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Re-Evangelizing Our Separated Brethren, the Sedevacantists

It appears that the prologue to my series on sedevacantism caused quite a stir, rankling and even riling up a boatload of belligerent BadTrads. A bunch of sour grapes if you ask me, and they failed on multiple fronts, not least of which was their fantastical lack of foresight – not to mention their apparent inability to read to the end of an article – but their triggered tweets were instructive, and their enraged emails served only to affirm what Msgr. Ronald Knox so sagaciously said regarding the nature and philosophy of enthusiasms.

To summarize Knox’s take, here are 11 steps or phases in the fatal cycle of enthusiasm.

  1. Otherwise decent people taking otherwise good things too far…
  2. More and more, they’re drawn apart from co-religionists…
  3. Provocations begin to happen on both sides…
  4. Condemnation or secession/schism…
  5. For the sect, the Church “unchurched” itself…
  6. This leads to End Times speculation – they’re the remnant…
  7. Leaders arise, divisions begin, resulting in schism after schism…
  8. Inter-sectarian efforts to “Unite!” arise…
  9. Inevitably fail, paralyzed by presuppositions…
  10. The sect continues unabated—failure becomes them…
  11. Laypeople leave, cynical, crushed by the Herculean Sede System…

Fire and fury awaited me, of course, but it was slow to spark, as the most common first-impression of my article was to chalk it up as little more than a biographical (and terribly uncharitable) diatribe from a former-sede.

“Meh,” some shrugged, “there’s no argument here. He doesn’t even address the thesis.”

“Exactly!” others added, “And he tries to sound fancy, talking about -isms, systems, and presuppositions.”

In fairness, I can imagine some non-sedevacantist readers feeling the same way. It’s understandable, I suppose, but I’m far too Machiavellian for that sort of mindless blunder; and I care too much for our separated brethren to peddle some self-serving hit-piece! Truth is, I was working off multiple streams of saintly advice, advice which can be found in The Catholic Controversy: A Defense of the Faith, by St. Francis de Sales.

For those unaware, The Catholic Controversy is a collection of essays from St. Francis to the separated brethren of the Chablais, an area in France just south of Geneva, Switzerland, the mecca of Calvinism. Once a stronghold for the Catholic faith, the Chablais had been overtaken by the various enthusiasms and the dissenting opinions of the not-so-magisterial Protestant reformers, so re-evangelizing it was a daunting task, laudable, but probably a lost cause – and it was risky business clashing with Calvinist authorities! At bare minimum, success in the Chablais seemed to require an almost otherworldly kind of intervention…

Enter: St. Francis de Sales.

The Gentleman Saint was only twenty-seven when he felt called to re-evangelize the Chablais, and he knew what he was up against:

An area that housed nearly 72,000 people.

A population sixty years separated from Holy Mother Church.

A region crawling with religious authorities that would want him dead.

Political conflicts that could be exacerbated by his efforts of re-evangelization.

It’s easy to see how such a setting would dissuade even the most ardent evangelist, but St. Francis recognized it for what it was: a harvest of hearts, ripe for the taking but shrouded in a maniacal mirage of self-made men and their self-assumed authorities. They’d stand their ground, of course, holding fast to their brief, armed to the teeth with an endless array of arguments, but that was as predictable as the setting sun – it’s what happens, after all, when people prefer the ecclesiological and hermeneutical anarchy of the Wild West to the rough and tumble of debate in the bosom of Holy Mother Church. However, it was in these facts on the ground that St. Francis found his formula, and it was this:

  1. Recognize them as separated brethren.
  2. Charitably grant diverse degrees of culpability.
  3. See that the weapons of our warfare are spiritual.
  4. Maintain a robust, unwavering presuppositional stance.
  5. Focus on an -ism’s heart/core, avoiding ostentatious rhetoric.
  6. Turn every argument/excuse toward propitiation by penances.
  7. Utilize a wide array of techniques and tactics – and adapt!
  8. Appeal to Our Lady, and invoke the Guardian Angels.
  9. Challenge heresiarchs, but encounter commoners.
  10. Accept that only God can convert the heart.

And from first to last…

  1. Saturate every thought, word, and deed with love and prayer.

“Love will shake the walls of Geneva,” St. Francis said at the outset of his mission. “Ardent prayer must break down the walls of Geneva and brotherly love charge them… Everything gives way to love. Love is as strong as death, and to him who loves, nothing is hard…”

I’m glad St. Francis said this, too, because it’s easy to be cynical with sedevacantists, isn’t it? Worse yet, it’s easy (especially for trads toeing the line between sympathy & being themselves a kind of self-deceived crypto-sede) to forget that we must pray for them, for the full conversion of their hearts, graciously leading them back to that truly traditional posture of assent and obedience that so fittingly becomes the faithful son and daughter of Rome in full communion with the Catholic Church. And lest anyone accuse me of biting off more than I can chew by choosing to lump sedevacantists in with the likes of Calvinists in the Chablais, consider the kind of reactions often received from sedevacantists who’ve been clever enough to see through my refusal to engage their thesis outside the context of competing -isms, comprised as they are within the pre-existing epistemic ecosystems of presuppositional paradigms.

“Look here, Little Man,” they cried, shaking their fists with indignation, “I see what you’re doing! Okay, so maybe we are laity, but so what? We’ve placed the Church in the dock, put on our monocles, and scoured magisterial sources, concluding that it’s plain as noonday that Rome has fallen into error, even into glaring inconsistency. We neither can nor will retract anything! And as it is neither safe nor honest for a Catholic to speak against his conscience, here we stand, unable to do otherwise; God help us! Amen.”

These “quotes” are composites, of course, but they’re anything but caricatures – we’ve heard it all before (in more or less words). And what use would we have for a straw-man, anyway, when we’re operating off the same assumptions St. Francis espoused when speaking to John Calvin’s successor, Theodore de Beza, addressing him by saying, “Sir, I have not come to dispute with you but to talk to you frankly about the most important business you can have in the whole world.” Even so, I certainly can’t be alone in sensing that sedes suffer from a rather debilitating case of Martin Lutheritis!

“How dare you!” they protest, outraged by the insinuation. “How dare you compare us to Luther! The pope is a heretic, the councils contradict, and Rome has lost the faith. That is a fact. She is the Whore of Babylon, evidenced by false doctrines, irregular lives, and a nearly-constant stream of scandalous examples. We’re now living in the End Times, and sedevacantists are the remnant holding fast to Tradition!”

And there it is: a Diet of Worms in the brain and enthusiasm flowing in their veins! So much for numbers 1-6 in Knox’s cycle, I suppose. Enthusiasm is insatiable, though, and schism breeds schism, so sedes never fail to compound the fracture; and, yet, in doing so, they inadvertently (though not unwittingly) admit to what St. Francis insists lies just beneath the surface of their dissent:

I beseech you, let us look in ourselves for the cause of our vices and sins. Our will is the only source of them. Our mother Eve indeed tried to throw the blame on the serpent, and her husband to throw it on her, but the excuse was not valid. They would have done better to say the honest peccavi, as David did, whose sin was immediately forgiven.

I have said all this, gentleman, to make known to you whence comes this great dissension of wills in matters of religion, which we see amongst those who in their mouths make profession of Christianity. This is the principal and sovereign scandal of the world, and, in comparison with others, it alone deserves the name of scandal…

Now I have said that [for the dissenters] scandal is purely or almost purely passive. For it is well known that the occasion they pretend to have for their decision and departure is the error, the ignorance, the idolatry, which they aver to be in the Church they have abandoned, while it is a thing perfectly certain that the Church in her general body cannot be scandalous, or scandalized, being like her Lord, who communicates to her by grace and particular assistance what is proper to him by nature; for being her Head he guides her feet in the right way. The Church is his mystical body, and therefore he takes as his own the honor and dishonor that are given to her; so it cannot be said that she gives, takes, or receives any scandal. Those then who are scandalized in her do all the wrong and have all the fault: their scandal no other subject than their own malice, which keeps ever tickling them to make them laugh in their iniquities.

There’s nothing quite like the folly of dissenters casting their armor to the ground before the battle begins, thumping their chest with a fistful of hubris while the saintly sniper bides his time to line up the laser and the crosshair, taking aim from the start for both the head and the heart. And that’s the point, isn’t it? It isn’t about a syllogism or an arsenal full of proof-texts (even the Jansenists had those). Rather, it’s this: at the heart of it all, sedevacantism is (like the broken branches in its family tree) an enthusiastic system, being rooted in (and the prideful product of) an ecosystem housing a hidden network of otherwise anti-Catholic presuppositions.

This is important—in fact, it’s of seminal importance!—because:

(a) Presuppositional networks are the foundational framework wherein and whereby systems (and their arguments) stand or fall. Phrased differently: -isms matter, and systems live or die on the coherence and functional strength or weakness their most basic and ruling assumptions.

(b) The role and significance of these networks are obscured by a LARP, suppressed by a kind of persona, hidden by a veil of pre-Vatican II externals bolstered by a wall of pre-packaged proof-texts that rival even the likes of Port Royal’s Augustinus. That’s tough, too, as it’s easy to be deceived by what you see, especially when you’re dealing with people who, like the Donatists and Jansenists, present themselves as rigorous defenders (even the last remaining remnant) of a truly authentic Catholic Tradition—and doing so in the Wild West of a Secular Age where even the sturdier and stabler among us are left to wonder whether the sky is about to roll up like a scroll.

(c) These networks aren’t settled syllogistically, much less by engaging the fetishes of Hobby Horse Enthusiasts and their allegedly-isolated theses. Why? Because presuppositions “precede.”  Functionally, they’re there from the outset, which is why there’s a harmony running through the beginning, middle, and end of a winning argument. And just imagine if it were otherwise! Seriously, try it for yourself: make the case for induction or the law of noncontradiction, but do so without presupposing them from the get-go. Good luck!

Conveniently enough, “imagining if it were otherwise” is key to understanding how presuppositions are put to the test, as transcendentals are only proven by “the impossibility of the contrary.” This sounds fancy, I know, but it’s really as basic as asking Protestants “by what authority?”

Canon of Scripture, you say? By what authority?

Defining dogmas, you say? Who settles that?

Non-Catholics resort to different standards, citing things like Sacred Scripture, authoritative texts, self-attestation, logic and reason, prayer, or even experience, but that’s where they lose, for in doing so, they beg the question, falling on the sword of their own standard, proving (as I show below) that they aren’t merely insufficient for resolving disputes, they also happen to be the very reason we’ve reached this lamentable state of debate to begin with!

Referring back to sacred texts? What do you think we’re doing here? Heck, it’s the very thing we’re debating–and we’re armed to the teeth with proof texts!

Self-attesting? Speak for yourself, buddy, but leave my self out of it.

Prayer? How dare you! I pray every day – maybe more than you – and I fast too! And what does that say for the wacko who prays even more than us every day?

Experience? What, do you want to consult snake-handlers next? Or maybe we should accept Mormons and their fiery bosoms?

Such is the luck of the schismatic’s not-so-ultimate standards.

(d) Per definition, “the impossibility of the contrary” proves more than enough. And I say more than enough because, apart from revealing the anti-Catholic underworld of the Sede System, it spares Catholic faithful from the pitfall of pride associated with the all too common insistence that these issues stand or fall with them and their monocle, their Whac-a-Mole apologetic, and the Olympian endurance required to run throughout a never-ending labyrinth of sedevacantist rabbit trails! And this happens all the time, doesn’t it? Have you seen it in others? Have you felt it in yourself, getting all upset and upended over unending tangles with sede trolls on Twitter? It’s like kung fu fighting a phantasm and getting flustered by the fallout! Sure, it’s a spectacle, but it’s worse than unimpressive, it’s unnecessary. And in the present darkness of our current crises, it is a slipper-slide leading otherwise well-intended Catholics to the threshold of hell.

Lastly, lest I be misunderstood, I’m not proposing we refuse to debate a schismatic’s thesis. Rather, I’m reminding readers that time and experience demonstrate that disagreements persist. For, there, beyond the theses being nailed to the door, there’s a war being waged between rival systems. Catholics would do well, then, to stick to their guns, forever insisting on the need for an ultimate living authority. And the reasons are obvious, especially with sedes: without this authority, Catholicism would be left, as the sedes are, with little more than whims and fancies, ecclesiological anarchies, and an endless stream of unresolvable disputes. St. Francis de Sales knew as much to be true when engaging the Calvinists of Chablais, which is why (as we will demonstrate in Part Three of this series) the issue of a living, infallible, indefectible authority was the cornerstone and constant go-to of his apologetic method. Given the fact he restored the region to Rome, we’d do well to follow his lead, especially when re-evangelizing our separated brethren, the sedevacantists.



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