A Common Fallacy
John-Paul II is not the head of the Catholic Church – he is the head of a false religion. That is a true statement, which is sometimes used as an argument from which to draw the following conclusion: whoever recognises John-Paul II as head of his religion, therefore belongs not the Catholic Church, but to the false religion of which John-Paul II is objectively head – the religion often called the Conciliar Church.
I submit that this argument depends on a logical fallacy. It may be possible to justify its conclusion on some other grounds (though I don’t think it is), but this argument at least will not wash. It may appear sensible until we examine it closely, but under close analysis it cannot pass muster in simple logic.
Let us consider two hypothetical persons who both believe that John-Paul II is the pope and submit to him as such.
The first is determined above all to be faithful to John-Paul and remain in submission to him, whether or not he is truly the head of the Catholic Church.
The second is determined above all to be faithful to the Catholic Church, and submits to John-Paul because he believes him to be the Catholic Church’s head, albeit a disastrous one.
Both are mistaken in thinking that John-Paul II is the pope, but there is a vast difference between their dispositions. The first does not have the primary intention of remaining in the communion of the Catholic Church, whereas the second one does have that intention. The first is pertinacious in his submission to the pseudo-pope, while the second is not.
Now when it is said that someone is proved to be outside the Church by the simple fact that he “recognises John-Paul II as head of his religion,” the argument seems to assume that all those who believe that John-Paul II is pope fall into the first category – their primary intention is to belong to John-Paul II’s religion, whether or not it is Catholic. But this assumption is plainly unjustified.
Moreover the very wording of the premise is tendentious. We are told that someone “recognises John-Paul II as head of his religion.” But this is just an unusual way of saying he thinks that John-Paul II is pope, and this way of saying it is chosen to lend the specious argument an appearance of validity which it would not otherwise possess.
To show this, let us re-word in different terms the statement on which the fallacious argument is based. “Anthony Simplex thinks that John-Paul II is head of the Catholic Church and for this reason he submits to him.”
We are agreed that Anthony Simplex is mistaken on the point of fact, since John-Paul II is not in fact head of the Catholic Church, but of a quite different religious body. But by what possible process of reasoning can it be inferred from this that Anthony Simplex himself necessarily belongs to the false religion of which John-Paul II is really head, rather than to the religion he wants to belong to and thinks he does belong to, viz. the Catholic Church?
We must not be distracted by the consideration that other reasons may exist why Simplex is not a Catholic. It is quite possible, for instance, that he has adopted various false doctrines taught by John-Paul II, while realising that they could not be reconciled with Catholic doctrine. If so, he is certainly not a Catholic because he is a heretic. My scope here is purely to consider whether the error about John-Paul II’s status alone and of itself suffices to prove that he belongs to John-Paul’s religion and therefore not to the Catholic Church.
If this were a logical conclusion, it would follow that an American who thought that Queen Elizabeth II was president of the United States would really be English. It would follow that a soldier who, in the fog of battle, mistook an enemy officer for his own general had deserted. Or to take a real historical example, it would follow that Englishmen at the death of Mary Tudor who wrongly held her husband Philip II to be legitimate king of England were therefore really subjects of the realm of which Philip was king: Spain (1). After all, they “recognised Philip II as king of their country,” didn’t they? So they must have been subjects of the country of which Philip was king, mustn’t they? But these conclusions are manifestly wrong.
It would be a mere evasion to argue that the provisions of Canon Law concerning schism differ from the provisions of civil law concerning changes of nationality. The argument I am setting out to answer here is not based on Canon Law at all; it claims that by direct logical necessity whoever thinks that John-Paul II is pope must in fact belong to the heretical sect of which he is really head. I think enough has been said to show that logic can reach no such conclusion.
The fallacy consists essentially in ambiguity. What may be a simple error of fact is expressed in terms which make it look as though it is in fact an act of intention, and a predominating intention at that.
An analogy with sacramental theology may prove helpful. To confer a sacrament validly one must intend to do what the Church does. That is standard doctrine. But it is also standard doctrine that sacraments can be validly conferred by persons who hold the grossest of errors as to what the Church does. Thus the Holy See has judged baptism valid even when the minister had declared that it produced no effect at all on the soul. (Cf. Instruction of the Holy Office to the Vicar Apostolic of Oceania, 18th December 1872, Fontes n. 1024) And she regularly holds marriages valid even when the parties did not believe marriage to be indissoluble. (Cf. Canon 1084 and, for instance, Canon E. J. Mahoney, Priests’ Problems, p. 223 et seq.) The reason, as the Church herself expresses it, is that concomitant error in the mind about the act performed does not necessarily prevent the will from having the intention to accomplish this act correctly; and if the will has two incompatible intentions (e.g. 1. to confer baptism as Christ intended, and 2. not to produce an effect on the soul) the predominant intention will take effect and the subordinate one will be ineffective. (Cf. Canon 1084 and Fontes, loc. cit.)
Thus, for all that simple logic can tell us, the erroneous belief that John-Paul II is pope in no way proves the intention to be subject to the religion of which he is really head; and if two conflicting intentions were present – 1. to be a Catholic, and 2. to be subject to John-Paul II – one could not conclude that the latter predominated over the former without evidence that it was in fact the over-riding intention of the individual’s will.
The argument we are examining appears convincing only because it expresses a true fact in ambiguous terms which would permit the conclusion to be drawn only if they were true in one particular sense, whereas they are in fact only true in a much more limited sense.
Anyone wishing to formulate this argument as a syllogism would be forced back on something along the following lines:Major: Whoever recognises someone as head of his religion is a member of the religion of which that person is in reality head. Minor: John-Paul II is head of the Conciliar Sect, not of the Catholic Church. Conclusion: Therefore whoever recognises John-Paul II as head of his religion is a member of the Conciliar Sect, not of the Catholic Church.
But the major premise here is easily distinguished: (a) whoever recognises someone as head of his religion irrespective of what that religion may be is a member of whatever religion that person is in reality head of – granted (2); (b) whoever recognises someone as head of his religion only because he erroneously supposes him to be head of a particular religion to which his allegiance is sworn is a member of whatever religion that person is in reality head of – denied!
Plainly the conclusion does not follow independently of the sense in which it is stated that someone “recognises John-Paul II as pope” – not unless we embrace the absurd idea that all erroneous judgments are self-fulfilling.
So whether or not it is possible to be a Catholic while mistakenly thinking that John-Paul II is pope, this particular argument for the negative view is clearly unfounded.
Other arguments are sometimes heard purporting to lead to the same conclusion. These too in this writer’s view are defective. In fact they are so many attempts to circumvent the undeniable facts that heresy and schism depend on pertinacity and that confusion is a very different thing from pertinacity. Here are some brief comments on the best-known ones.
False Argument 1. “Whoever is a member of a false religion, even in good faith, cannot simultaneously be a member of the Catholic Church. But the religion that has emerged from Vatican II, and of which John-Paul II is the head, is indeed a false religion, commonly called the Conciliar Church. Hence none of its members can be Catholics.”
Reply. Here the major premise is certainly verified when the false religion is known not to be the Catholic Church. But the unique feature of the Conciliar Church is that it is truly possible for some sincere but ignorant persons to think that it is the Catholic Church. Is there clear authority stating that even in such a case the misguided person is legally excluded from the true Church? This writer has never seen any. But even if it were so, a further difficulty remains to be settled: what are the criteria establishing that someone in fact “belongs to the Conciliar Church”? To argue that accepting John-Paul II necessarily achieves this is merely to revert to the fallacy refuted above. To argue that acceptance of the Conciliar Church’s new rites and doctrines establishes the fact is more tenable, but clearly does not apply to those traditionalists who reject these aberrations while continuing – however boneheadedly – to think that John-Paul II is in fact pope.
False Argument 2. “Acceptance of a false pope is necessarily an act of schism, at least material.”
Reply. While it would be very convenient if this were so, unfortunately it isn’t, as all authorities agree. Analogously, rejection of a true pope because one sincerely believes him to be illegitimate is also not a schismatic act. Cf. Wernz-Vidal: Ius Canonicum, Vol. vii, n. 398; Szal, Rev. Ignatius: Communication of Catholics with Schismatics, CUA, 1948, p. 2; de Lugo: Disp., De Virt. Fid. Div., disp. xxv, sect. iii, nn. 35-8; Catholic Encyclopaedia, Vol. XIII, pp. 540-41)
False Argument 3. “Whether one is a Catholic or a schismatic is a matter of external fact, having nothing to do with interior intentions.”
Reply. The highest Catholic authorities take a very different view: “…the sin of schism is, properly speaking, a special sin, for the reason that the schismatic intends to sever himself from that unity which is the effect of charity... Accordingly schismatics properly so called are those who wilfully and intentionally separate themselves from the unity of the Church…”(3) (Summa Theologiae, II-II, Q. 39, A. 1) Canon 1325§2 defines a schismatic as one who “refuses to be subject to the Roman Pontiff or to communicate with the members of the Church subject to him.” The Bulla Cœnae declared excommunicated “schismatics and all those who pertinaciously withdraw from obedience to the reigning Roman Pontiff”. (emphases added)
False Argument 4. “Canon 2200§2 provides that external infractions of the law are deemed malicious in the external forum. Acceptance of a false pope constitutes an external infraction of the law for this purpose and pertinacity is therefore assumed.”
Reply. This theory has enjoyed some currency in the English-speaking world thanks to the influence of Mr Martin Gwynne, and in the French-speaking world thanks to that of the Abbé Zins. Though perhaps understandable, it is unquestionably wrong. One can no more presume pertinacity in cases of schism or heresy by virtue of this canon than one can presume that every miscarriage a woman may suffer was a voluntarily induced abortion. Pertinacity (in this case the realisation that the prelate one calls pope is not in fact the head of the Church) is an essential part of the delict of schism and to presume it would be to presume not just the malice but the crime itself. A mistake about whether someone is or isn’t pope, though a grave error, is decidedly not an external infraction of any law. The same principles apply to schism as to heresy: pertinacity is not presumed and Catholics who make mistakes on points of fact while continuing to profess submission to the Magisterium and union with the Holy See are neither schismatics nor heretics, nor are they legally presumed to be so. (Cf. Cardinal Billot, De Ecclesia, thesis XI; Canon E. J. Mahoney, The Clergy Review, 1952, vol. XXXVII, p.459; Decree of the Holy Office concerning schismatic “Catholic Action” in Romania, 20th June 1949, Acta Apostolicae Sedis, vol. XLI, p. 333); Catholic Encyclopaedia, Vol. XIII, pp. 540,41)
False Argument 5. “Respected theologians refer to a legal presumption of pertinacity in certain cases.”
Reply. They allude to persons who well know that they do not belong to the communion of the Catholic Church and have no intention of doing so, but whose schism is involuntary as a result of invincible ignorance of the duty to join the Catholic Church. Their words have no application to persons who wish to be members of the Catholic Church but are confused – during a time of unparalleled confusion – as to whether or not a given claimant is pope. (Cf. Cardinal Billot, De Ecclesia, thesis XI)
False Argument 6. “John-Paul II is not merely a false claimant to the papacy; he is a manifestly heretical antipope who presides over a new religion with new doctrines and a new liturgy. As such, to suppose him pope is not merely an error of fact, but of faith. He not only is not pope, but could not possibly be one, and his religion could not possibly be the Catholic Church. Indeed to consider him pope involves departing from orthodoxy either by thinking that John-Paul’s doctrines are not heretical, or by thinking that a heretic can be pope.”
Reply. These are arguments which may well help convince someone that John-Paul II cannot possibly be pope. But we have no evidence that all who accept John-Paul are aware of them and equipped to evaluate them. To believe that John-Paul II is pope cannot in itself be called an error of faith, as God has not made any direct revelation concerning John-Paul’s status. It may imply an error, or be based on one, but in any event errors of faith are not necessarily pertinacious either, nor is it permissible to presume that they are. The final dilemma is worthless, as the belief that a heretic can retain the papacy, though wrong, is defended by some theologians and is certainly not heretical. Moreover the dilemma does not take account of many possible states of mind Catholics may have in evaluating John-Paul’s status. Some may be unaware that the Church has condemned his errors at all. Others may be duped by the defence that an orthodox interpretation can often be foisted on his words against their natural sense. Others again may suppose him unaware that his doctrines are not orthodox. All these defences can be answered, but there are ignorant or misguided persons who sincerely hold each of them and have therefore not manifested any schismatic or heretical disposition in failing to awake to the reality concerning the present state of the Holy See.
False Argument 7. “Attempts to excuse non-sedevacantist traditionalists from the charge of schism, albeit in good faith, undermine the right to judge Wojtyła himself to be a heretic. Moderate, non-exclusive sedevacantism is thus inconsistent.”
Reply. To show that someone who claims to be a Catholic is in fact not one, as a result of heresy or schism, one must establish two things: the objective denial of a dogma or separation from Catholic communion, and the pertinacity, or realisation that his position conflicts with that of the Church. In John-Paul II’s case both are evident by ordinary standards of evidence. In the case of most non-sedevacantist traditional Catholics, pertinacity is certainly not evident.
False Argument 8. “If you really think that most non-sedevacantist traditionalists are not pertinacious, you have obviously spent little time debating with them.”
Reply. As a matter of fact I have taken a little time off from such debates to find out what pertinacity is. I found that approved authors hold that one can be gravely culpable for an error without being pertinacious. Indeed any factor that even diminishes guilt suffices to excuse from pertinacity (Cf. Canon 2229§2 and its commentators passim). So my object here is not to defend or justify the supine failure of many traditionalists to realise what due diligence would have enabled most of them to see: it is only to observe that, if they have not in fact seen it, they are still members of the Catholic Church, however sinful and scandalous their confusion may be – not that I consider that the Gospel gives any encouragement to such assessments of guilt.
False Argument 9. “Cases are well attested of obstinate adherence to John-Paul II on the part of persons who were well aware of evidence that ought to have convinced any reasonable person.”
Reply. For the sake of argument let us admit the claim and let us accept the hypothesis that this obstinacy in being unconvinced is equivalent to manifest pertinacity in schism. We are still no further advanced in defending the position of sectarian sedevacantism. For evidence that some traditionalists are in schism does not help the case for claiming that they all are. Some sedevacantists, after all, are gullible, rash and prone to thinking ill of their neighbour and his motives especially whenever he has the impertinence to disagree with them … but surely no one would claim that all are!
(1) Or one of the other countries comprising Philip’s extensive empire.
(2) Assuming, at least, that any other conditions for membership of the religion are fulfilled.
(3) “Et ideo proprie schismatici dicuntur qui propria sponte et intentione se ab unitate Ecclesiae separant…”
© Copyright John S. Daly, 2000 – 2017.