Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Strike the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered…” (Zac 13:7)

When the Shepherd is struck:

The Papacy and Sedevacantist “Disunity”

The following article appeared in the sedevacantist quarterly The Reign of Mary, vol. XLV, no. 155, in the summer of 2014. It addresses a phenomenon that a lot of people seeking to be genuine traditional Catholics struggle with: the apparent “disunity” among sedevacantists. If Sedevacantism is the correct position to take in the face of the apostasy of the Novus Ordo Church, why then are there different groups of sedevacantists that are at odds with each other over various issues?

The solution, the author argues, is found in a correct understanding of the Papacy as the essential principle of Catholic unity. Precisely because a true Vicar of Christ is currently absent, disunity among Catholics is bound to occur; however, any such lack of unity is only accidental and does not infringe upon the essential unity enjoyed by all true Catholics. Moreover, any accidental disunity could, in principle, be resolved as soon as a true Pope is once again reigning — something that cannot be said about the recognize-and-resist position, which also has its various groups fighting or disagreeing with one another, but where a papal judgment does not in and of itself settle anything, because according the recognize-and-resist position, it is ultimately each individual believer who decides whether or not to accept a papal decision.

This article is a great companion piece to the author’s “The Papacy and the Passion of the Church” and also to Jeffrey Knight’s “Culpable Ignorance and the Great Apostasy”.


When the Shepherd is struck: The Papacy and Sedevacantist Disunity

by Mario Derksen

All too often we hear from people seeking to be traditional Catholics that what keeps them from becoming sedevacantists is the problem of “disunity” among them. From disputes about which Holy Week rites to follow, to contemporary bioethical problems, to the question of whether one may ever assist at non-sedevacantist Masses, the disagreements among those who do not recognize the papal claimants after Pope Pius XII as legitimate seem too numerous or too daunting for many people’s comfort.

In what follows, I propose to show that though lamentable, the divisions among sedevacantists need not be a stumbling block to us, because they are but the natural consequence of that which is truly at the root of all the trouble: the absence of a Pope.

It is from the Pope that the unity of the Church derives, and it is the Pope upon whom it depends. It therefore follows that, if there is no Pope reigning for a long time or he is unable to exercise his office freely, the cohesion of the faithful will suffer serious injury before long.

Although this situation is undeniably a great trial, we should take advantage of it, as it were, and use it for our personal sanctification and thus transform our anguish into a seedbed from which the future restoration of the Church will flower.

The Papacy, Infallible Source of Catholic Unity

On May 18, 1890, Pope Leo XIII approved a series of exorcism prayers against Satan and the apostate angels, which includes the long version of the Prayer to St. Michael the Archangel, which Leo himself had composed. Part of this prayer reads:

In the Holy Place itself, where has been set up the See of the most holy Peter and the Chair of Truth for the light of the world, they have raised the throne of their abominable impiety, with the iniquitous design that when the Pastor has been struck, the sheep may be scattered.

(See Acta Sanctae Sedis XXIII [1890-91], p. 744; cf. also Ambrose St. John, The Raccolta or Collection of Indulgenced Prayers and Good Works [1910], n. 292.)

This idea of the sheep being scattered after – and especially because of – the Pastor having been struck, originates in the words of the prophet Zacharias, quoted by our Blessed Lord: “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered” (Zacharias 13:7; cf. Mark 14:27).

The reason why the sheep are scattered when the shepherd is struck is that the shepherd – the Pope – is the principle and source of unity for the flock, the Catholic Church, as Pope Benedict XIV taught:

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 … 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.

(Benedict XIV, Apostolic Constitution Pastoralis Romani Pontificis [1741]; in Benedictine Monks of Solesmes, eds., Papal Teachings: The Church, trans. by Mother E. O’Gorman [Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1962], n. 1; underlining added.)

No one can be a Catholic, a member of the Church, without being in union with the head of the Church, to whom all must submit under pain of schism and heresy and as a condition for attaining unto a blessed eternity. Papal teaching on this matter is quite explicit:

Furthermore we declare, state, and define that it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of all human creatures that they submit to the Roman pontiff.

(Boniface VIII, Bull Unam Sanctam [1302]; see Denzinger-Hűnermann 875 or Denzinger-Rahner 469.)


Union with the Roman See of Peter is to [St. Jerome] always the public criterion of a Catholic…. And for a like reason St. Augustine publicly attests that… “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” (Sermo cxx., n. 13).

(Leo XIII, Encyclical Satis Cognitum 13 [1896])


Actually only those are to be included as members of the Church who have been baptized and profess the true faith, and who have not been so unfortunate as to separate themselves from the unity of the Body, or been excluded by legitimate authority for grave faults committed.

(Pius XII, Encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi 22 [1943])

Pope Leo XIII beautifully elaborated on just how the Pope brings about this unity among the faithful, to wit, by means of the jurisdiction which is intrinsic to the papal primacy and comes directly from God Himself. Commenting on Matthew 16:18 (“And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”), the scriptural passage in which Christ announces the future establishment of the papacy, the Holy Father taught:

From this text it is clear that by the will and command of God the Church rests upon St. Peter, just as a building rests on its foundation. Now the proper nature of a foundation is to be a principle of cohesion for the various parts of the building. It must be the necessary condition of stability and strength. Remove it and the whole building falls. It is consequently the office of St. Peter to support the Church, and to guard it in all its strength and indestructible unity. How could he fulfil this office without the power of commanding, forbidding, and judging, which is properly called jurisdiction? It is only by this power of jurisdiction that nations and commonwealths are held together. A primacy of honour and the shadowy right of giving advice and admonition, which is called direction, could never secure to any society of men unity or strength.

(Leo XIII, Satis Cognitum 12)

In this clear papal teaching, we can already see how misguided are those “traditional Catholics” today who would recognize Francis as a true Pope while in reality only conceding him a primacy of honor, not at all believing his teachings or per se accepting any exercise of his putative jurisdiction over the whole Church – not his magisterial documents, not his liturgy, not his laws, not his saints.

Pope Leo continues, explaining what our Lord meant when He said that “the gates of hell shall not prevail” against the Church:

The meaning of this divine utterance is, that, notwithstanding the wiles and intrigues which they bring to bear against the Church, it can never be that the church committed to the care of Peter shall succumb or in any wise fail…. Therefore God confided His Church to Peter so that he might safely guard it with his unconquerable power. He invested him, therefore, with the needful authority; since the right to rule is absolutely required by him who has to guard human society really and effectively. This, furthermore, Christ gave: “To thee will I give the keys of the kingdom of Heaven”…. In this same sense He says: “Whatsoever thou shall bind upon earth it shall be bound also in Heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth it shall be loosed also in Heaven” [Mt 16:19]. This metaphorical expression of binding and loosing indicates the power of making laws, of judging and of punishing; and the power is said to be of such amplitude and force that God will ratify whatever is decreed by it. Thus it is supreme and absolutely independent, so that, having no other power on earth as its superior, it embraces the whole Church and all things committed to the Church.

(Leo XIII, Satis Cognitum 12; underlining added.)

This teaching that the Church, no matter what may happen to her, can never fail, is found again and again in the Catholic Magisterium, and it is based on Christ’s promises to St. Peter, whose Faith cannot fail. It is for this reason that the Holy See will forever be the ultimate measuring rod of the orthodoxy of any doctrine, and adherence to it will always be the ultimate criterion of any Catholic:

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…. 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, according 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” [Lk 22:32].

(First Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus 4; see Denzinger-Rahner 1836 or Denzinger-Hűnermann 3070; underlining added.)

By means of the Roman Pontificate, then, God guarantees that the entire Church, united to the Pope, will always be the exclusive and indefectible means of salvation:

…[B]y God’s commandment salvation is to be found nowhere but in the Church; the strong and effective instrument of salvation is none other than the Roman Pontificate.

(Leo XIII, Allocution for the 25th Anniversary of his Election [Feb. 20, 1903]; in Benedictine Monks, Papal Teachings: The Church, n. 653.)


Just as at the first moment of the Incarnation the Son of the Eternal Father adorned with the fullness of the Holy Spirit the human nature which was substantially united to Him, that it might be a fitting instrument of the Divinity in the sanguinary work of the Redemption, so at the hour of His precious death He willed that His Church should be enriched with the abundant gifts of the Paraclete in order that in dispensing the divine fruits of the Redemption she might be, for the Incarnate Word, a powerful instrument that would never fail. For both the juridical mission of the Church, and the power to teach, govern and administer the Sacraments, derive their supernatural efficacy and force for the building up of the Body of Christ from the fact that Jesus Christ, hanging on the Cross, opened up to His Church the fountain of those divine gifts, which prevent her from ever teaching false doctrine and enable her to rule them for the salvation of their souls through divinely enlightened pastors and to bestow on them an abundance of heavenly graces.

(Pius XII, Encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi 31, ibid.; underlining added.)

Behold, then, the beauty and the power of the papacy! It is a most wonderful and glorious gift to the Church, established by God Himself.

The Papacy Impeded

Yet, there is a flip side to all this as well: If the Pope is the rock of doctrinal and moral verities, guaranteed to be so by God Himself, then it follows that unspeakable evils would befall the Church if at some point, somehow, the Pope were to be impeded in the free exercise of his office, if he were to be prevented from assuming office, or if, after a Pope’s death, there should be an extended period of time before a new Pope is elected.

Surely it comes as no surprise, given the exalted nature and authority of the papacy, that there have not been found wanting, throughout Church history, enemies of Christ who desire precisely to harm the papacy in any way possible. Writing to the bishops of France, His Holiness Pope Pius IX warned against such forces and exhorted all Catholics to even greater love of and obedience to the Holy See:

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; 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. Therefore, because of your special faith in the Church and special piety toward the same Chair of Peter, We exhort you to direct your constant efforts so that the faithful people of France may avoid the crafty deceptions and errors of these plotters and develop a more filial affection and obedience to this Apostolic See. Be vigilant in act and word, so that the faithful may grow in love for this Holy See, venerate it, and accept it with complete obedience; they should execute whatever the See itself teaches, determines, and decrees.

(Pius IX, Encyclical Inter Multiplices 7 [1853]; underlining added.)

Here we see demonstrated the greatness and power of the papacy in engendering, fostering, and enforcing genuine unity among all members of the Church. The papacy possesses this power in itself as it is one of the constitutive elements of the Church established by our Lord. Yet, unity is ensured in this manner only as long as “this Chair remains intact,” as Pius IX teaches, in which exists “the whole and perfect solidity of the Christian religion.”

What, then, might happen if this Chair were no longer “intact” at some point? We have already seen that the See of St. Peter, being the infallible Chair of Truth, cannot ever fail; it cannot turn into the Chair of Error all of a sudden, else the Church would turn from being the vehicle of salvation to being a vehicle of damnation, and this with the backing of Christ.

Yet we must still consider other possibilities, scenarios that would not contradict the divine promises, under which we may indeed say that the Chair of St. Peter is no longer “intact,” even though it has not failed. Such would be the case, for example, in the event of a prolonged vacancy of the Apostolic See, or in the case of serious secular interference with the exercise of the Supreme Pontificate (for example, by taking the Pope prisoner), or if an antipope should usurp the Holy See and impede either the election or the free reign of the rightful Pope.

The state of the papal chair being vacant is known as sede vacante, that of it being obstructed as sede impedita. Neither condition is foreign to the Church, as her history shows.

Any time a Pope dies, the Holy See becomes vacant, and this state of affairs lasts until the valid election of a new Pope. Until the death of Pius XII in 1958, the longest vacancy in the history of the Church had occurred between the reigns of Popes Clement IV and Gregory X: a vacancy of over two-and-a-half years, from 1269 to 1271.

In the twelfth century, Pope Innocent II was hindered from exercising his papacy freely because of the schism of Antipope Anacletus II, whom a majority of people erroneously believed to be the true Pope, and who occupied [the papal chair] in Rome. It took eight years for Innocent II to finally be acknowledged as the legitimate Roman Pontiff by the entire Church.

The case of the Great Western Schism in the 14th and 15th centuries was also a great trial for the Church. For approximately 40 years, there was great confusion as to the identity of the true Pope, with two, even three, simultaneous claimants at various times. The Jesuit theologian Fr. Edmund J. O’Reilly provides some astute commentary on this tragic period of church history, which helps to shed some light on our present situation:

The great schism of the West suggests to me a reflection which I take the liberty of expressing here. If this schism had not occurred, the hypothesis of such a thing happening would appear to many chimerical. They would say it could not be; God would not permit the Church to come into so unhappy a situation. Heresies might spring up and spread and last painfully long, through the fault and to the perdition of their authors and abettors, to the great distress too of the faithful, increased by actual persecution in many places where the heretics were dominant. But that the true Church should remain between thirty and forty years without a thoroughly ascertained Head, and representative of Christ on earth, this would not be. Yet it has been; and we have no guarantee that it will not be again, though we may fervently hope otherwise. What I would infer is, that we must not be too ready to pronounce on what God may permit. We know with absolute certainty that He will fulfil His promises; not allow anything to occur at variance with them; that He will sustain His Church and enable her to triumph over all enemies and difficulties; that He will give to each of the faithful those graces which are needed for each one’s service of Him and attainment of salvation, as He did during the great schism we have been considering, and in all the sufferings and trials which the Church has passed through from the beginning. We may also trust He will do a great deal more than what He has bound Himself to by His promises. We may look forward with a cheering probability to exemption for the future from some of the troubles and misfortunes that have befallen in the past. But we, or our successors in future generations of Christians, shall perhaps see stranger evils than have yet been experienced, even before the immediate approach of that great winding up of all things on earth that will precede the day of judgment. I am not setting up for a prophet, nor pretending to see unhappy wonders, of which I have no knowledge whatever. All I mean to convey is that contingencies regarding the Church, not excluded by the Divine promises, cannot be regarded as practically impossible, just because they would be terrible and distressing in a very high degree.

(Fr. Edmund J. O’Reilly, The Relations of the Church to Society, trans. by Matthew Russell [London: John Hodges, 1892], pp. 287-288; underlining added, original italics removed.)

As we have seen, such possible contingencies include sede impedita as well as an extended period of sede vacante. They manifestly do not include what we might call sede lapsa, the idea that heresy and error can come from the Chair of Truth. (This idea of a “Holy See gone bad” is held by a great many “traditional Catholics” today who have chosen to acknowledge the Vatican II popes as true Popes yet resisting any exercise of these claimants’ office judged to be contrary to pre-Vatican II teaching or practice.)

Fr. Herman B. Kramer, in his interpretation of the Apocalypse, warns that a prolonged vacancy of the Apostolic Chair, entirely within the realm of possibility according to Catholic teaching, would mean terrible hardship for the Church:

…[T]he great [secular] powers may take a menacing attitude to hinder the election of the logical and expected [papal] candidate by threats of a general apostasy, assassination or imprisonment of this candidate if elected. This would … cause intense anguish to the Church, because an extended interregnum in the papacy is always disastrous and more so in a time of universal persecution. If Satan would contrive to hinder a papal election, the Church would suffer great travail.

(Fr. Herman Bernard Kramer, The Book of Destiny [Rockford: TAN Books, 1975], p. 278. This book was first published in 1955 by Buechler Publishing Company, but the page reference refers to the 1975 reprint edition by TAN, which is widely available.)

Clearly, the situation in which we find ourselves today, and which all those who recognize Pius XII as the last true Pope have correctly identified as being either that of an extended period of sede vacante or that of sede impedita, is not at all foreign to the mind of the Church, nor contrary to her teaching. That terrible trials should result from such a situation stands to reason. (I mention here also sede impedita since we cannot discount the possibility, however unlikely it may appear, that there is currently a true Pope in hiding, somehow prevented from making himself known to the world.)

All these considerations will help us in assessing the true significance of any “disunity” and disagreements found among sedevacantists.

The Papacy and Sedevacantist “Disunity”

Having extensively reviewed the Catholic doctrine on the power of the papacy, specifically with regard to its being the source and safeguard of the unity of the entire Church, as well as the possibility that the papal office may at some point either be vacant or impeded, we can now turn to the difficulties that exist among sedevacantists and understand how these dissensions, far from disproving our theological position in any way, are actually but the natural outcome of the absence of a rightful Roman Pontiff.

When we examine the issues sedevacantists are divided on, we realize very quickly that they are not really disagreements pertaining to doctrine per se, for all who recognize the Popes up to Pius XII as legitimate must also submit to their Magisterium at least under pain of mortal sin, sometimes under pain of heresy. Rather, the disagreements typically concern the correct application of the Church’s teaching to a specific case at hand, or to a finer doctrinal point not yet settled by the Church, or to the right interpretation of a law, or to the proper pastoral response to a particular situation.

So, for instance, we find Catholics holding divergent views regarding how to resolve this or that parish problem, what constitutes the most suitable Catholic school curriculum, whether a particular seminary is worthy of support, or whether a specific individual is a fit candidate for holy orders. We find people disagreeing on whether a specific type of clothing meets the required standards of modesty, whether Pope Pius XII would still want us to use his liturgical reforms of the mid-1950’s, or whether a priest has the right – or the duty – to deny Holy Communion to this or that individual. Other points of contention include whether a priest can bind the consciences of the faithful regarding a theological conclusion other priests disagree with, whether a particular ordination is to be considered doubtful or not, and whether or to what extent we should, or should not, be involved in the secular political process.

The list of disagreements can seem overwhelming at times, but we must take a step back and view it all in its proper context: We are lacking a true Pope who could, by virtue of his office, settle these disputes and enforce the unity of the flock by an authoritative decision. The situation we find ourselves in is clearly an exile of sorts, a great agony which we should accept, like any other suffering, with great love, patience, and perseverance, knowing that it has been permitted by an all-wise, all-good God, and that what we truly deserve is infinitely worse.

We should also evaluate how realistic our own ideas and expectations are. Is it reasonable to expect that if there has been no Pope for decades, everything in the Church will simply continue normally? Can we really, on the one hand, affirm sede vacante, but then on the other complain that there are so many disagreements among us? Does the latter not rather accompany the former as a practically inevitable consequence?

But let us suppose for a moment that these sedevacantist disagreements we so lament did not exist. Let us suppose that all of us who recognize Pius XII as the last true Pope agreed on every detail with regard to the difficulties enumerated above, so that we would enjoy complete and perfect unity in these matters.

I maintain that it wouldn’t make a difference.

That is to say, it would not make any difference in principle. The reason for this is that any agreement on a matter that has not been settled by a true Pope will always only be incidental, that is, the product of circumstance, as it were, because the Pope is the only one who could engender and enforce consensus by virtue of the unifying power of his office, which enjoys authority from God to direct the minds and wills of all the faithful. Thus only the Pope himself can intrinsically “cause” agreement and therefore unity, whereas any other agreement would merely come about as nothing more than the product of sheer happenstance, possessed by people who all happen to think the same way, but whose agreement is not the essential effect of a unifying cause and thus could come to an end at any time. It would be an incidental unity only, not an essential unity, which can only come from the Pope.

This consideration, I believe, shows that whether we should suffer lamentable divisions as we presently do, or whether we should all be in complete agreement on all things, we cannot escape the fact that the absence of a Pope means that the principle of unity is temporarily prevented from bringing about the unity of the flock on those matters about which we currently legitimately dispute and disagree.

Realizing, then, that our essential unity would be no greater if we happened to agree on all those matters concerning which we now diverge, because it would still not be the result of a true Pope governing our wills and our intellects on these points, we should feel consoled that by the same token, this unity also cannot be lessened or taken away by the disputes and divisions we presently undergo.

I would like to conclude by drawing your attention to a pertinent remark made by Fr. Leo Trese writing in the early 1950’s:

There may come in our time, as there came in the fifth century, a barbarian invasion to inundate the Christian world. If that happens, the light of Faith may flicker again, as it flickered fifteen hundred years ago, a feeble flame marking the hot embers that lie beneath the new fuel that God is heaping upon His Church.

(Fr. Leo Trese, “Foreword”, in Dorothy Dohen, Vocation to Love [New York: Sheed & Ward, 1951], p. vii)

Though the barbarian invasion this priest had in mind did not come to pass, a much more sinister one came in its stead: an invasion of Modernists usurping the Holy See under the external guise of Catholicism, like the Trojan horse in ancient Greece, to cause much more serious and extensive damage than any barbarians ever could.

But we take heart because, as Fr. Trese suggests, the tribulations we are now afflicted with are but a necessary prelude to the glorious future restoration of the Catholic Church (cf. Romans 18:8: “For I reckon that the sufferings of this time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come, that shall be revealed in us”), which shall take place at precisely the time and in precisely the manner which Almighty God has preordained from all eternity.