Sectarian Sedevacantism – An Introduction
At the time of Our Lord, some held that it was wrong to pay tribute to the Roman Emperor, as God had granted the territory of Judaea to the Jews independently of any foreign pagan power. The Pharisees supported this view, some six thousand of them preferring torture and death to paying the tax. Our Lord and His disciples were suspected by the authorities of holding this opinion. In fact they took the milder view, and both paid tribute themselves and encouraged others to do so. History calls the harsh view the heresy of the Galileans.
After the death of the Arian emperors, when peace was restored to the Church, some held that bishops who had been tricked into signing heretical statements could never be restored to office, even if their error had been committed in good faith and they now professed the most total orthodoxy. Lucifer of Cagliari refused communion with anyone who should sully his orthodoxy by communicating with these repentant bishops who had always been orthodox in their hearts, but who had been trapped into making statements that favoured the Semi-Arian doctrine. The Pope of the day, St Athanasius and St Hilary rejected this harsh view, which is known to history as the schism of the Luciferians.
In the sixteenth century the world of Catholic theology was rent into divers camps according to the conflicting views taken of how to explain the action of grace on the human will without denying human freedom, yet without making the part of God in man’s good works and salvation subordinate to it; how to safeguard the Catholic doctrine of divine predestination of the elect without falling into Calvinism or Jansenism, denying the reality of God’s will for the salvation of all, or that sufficient grace really is sufficient. All the great theologians of the day were involved - Bañes, Molina, Suarez, Bellarmine, Lessius and others. The Dominicans were at odds with the Jesuits, and St Augustine and St Thomas found themselves appealed to by all parties as clearly in favour of this or that view. The debates became acerbic. The two main parties were each convinced that the main opposing view was a dangerous heresy. They repeatedly denounced one another to the Holy See, appealing for their opponents to be condemned and forbidden to hold their opinions. Great theologians and genuinely holy men found themselves denounced from the pulpit or in the lecture-hall as enemies of the Faith. It was imperative for the Holy See to take prompt and firm action, said the protagonists.
But after many years of silence and study, Pope Paul V’s final decree on the subject (Denzinger 1090) did no more than allow each party to continue to defend its own opinion, while forbidding all to qualify the opposing views as heretical or worthy of any theological censure.
In 1801 Pope Pius VII entered into a concordat with Napoleon Bonaparte, first French consul. By this concordat the Catholic Faith was restored in France and the churches opened again, but various regrettable concessions were made to achieve this goal. Some of the French considered as apostates anyone who should dare thus to acknowledge the legitimacy of the post-revolutionary regime and to bargain with the regicide sons of the Revolution. They refused to enter the churches or to acknowledge the bishops. They soon found themselves without a single priest. But they doggedly persevered. Some adherents still remain, two centuries later, without sacraments or clergy, and never having acknowledged the Republic or any post-concordat clergy. They are known to history as the schism of the Petite Église.
These episodes serve to illustrate a single truth: in times of crisis and confusion, it is not always the most extreme position that is the true one. Our duty is not to tend to one extreme or the other, but fidelity to the Church.
The only adequate explanation of the present crisis in the Church is the vacancy of the Holy See. For many that is in itself an “extreme” position. That is irrelevant. It is the true and Catholic position because it is the only one that accounts for all that has taken place in the last forty years, without compromising Catholic doctrine or going astray into novelty.
Among those who hold this position, there are some who are more “hard-line” than others. It is inevitable that this crisis should give rise to controversy, such as about what conditions are required for an episcopal consecration to be lawful (if it ever is) when access to the Holy See is impossible, or about how a true pope can be obtained. But the two most crucial divisions relate to the questions: (1) who are to be considered Catholics in our days? and (2) from which priests, if any, is it lawful to receive the sacraments? On these issues it is certainly accurate to qualify the “hard line” position as sectarian.
On the first of these questions, the sectarian position consists in insisting that no one is a Catholic who is not yet convinced that the Holy See is vacant, or who is in communion with others who do not recognise this, or who has been led astray into any notable error concerning the present state of the Church. This position has been maintained most notably by Mr Martin Gwynne, Fr Francis Egregyi (and, prior to 1999, by myself). Mr Hutton Gibson also seems to tend in this direction. I have stated my reasons for changing my view on it in a series of articles (1999-2001) aimed at convincing sectarian sedevacantists that on this question the authentically Catholic position is not as “hard-line” as they imagine.
On the second question the sectarian position consists in doctrinaire “home-alonism” - the notion that few or no priests may today administer the sacraments and that the faithful must therefore stay at home, since they would offend God by frequenting traditional Mass centres, whether or not John-Paul II is named in the Canon. Here too the main argument of most home-aloners is based on the notion that those who have received Holy Orders since Vatican II have received them outside the Church. In other words, it is based on a sectarian answer to the first question. Hence my articles against sectarian sedevacantism may also be of use in answering the “home-alone” position also.
© John S. Daly 2017