Does Vatican I disprove Sedevacantism?
The “Perpetual Successors” Objection
After the objection that “you guys are just a bunch of Protestants!!”, probably the most frequently-made argument against Sedevacantism is that our position contradicts the teaching of the First Vatican Council that St. Peter will have “perpetual successors”. If there hasn’t been a true Pope in decades, how then can we maintain that there is a perpetual succession of Popes?
We have addressed this argument on this site before, but a dedicated post on the issue is in order.
Our response will be twofold. We will demonstrate that (1) the objection from perpetual successors is actually based on a misunderstanding of the teaching of Vatican I; (2) even if the objection were not based on a misunderstanding, it would still not refute the sedevacantist position.
Vatican I’s Teaching on “Perpetual Successors”
Contrary to the common misconception, the First Vatican Council, which convened from 1869-1870 and was approved by Pope Pius IX, did not teach that there would be a Pope at all times. It did indeed use the phrase “perpetual successors”, but what precisely it taught regarding this is best understood when we examine closely the precise wording of the dogma and understand the context in which it is written. To ensure we understand Vatican I correctly, we will look at the council’s entire First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, from the very beginning up until the point where the council teaches its doctrine regarding perpetual succession. This quote is a bit lengthy but we want to make sure that no one can say, “You’ve taken this out of context.”
Here, then, is the whole context:
“The eternal Pastor and Bishop of our souls” [1 Pet. 2:25], in order to render the saving work of redemption perennial, willed to build a holy Church, in which, as in the house of the living God, all the faithful might be contained by the bond of one faith and charity. Therefore, before His glory was made manifest, “He asked the Father, not only for the Apostles but also for those who would believe through their word in Him, that all might be one, just as the Son Himself and the Father are one” [John 17:20f.]. Thus, then, as He sent the apostles, whom He had selected from the world for Himself, as He himself had been sent by the Father [John 20:21], so in His Church He wished the pastors and the doctors to be “even to the consummation of the world” [ Matt. 28:20]. But, that the episcopacy itself might be one and undivided, and that the entire multitude of the faithful through priests closely connected with one another might be preserved in the unity of faith and communion, placing the blessed Peter over the other apostles He established in him the perpetual principle and visible foundation of both unities, upon whose strength the eternal temple might be erected, and the sublimity of the Church to be raised to heaven might rise in the firmness of this faith. And, since the gates of hell, to overthrow the Church, if this were possible, arise from all sides with ever greater hatred against its divinely established foundation, We judge it to be necessary for the protection, safety, and increase of the Catholic flock, with the approbation of the Council, to set forth the doctrine on the institution, perpetuity, and nature of the Sacred Apostolic Primacy, in which the strength and solidarity of the whole Church consist, to be believed and held by all the faithful, according to the ancient and continual faith of the universal Church, and to proscribe and condemn the contrary errors, so pernicious to the Lord’s flock.
Chap. 1. The Institution of Apostolic Primacy in Blessed Peter
So we teach and declare that according to the testimonies of the Gospel the primacy of jurisdiction over the entire Church of God was promised and was conferred immediately and directly upon the blessed Apostle Peter by Christ the Lord. For the one Simon, to whom He had before said: “Thou shalt be called Cephas” [John 1:42], after he had given forth his confession with those words: “Thou art Christ, Son of the living God” [Matt. 16:16], the Lord spoke with these solemn words: “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar Jona; because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven. 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: and I shall give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven” [Matt. 16:17 ff.]. And upon Simon Peter alone Jesus after His resurrection conferred the jurisdiction of the highest pastor and rector over his entire fold, saying: “Feed my lambs,” “Feed my sheep” [John 21:15 ff.]. To this teaching of Sacred Scripture, so manifest as it has been always understood by the Catholic Church, are opposed openly the vicious opinions of those who perversely deny that the form of government in His Church was established by Christ the Lord; that to Peter alone, before the other apostles, whether individually or all together, was confided the true and proper primacy of jurisdiction by Christ; or, of those who affirm that the same primacy was not immediately and directly bestowed upon the blessed Peter himself, but upon the Church, and through this Church upon him as the minister of the Church herself.
If anyone then says that the blessed Apostle Peter was not established by the Lord Christ as the chief of all the apostles, and the visible head of the whole militant Church, or, that the same received great honor but did not receive from the same our Lord Jesus Christ directly and immediately the primacy in true and proper jurisdiction: let him be anathema.
Chap. 2. The Perpetuity of the Primacy of Blessed Peter among the Roman Pontiffs
Moreover, what the Chief of pastors and the Great Pastor of sheep, the Lord Jesus, established in the blessed Apostle Peter for the perpetual salvation and perennial good of the Church, this by the same Author must endure always in the Church which was founded upon a rock and will endure firm until the end of the ages. Surely “no one has doubt, rather all ages have known that the holy and most blessed Peter, chief and head of the apostles and pillar of faith and foundation of the Catholic Church, received the keys of the kingdom from our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of the human race; and he up to this time and always lives and presides and exercises judgment in his successors, the bishops of the holy See of Rome, which was founded by him and consecrated by his blood. Therefore, whoever succeeds Peter in this chair, he according to the institution of Christ himself, holds the primacy of Peter over the whole Church. “Therefore the disposition of truth remains, and blessed Peter persevering in the accepted fortitude of the rock does not abandon the guidance of the Church which he has received.” For this reason “it has always been necessary because of mightier pre-eminence for every church to come to the Church of Rome, that is those who are the faithful everywhere,” so that in this See, from which the laws of “venerable communion” emanate over all, they as members associated in one head, coalesce into one bodily structure.
If anyone then says that it is not from the institution of Christ the Lord Himself, or by divine right that the blessed Peter has perpetual successors in the primacy over the universal Church, or that the Roman Pontiff is not the successor of blessed Peter in the same primacy, let him be anathema.
(Vatican I, Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus; Denz. 1821-1825; underlining added.)
Those who would like to read the rest of the constitution may do so here; but the remainder, which explains the nature of the primacy and the infallibility of the papal magisterium, is not relevant to the issue of perpetual succession. (Note: This document is called the “First” Constitution on the Church of Christ because there was going to be a second constitution as well. Unfortunately, the council had to adjourn abruptly in 1870 and never reconvened, so the second constitution never came to be.)
In the above-quoted portion of Vatican I, then, the council is setting forth its teaching regarding the “institution, perpetuity, and nature of the Sacred Apostolic Primacy”. Chapter 1 spells out how Christ instituted this primacy by conferring it on St. Peter, and Chapter 2 explains that this primacy originally conferred on St. Peter perdures equally in all of his lawful successors, until the end of time. In other words, the Petrine primacy did not die with St. Peter, as some heretics claim. Rather, all true Popes, until the end of time (“perpetually”!), enjoy the exact same primacy over the entire Church that was originally given to St. Peter.
That is the teaching of Vatican I. That is what is meant by “perpetual successors”. The council taught that St. Peter would have “perpetual successors in the primacy over the universal Church” (perpetuos successores in primatu super universam Ecclesiam). This has absolutely nothing to do with the idea that there will always be a Pope at every point in time — something that is obviously refuted not only by common sense (since each Pope is mortal, there will always be an interregnum between the death of one Pope and the election of another) but also by a perusal of Church history.
We can verify that we have understood the teaching of Vatican I correctly by examining the theological manuals on the topic that were produced after the council. For example, we find this verified in Fr. Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, p. 282; in Fr. Adolphe Tanquerey’s Manual of Dogmatic Theology, vol. 1, n. 210; in Fr. Joachim Salaverri’s On the Church of Christ, nn. 294ff.; and in Mgr. Gerard van Noort’s Dogmatic Theology, vol. 2, nn. 59ff.
Even if it were true that there must always be a Pope…
For the sake of argument, however, let us assume that the foregoing is not correct and that Vatican I indeed teaches that there will always be a Pope, at every point in Christian history.
All this would mean is that there is right now, at this very moment, a legitimate successor to St. Peter. By no means would it follow that that successor is Jorge Bergoglio (“Pope Francis”) in Vatican City. In fact, this can be positively excluded as a possibility because we already know that he and his five predecessors of infelicitous memory cannot be valid successors, and the evidence proving that cannot be refuted by pointing to the perpetual successors dogma, because this dogma doesn’t identify those very men as the true successors. In other words, that Roncalli, Montini, Luciani, Wojtyla, Ratzinger, or Bergoglio should be legitimate successors to St. Peter is obviously not part of the dogma.
The most that such a “there will be a Pope at all times” doctrine could do is force us to conclude that someone is currently Pope, but it is certainly someone other than Francis or any of the Vatican II Modernists. Perhaps there could be a true Pope imprisoned or hiding in a catacomb. Such a thing might appear fanciful to some, and perhaps it is, but it certainly would not be incompatible with the notion that there is a true Pope at the current time.
The conclusion we can draw from all this is: No matter how you look at it, the “perpetual successors” argument against Sedevacantism is defeated.
The Perpetuity of the Church and Papal Interregna
Now, certainly, we are required by our holy Catholic Faith to believe that the Church will endure until the end of time (see Salaverri, On the Church of Christ, nn. 288, 294ff.). She was founded by God as a perpetual institution for the salvation of men. But just as she cannot cease to exist, neither can she fail. This latter consideration alone disqualifies the Novus Ordo Sect from being the Catholic Church because it does not teach the true Faith, and, especially on account of its invalid pseudo-sacraments, it does not sanctify souls. It is simply not the ark of salvation.
Sedevacantists do not hold that the Catholic Church has ceased to exist or even — unless perhaps the end of the world should be imminent — that the papal succession has ended. Rather, the succession of Popes has been interrupted, even if for an unusually long time. It will continue whenever the God whose Providence governs all things, wills it to.
How will the papal succession resume? We do not know for sure; but this is what distinguishes genuine Catholic Faith from the pseudo-faith of heretics: The Catholic has genuine divine Faith in God and His promises and therefore is not in need of having all the answers: “Faith … must exclude not only all doubt, but all desire for demonstration” (Catechism of the Council of Trent, Part I, Article I; italics added).
Perhaps the most cogent explanation for exactly how the papal succession can easily resume, is found in the theological position first developed by the sedevacantist bishop Michel-Louis Guérard des Lauriers (1898-1988), a Dominican theologian who taught at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome during the pontificate of Pope Pius XII. Readers who are interested in exploring the Guerardian thesis, commonly known as the “material-formal theory” or “sedeprivationism”, may do so by reading this article.
We shall not try now to examine or evaluate this position. Rather, we would simply like to point out that the current state of holy Mother Church is dire, but it is simply not the case that there are no answers whatsoever to resolve it, as the material-formal thesis demonstrates. Bp. Guerard des Lauriers, incidentally, was the main author of the famous Ottaviani Intervention sent to Paul VI in 1969 to expose the errors in the Novus Ordo Missae (“New Mass”).
People who are quick to argue that “God would never allow such a lengthy interregnum!” should realize that what we know God will never allow is for the Papacy to fail. That is what can never happen. But the Papacy does not fail by there not being a Pope for a time; it would fail by someone like Francis being Pope, as we demonstrate in this article and in this video. We have to remember that no Pope does not mean no Papacy. The only way one can affirm as true Vatican I’s teaching about the Papacy is to hold that Jorge Bergoglio is not the Pope.
In 1892 — 22 years after the First Vatican Council’s dogma regarding perpetual successors — the Jesuit Fr. Edmund James O’Reilly published a book entitled The Relations of the Church to Society (download free here or purchase here). In this work, he touched upon the question of an extended interregnum and how it would relate to the perpetuity of the Church and the promises of Christ:
The great schism of the West [1378-1417] 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.
(Rev. Edmund J. O’Reilly, The Relations of the Church to Society [London: John Hodges, 1892], pp. 287-288; underlining added.)
Nothing more needs to be added to this — Fr. O’Reilly has hit the nail on the head. In fact, a few pages earlier, he specifically states that even if during the Western Schism none of the three papal claimants had been the true Pope and the Chair of St. Peter had been vacant all that time, this too would not have been contrary to the promises of Christ:
We may here stop to inquire what is to be said of the position, at that time, of the three claimants, and their rights with regard to the Papacy. In the first place, there was all through, from the death of Gregory XI in 1378, a Pope — with the exception, of course, of the intervals between deaths and elections to fill up the vacancies thereby created. There was, I say, at every given time a Pope, really invested with the dignity of Vicar of Christ and Head of the Church, whatever opinions might exist among many as to his genuineness; not that an interregnum covering the whole period would have been impossible or inconsistent with the promises of Christ, for this is by no means manifest, but that, as a matter of fact, there was not such an interregnum.
(O’Reilly, The Relations of the Church to Society, p. 283; underlining added.)
Thus we see that the frightful situation Holy Mother Church is in today, while certainly distressing and extraordinary, is simply not impossible and not contrary to the teaching of the First Vatican Council.
We must beg God day and night to bring this horrific ordeal to a speedy end. Let us recall that He permits all trials — including this mysterious, bizarre, and confusing ecclesial anomaly — for the sake of His elect (cf. Mt 24:24). Although it is not given to us to understand the counsels of Divine Providence, we have absolute certitude from our Faith that God is all-good, all-powerful, and all-knowing; He is entirely in control.
The Church must suffer the Passion of her Founder
The key to understanding what has happened to the Catholic Church since the death of Pope Pius XII in 1958 lies in understanding that as the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church must suffer in a mystical way the Passion of her Founder. In a set of lectures delivered in 1861, the illustrious Cardinal Henry Edward Manning left to the world some invaluable instruction in this regard:
As the wicked did not prevail against Him [our Lord Jesus Christ] even when they bound Him with cords, dragged Him to the judgment, blindfolded His eyes, mocked Him as a false King, smote Him on the head as a false Prophet, led Him away, crucified Him, and in the mastery of their power seemed to have absolute dominion over Him, so that He lay ground down and almost annihilated under their feet; and as, at that very time when He was dead and buried out of their sight, He was conqueror over all, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven, and was crowned, glorified, and invested with His royalty, and reigns supreme, King of kings and Lord of lords,— even so shall it be with His Church: though for a time persecuted, and, to the eyes of man, overthrown and trampled on, dethroned, despoiled, mocked, and crushed, yet in that high time of triumph the gates of hell shall not prevail. There is in store for the Church of God a resurrection and an ascension, a royalty and a dominion, a recompense of glory for all it has endured. Like Jesus, it needs must suffer on the way to its crown; yet crowned it shall be with Him eternally. Let no one, then, be scandalised if the prophecy speak of sufferings to come. We are fond of imagining triumphs and glories for the Church on earth,— that the Gospel is to be preached to all nations, and the world to be converted, and all enemies subdued, and I know not what,— until some ears are impatient of hearing that there is in store for the Church a time of terrible trial: and so we do as the Jews of old, who looked for a conqueror, a king, and for prosperity; and when their Messias came in humility and in passion, they did not know Him. So, I am afraid, many among us intoxicate their minds with the visions of success and victory, and cannot endure the thought that there is a time of persecution yet to come for the Church of God….
The holy Fathers who have written upon the subject of Antichrist, and of [the] prophecies of Daniel, without a single exception, as far as I know, and they are the Fathers both of the East and of the West, the Greek and the Latin Church— all of them unanimously,— say that in the latter end of the world, during the reign of Antichrist, the holy sacrifice of the altar will cease. In the work on the end of the world, ascribed to St. Hippolytus, after a long description of the afflictions of the last days, we read as follows: “The Churches shall lament with a great lamentation, for there shall be offered no more oblation, nor incense, nor worship acceptable to God. The sacred buildings of the churches shall be as hovels; and the precious body and blood of Christ shall not be manifest in those days; the Liturgy shall be extinct; the chanting of psalms shall cease; the reading of Holy Scripture shall be heard no more. But there shall be upon men darkness, and mourning upon mourning, and woe upon woe.” Then, the Church shall be scattered, driven into the wilderness, and shall be for a time, as it was in the beginning, invisible, hidden in catacombs, in dens, in mountains, in lurking-places; for a time it shall be swept, as it were, from the face of the earth. Such is the universal testimony of the Fathers of the early centuries….
The Word of God tells us that towards the end of time the power of this world will became so irresistible and so triumphant that the Church of God will sink underneath its hand — that the Church of God will receive no more help from emperors, or kings, or princes, or legislatures, or nations, or peoples, to make resistance against the power and the might of its antagonist. It will be deprived of protection. It will be weakened, baffled, and prostrate, and will lie bleeding at the feet of the powers of this world.
Does this not describe our times with frightening accuracy?
Keep in mind that this is not simply “Cardinal Manning’s opinion”, as many will surely now be quick to object. No, this “is the universal testimony of the Fathers of the early centuries”, as His Eminence makes clear.
The following links provide more information about how our current times relate to what Catholic Tradition has held from the beginning must come to pass before the consummation of the world:
- The Pope and the Antichrist: The Great Apostasy Foretold
- The Papacy and the Passion of the Church
- Fr. Sylvester Berry on the Persecution of the Church in the Last Days (1)
- Fr. Sylvester Berry on the Persecution of the Church in the Last Days (2)
- Fr. Herman Kramer on Apocalypse 12 and the Papacy
Some practical advice on how to be a Catholic today, is given in the following post:
In summary, we can say that the Catholic dogma on St. Peter’s perpetual successors in the primacy does not preclude an extended period of time in which there is no Pope. Rather, what it teaches is that whenever there is a Pope, he will share equally in the primacy once conferred upon St. Peter. There will never be a true Pope who does not possess the same prerogatives as Simon Peter himself, and this is so by divine institution and will remain so in perpetuity.
All those who espouse a recognize-and-resist position and think that the doctrine of Vatican I requires us to accept Francis as a valid Pope, are encouraged to read closely and in full the council’s Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus, linked above, and to ask themselves if they can seriously affirm of Jorge Bergoglio what the council affirms of all the successors of St. Peter — perpetually.
Almighty God appears to be allowing this great calamity as a test of our Faith to purify His elect: “…blessed are they that have not seen, and have believed” (Jn 20:29; cf. Mt 24:24). God has a strict right to demand from us a sincere Faith, that Faith without which it is impossible to please Him (cf. Heb 11:6). But such a genuine Faith does not require explanations or demonstrations because it believes entirely on the authority of God revealing, who can neither deceive nor be deceived: “For we walk by faith, and not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7).
It is men’s failure to believe, their indifference even to what God has revealed, that has brought this great tribulation upon us all: “…because they receive not the love of the truth, that they might be saved. Therefore God shall send them the operation of error, to believe lying: that all may be judged who have not believed the truth, but have consented to iniquity” (2 Thess 2:10-11; cf. Lk 18:8). Hence our Blessed Lord exhorts us, today no less than in 33 AD: “…be not faithless, but believing” (Jn 20:27).
We must therefore guard our Faith at all times and not needlessly expose it to danger. One of the greatest dangers to Faith found in the world today is the Novus Ordo Sect and its apostate head, “Pope” Francis. It exemplifies the very “operation of error” mentioned by St. Paul and is responsible for the loss of Faith in countless numbers of souls.
It is of the greatest importance to realize that Francis occasions the loss of faith in all who accept him as a true Pope: those who submit to him — by denying the dogmas he denies; as well as those who don’t submit to him — by denying the Catholic teaching on the Papacy.
The true Faith is our greatest treasure.
Let us pray, then, for an unshakable Faith and not fail to unite it to hope (cf. 1 Jn 3:3) and charity (cf. Lk 7:47; Jas 2:24) so that we may, by the grace of God, one day hear the words: “Come, ye blessed of my Father, possess you the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Mt 25:34).