecclesiae; non autem potest admitti, si, postquam Pontifex legitime est constitutus, in parte, imo in parte etiam majori Ecclesiae, propter inductas perturbationes dubia et secessiones oriantur.
“Doubtful popes are no popes at all.” Yet this would be true only if there be a doubt and on account of that doubt a secession by the whole Church. It cannot be admitted, how- ever, if–after a Pontiff had been legitimately constituted–doubts and secessions would arise in a part, even in the greater part, of the Church on account of disturbances that had been introduced.
Consequently, sedevacantism poses serious difficulties for the Church’s indefectibility. It would be entirely incompatible with that indefectibility if the Universal Church could either adhere to a false pope or reject a true one.
Unde, si universalis Ecclesia a Pontifice quodam secedit, signum est infallibile, iuxta superius dicta, non illum, antea Papam, nunc a potestate sua privari ista defectione, sed illum numquam fuisse verum et legitimum Pontificem, cum Christus, in promissis fidelis, permittere non possit ut tota Ecclesia falso adhaereat Pontifici aut verum reiiciat.
Wherefore, if the Universal Church ever secedes from a Pon- tiff, that very fact constitutes an infallible sign, according to what had been stated earlier, not that he who had once been Pope has now been deprived of his power by virtue of that defection, but that he had never been a true and legitimate Pontiff, since Christ, faithful in his promises, would not be able to permit that the entire Church adhere to a false Pontiff or reject a true one.
Omnes admittunt Ecclesiam infallibilitate gaudere circa legitimitatem S. Pontificis, proinde errare non posse quando unanimiter hunc Papam ut legitimum agnoscit; secus enim Ecclesiae corpus a capite separaretur; quod contrarium est ejus indefectibilitati et unitati.
All admit that the Church enjoys infallibility with regard to the legitimacy of a Holy Pontiff, and therefore that it cannot err when it unanimously recognizes that Pope as legitimate. Otherwise, the Church’s body would be separated from its head. That would be contrary to its indefectibility and unity.
Apart from dismissing this principle altogether, there would remain only two possible alternatives. Either the Vatican II popes have been legitimate or what remains of the Holy Catholic Church resides in sedevacantist groups. Non datur tertium [there is no third choice].
Sedevacantists have criticized those “Traditional” Catholics who do not hold to their school of thought for “sifting” the Magisterium, i.e., for picking and choosing among pronouncements that have (putatively) issued from it on the basis of private judgment about their orthodoxy. Sedevacantism, however, leads to “sifting” popes, i.e., to picking and choosing among popes on the basis of private judgment about their orthodoxy.
John of St. Thomas
After I had composed the main body of this text, I ran across the Cursus Theologicus by John of St. Thomas–specifically, the tract en- titled De Auctoritate Summi Pontificis [Concerning the Authority of the Supreme Pontiff]. In a surprisingly detailed commentary about the problem of an heretical pope, he ended up making the very same argument that I have proposed. Instead of weaving quotations from his work into their appropriate place within my exposition, I decided to give him a separate section. I felt that the argument would be more convincing if readers knew that the two of us had arrived at the same conclusion independently, i.e., that I have not been merely “rehashing” what he had written. Instead, both of us have simply followed a line of thinking dictated by an inner logic of its own.
...[ Depositio ] facienda est post declarativam criminis sententiam... (disp. II, art. III 17).
...[Deposition] is to be made after a declaratory sentence about the crime....
...Concilium congregari potest auctoritate Ecclesiae, quae est in ipsis episcopis, vel majore eorum parte; ha- bet enim jus Ecclesia ad segregandum se a papa haeretico ex jure divino, et consequenter ad adhibendum omnia media ad talem segregationem per se necessaria; medium autem necessarium, et per se est ut juridice constet tale crimen; non potest autem juridice constare nisi formetur competens judi- cium, non potest autem in re tam gravi competens esse judicium, nisi per Concilium generale, qua tractatur de universali capite Ecclesiae, unde pertinet hoc ad judicium universalis Ecclesiae, quod est Concilium generale (disp. II, art. III 19).
...By the Church’s authority, a Council is able to be convened. That authority resides in the bish- ops, or in a majority of them. For the Church has the right from God to separate itself from a heretical popea and, conse- quently, to apply all the means that are in and of themselves necessary for such a separation. But it is a necessary means–and in and of it-self–that such a crime be established juridically. Yet it cannot be established juridically unless a competent judgment be formed. In so grave a mat- ter, however, there cannot be a competent judgment except through a General Council. Since this matter deals with the universal head of the Church, it therefore pertains to the judgment of the Universal Church. That judgment is a General Council.
Et ex his concordantur jura, quae aliquando dicunt Pontificis depositionem pertinere ad solum Deum, aliquando in causa haeresis posse judicar ab inferioribus, utrumque enim verum est, et quod ejectio, seu depositio Pontificis soli Deo reservatur auctoritative, et principaliter...; ministerialiter autem, et dispositive declarando crimen, et proponendo papam, ut evitandum Ecclesia judicat de Pontifice... (disp. II, art. III 24).
As a result, the principles–which sometimes maintain that the deposition of a Pontiff belongs to God alone and at other times that he can be judged by inferiors in the case of heresy–come to be reconciled. Both are true. To God alone is reserved the casting out or deposition of a Pontiff (authoritatively and principally. Yet (ministerially and executionally) the Church makes judgment about a Pontiff by declaring the crime and proposing that the pope should be avoided...
Respondetur haereticum esse evitandum propter duas correptiones juridice scilicet factas, et ab Ecclesiae auctoritate, et non secundum privatum judicium; sequeretur enim magna con- fusio in Ecclesia si sufficeret hanc correptionem esse factam ab homine privato... Unde sic videmus practicatum in Ecclesia, quod in casu depositionis papae causa ipsa in generali Concilio prius tractata est quam pro non papa habitus.... Nec Hieronymus quando dicit haereticum per se discedere a corpore Christi, excludit ipsum Ecclesiae judi- cium praesertim in re tam gravi, qualis est depositio papae, sed criminis judicat qualitatem, quod per se sine alia censura superaddita excludit ab Ecclesia, dummodo tamen per Ecclesiam declaretur; licet enim ex se separet ab Ecclesia, tamen quoad nos non intelligitur facta separatio sine ista declaratione....
...[Q]uoad nos autem adhuc non fit juridice declaratus, ut infidelis, vel haereticus, quantumcumque manifestus sit secundum privatum judicium, adhuc quoad nos est membrum Ecclesiae, et consequenter caput. Requiritur ergo judicium Ecclesiae, quo proponatur, ut non Christianus, et evitandus, et tunc desinit quoad nos esse papa, et consequenter antea non desierat etiam in se, quia omnia quae faciebat erant valida in se (disp. II, art III 26).
The translation of the previous three paragraphs is as follows:
In response, a heretic must be avoided as a result of two rebukes that have been made juridically–by the Church’s authority and not ac- cording to private judgment. Great confusion would result in the Church if it would suffice that this rebuke should be made by a private individual....Consequently, we see what the practice of the Church has been. When a pope needed to be deposed, the case was treated first in a General Council before he was considered not to be a pope....St. Jerome–in saying that a heretic departs on his own from the Body of Christ–does not preclude the Church’s judgment, especially in so grave a matter as is the deposition of a pope. He refers instead to the nature of that crime, which is such as to cut someone off from the Church on its own and without any other censure in addition to it–yet only so long as it should be declared by the Church. Although it separates from the Church on its own, the fact of separation does not make itself known to us without
...So long as he has not be- come declared to us juridically as an infidel or heretic, be he ever so manifestly heretical ac- cording to private judgment, he remains as far as we are con- cerned a member of the Church, and consequently its head. Judgment is required from the Church, therefore, a judgment by which he would be proposed as not a Christian and to be avoided. It is only then that he ceases to be pope as far as we are concerned. As a result, however, he would not have ceased to be such even in and of himself, since all the things which he enacted had force in and of themselves [my emphasis].
I have translated the expression quoad nos very loosely throughout. In point of fact, it represents a highly technical term–the equivalent of “criteriologically.” Many theologians would probably disagree with the very last assertion in the citation above, i.e., that a manifestly heretical pope would remain pope even ontologically until it had been determined otherwise criteriologically. I maintain, however, that John of St. Thomas was–rather brilliantly– taking to its logical conclusion a principle already found in most of the theologians who had dealt with this question. Few theologians actu- ally held that a secretly heretical pope would be deposed ipso facto, the reason being that membership in the Church needs to be a visible reality (so that it could be verified criteriologically). Otherwise, the Church might fall into chaos if the activities of secret heretics would in reality be null and void. Ontologically, however, even a secret heretic would cease to be a Catholic before God. Yet membership in the Church does not simply represent a visible–though still only ontologically manifest–reality, but a juridically visible reality, i.e., criteriologically manifest–manifest in the true sense of this term. Holding jurisdiction depends upon the juridi- cal reality of membership in the Church. With this principle, John of St. Thomas ingeniously reconciled the long-standing dispute between the papa haereticus ipso facto depositus [heretical pope ipso facto deposed] and the papa haereticus deponendus [heretical pope to be deposed] schools.
Addressing the Problem of Infallibility
Theologians (without exception) admit that there do in fact exist certain kinds of magisterial pro- nouncements which do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, and the precise limits between what does or does not constitute an infallible definition have been fiercely con- tested almost since the very close of Vatican I. Probably one of the most crucial factors in an infallible decision, however, involves the intention of a pope to bind the universal Church. Paul VI himself declared that Vatican II did not intend to define anything infallibly.
Unquestionably, the approach taken by non-sedevacantist “Traditional” Catholics poses many difficulties. Yet it rests upon theoretically tenable principles. Cardinal Newman, for example, maintained a very narrow interpretation regard- ing the kinds of things that would constitute infallible determinations. He remained in good standing as a Catholic–and his opinions have never been condemned.
Among the other contradictions in which sedevacantists involve themselves, many reject the re- formed Holy Week rites of Pius XII. At the same time, however, they uphold the legitimacy of Pius XII. If Pius XII can promulgate a liturgy contaminated with modernistic principles (as they assert), then why could not Paul VI have done the same (with regard to the Novus Ordo ) while also remaining a legitimate Supreme Pontiff? After all, there would only be a difference in degree between them. Rejection of the reformed Holy Week rites which had, by the way, been accepted without any protest whatsoever from the Universal Church– remains absolutely inexplicable in light of their argument from infallibility.
However one resolves the infallibility question, that ultimate decision about the legitimacy of John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, or any other pope does not rest with us but with the authority of Holy Mother Church.
Fruits of Sedevacantism
I myself had once been a sedevacantist. Only in retrospect can I honestly see the great bitterness and lack of charity that this led to on my part. I have found nothing but spiri- tual disorder–to one extent or another–in all the sedevacantists I have ever met (myself included and foremost among them). It would be best to leave out the numerous downfalls–in scandalous fashion–of bitter sedevacantists. Our Lord said that people would recognize His true followers in their love for one an- other. Hatred for evil becomes disordered when it does not proceed directly from and in proportion with love for good. If we reject the Conciliar reforms, it should be from a burning love for God and for our neighbor. Pope John XXIII used to say that if we behaved as true Christians there would be no more pagans. If we “Traditionalists” behaved as true Christians, there would be no more modernists. Let us then dispel any bitterness from our hearts, any pharisaical spirit of a rigorous clinging to minutiae [small things] as if they were ends in themselves, any self-righteous contempt for those who have been led astray as if it were anything but the grace of God that prevents us from going astray ourselves if we have not done so already. We need to remember that our judgments even about the purported “errors” of Vatican II do not have the Church’s authority behind them–and are therefore liable to be mistaken. Consequently, all we can and must do as Catholics in these confusing times is to do what we have to in order to save our souls. Let us proceed with intellectual humility, with charity, with trust in God’s Providence, and, as Archbishop Lefebvre has said, “without bitterness.”
 Not all theologians hold to this view. Numerous others have been pro- posed. Cardinal Cajetan, for example, rejected the papa haereticus ipso facto depositus theory–by way of a rather elaborate argument–in favor of an intriguing papa haereticus deponendus position too complex to detail here. Despite the weighty evidence that he adduced, theological consensus appears to have shifted toward the opposite view.
 Complete formula (as it appears in the Decretum of Gratian) reads papa a nemine judicandus, nisi deprehendatur a fide devius, with the nisi clause lending support to the position taken by Cardinal Cajetan.
 F.X.Wernz. Ius Decretalium (1913) II.615.
Quare omnino dicendum est ipso facto R. Pontificem haereticum excidere sua potestate. Sententia vero declaratoria criminis, quae tanquam mere declaratoria non est rejicienda, illud efficit, ut Papa haereticus non iudicetur, sed potius iudicatus ostendatur, i.e., Concilium generale declarat factum criminis, quo ipse Papa haereticus sese ab Ecclesia separavit suaque dignitate privavit.
Consequently, we must by all means state that a heretical Roman Pontiff falls ipso facto from his power. On the other hand, a sentence that declares a crime–which should not be rejected in so far as it is purely declaratory–- does not have the effect of judging a heretical pope but of demonstrating that he has already been judged, i.e., a General Council declares the fact that a crime had been committed, a crime whereby the heretical pope on his own had separated himself from the Church and deprived himself of his rank.
 In Consecratione Pontificis. Sermo IV.
Peccatum ergo praelati et aliis damnosum, et sibi est periculosum.... Periculosum sibi quoniam ad nihil valet ultra, nisi ut mittatur foras, id est ab officio deponatur, et conculcetur ab hominibus, id est a populo contemnatur.... Qualiter ... de quolibet alio praelato possit intelligi, satis apparet; sed qualiter intelligi debeat de Romano pontifice, non est adeo manifestum. Servus enim, secundum Apostolum, suo domino stat aut cadit. Propter quod idem Apostolus ait: Tu quis es, qui iudicas alienum servum? Unde cum Romanus pontifex non habeat alium dominum nisi Deum, quantumlibet evanescat, quis potest eum foras mittere, aut pedibus conculcare?....[P]otest ab hominibus iudicari, vel potius iudicatus ostendi, si videlicet evanescat in haeresim, quoniam qui non credit, iam iudicatus est.
As a result, sin committed by a prelate both causes harm to others and puts himself in danger....It puts himself in danger, because he would no longer be good for anything except to be thrown out, i.e., deposed from office, and to be trampled by men, i.e., despised by the people. As to how this could be understood in the case of any other prelate, that is clear enough. As to how it should be understood when it comes to the Roman Pontiff, however, that is not so obvious. Servants stand up and sit down for their master. For this reason, the Apostle writes also: Who are you to judge another’s servant? Wherefore, since the Roman Pontiff does not have any other master besides God, however much he should lose his savor, who can throw him out or trample him under foot?...He can be judged by men, or (rather) shown to have been judged–if he should lose his savor by falling into heresy–since whoever does not believe has already been judged.
 Schultes. De Ecclesia Catholica (1931) cap. VII, art. LIII, II.5.
De auctoritate Concilii in casu Papae dubii.–Stante dubio de electione legitima Rom. Pontificis,..[c]onventus...episcoporum totius Ecclesiae...posset sententiam ferre de factis quae electionem respiciunt: quae sententia singulos fideles obligaret.
About the authority of a Council in the case of a doubtful pope.–With a standing doubt about the legitimate election of a Roman Pontiff,...an assembly of bishops from the whole Church...would be able to pass judgment about facts which have a bearing upon the election. That judgment would bind the individual faithful.
 Hervé. Manuale Theologiae Dogmaticae (1943) I.501.
...[P]osito quod, ut persona privata, haereticus publice quidem, notorie et contumaciter fieri possit Pontifex,–quod generatim negant theologi, suavem Christi Providentiam erga Ecclesiam et promissiones eius divinas spectantes–ipso facto haereseos a pontificali potestate excideret, dum propria voluntate transferretur extra corpus Ecclesiae, factus infidelis. Tunc Concilium [Ecclesia] ius tantum haberet sedem vacantem declarandi, ut ad electionem tuto procedere possent consueti electores.
Given that, as a private person, the Pontiff could indeed become a public, notorious, and obstinate heretic–a proposition denied by theologians for the most part, in view of the tender Providence that Christ shows toward the Church along with His divine promises–he would fall by the very fact of heresy from his papal power, in so far as he would have been removed from within the Church’s body on his own accord by having become an unbeliever. In that case, only a Council [the Church] would have the right to declare his see vacant so that the usual electors could safely proceed to an election.
 Zubizarreta [Theologia Dogmatico-Scholastica (1948) 481] concluded it to be implicite revelata that Pius XII reigned legitimately on the See of Peter. Salmanticenses had referred to the legitimacy of any given pope as immediate de fide. Consequently, to deny his legitimacy would entail heresy. I hope that this might serve as a wake-up call to sedevacantists, especially to those who actually do deny the legitimacy of Pius XII.
 Hervé, op. cit., I.514.
 Hurter, S.J. Theologiae Dogmaticae Compendium (1885) I.338 (Thesis
 Hervé, op. cit., I.514.
 Franzelin. De Ecclesia Christi (1907) Thesis XIII.
 Hervé, op. cit., I.501.
 Tanquerey. Synopsis Theologiae Dogmaticae (1921) I.84.