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Asking Sedevacantists: A Church without Popes Forever?

Recently, an event of significance for sedevacantists came to pass. The last bishop consecrated to be appointed to office in 1958 — i.e., during the reign of Pope Pius XII — finally passed into eternity. That this is so can also be verified at the Catholic Hierarchy website and the updated lists at Wikipedia.

The most senior living bishop (sort the Wiki list by Consecrated Bishop) is now His Excellency Bishop Eloy Tato Losado of Spain. Consecrated bishop on July 25, 1960, about 60 years ago, during the reign of Pope John XXIII, this bishop was appointed to office and received his authority from that pope.

Why is all this of consequence for sedevacantists? Because many sedevacantists hold that Pope Pius XII was the last pope and that the See of St. Peter has been vacant since then, for almost 62 years.

Point I: Apostolic Succession Requires Ordinary Jurisdiction.

It is a common misconception that episcopal orders alone are sufficient for apostolic succession. In point of fact, both episcopal orders and ordinary jurisdiction (actual succession to an episcopal see) are necessary for apostolic succession. In the old manuals and theology books, the power of orders is sometimes referred to as the “matter” or material element of apostolic succession, while the power of jurisdiction is the form or formal element in a man’s succession to episcopal authority.

The apostolic succession can be defined as: the public, legitimate, solemn and never interrupted elevation [suffectio] of persons in the place of the Apostles to govern and nourish the Church. (Cercia, I, p. 223) Succession may be material or formal. Material succession consists in the fact that there have never been lacking persons who have continuously been substituted for the Apostles ; formal succession consists in the fact that these substituted persons truly enjoy authority derived from the Apostles and received from him who is able to communicate it. (Herrmann, Theologiæ Dogmaticæ Institutiones, n. 282.)

Obviously a man does not become a genuine successor to the apostles merely by arrogating to himself the title of “bishop,” or by carrying on in some fashion a function once performed by the apostles. Neither is it enough for a man merely to possess some one, individual power, say for example, the power of orders. – The power of orders can be acquired even illicitly, and once acquired can never be lost. – What is required for genuine apostolic succession is that a man enjoy the complete powers (i.e., ordinary powers, not extraordinary) of an apostle. He must, then, in addition to the power of orders, possess also the power of jurisdiction. Jurisdiction means the power to teach and govern. – This power is conferred only by a legitimate authorization and, even though once received, can be lost again by being revoked. (Christ’s Church, Monsignor G Van Noort, Vol. II, pg. 152)

Point II: Ordinary Jurisdiction Comes by Papal Appointment.

How does ordinary jurisdiction come to the bishops? The “last pope” of the sedevacantists, His Holiness Pope Pius XII, helpfully answers:

Jurisdiction passes to bishops only through the Roman Pontiff as We admonished in the Encyclical Letter Mystici Corporis in the following words: “… As far as his own diocese is concerned each (bishop) feeds the flock entrusted to him as a true shepherd and rules it in the name of Christ. Yet in exercising this office they are not altogether independent but are subordinate to the lawful authority of the Roman Pontiff, although enjoying ordinary power of jurisdiction which they receive directly from the same Supreme Pontiff.”[13] 40. And when We later addressed to you the letter Ad Sinarum gentem, We again referred to this teaching in these words: “The power of jurisdiction which is conferred directly by divine right on the Supreme Pontiff comes to bishops by that same right, but only through the successor of Peter, to whom not only the faithful but also all bishops are bound to be constantly subject and to adhere both by the reverence of obedience and by the bond of unity. (Ad Apostolorum Principis, 1958)

Rev. Fr. Stanislaus Woywod, in his commentary on the Old Code of Canon Law, confirms:

210. The bishops are the successors of the Apostles and are placed by Divine law over the individual churches, which they govern with ordinary authority under the authority of the Roman Pontiff. They are freely appointed by the Pope. If some college has received the right to elect the bishop, Canon 321 shall be observed, which requires the absolute majority of votes of all those who have the right to vote. (Canon 329.)

213. Every candidate to the episcopate, even those elected, presented or designated by the civil government, needs the canonical provision or institution in order to be the lawful bishop of a vacant diocese. The only one to institute a bishop is the Roman Pontiff. (Canon 332.)

Point III: Ordinary Jurisdiction Cannot Cease in the Whole Church.

This is a logical consequence of the two points discussed above. It follows as a syllogism also:

Major: The Church cannot cease to be apostolic (as we profess in the Creed).
Minor: But ordinary jurisdiction is necessary for apostolicity (as proved above).
Conclusion: Hence, ordinary jurisdiction cannot cease in the whole Church.

As the Church of Christ cannot cease to be apostolic, so she cannot cease to have at least some bishops who are formal and full successors of the apostles. In this way, she retains the note of apostolicity as a permanent mark by which she can be distinguished from all breakaway sects.

Point IV: Therefore, the See of St. Peter Cannot Be Vacant Indefinitely.

This point follows from points 1 to 3. If ordinary jurisdiction and formal apostolicity can be transmitted only through the successors of St. Peter, and formal apostolicity cannot cease to exist in the whole Church, it necessarily follows that there must be perpetual successors of St. Peter until the end of time — as also defined dogma precisely says. The Petrine succession and the apostolic succession are intimately connected. Only a successor of St. Peter can “make” a successor to the apostles in the formal and full sense, by appointment to office conferring authority on him.

Point V: Therefore, it is heretical, and contrary to St. Peter’s perpetual successors, to hold to indefinite sedevacantism. It is necessary to renounce the error and to come out of it.

The Church cannot exist without the pope and without the powers he himself has communicated to others (like the bishops and cardinals) for the time of the vacant see.

Objection: The successor of St. Peter in the Primacy is like the foundation without which the Church cannot exist. But without the Roman Pontiff, when the see is vacant, the Church exists. Therefore, the Roman Pontiff is not the successor of St. Peter in the Primacy.

I distinguish the major: The successor of St. Peter in the Primacy is like the primary foundation, principle and by his own right, without which the Church cannot exist, denied; he is like a secondary foundation, ministerial and with a vicarious right, I subdistinguish: without which [i.e., without a pope] and without his exigency together with the actual power arranged by him for the time of the vacant See, the Church cannot exist, conceded; without which, but with the exigency together with the actual power arranged for the time of the vacant See, the Church cannot exist, denied.” (Salaverri, Joachim S.J.; Nicolau, Michaele, S.J., Sacrae Theologiae Summa, 1B, 1955, Book 1, Chapter 3, Art. III)

Thus, the Church cannot exist indefinitely once those bishops appointed by the last pope die. The Church exists only so long as the powers already communicated by the last pope remain.

An objection and its answer: “Does supplied jurisdiction save the day for sedevacantism?” No.

Not in the case of preserving apostolicity, for we have already seen ordinary jurisdiction (jurisdiction as a habitual power, as attached to a see or office) is necessary for formal apostolicity. Even an excommunicated priest may sometimes be supplied jurisdiction in a tacit and transient manner — however, this is not the equivalent of the Church conferring a permanent mission on him. The former does not equate to ordinary jurisdiction, but is only jurisdiction supplied for the act.

Supplied jurisdiction is referred to by canonists as a “delegatio a iure,” a delegation operative by the law itself. It is, basically, a tacit and transient delegation that comes from the Church — the Church here meaning the local bishop, the whole teaching Church, or the Roman pontiff himself.

So, even if jurisdiction is supplied to the sede bishops, that doesn’t make them successors to the apostles. Neither therefore does it preserve the apostolic indefectibility of the teaching Church.

Another objection: Would papal jurisdiction be supplied to the “heretic anti-pope (HAP) for his appointments?” Not so. For Cum Ex – the one document on a heretical pontiff in Church history, which the earlier sedevacantists especially appealed to — explicitly says that those “appointed” by a heretic lack all authority. Those apparently “appointed” by heretics are not appointed at all [1].

Hence, if it is true that all the popes of the last 62 years have all been heretics, it necessarily follows that all their appointments are invalid, and the Church has defected and lost her formal apostolicity.

Conversely, if it is impossible that the Catholic Church defects and loses apostolicity, it follows that the popes doing the appointing to continue the succession must necessarily have been true popes.

Perhaps It Is Time to Come Home to Mother Church?

Sedevacantists deserve at least the same charity and courtesy shown to Protestants. Perhaps many sedevacantists are only in a material schism, earnestly not intending to be in schism.

But it is impossible to deny that sedevacantism, objectively and as such, constitutes a grave error. The simplest way to see this is to ask, “(1) How long can an interregnum last? (2) Is an interregnum indefinitely extended (e.g., 100-plus years) even possible?” Clearly not. There surely is a limit.

If saying an indefinite vacancy of St. Peter’s throne is possible, then the dogma that St. Peter must have perpetual successors in the primacy over the Church is a meaningless formula. Conversely, if that dogma actually means something, it means that the Church cannot be without popes forever.

Dom Prosper Guéranger writes how those who lost the Faith were unable to transmit the mission to others: “By God’s permission, the sees of Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, and Jerusalem, were defiled by heresy; they became chairs of pestilence; and having corrupted the faith they received from Rome, they could not transmit to others the mission they themselves had forfeited. Sad indeed was the ruin of such pillars as these! Peter’s hand had placed them in the Church. They had merited the love and veneration of men; but they fell; and their fall gave one more proof of the solidity of that edifice, which Christ Himself had built on Peter.”

Finally, sedevacantism really comes from a form of despair, fear, and worry that “it’s all over.”

Why should we worry when God is with us? Why should we despair when the Immaculata has promised us that, through the pope and bishops’ consecration of Russia, the Immaculate Heart will triumph, Russia will be converted, and a period of peace will be given to the world? How do we know that God may not act mightily in Pope Francis’s life? If we are Christians, we dare not say that that is impossible, but let us jointly pray, work, and sacrifice for that to come about. How do we know that God may not, after Pope Francis, give us a sovereign pontiff strong in the Catholic faith? To those who believe, all things are possible. If we pray, fast, work, and ask, the Lord will never fail us.

In conclusion, since sedevacantism is now known to be a harmful error, if any has adhered to it in the past, the time is now to come out of it and re-experience the glorious liberty of the children of God, by living in Catholic communion with the universal Church.

[1] Cum Ex Apostolatus Officio: “[E[ach and all of their words, deeds, actions and enactments, howsoever made, and anything whatsoever to which these may give rise, shall be without force and shall grant no stability whatsoever nor any right to anyone[.]”

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