Bp. Williamson and Sedevacantism
A Response to Bp. Richard Williamson’s Arguments
against Sedevacantism in his Eleison Comments of 2014
On Jan. 25, 2014, Bp. Richard Williamson, formerly with the Society of St. Pius X, released issue no. 341 of his Eleison Comments, which are sent out on a weekly basis to subscribers by email. In this particular installment, His Excellency once again returns to the topic of sedevacantism. He writes:
The words and deeds of Pope Francis since his election earlier last year have been so little Catholic and so outrageous, that the idea that recent popes have not really been Popes (”sedevacantism”) has been given a new lease of life. Notice that Pope Francis merely expresses more blatantly than his five predecessors the madness of Vatican II. The question remains whether any of the six Conciliar Popes (with the possible exception of John-Paul I) can really have been Vicars of Christ.
(Most Rev. Richard Williamson, “Sedevacantist Anxiety I”, Eleison Comments CCCXLI)
Already we must stop here for a moment and consider what the English bishop is saying. He describes the words and actions of Francis as “so little Catholic”, as though one could have more or less of Catholicism. This contradicts directly what was taught by Pope Benedict XV in his inaugural encyclical Ad Beatissimi: “Such is the nature of Catholicism that it does not admit of more or less, but must be held as a whole or as a whole rejected” (par. 24; italics added).
Catholicism does not come in degrees, but it is easy to see why His Excellency would pretend otherwise: because this qualification of people as “somewhat Catholic” or “more or less Catholic” is extremely convenient when having to defend one’s resistance against Jorge Bergoglio while at the same time also denying that the man is an Antipope. With only the two rather rigid concepts of “Catholic” and “non-Catholic” to choose from, the “recognize-and-resist” position is pushed against the wall. This is why they love to remain vague and ambiguous and shy away from defining terms and from making clear assertions. This is why they love to talk about the “new orientation” which they despise, or the “pastoral council” they resist, or the “Newpope” they refuse to go along with.
But what do these terms actually mean? What is their definition, and who gets to define them?
Deliberate refusal to use clear and precise wording is actually a hallmark of Modernism, which thrives on imprecision and confusion because such is very conducive to the covert spread of error; in any case it does not befit a Catholic, least of all one attempting to tackle a problem that is theological in nature. In matters philosophical and theological, a Catholic has as his guide the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas (see Pope Pius XI, Encyclical Studiorum Ducem, 1923); and it was St. Thomas who pointed out, quoting Aristotle: “A small mistake in the beginning is a big one in the end” (De Ente Et Essentia, n. 1).
Bp. Williamson is probably the most well-known of the fiercest defenders of the absurd “recognize-and-resist” position, that position which insists on acknowledging the papal claimants after Pope Pius XII (d. 1958) as valid Popes but resisting whatever they teach, decree, or legislate that runs contrary to their understanding of traditional Catholic doctrine or practice. Not surprisingly, this effectively translates into simply ignoring the “Pope” while “doing your own thing” on the side.
The Society of St. Pius X, founded by Abp. Marcel Lefebvre in 1970, is the perfect example of how this position looks in practice: Put up a nice picture of the “Holy Father” in your sacristy, mention him in your prayers, and pay him lip service; but other than that, pretend he doesn’t exist, and even tell your people not to listen to him or embrace his teachings because by doing so they will endanger their eternal salvation. It’s essentially a mere primacy of honor that the “recognize-and-resisters” concede to the person they believe is Pope, rather than the primacy of jurisdiction Catholic dogma requires (see Denz. 1830-31). At least that’s how it is in practice, in actual fact. Queen Elizabeth II would be proud.
Regarding the issue of whether the papal claimants after Pope Pius XII, who died in 1958, have been real Popes, Bp. Williamson makes a most startling assertion: “The question is not of prime importance”, he says. Really? The question of whether the men who have brought about world apostasy and the demise of Christendom were genuine Vicars of Christ or diabolical charlatans is “not of prime importance”?? What, then, is? Bp. Williamson’s weekly Eleison Comments?
An interesting quote from Abp. Lefebvre comes to mind at this point, one Williamson perhaps forgot:
Now some priests (even some priests in the Society) say that we Catholics need not worry about what is happening in the Vatican; we have the true sacraments, the true Mass, the true doctrine, so why worry about whether the Pope is a heretic or an impostor or whatever; it is of no importance to us. But I think that is not true. If any man is important in the Church, it is the Pope. He is the centre of the Church and has a great influence on all Catholics by his attitudes, his words and his acts.
(Abp. Marcel Lefebvre, Address to Seminarians, March 30, 1986; underlining added.)
It should be obvious to anyone that if the Pope is not important in the Church, then no one is. Certainly Our Blessed Lord and His holy Apostles never displayed this carefree attitude of Bp. Williamson regarding whether the person claiming to be our Chief Shepherd is in fact the rightful shepherd or a usurper, a hireling, even a wolf (see Mt 24:24; Jn 10:12-13; Gal 1:8-9; 2 Thess 2:3; etc.).
But the English bishop goes on to explain his contention:
If they have not been Popes, still the Catholic Faith and morals by which I must “work out my salvation in fear and trembling” (Phil. II, 12) have not changed one iota. And if they have been Popes, still I cannot obey them whenever they have departed from that Faith and those morals, because “we ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts, V, 29).
This is unbelievable! Did Bp. Williamson not learn in his seminary days that the Pope is the proximate Rule of Faith for all Catholics and the ultimate Teacher of the very Faith Williamson claims to be upholding? Let’s turn to the teachings of real Popes for a moment:
“The vigilance and the pastoral solicitude of the Roman Pontiff … according to the duties of his office, are principally and above all manifested in maintaining and conserving the unity and integrity of the Catholic faith, without which it is impossible to please God. They strive also to the end that the faithful of Christ, not being like irresolute children, or carried about by every wind of doctrine by the wickedness of men [Eph 4:14], may all come to the unity of faith and to the knowledge of the Son of God to form the perfect man, that they may not harm one another or offend against one another in the community and the society of this present life, but that rather, united in the bond of charity like members of a single body having Christ for head, and under the authority of his Vicar on earth, the Roman Pontiff, successor of the Blessed Peter, from whom is derived the unity of the entire Church, they may increase in number for the edification of the body, and with the assistance of divine grace, they may so enjoy tranquility in this life as to enjoy future beatitude.”
(Pope Benedict XIV, Apostolic Constitution Pastoralis Romani Pontificis, March 30, 1741; excerpted in Papal Teachings: The Church, p. 31; underlining added.)
“The Holy Apostolic See and the Roman Pontiff have primacy in the entire world. The Roman Pontiff is the Successor of Blessed Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, true Vicar of Christ, Head of the whole Church, Father and Teacher of all Christians.”
(Pope Benedict XIV, Apostolic Constitution Etsi Pastoralis, May 26, 1742; excerpted in Papal Teachings: The Church, p. 32; underlining added.)
“To the shepherds alone was given all power to teach, to judge, to direct; on the faithful was imposed the duty of following their teaching, of submitting with docility to their judgment, and of allowing themselves to be governed, corrected, and guided by them in the way of salvation. Thus, it is an absolute necessity for the simple faithful to submit in mind and heart to their own pastors, and for the latter to submit with them to the Head and Supreme Pastor.”
(Pope Leo XIII, Letter Epistola Tua to Cardinal Guibert, June 17, 1885; underlining added.)
“Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.”
(Pope Boniface VIII, Bull Unam Sanctam, Nov. 18, 1302; underlining added.)
Bp. Williamson continually distorts Catholic doctrine regarding the authority and function of the Pope. Perhaps His Excellency can start quoting some solid Catholic dogmatic manuals to support his strange contention that it “doesn’t matter” whether a particular claimant to the papacy is valid or not. If it is necessary for salvation to submit to the Roman Pontiff, it would be rather expedient to know whether Jorge Bergoglio is in fact that Roman Pontiff, no?
Williamson’s insouciant attitude regarding the question of the Pope actually reveals a very frightening reality about him: The only reason why he can be so unconcerned about whether Francis is a true Pope or not is because he does not submit to him anyway. As far as Williamson is concerned, Francis might as well not be Pope. It makes no difference to him because nothing Francis says or does determines anything for Williamson: not what he teaches, not any rules or decisions he enacts, not saints he canonizes, not liturgical laws he puts in place, nothing. For Williamson, Novus Ordo “Popes” are but “cardboard Popes”, as Fr. Anthony Cekada once aptly called them — “for display purposes only”.
The problem with this attitude on the part of Bp. Williamson is that this is what is known in Catholic moral theology as the sin of schism. This sin consists in refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church: “After the reception of baptism, if anyone … refuses to be under the Supreme Pontiff or refuses communion with the members of the Church subject to him, he is a schismatic” (1917 Code of Canon Law, 1325 §2). Some further light is shed on this definition by the canonist Fr. Ignatius Szal, who clarified that to be considered a true schismatic, the person in question “must recognize the Roman Pontiff as the true pastor of the Church, and he must profess as an article of faith that obedience is due the Roman Pontiff” (Fr. Ignatius Szal, The Communication of Catholics with Schismatics [Catholic University of America, 1948], p. 2). This definition fits Bp. Williamson to a tee, except that the person he publicly recognizes as Pope is not in fact the Supreme Pontiff. This does not make a difference, however, to the fact that Williamson is leading people into the sin of schism (even if not, technically, the ecclesiastical crime, since Francis is not in fact the Pope), inasmuch as he is telling them to refuse submission to the person they believe to be the Roman Pontiff. Sin exists in the will, so the sin of schism is definitely there.
Now schism, as much as heresy and apostasy, expels one from the bosom of the Catholic Church; that is, one ceases to be a member of the Body of Christ if one is a schismatic. Pope Pius XII taught: “For not every sin, however grave it may be, is such as of its own nature to sever a man from the Body of the Church, as does schism or heresy or apostasy” (Encyclical Mystici Corporis, n. 23; italics added). Schism is an offense against the unity of the Church and therefore in itself incompatible with membership in her.
It is very apparent from the foregoing that this is all very serious business. One can only shake one’s head at Bp. Williamson’s senseless remark that the legitimacy of the Novus Ordo “Popes” is “not of prime importance.” To a real Catholic, it is of prime importance, for a real Catholic submits to the Pope, apart from which submission he cannot inherit Eternal Life. Minor detail, eh?
Williamson has a habit of misrepresenting the facts by making it seem as though submission to the Pope was simply a question of obedience to commands. Such is not the case, of course. When the Pope issues an encyclical letter, for example, he is exercising his teaching office, and all the faithful have the obligation, under pain of mortal sin, to assent to the Pope’s teaching:
Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: “He who heareth you, heareth me” [Lk 10:16]; and generally what is expounded and inculcated in Encyclical Letters already for other reasons appertains to Catholic doctrine.
(Pope Pius XII, Encyclical Humani Generis, n. 20; underlining added.)
This only stands to reason. What is the alternative, anyway? That the Pope can no longer really teach but only offer opinions which the faithful are free to take or reject? (Imagine this scenario in a classroom at school.) Or that each time the Pope issues an encyclical, every Catholic gets out his copy of Denzinger to check and make sure the Pope is teaching the True Faith? (Or, alternatively, each individual Catholic checks with Bp. Williamson to see if he gives his approval?) In that case, who is really teaching whom? What kind of bizarre society is this, in which the student is the final arbiter of what to accept from the teacher?
We can see that the position espoused by His Excellency makes a complete mockery of the Catholic Faith. It wholly disfigures and renders useless the hierarchical structure instituted by Christ for the sake of perpetuating the Faith without tarnish of error, unto the salvation of all who are subject to the Roman Pontiff. In fact, Williamson reduces the teaching authority of the Pope to a mere permission to repeat the prior. But this is clearly a distortion of the Pope’s magisterium. Anyone can simply repeat what has been taught before; the Church wouldn’t need a Pope for that. But the only reason there even is something to repeat is that doctrine has been genuinely taught before, not merely restated; and it is this genuine teaching authority which every valid Pope possesses to the exact same extent as any other Pope.
As the First Vatican Council taught most eloquently:
To satisfy this pastoral duty, our predecessors always gave tireless attention that the saving doctrine of Christ be spread among all the peoples of the earth, and with equal care they watched that, wherever it was received, it was preserved sound and pure. Therefore, the bishops of the whole world, now individually, now gathered in Synods, following a long custom of the churches and the formula of the ancient rule, referred to this Holy See those dangers particularly which emerged in the affairs of faith, that there especially the damages to faith might be repaired where faith cannot experience a failure. The Roman Pontiffs, moreover, according as the condi-tion of the times and affairs advised, sometimes by calling ecumenical Councils or by examining the opinion of the Church spread throughout the world; sometimes by particular synods, sometimes by employing other helps which divine Providence supplied, have defined that those matters must be held which with God’s help they have recognized as in agreement with Sacred Scripture and apostolic tradition. For, the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter that by His revelation they might disclose new doctrine, but that by His help they might guard sacredly the revelation transmitted through the apostles and the deposit of faith, and might faithfully set it forth. Indeed, all the venerable fathers have embraced their apostolic doctrine, and the holy orthodox Doctors have venerated and followed it, knowing full well that the See of St. Peter always remains unimpaired by any error, accord-ing to the divine promise of our Lord the Savior made to the chief of His disciples: “I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren” [Luke 22:32].
(Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus, n. 4; Denz. 1836; underlining added.)
Which teaching shall we accept? That of the First Vatican Council, or that of Bp. Williamson?
Next in his Eleison Comments 341, the English bishop asks for liberty in the question of sedevacantism:
However I believe in offering answers to some of the sedevacantists’ arguments, because there are sedevacantists who seem to wish to make the vacant See of Rome into a dogma which Catholics must believe. In my opinion it is no such thing. “In things doubtful, liberty” (Augustine).
We answer His Excellency thus: We are not at liberty to reject sedevacantism. Embracing it is, indeed, obligatory. This obligation, however, arises not from the sedevacantist position itself, but rather from the absence of any other viable alternative. There is simply no other position that can reconcile the facts about the Vatican II Sect with Catholic doctrine except that of sedevacantism. The duty to accept sedevacantism is extrinsic, therefore, rather than intrinsic, to the position itself.
Bp. Donald Sanborn has put together a succinct article on this very question, to which we direct all readers for a competent and clear answer to Bp. Williamson’s stance:
- Opinionism: Is the Question of the Pope “Just an Opinion”? (Most Rev. Donald J. Sanborn)
It should not be difficult to accept that if sedevacantism is true, our adherence to it is required. In an allocution of Feb. 20, 1903, Pope Leo XIII stated clearly that “the strong and effective instrument of salvation is none other than the Roman Pontificate” (see Papal Teachings: The Church, p. 353). If John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis were true Popes, then Pope Leo’s statement is false, because since Vatican II, the “Roman Pontificate” has been nothing but a strong and effective instrument of damnation, disseminating the most noxious errors and heresies to the point where all of Christendom has virtually collapsed, all the while the “Pope” says things have never been better. This is what we’re dealing with.
Let us continue and examine a few more snippets from Bp. Williamson’s comments:
It cannot reach beyond the power of Almighty God to guarantee that his Church will never altogether disappear or fail, but it can reach as far as God will allow, in other words nothing need stop his Church from defecting almost completely. And just how far is that “almost completely”?
But under His Excellency’s beliefs, the Church has already failed. The Vatican today is no longer the guarantor of orthodoxy but a sewer of Modernism, so much so that Williamson himself went into schism in order to keep the heresies emanating from Rome from endangering his own soul. Or will anyone seriously assert that Bp. Williamson is not separated from today’s Vatican and the religion it professes?
Yet, Pope Leo XIII taught forcefully: “Union with the Roman See of Peter is … always the public criterion of a Catholic …. ‘You are not to be looked upon as holding the true Catholic faith if you do not teach that the faith of Rome is to be held'” (Encyclical Satis Cognitum, n. 13). Can Bp. Williamson truthfully say this of the Novus Ordo Vatican? Of course he cannot. So it follows that if the Novus Ordo Sect is the true Catholic Church, then the Church established by Christ has failed and is a fraud and Christ a liar. But this is impossible!
On this point, we recommend everyone watch the excellent 2-hour conference given by Bp. Sanborn on the topic of the heresies of Vatican II, which you can watch free of charge here. His Excellency explains that while we know it is impossible for the Church to fail, nevertheless it is possible for individuals to defect and for false papal claimants to arise and deceive people. This is a crucial consideration in coming to understand why only sedevacantism can be accepted as a Catholic position, not that proposed by Bp. Williamson. (See also the clip Historical Precedents of Papal Impostors.)
Only if we say that the Vatican II Church is not the Catholic Church of Pope Pius XII and his predecessors, and the papal claimants since 1958 have not been true Catholic Popes, only then can we say that the Catholic Church has not failed, because while the Church can be eclipsed, as Our Lady of La Salette said she would be, and while a true Pope can be prevented or delayed, we have the divinely assured guarantee that the Church can never teach error or lead the faithful who adhere to her to damnation.
In the words of the great “Pio Nono”:
Now you know well that the most deadly foes of the Catholic religion have always waged a fierce war, but without success, against this Chair [of St. Peter]; they are by no means ignorant of the fact that religion itself can never totter and fall while this Chair remains intact, the Chair which rests on the rock which the proud gates of hell cannot overthrow and in which there is the whole and perfect solidity of the Christian religion.
(Pope Pius IX, Encyclical Inter Multiplices, n. 7)
This ends the first installment in our response to Bp. Williamson; to be continued in Part 2.