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A Psychological Approach to Understanding Sedevacantism

Sedevacantism: from Latin sedes, “seat, bench, throne,” and the verb vacare, “to be empty.” As a legal term denoting a temporary episcopal vacancy, sede vacante is unimpeachable. My objections begin with the addition of the notoriously modern suffix “-ism,” with all its implications of continuance and ideological coherence. Human societies, from the most primitive tribes to the most self-assured postmodern “democracies,” never allow the sedes—the seat of authority, the bench of judgment, the throne of power—to stay vacant for long. Deep psychological impulses demand that the void be filled. Sedevacantism envisions a papal throne that is empty, at least in the figurative sense. My claim, perhaps a bold one, is that for most Sedevacantists, the throne is not truly empty; if there is no valid bishop to sit upon it, the psyche will find a replacement.

The First Vertex: Transference

In my preceding article, I explored the role of transference in the origin and intensification of nineteenth- and twentieth-century ultramontanism. As an innate psychological response to primal fear, transference is normal and potentially beneficial. When compressed into a disordered state by spiritual, political, or sociocultural conditions, transference induces us to idolize, lionize, or unduly heroicize a person, or a personalized institution, that offers a quick and easy remedy for existential anxiety and the terrors of death and annihilation. Our vulnerability and perceived impuissance dissolve in the aura of this “godlike man,” to whom we transfer our fears and doubts, subconsciously hoping to thereby understand, escape, or control them and the cosmic forces that seem to impose them so ruthlessly upon us.

Superficial analysis suggests a natural antagonism between transference and Sedevacantism. Would those who idolize the pope really wish to insist that the man currently identified as such is essentially an impostor? If we look more carefully, though, we see that transference is indeed operative. Sedevacantism as a popular movement is an indirect expression of modern fixation on the papacy. Let us step back and ponder the tidal flow of polemics and pronouncements, accusations and adjudications, arguments and counterarguments—would it not seem strangely superfluous if we ceased to view the pope as the axle around which all Christianity turns? Is not the pope’s exalted centrality the very principle of his Luciferian fall from glory and supremacy to ignominy and illegitimacy? Despite the apparent paradox, ultramontane Catholicism is a singularly conducive environment for the growth of Sedevacantism, and this environment is vitalized by psychological transference.

The Second Vertex: The Mana Personality

From the perspective of the psyche, the dynamic of Sedevacantism is a violent one. The transference object has failed; the walls of the interior castle have been breached; through gaping holes we behold the menace of a hostile world and the enveloping darkness of khaos. A secondary defense mechanism activates. Akin to transference, it is nevertheless conceptually distinct and, unfortunately, more perilous.

Freud developed the theory of transference after observing patients who exhibited an intense and disordered attachment to, or fascination with, their psychoanalyst.[1] In my previous article, I emphasized the broadened theory of transference expressed in the quotation from Erich Fromm. The two formulations share common threads, namely, the universal human tendency to gravitate toward authority figures, and the disconcerting ease with which certain individuals captivate or even enthrall their fellow men.

This brings us to Jung and his insights into the mana personality. The term “mana” encapsulates the seemingly magical qualities of those who exert unhealthy influence over others: their charisma, their mysterious ability to inspire confidence and loyalty, their esoteric wisdom. Jung identifies the mana personality with the emergence into consciousness of the “old wise man,” one of the principal archetypes circulating in the collective unconscious.

This archetype represents a serious danger to personality, for when it is awakened a man may easily come to believe that he really possesses the ‘mana’…. Such a man may even gather a following, for in extending his awareness of the unconscious up to this point he has in fact gone farther than others; moreover, there is a compelling power in an archetype which people sense intuitively and cannot easily resist. They are fascinated by what he says, even though on reflection it often proves to be incomprehensible.[2]

The old wise man is a protean figure, assuming such roles as king, hero, healer, and savior. In situations of psychological vulnerability, he can become an insidious substitute for Christ. Our Lord transcends the unconscious and is in utter truth King, Hero, Healer, and Savior, but He no longer walks the earth and converses with men; we approach Him through faith, the Sacraments, and prayer. Sadly, human nature prefers the materiality, immediacy, and emotive energy of the mana personality, especially if faith is weak, the Sacraments infrequent, or prayer neglected: “the chief danger is that of succumbing to the uncannily fascinating influence of living archetypes.”[3] I repeat the claim that I made in the first paragraph of this essay: if the throne is vacant, the psyche will find someone to fill the void.

I am loath to elaborate further on the connection between the mana personality and Sedevacantism as a personal religious phenomenon. Such a discussion could be interpreted as disparaging or opprobrious treatment of Sedevacantist Catholics, whom I regard as brothers and sisters in Christ; though I adamantly disagree with them, I heartily sympathize with them. Instead, I conclude this section with a quote from a reader who has close personal associations with the Sedevacantist movement. In a spirit of charity he shared the following:

It’s important to note that even if the sedevacantist denies it, the theory of sedevacantism … would not in itself be all that convincing if it weren’t backed and personified by a charismatic sedevacantist clergyman or layman confidently putting it forward.

The Third Vertex: The Allure of Gnosis

I don’t like to watch children as they gleefully keep secrets from one another. This sort of play can be innocent enough, I suppose. But the victimization that often accompanies it evinces the shadowy and disordered nature of the human appetite for secret knowledge.

Though etymologically neutral, gnosis is a marked word in the Christian lexicon. The heresy known as Gnosticism

places the salvation of the soul merely in the possession of a quasi-intuitive knowledge of the mysteries of the universe and of magic formulae indicative of that knowledge. Gnostics were ‘people who knew,’ and their knowledge at once constituted them a superior class of beings, whose present and future status was essentially different from that of those who, for whatever reason, did not know.[4]

Note the active psychological features in gnosis and its power to tempt us: superhuman knowledge, contact with the occult, privilege, distinction, superiority. Gnosis appeals to ignoble yet forceful and persistent aspects of human nature, and excessive acquiescence to its charms is harmful and potentially devastating for the psyche. Jung’s work suggests that

Gnostics… suffer from an exaggerated, or inflated, ego, which, conversely, identifies itself wholly with the rediscovered unconscious. Minimally, the consequence of inflation is excessive pride in the presumed uniqueness of one’s unconscious. Maximally, the consequence is outright psychosis.[5]

The encounter with gnosis recalls the archetype of the old wise man; his arcane and often specious wisdom is a potent element in the social dynamics surrounding the mana personality.

At this point I must be forthright and suggest that Sedevacantism is an intensely gnostic movement, insofar as its doctrine and praxis reflect a colossal ecclesial meltdown that is largely unknown and, in the final analysis, unknowable. Gnosis, of the Sedevacantist variety or any other, is a wily enemy whose psychological effects may become cumulative or cyclical. For Catholics engaged in the spiritual life, the consequences could be grave indeed.

The Truth Cannot Be Gnostic

I will now offer my only direct argument against Sedevacantism. I make no attempt to augment the voluminous collection of theological, philosophical, historical, and juridical discourse on this topic. I will simply propose that ecclesiastical defects of such apocalyptic magnitude—decades without a pope, an entire hierarchy in via exstinctionis, countless laymen who think they’re priests, a world full of invalid sacraments—cannot be established through intricate, indeterminate arguments based on theology, philosophy, history, or canon law. Such knowledge must be widely disseminated, manifestly imbued with divine authority, and so compelling as to convince any Catholic who is sincerely awake to the life of the Church. Otherwise, it’s gnosis, and there is no place for gnosis in the mystical body of Him who said, I will utter things hidden from the foundation of the world.

The Psychological Geometry
of the Sedevacantist Experience

The triangle is the quintessentially stable structure, the ubiquitous source of architectural rigidity. I perceive a similar rigidity and stability in Sedevacantist ideology, due in part to the triangular configuration expounded above: transference, the mana personality, and gnosis are the three interrelated and interdependent vertices of this reinforced psychological network.

Nevertheless, the durability of Sedevacantism, both as a movement and as a personal belief system, surprises me, because it so viscerally and traumatically expresses what psychology and medicine call thanatos, the death drive.[6] Adherents of Sedevacantism are professing and pronouncing the progressive organ failure of their own Church; theirs is a vision of senescence and demise, of cellular dissolution—a dismal prognosis for the mystical body of which they themselves are members. The Church is suffering grievously, besieged and abused and poisoned by enemies within and without, and yet she is gloriously and passionately alive. In her surfeit of sorrow she is beautiful, and I love her.

The Root of Truth

Proponents of Sedevacantism are not merely imagining things when they discern an abomination of desolation in the holy place. Their claims are not baseless but rather are built upon grave doubts about the state of the Church, and these doubts are not unreasonable. The predicament of Sedevacantists is comparable to that of Dante in Paradiso, canto VII:

But I now see your understanding tangled
by thought on thought into a knot, from which,
with much desire, your mind awaits release.

The poet reminds us, however, that doubt, though challenging, is not a purely negative phenomenon; quite the contrary:

Therefore, our doubting blossoms like a shoot
out from the root of truth; this natural
urge spurs us toward the peak, from height to height.[7]

Unfortunately, the psychological dynamics of the Sedevacantist experience do not favor constructive resolution of the ecclesiological doubts that all post-Conciliar Catholics must confront. Let us pray for clarity in these dark times, and I will rejoice if this essay helps even one person of Sedevacantist persuasion to say with Dante,

And though the doubt I felt there was as plain
as any colored surface cloaked by glass,
it could not wait to voice itself, but with

the thrust and weight of urgency it forced
“Can such things be?” out from my lips, at which
I saw lights flash—a vast festivity.[8]


[1] Sigmund Freud, A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis (Pocket Books, 1953), 449ff.

[2] Frieda Fordham, An Introduction to Jung’s Psychology (Penguin Books, 1966), 60.

[3] Carl Jung, The Integration of the Personality (Farrar and Rinehart, 1939), 90.

[4] John Arendzen, “Gnosticism,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, (Robert Appleton, 1909), vol. 6, accessed 26 July 2022.

[5] Robert Segal, “Jung’s Fascination with Gnosticism,” The Allure of Gnosticism, ed. Robert Segal (Open Court, 1995), 32.

[6] In Greek mythology, Thanatos was a minor deity who personified death. Freud predicated the existence of the death drive, which he called the death instinct or destructive instinct, on Darwinian macroevolution, but the faulty premise does not invalidate the theory. The death drive is much more coherently explained as an effect of Original Sin.

[7] Paradiso, canto IV. All citations to the Divine Comedy use Allen Mandelbaum’s translation.

[8] Paradiso, canto XX.

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