Without a declaration, is it just a “private judgment”?

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Sedevacantism and Private Judgment:
Are Sedevacantists Just “Protestants”?

While Neo-Trads John Salza and Robert Siscoe are struggling with the “printing process” of their new book against Sedevacantism so that publication has now suffered a setback due to “unanticipated delays”, we are happily continuing our preemption of various arguments we expect to find in their 700-page tome. One of those arguments is sure to be that Sedevacantists’ rejection of the papal claims of the Vatican II “popes” is founded on “private judgment”, the same kind as that found in Protestants in their selective and wholly subjective acceptance of whatever seems right and Christian to them. Allegedly, the remedy is to wait for an official declaration that the Vatican II “popes” really are not true popes.

This is a very popular and old argument, one already made by the pseudo-traditionalist pioneer and SSPX apologist Michael Davies (1936-2004) back in the 1980s. As most people seem never to have heard an adequate response to it, we reprint here, with the kind permission of the author, the response given by Englishman John Daly in his exhaustive critique of Mr. Davies first published in 1989 and revised and expanded in 2015.

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The following is an excerpt from Chapters 2 and 3 of the book Michael Davies: An Evaluation by John S. Daly (2015). The book is available for free download electronically here, and it can be purchased as a hardcopy in paperback here.

[From Chapter 2: The Shockingly Slipshod Scholarship of Michael Davies]

At this juncture it has clearly become important to ensure that all readers are fully aware of the correct Catholic position on the use of one’s intellect to assess theological questions on which the Church does not teach the answers directly and explicitly. 

There are three major pitfalls to be avoided: obvious enough when they are pointed out, they are: 

  • (i) Sitting on the fence when it is obligatory to take a position. 
  • (ii) Insisting that a position is obligatory when it is no more than a private opinion. 
  • (iii) Blindly accepting the opinions of others where there is no guarantee that their opinions will be correct. 

It boils down to the fact that Catholics must be acutely aware of their obligation to distinguish between, on the one hand, judgements which are definitely correct and upon which it is necessary to insist, and, on the other hand, private opinions; and that they must be no less aware of how to make this distinction in any given case, for otherwise they will not be able to avoid one or more than one of these pitfalls. 

Under this heading, one of Davies’s most prominent errors, repeated whenever the opportunity arises, is the assumption that any judgement made by a private individual – as opposed to one made officially by the Church – is a “private judgement”, in the sense used to describe the principle on which all the various manifestations of the Protestant “religion” are based. Let us tackle this confusion first, by noting that:

  • (i) “Private judgement” is simply another term for “opinion”.[15] 
  • (ii) An opinion is a judgement not truly certain, and therefore, (a) at least to some extent, and perhaps to a very great extent, liable to error,[16] and (b) as a result of (a) necessarily provisional
  • (iii) But the intellect of a private individual is capable, under certain conditions, of making judgements which are notliable to error, because within due limits the human intellect is infallible.[17] 

And this third point, although the reader will certainly not have found it anywhere in Davies’s writings, is of course of the greatest importance. And if any Catholic thinks about it for a moment, it must become fully apparent to him that it is true. If it were otherwise, Catholics could have nothing with which to reproach Protestants in the fact that they attempt to save their souls in accordance with their own opinions rather than with some objective standard, because the infallibility of the Church herself would be no more than our opinion if we were liable to error in establishing it. As it is, however, the difference between Catholics and Protestants is that:

  • (a) Catholics can establish with certainty, by objective criteria, the fact that the Church is infallible and then listen in docility to her teachings;[18] and at no point does mere opinion play any part in the procedure; whereas 
  • (b) Protestants opine that Holy Scripture is Divinely revealed (this cannot be proved without the Church); they opinethat it is to be interpreted by each individual for himself; they opine that their opinion as to its meaning will be sufficient for their salvation; and each and every interpretation they make of its meaning (except where no conceivable doubt exists from the text) is no more than an opinion

And of course this distinction between the intellectual grounds of Catholicism and Protestantism necessarily presupposes that our recognition of the Church God has founded to teach us is not a mere opinion or private judgement but something that the intellect can know, by its own efforts, with infallible certainty. And once this is granted, how can the intellect be denied the capacity to recognize other truths with certainty on the basis of objective and inescapable evidence? And how is it possible to reject in advance of all consideration the possibility that such truths may include the proposition that the Holy See is at present not occupied by a legitimate and Catholic occupant?[19]

The following passage, once again by famous nineteenth-century American convert Dr. Orestes Brownson writing in the enormously influential Brownson’s Quarterly Review, explains these points admirably: 

Here is the error of our Protestant friends. They recognize no distinction between reason and private judgement. Reason is common to all men; private judgement is the special act of an individual …. In all matters of this sort there is a criterion of certainty beyond the individual, and evidence is adducible which ought to convince the reason of every man, and which, when adduced, does convince every man of ordinary understanding, unless through his own fault. Private judgement is not so called … because it is a judgement of an individual, but because it is a judgement rendered by virtue of a private rule or principle of judgement …. The distinction here is sufficiently obvious, and from it we may conclude that nothing is to be termed ‘private judgement’ which is demonstrable from reason or provable from testimony. (Brownson’s Quarterly Review, October 1852, p. 482-3. Emphasis added.)

Indeed. And it is precisely this writer’s contention (as it is that of Dr. [Rama] Coomaraswamy, from the review of whose book [The Destruction of the Christian Tradition] by Davies we are digressing), that it is “demonstrable from reason” and “provable from testimony” that the Conciliar Church is an essentially different society from that founded by Our Divine Saviour and that its new sacramental formulæ are at best of doubtful validity. If Davies can refute the reasoning by which Dr. Coomaraswamy, or others including the present writer, have demonstrated these contentions, let him do so, and he will find no one more grateful than ourselves; but to refuse to broach the subject as though there were something sinful in using one’s God-given intellect to apply Catholic principles to a concrete situation is not a permissible manner of debate.[20] The number of “reputable theologians” who side with us on a question of opinion is worth considering; but where the facts are already definite, it is irrelevant.…

[From Chapter 3: The Vacancy of the Holy See]

Beware of Private Judgment

But the Church would need to know of this. The pope could hardly be said to have lost his office simply because one layman, one priest, one bishop, or even one Cardinal, declared that he had lost his office. ( …) If other bishops stated that the Pope was not a heretic and not deposed, how could we judge between the two parties except by making our own private judgement the ultimate criterion of who is and who is not the Vicar of Christ?

Of course the pope could not be said to have lost his office because some individual said so; he would have lost his office because he had fallen into heresy. Was that not already established? Davies’s ambiguous use of the word “because” affords him a foothold from which to use his “private judgement” argument which was analysed in the previous chapter. He is suggesting, in effect, that one can be certain of no fact, even in the natural order, unless it is taught by the Church. Thus, if the Church teaches that a heretic cannot be pope, Davies regards it nonetheless as a “private judgement”, and not permissible, for a layman to say to himself: “Therefore, this particular heretic cannot be the pope.” 

As has been shown, this view is founded on a misunderstanding of what is meant by “private judgement” and is a travesty of the Church’s teaching. The reason that the Church gives general rules and general teachings is precisely so that we may all use our God-given reason to apply these rules and teachings to particular situations as they arise…. Those who say “a heretic cannot be pope, and this man is a heretic, but, of course, we must await the judgement of the Church before coming to the conclusion that he is not pope,” are certainly not showing humble obedience to the teaching of the Church. On the contrary, they are showing contempt for her by refusing to apply her directives. The fact that the onus could even be placed on an uneducated layman to establish to his own satisfaction the invalidity of a particular putative pontificate is evident from Pope Paul IV’s bull [Cum Ex Apostolatus].

The Judgement of a General Council

Davies then continues:

The theological consensus is that there is one certain way by which we could know that a pope has been deposed: a general council of the Church would have to declare that this was the case. Please note carefully – and this is a rather complex point – the general council would not be deposing him. It has no such authority and we are forbidden by Vatican I to appeal from the authority of a pope to a general council. The sentence of the Council would not be judicial but declaratory, simply informing the faithful that the man occupying the see of Peter had ceased to be Pope due to obdurate heresy.

Really? Once again, we have only Davies’s word for this; and, once again, Davies’s word cannot be relied on. It is true that theologians have hypothesized about how the entire Church might be informed of the vacancy of the Holy See in the event of a vacancy owing to heresy; but there has certainly never been a consensus that no one could know of the vacancy of the See until some official declaration had been made. For a start, those involved in making such a declaration or in summoning a council to discuss the matter would obviously have to know in advance that the See was vacant, for they would certainly have no power to summon and participate in a council over the head of a validly reigning pope. But in fact, though less obvious, it is equally certain that they would be no better off if it had already been established that the See was vacant because, as the 1917 Code of Canon Law clearly states, it is impossible to have a general council without a pope.[13] Canon 222 reads as follows: 

  • (i) There can be no general council unless it is convoked by the Roman pontiff.
  • (ii) It is the right of the same Roman pontiff to preside, either in person or through others, over a general council, to determine and designate the matter to be discussed and in what order, to transfer, suspend or dissolve the Council and to confirm its decrees. 

Davies goes on to tell us that the general council would not be deposing the “pope” since it has no such authority and “we are forbidden by Vatican I to appeal from the authority of a pope to a general council.” In reality, an appeal from the authority of a pope to a general council was forbidden as long ago as 1460 by Pope Pius II in his bull Execrabilis; but anyhow it is difficult to see the relevance of this, since the man in question, as Davies has already accepted, would not be the pope at all, as his loss of office would have taken place automatically….

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Footnotes Chapter 2:

[15] “There are five states of the mind with regard to its acquisition of truth,” we are informed by Fr. J.S. Hickey in his Summula Philosophiæ Scholasticæ, Vol. 1, n. 159, “namely: ignorance, doubt, suspicion, opinion and certitude.” And “objective evidence is the ultimate criterion of truth and motive of certitude.” (Ibid., n. 258) The word “evidence” here does not denote a collection of suggestive indications, but rather the quality of evident-ness – of being visibly true. But private judgement is an intellectual act by which assent, at least provisional, is given to a proposition in the absence of this motive of certitude. Or, as the influential nineteenth century American writer Dr. Orestes Brownson put it: “Private judgement is only when the matters judged lie out of the range of reason, and when its principle is not the common reason of mankind, nor a Catholic or public authority, but the fancy, the caprice, the prejudice or the idiosyncracy of the individual forming it.” (Brownson’s Quarterly Review, October 1851; Brownson’s Works, Vol. 1, p. 347.) Hence none of these “principles” mentioned by Dr. Brownson is capable of generating an assent firmer than that of “opinion”.

[16] Scholastic philosophers distinguish opinion from certainty by the presence of some degree of formido errandi – fear that one may be mistaken.

[17] “The intellect is per se infallible, although per accidens it can err …(albeit only where evidence is lacking.)” (Fr. Hickey: op. cit., Vol. I, n. 184)

[18] The virtue of faith by which we believe without doubt all that the Church presents to us for belief as divinely revealed is not a merelogical conclusion based on the evidence of the Church’s credibility, for it is a supernatural and infused certainty. But the acquisition of supernatural faith by one who does not already possess it normally presumes the prior recognition (with true certainty), by the ordinary natural process of reason, that God has indeed established the Church as His infallible mouthpiece upon earth. The ordinary course of apologetics used by the Church to lead men to the act of faith establishes by convincing and certain argumentation conclusions that grace will later make supernaturally certain. “Before the acceptance of faith, reason can and must know with certainty (apart from the fact of revelation) the motives of credibility.” (Denzinger: Index Systematicus, I, D.) 

[19] Of course, even if this cannot be known with infallible certainty and is only an opinion, it is impossible to dismiss it at once as unworthy of consideration without weighing the evidence in its favour.
Footnotes Chapter 3:

[13] In fact this has been the case for much longer than this, because, as Pope St. Gregory VII declared in the year 1076, “No council may be called general without the instruction of the pope” – see Ven. Cardinal Baronius: Annales, Vol. XI (p. 424 in the Venetian 1705 edition). Evidently this rule was not new in the eleventh century and there is every reason to presume that it is either apostolic or Divine in origin.

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This was an excerpt from pp. 82-86 and pp. 101-103 of John Daly’s book Michael Davies: An Evaluation (2nd ed., 2015). Italics in original.

The entire book is available for free electronically or for purchase in hardcopy:

We express our gratitude to Mr. Daly for kindly permitting us to provide these excerpts and for making the electronic version of his book available to the public for free.