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Why some Catholics hold to the ‘Material-Formal Thesis’…

Apostolic Succession after Pope Pius XII:
Where is the Catholic Hierarchy?

In recent weeks there has been a considerable amount of online controversy among sedevacantists about the so-called “Material/Formal Theory” regarding the status of the Novus Ordo hierarchy, especially its so-called “popes”. Some cling adamantly to this thesis because they believe it to be significantly helpful or even essential to a proper understanding of the situation in the Catholic Church today, whereas others repudiate it because they judge it to be misleading or even a danger to the Faith. There are also those “in the middle” who do or don’t subscribe to the thesis but simply consider it a possible theological option, one that it would not be prudent to spend much time fighting over.

The theory, which was first formulated by the Dominican theologian and eventual sedevacantist bishop Michel-Louis Guérard des Lauriers, O.P. (1898-1988), has received various other monikers over the years, among them “Cassiciacum Thesis” and “Sedeprivationism”. More recently it has come to be known as simply “the Thesis” for short. In this post, we will refer to it as the “Material/Formal Thesis”, abbreviated as “MFT”.

In essence, this rather complex theory holds that although the “Popes” after Pius XII are not true Popes, they nevertheless, having been elected in conclave, possess a legal designation to the Roman pontificate, and, for this reason, would automatically become Pope if they should renounce their heresies and convert to Catholicism. They are, in a sense, “pope-elect” — legally chosen and designated to be Pope, but unable to actually be Pope because of an obstacle they have voluntarily placed in the way, namely, the intention to change the Catholic Faith by promulgating false doctrines, harmful liturgical rites, and evil disciplinary laws.

This MFT, which is often misunderstood by people who are not familiar enough with the necessary philosophical and theological distinctions on which it relies and therefore quickly dismissed by them, actually rests on considerable theological and philosophical grounds. That is not to say that it is necessarily correct; but it is to say that it would be unjust to simply dismiss and denounce it without giving it a fair hearing.

The most well-known representative of the MFT in the United States, and possibly the world, is Bishop Donald J. Sanborn. He explains the theory for the laity in the following 10-page paper:

Other more or less well-known sedevacantist clerics who adhere to the MFT include Bp. Joseph Selway, Bp. Geert Jan Stuyver, Bp. Robert Neville, Fr. Francesco Ricossa, Fr. Arnold Trauner, and Fr. Nicolás Despósito.

On the flip side, more or less well-known sedevacantist clergy who do not adhere to the MFT include Bp. Mark Pivarunas, Bp. Daniel Dolan, Bp. Clarence Kelly, Fr. William Jenkins, Fr. Stephen McKenna, and Fathers Francisco and Dominic Radecki. A brief critique of the MFT was recently published by Fr. Vili Lehtoranta and can be found here:

As pointed out in the opening paragraph, the MFT tends to polarize: Some are so firmly wedded to it that they hold that it alone is the correct position, to the exclusion of all others. On the opposite extreme are those who insist that the MFT is so flawed that under no circumstance can it be admitted.

To be clear: Novus Ordo Watch is neutral on the issue, at least as of now. We do not condemn the MFT, nor do we endorse it. Rather, we would like to facilitate charitable discussion and exploration of the issue and/or viable alternative positions, in the spirit of St. Paul: “But prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (1 Thess 5:21).

The purpose of the present post is neither to convince people of the truth of the MFT nor of its falsity; it is, rather, to inform people that the theological problem the MFT seeks to resolve is a genuine difficulty that is in need of a theological answer. The MFT may or may not be the correct answer — that is what the disagreement is about — but it would be wrong to simply ignore the problem it seeks to address and pretend that it is of no consequence.

Here we do not mean, of course, that every Catholic is required to try to resolve this theological conundrum. No, for the average layman it will suffice to understand that in our day there are some theological difficulties still in need of resolution that we can, in the meantime, relegate to the category of “mystery”, as it were. However, genuine difficulties they remain, and as such, they call for a theological resolution. It is therefore not wrong, but rather quite laudable, for those learned in Sacred Theology, especially the clergy, to attempt to offer a solution.

What, then, is the conundrum the MFT claims to have the answer to?


The Theological Problem the “Thesis” tries to Answer: The Continuity of Apostolic Succession in our Times

The Catholic Church is indefectible not only in her doctrines, in her laws, and in her sacraments but also — in a certain sense — in her hierarchy of lawful shepherds, that is, in her Pope and in the bishops in communion with him.

Fr. Elwood Sylvester Berry’s ecclesiology handbook The Church of Christ gives a very good and succinct presentation of the fundamental concepts at play:

SUCCESSION. Apostolicity of origin and of doctrine are easily understood without further explanation, but some knowledge of succession is necessary for a proper conception of apostolicity of ministry. Succession, as used in this connection, is the following of one person after another in an official position, and may be either legitimate or illegitimate. Theologians call the one formal succession; the other, material. A material successor is one who assumes the official position of another contrary to the laws or constitution of the society in question. He may be called a successor in as much as he actually holds the position, but he has no authority, and his acts have no official value, even though he be ignorant of the illegal tenure of his office.

A formal, or legitimate, successor not only succeeds to the place of his predecessor, but also receives due authority to exercise the functions of his office with binding force in the society. It is evident that authority can be transmitted only by legitimate succession; therefore, the Church must have a legitimate, or formal, succession of pastors to transmit apostolic authority from age to age. One who intrudes himself into the ministry against the laws of the Church receives no authority and consequently can transmit none to his successors.

TWOFOLD POWER. Succession in the Church differs from that in other societies from the fact that there is a twofold power to transmit, — the power of Orders and the power of jurisdiction or government. The power of Orders is purely spiritual and concerned directly with the conferring of grace; it is obtained through the Sacrament of Orders validly received and cannot be revoked by any power of the Church. For this reason, the power of Orders may be obtained by fraud or conferred against the will of the Church by anyone having valid Orders himself, and therefore does not depend upon legitimate succession.

Jurisdiction is authority to govern and must be transmitted in the Church as in any other society; it can be conferred only by a lawful superior, according to the constitution and laws of the society, and may be revoked at any time. Consequently jurisdiction in the Church can neither be obtained nor held against the will of her supreme authority; its transmission depends entirely upon legitimate succession. It is not sufficient, therefore, that a church have valid Orders; it must also have a legitimate succession of ministers, reaching back in an unbroken line to the Apostles, upon whom our Lord conferred all authority to rule His Church.

UNION WITH ROME. No one can be a legitimate successor in any society unless he receive due authority therein; it follows, therefore, that there can be no legitimate successor in the Church of Christ who has not received jurisdiction either directly or indirectly from her supreme authority. But, as will be proved elsewhere, supreme authority in the Church of Christ was committed to St. Peter and his lawful successors, the bishops of Rome: consequently all legitimate succession, or Apostolicity of ministry in the Church, depends upon communion with the chair of Peter and is lost the moment that communion is severed. Hence no particular part of the Church is indefectibly Apostolic, save the see of Peter, which is universally known by way of eminence as the Apostolic See.

(Rev. E. Sylvester Berry, The Church of Christ: An Apologetic and Dogmatic Treatise [St. Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Co., 1927], pp. 139-141; italics given; underlining added.)

All of this makes perfect sense. Just as the Catholic Church is guaranteed by God always to retain the true Faith, so she is guaranteed always to have lawful shepherds, at least in a certain restricted sense (which will be explored later). The Church is not merely a passive receptacle of the divinely revealed truth. The mission Christ gave her is that of teaching, ruling, and sanctifying, which are tasks carried about by a hierarchy of shepherds united under one supreme shepherd, the Pope.

Hence the First Vatican Council taught:

“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 17:20 f.]. 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.

(Vatican I, Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus, prologue; Denz. 1821; underlining added.)

Likewise, Pope Leo XIII:

And, since it was necessary that His divine mission should be perpetuated to the end of time, He took to Himself Disciples, trained by himself, and made them partakers of His own authority. And, when He had invoked upon them from Heaven the Spirit of Truth, He bade them go through the whole world and faithfully preach to all nations, what He had taught and what He had commanded, so that by the profession of His doctrine, and the observance of His laws, the human race might attain to holiness on earth and neverending happiness in Heaven. In this wise, and on this principle, the Church was begotten. If we consider the chief end of His Church and the proximate efficient causes of salvation, it is undoubtedly spiritual; but in regard to those who constitute it, and to the things which lead to these spiritual gifts, it is external and necessarily visible.

(Pope Leo XIII, Encyclical Satis Cognitum, n. 3; italics given.)

Pope Leo went on to emphasize the importance of both the visible and invisible elements as being constitutive of the Church as established by the Lord:

For this reason the Church is so often called in Holy Writ a body, and even the body of Christ – “Now you are the body of Christ” (I Cor. xii., 27) – and precisely because it is a body is the Church visible: and because it is the body of Christ is it living and energizing, because by the infusion of His power Christ guards and sustains it, just as the vine gives nourishment and renders fruitful the branches united to it. And as in animals the vital principle is unseen and invisible, and is evidenced and manifested by the movements and action of the members, so the principle of supernatural life in the Church is clearly shown in that which is done by it.

From this it follows that those who arbitrarily conjure up and picture to themselves a hidden and invisible Church are in grievous and pernicious error: as also are those who regard the Church as a human institution which claims a certain obedience in discipline and external duties, but which is without the perennial communication of the gifts of divine grace, and without all that which testifies by constant and undoubted signs to the existence of that life which is drawn from God. It is assuredly as impossible that the Church of Jesus Christ can be the one or the other, as that man should be a body alone or a soul alone. The connection and union of both elements is as absolutely necessary to the true Church as the intimate union of the soul and body is to human nature. The Church is not something dead: it is the body of Christ endowed with supernatural life. As Christ, the Head and Exemplar, is not wholly in His visible human nature, which Photinians and Nestorians assert, nor wholly in the invisible divine nature, as the Monophysites hold, but is one, from and in both natures, visible and invisible; so the mystical body of Christ is the true Church, only because its visible parts draw life and power from the supernatural gifts and other things whence spring their very nature and essence. But since the Church is such by divine will and constitution, such it must uniformly remain to the end of time. If it did not, then it would not have been founded as perpetual, and the end set before it would have been limited to some certain place and to some certain period of time; both of which are contrary to the truth. The union consequently of visible and invisible elements because it harmonizes with the natural order and by God’s will belongs to the very essence of the Church, must necessarily remain so long as the Church itself shall endure.

(Pope Leo XIII, Encyclical Satis Cognitum, n. 3; italics given; underlining added.)

Pope Pius XII, reinforcing the doctrine of Leo XIII, made clear:

There can, then, be no real opposition or conflict between the invisible mission of the Holy Spirit and the juridical commission of Ruler and Teacher received from Christ, since they mutually complement and perfect each other — as do the body and soul in man — and proceed from our one Redeemer who not only said as He breathed on the Apostles “Receive ye the Holy Spirit,” but also clearly commanded: “As the Father hath sent me, I also send you”; and again: “He that heareth you heareth me.”

(Pope Pius XII, Encyclical Mystici Corporis, n. 65)

Thus we see that the Church will continue to exist until the end of time, and, although her visibility may be greatly diminished at some point, as St. Augustine taught, she will forever remain unchanged in her essential constitution.

The perpetually hierarchical nature of the Church does not imply, however, that the Church must always have a Pope reigning or that her hierarchical offices must always be filled. In fact, the pre-Vatican II theologian Fr. Emil Dorsch addressed this question as follows:

The Church … is a society that is essentially monarchical. But this does not prevent the Church, for a short time after the death of a pope, or even for many years, from remaining deprived of her [visible] head. Her monarchical form also remains intact in this state….

…Thus the Church is then indeed a headless body, but it remains one monarchical body, because the power by which it is then governed, is the power that flowed from one Roman Pontiff and even then is subordinate to the power of the primacy, which must be restored to it, by a strict necessity, as soon as possible. Such an order is truly neither democratic nor aristocratic.

Her monarchical form of government remains, though then in a different way — that is, it remains incomplete and to be completed. The ordering of the whole to submission to her Primate is present, even though actual submission is not. For this reason, the See of Rome is rightly said to remain after the person sitting in it has died — for the See of Rome consists essentially in the rights of the Primacy. These rights are an essential and necessary element of the Church. With them, moreover, the Primacy then continues, at least morally. The perennial physical presence of the person of the head, however, is not so strictly necessary.

(Aemil Dorsch, Institutiones Theologiae Fundamentalis, vol. II: De Ecclesia Christi [Innsbruck: Felix Rauch, 1928], pp. 196-197; italics and underlining added. Most of this translation provided by Fr. Anthony Cekada.)

Although the Church, then, need not actually have a Pope at all times, she must always have one potentially, that is, she must always retain the power to elect one. Even if adverse circumstances should make this impossible for a time in the practical order, the ability to elect a Pope must always be retained by the Church in principle.

Also, the well-known dogmatic teaching of Vatican I regarding St. Peter having “perpetual successors” (Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus, Chapter 2; Denz. 1825) is often misunderstood in that regard. The council wasn’t teaching that there cannot be a long vacancy in the Apostolic See, it was teaching that all legitimate successors of St. Peter forever share in the same primacy that was first given by our Lord to the Prince of the Apostles:

In his phenomenal work on ecclesiology (Sacrae Theologiae Summa IB: On the Church of Christ), the Jesuit theologian Fr. Joachim Salaverri presents and discusses Church teaching on the perpetuity of the Church’s hierarchy in depth (see nn. 286-329).

Where, then, does all this leave us sedevacantists? Is it not our position that all ecclesiastical offices (those of the Pope and bishops) have been vacant for decades, and if that is so, has the apostolic succession not been severed and thus irretrievably lost? In other words, no more Popes, no more bishops with ordinary jurisdiction, forever?

This is precisely the conundrum the MFT tries to answer using very fine philosophical and theological distinctions. Before we look at this in detail, however, let us clarify two things up front.

First, sedevacantists do not believe in a “hidden and invisible church”. (If there are any individual sedevacantists out there who unwittingly do, they must immediately reject such a notion, as it is not compatible with Catholic teaching.) We, being Catholics, adhere fully and firmly to the teaching of the Church, which means we acknowledge and profess that the Catholic Church is a visible institution possessing the four marks of unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity — even if we find ourselves unable to explain fully and consistently how they all jibe with the (apparent) empirical facts before us.

Second, we do not believe in a “sedevacantist church”. There is no “sedevacantist church”, there is only the Roman Catholic Church, the one once shepherded by Pope Pius XII (d. 1958). Sedevacantists simply consider themselves the remnant of that Church, the true Catholics who refused to change their religion when the Modernists, who were already sitting in the Church’s “very bosom” during the early 20th-century reign of Pope St. Pius X (Encyclical Pascendi, n. 2), succeeded in their plan of installing a series of false popes while the Apostolic See in actual fact remained empty. In this manner they were able to ensure that their “operation of error” (2 Th 2:10) could be unleashed without the interference of the divinely-appointed restrainer, “who now holdeth … until he be taken out of the way” (2 Th 2:7). Cardinal Henry Manning’s 1861 lecture series on the Pope and the Antichrist is very insightful on this:

Puzzled and bewildered perhaps, but nevertheless holding on to Faith, hope, and charity, we refuse to have any part with the Novus Ordo religion precisely because it is not the Catholic religion.

But now it is time to look in more detail at the manner in which the MFT seeks to provide a theologically sound answer to the problem of apostolic succession since the death of Pope Pius XII.


The Manner in which the “Thesis” professes to salvage a continuous Line of Apostolic Succession

We will not attempt here a complete exposition of the MFT, which has been done elsewhere by those who adhere to it. In this post we will simply provide an outline with sufficient detail so that people can grasp its essence without having too much trouble.

First, it will be helpful to call to mind again what Fr. Berry wrote regarding apostolic succession, as quoted earlier:

Succession … is the following of one person after another in an official position, and may be either legitimate or illegitimate. Theologians call the one formal succession; the other, material. A material successor is one who assumes the official position of another contrary to the laws or constitution of the society in question. He may be called a successor in as much as he actually holds the position, but he has no authority, and his acts have no official value, even though he be ignorant of the illegal tenure of his office.

A formal, or legitimate, successor not only succeeds to the place of his predecessor, but also receives due authority to exercise the functions of his office with binding force in the society. It is evident that authority can be transmitted only by legitimate succession; therefore, the Church must have a legitimate, or formal, succession of pastors to transmit apostolic authority from age to age. One who intrudes himself into the ministry against the laws of the Church receives no authority and consequently can transmit none to his successors.

(Berry, The Church of Christ, pp. 139-140; italics given; underlining added.)

With this in mind, we will be able to understand better the gist of the MFT, which consists of the following:

  • To become Pope, it is not enough to be elected by the necessary majority of the lawful electors, one must also accept the election in a valid way
    • In order for this acceptance to be valid, it must be made freely
    • A valid acceptance of the election is impossible if the individual elected places an obstacle in the way of his acceptance that is incompatible with the papal office (for example, if a layman, elected Pope, were to be unwilling to be ordained a priest and consecrated a bishop)
  • The so-called “Novus Ordo popes” — John XXIII (1958-63), Paul VI (1963-78), John Paul I (1978), John Paul II (1978-2005), Benedict XVI (2005-13), and Francis (since 2013) — were elected in conclave but were unable to accept their election validly because they placed an obstacle that is incompatible with the Papacy, namely, they were harboring the intention to change the Catholic Faith by promulgating false doctrines, harmful liturgical rites, and evil disciplinary laws to the entire Church (this is evident from their fruits)
  • Therefore, they are merely material successors to Pius XII, not formal successors
  • However — and this is a distinction not mentioned by Fr. Berry above — material succession can further be divided into material succession that is legal and material succession that is illegal
    • The illegal material kind is the one mentioned by Fr. Berry, that is, someone who “assumes the official position of another contrary to the laws or constitution of the society in question [=the Catholic Church]. He may be called a successor in as much as he actually holds the position, but he has no authority, and his acts have no official value, even though he be ignorant of the illegal tenure of his office.” An example would be someone who intrudes into the Roman See who was not in fact elected by the conclave. He would be illegitimate in every sense because he does not even possess a valid designation to the office of the Papacy.
    • The legal material kind is had by someone who assumes the official position in agreement with the laws or constitution of the Church but has placed an obstacle in the way of valid acceptance. An example would be a layman who is elected Pope by the conclave but refuses to receive ordination to the priesthood and consecration to the episcopacy. His succession to the See of Rome would be material only but in a legal sense because he possesses a valid designation to the Papacy (the Church’s law permits the election of a layman). His succession would not be formal, however, meaning he wouldn’t actually be Pope, because the obstacle he has placed is incompatible with the Papacy because the Pope is necessarily the bishop of Rome, and he who refuses to become a bishop cannot be the bishop of Rome.
  • Given the above, the correct status of the “Novus Ordo popes” is that of possessing legal material succession (designation to receive papal authority), but not formal succession (actual reception of papal authority)
    • A popular term to describe their status is that of “pope-elect” or “material pope”, but to people not familiar with the MFT, this can be confusing and misleading
  • Since only a formal Pope is a true Pope, and a material pope is not, the “Novus Ordo popes” are not true Popes

This, in a nutshell, is the MFT.

It will probably be tempting for readers who have never seriously grappled with the actual arguments of the MFT adherents (and the evidence adduced) to quickly dismiss it out of hand and denounce it as nonsense. However, that would not be just. We have to remember that Sacred Theology is a complicated subject, and the mere complexity of a theological explanation cannot be used as evidence of its falsity:

The dogma of the Trinity, for example is simple: there are three Persons in one God. But the theological explanation of how there are three Persons in one God is extremely involved and difficult. For theology must respect two things which are apparently contradictory: the unity of divine essence and the trinity of Persons. If a lay person were to read an explanation of the Trinity in a seminary textbook, he would close the book after a few paragraphs.

(Most Rev. Donald Sanborn, “Explanation of the Thesis of Bishop Guérard des Lauriers”, p. 2)

In Sacred Theology, the most minute distinctions are not only legitimate, they can in fact be of the utmost consequence. One need but think of the controversy over a single iota (the letter “i” in the Greek alphabet) that made all the difference between orthodoxy (Catholicism) and heresy (Arianism) when it came to defining whether Jesus Christ is of the same substance as God the Father (homoousion), as the First Council of Nicea defined, or merely of similar substance (homoiousion), as the Arians claimed.

Faced with the complex philosophical and theological detail of the MFT, it is important not to lose sight of the reason why some sedevacantists hold it in the first place:

The thesis … is a theological explanation of the situation of authority after Vatican II. It wants to present a system which does two things: (1) to show why the Vatican II “popes” have no authority, and are therefore not true popes, and (2) to show how the uninterrupted line of popes from St. Peter continues [to the present day]. Both of these assertions, as we have said, are demanded by Catholic dogma.

(Sanborn, “Explanation of the Thesis”, p. 5)

How, then, does the MFT salvage the continuity of apostolic succession? It does so by locating the legal material element of apostolic succession in the “Novus Ordo popes”, currently Francis:

The thesis also holds that the Vatican II “popes” succeed as legal designees to the papacy, and therefore continue the line of St. Peter materially. This means that the Vatican II “popes” are legitimate designees to be true popes, but lack jurisdiction, because of the obstacle that they posit to the reception of the authority. This is so because the law has never severed the Novus Ordo religion from the Catholic Church. It ought to be severed, but it is not severed, just as [when] a murderer ought to be prosecuted and condemned, but is not. Therefore while the Novus Ordo members of the hierarchy are in fact public heretics and outside the Church, nonetheless, owing to absence of legal action, they retain their legal designations and their purely legal posts. They are not the authority, they are not true popes or true bishops, but are legally in the position to become true popes and bishops, if they should remove the obstacle to authority.

(Sanborn, “Explanation of the Thesis”, p. 5; italics given.)

Another essential element of the MFT, not mentioned in the outlive above, is the heavy emphasis it places on the fact that what we are accustomed to calling the “Novus Ordo Church” (“Vatican II Church”, etc.) has never been condemned by a legal declaration of the legitimate Catholic authority in the same way as the Eastern Orthodox or the Lutherans have been. This, at least according to the MFT, has important legal ramifications:

Thus the thesis sees the Novus Ordo [Church] in a different position than that of the Greek Schismatics and Lutherans. These have been legally severed by the Church, and are truly sects in the full sense of the term, since they are cut off from the Church both in fact, by their schism and heresy, and by legal severing. The Novus Ordo, on the other hand, is in fact not Catholic, is a sect inasmuch as it professes apostasy, but has not been legally severed from the Catholic Church. Indeed, this sad fact, that the Novus Ordo has not been severed, is the very heart of the problem which we face today. If it were clear, by legal declaration, that Vatican II was a defection from the faith, the problem in the Church would cease. It is only due to the fact that the heretics have the mask of legality that so many Catholics are being led astray….

(Sanborn, “Explanation of the Thesis”, pp. 5-6; bold print given.)

The MFT, then, saves the continuity of apostolic succession by locating its material element in the legal designation to the Papacy that is possessed by the false popes (and the legal designation to the office of bishop that is had by their “bishops”).

Further, the MFT locates the formal element of apostolic succession in the fact that the Church retains the ability to recover her visible head, the Pope, in one of three ways: (a) the false pope himself removes the obstacle that has vitiated his valid acceptance of the office for which he possesses a legal designation (in other words, the false pope publicly converts to Catholicism); (b) the electors who gave him the designation remove this designation from him and proceed to a new conclave; (c) after the death of the current false pope, the electors of the next conclave choose an actual Catholic, a man who does not place an obstacle in the way of valid acceptance of the Papacy.

Thus it may be said that the “Novus Ordo popes” and their “bishops” possess material succession actually and formal succession potentially. In this manner the MFT explains how the Catholic Church still retains apostolic succession.


The Temptation of False, Human Solutions

No matter what one thinks of the MFT, every sedevacantist understands that, given what has happened to the Catholic Church since the death of Pope Pius XII, we find ourselves before an incredible mystery. Ought we not to marvel at the awesome Providence of Almighty God, who may have seen fit to keep “hidden these things from the wise and prudent” (Lk 10:21)?

What we definitely ought not to do is try to “force” a solution to come about, similar to how Abram, doubting God’s promise for his barren wife, tried to raise up seed with Agar (see Gen 16:1-4,11,15; 17:16-21). This is not the way of God, and the son she bore him was not the son of promise: “For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one [Ismael] by a bondwoman, and the other [Isaac] by a free woman. But he who was of the bondwoman, was born according to the flesh: but he of the free woman, was by promise” (Gal 4:22-23).

One example of such a contrived “solution” to our situation would be that known as “Conclavism”, in which invidivual sedevacantists think they have the authority to call a conclave whose result — the election of a supposedly true Pope — is then binding on the consciences of all Catholics. This absurdity has been attempted again and again by misguided souls, among them Mr. David Bawden (b. 1959) in 1990 as “Pope Michael”, and Fr. Lucian Pulvermacher (1918-2009), in 1998 as “Pope Pius XIII”. Did it actually accomplish anything (other than lead to more confusion and doubt, and make sedevacantists look foolish)? Of course not.

Here is a clipping from The Witchita Eagle of July 29, 1990, on David Bawden, whom they nicknamed “The Thrift Store Pope”:

David Bawden of Kansas claims to be David Bawden of Kansas claims to be “Pope Michael”. 29 Jul 1990, Sun The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kansas)

More information on the phenomenon of do-it-yourself conclaves can be found in this article by a sedevacantist blogger:

Another example of a forced pseudo-solution is that of the semi-trads. Their absurd recognize-and-resist position reduces the Catholic Church to a human institution that is not only fallible and thoroughly unreliable as the divinely-appointed teacher of revealed truth, but that has in fact failed in its essential mission and continually leads souls astray. Such an institution may be a lot of things, perhaps even the Whore of Babylon, “with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication” (Apoc 17:2); but it is certainly not the “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15), the Immaculate Bride of Christ, that “glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy, and without blemish” (Eph 5:27).

We already saw that Pope Leo XIII rejected the notion of the Church as “a human institution which claims a certain obedience in discipline and external duties, but which is without the perennial communication of the gifts of divine grace, and without all that which testifies by constant and undoubted signs to the existence of that life which is drawn from God” (Encyclical Satis Cognitum, n. 3), and yet that would seem to describe the Church the semi-trads believe in pretty accurately.

In fact, the apostasy of the Novus Ordo Church — that is, the falling away from the Catholic Faith of Pope Pius XII and his predecessors — is, in some way or another, practically admitted by everyone except for a handful of die-hard Novus Ordos of the Catholic Answers or Where Peter Is stripe, who will try to square the circle, if that’s what it should take, to make the Modernist Vatican look Catholic. Here are some examples:

Secularists and liberal Novus Ordos, for their part, have no problem conceding that today’s “Catholic Church” is a defected human institution, since they don’t really believe Catholic doctrine on the Church or anything else anyway, except insofar as they personally happen to agree with it.

The semi-trads’ recognition of the need to salvage apostolic succession is laudable, but their approach is entirely backwards: Christ established a hierarchy for the sake of the Catholic Faith, He did not establish the Catholic Faith for the sake of a hierarchy (cf. Mk 2:27). A faithless Catholic hierarchy (here in the sense of true formal apostolic succession, which the semi-trads believe the Modernist pseudo-shepherds to have) would be as much of a contradiction in terms as a square circle, and it would be as useless as salt that has lost its flavor (cf. Mt 5:13). Even more so, it would be quite dangerous, like the blind leading the blind (cf. Mt 15:14), or worse still, like that “little leaven [that] corrupteth the whole lump” (1 Cor 5:6). No, in fact, they would be the “false apostles” St. Paul denounces as “deceitful workmen, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ” (2 Cor 11:13), and no better than the “lying teachers” of whom Pope St. Peter warned, “who shall bring in sects of perdition, and deny the Lord who bought them: bringing upon themselves swift destruction” (2 Pet 2:1) — and not even upon themselves only but on all those who follow them.

How dangerous it is to recognize false shepherds as true ones is exemplified by the semi-trads’ own incessant need for resistance to them at all levels, lest they be tainted and corrupted by their pastors’ false doctrines, evil disciplines, and sacrilegious liturgies. The insane extent to which this resistance-while-recognizing has risen over the decades is exemplified in Robert Morrison’s recent article denouncing “Newchurch”.

Interestingly enough, their position of constant resistance shows that they acknowledge a “real opposition or conflict between the invisible mission of the Holy Spirit and the juridical commission of Ruler and Teacher received from Christ”, the very thing Pius XII declared to be impossible (Encyclical Mystici Corporis, n. 65), else there would be no need for resistance. (Here it is important to keep in mind that they resist official acts of their magisterial and legal authorities, including liturgical rites and canonizations of saints — not merely sinful commands by immoral clergy.)

No matter what the correct resolution may be to the question of apostolicity, therefore, we already know that embracing the Novus Ordo hierarchy (again, in the formal sense) is definitely not the right answer, for the religion of this hierarchy we know not to be animated by the the Holy Ghost; and to abandon the Apostolic Faith for the sake of having a neatly-arranged and easily-identifiable hierarchy of people who do not profess the Catholic Faith would be an extremely foolish bargain.

The great advantage and appeal of the MFT, then, is that it offers — or at least claims to offer — a clear and clean solution, based on traditional Catholic theology and philosophy, which answers the conundrum of the continuity of apostolic succession in our time of universal apostasy while at the same time rejecting the apostates and heretics as false shepherds.

What serious attempt at a theological solution does the non-MFT (“totalist”) side offer? None, it seems. [CORRECTION: Griff Ruby’s 2-volume work Sede Vacante! (2017) attempts a solution.] While it is legitimate to say that God will resolve this situation somehow, that is not a properly theological answer. As Bp. Sanborn put it:

To my knowledge, I have never seen any totalist even address the problem of apostolicity in the present crisis. They generally respond with, “God will take care of that.” Yes, He will, but God-will-take-care-of-that is not Sacred Theology. The Church did not respond to the objections to the Trinity by saying “Somehow or other He is three Persons in one God,” but carefully, by the work of the holy Doctors and ultimately in magisterial declarations defined certain truths about the Trinity whereby the unity of divine essence and the trinity of Persons are respected.

(Sanborn, “Explanation of the Thesis”, p. 10)

Offering a truly theological answer to the question of apostolicity will make the sedevacantist position a lot more attractive to potential converts. In fact, Bp. Sanborn has gone on record stating that he knows converts who would not have become sedevacantists had it not been for the MFT. Perhaps we can count Fr. Ronald Ringrose among them.

Again, the purpose of this post is not to promote the MFT as the correct answer to the question of the continuity of the hierarchy, but to encourage people to realize that the problem it addresses is a genuine one that requires resolution.


An Appeal to both Sides in this Debate

In order to facilitate an exchange of ideas that is pleasant and productive, we would like to appeal to both camps in the MFT debate to yield just a tiny bit, as follows:

  • To those who adhere to the MFT: Please acknowledge that it is perfectly permissible for a Catholic to find the MFT unconvincing even if he does not have a better alternative to offer
  • To those who reject the MFT: Please acknowledge that the theological conundrum the MFT tries to answer is a genuine difficulty in need of resolution

If each side can concede just this much, theologically fruitful discussion will be a lot easier.


Concluding Remarks

Ladies and gentlemen, we are experiencing what St. Paul called the “mystery of iniquity” (2 Thess 2:7). We must leave room for charitable disagreement concerning those matters which the Church has not settled or has not given us clear guidance on; and it is certain that the exact situation we have been living through for the last 60 years is something no theologian envisioned or probably even considered possible. For that reason alone, confusion and disagreement about this should not discourage us — if anything, it should be expected.

The following article will be a great consolation to all who need some encouragement in our distressing ecclesial situation. It explains why an accidental lack of unity among sedevacantists on certain issues is not something to lose sleep over, much less the Faith:

In the struggles we are undergoing in making sense of what has happened to that magnificent Catholic Church once shepherded by Pope Pius XII, we must keep in mind the importance and nature of the virtue of Faith. We must firmly believe that the Church cannot perish, any more than she can lead souls astray. Therefore, we must reject any notion according to which the Church has ceased to exist or has defected. Condemning the so-called Old Catholics who repudiated the First Vatican Council’s definition of papal infallibility, Pope Pius IX wrote in 1873: “Therefore they deny also the indefectibility of the Church and blasphemously declare that it has perished throughout the world and that its visible Head and the bishops have erred” (Encyclical Etsi Multa, n. 22).

The precise theological explanation that can reconcile all the empirical facts with all of Catholic teaching would no doubt have been a very challenging task even for the Church’s greatest theologians prior to Vatican II, let’s not forget. However, this consideration, of course, does not permit us to deviate from the Faith. The beauty of the gift of Faith is that we assent to dogmatic truth even if we do not fully understand it or cannot fully reconcile it with certain things that appear to be the case.

The Roman Catechism issued after the Council of Trent teaches: “Faith, therefore, must exclude not only all doubt, but all desire for demonstration” (Article I). The virtue of Faith, without which we will never see God (see Heb 11:6), disposes us by the help of divine grace to accept what God has revealed because He who cannot lie and cannot be mistaken has revealed it, and for no other reason. We have a divine guarantee that what God has revealed can never conflict with reason, although it may infinitely surpass it. For the author of the Faith is also the author of reason, hence any contradiction between the two is utterly impossible.

Genuine Faith results in untold blessings. As Christ the Lord told us: “…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, not a pseudo-faith that we only uphold for as long as we can make rational sense of everything: “For we walk by faith, and not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7). God does not expect us to know all things, but He does expect us to believe what He has revealed. And so our Lord tells us today, as He once did to Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue: “Fear not, only believe” (Mk 5:36; cf. Jn 20:27).


Before you head to the Combox…

The combox below this post is open for discussion for 30 days from the date of publication (Mar. 13, 2022). We ask all who participate in discussing this to please be respectful of other participants and not to rush to unwarranted conclusions, especially not concerning others’ motives or intentions. Some people have the nasty habit of assuming bad faith or ill will in those who disagree with them.

In a controversy of such great magnitude and seriousness as the present one, we must bear with one another magnanimously and patiently, calling to mind the divinely-inspired words of St. Paul: “You must be always humble, always gentle; patient, too, in bearing with one another’s faults, as charity bids” (Eph 4:2; Knox translation). And again: “Put ye on therefore, as the elect of God, holy, and beloved, the bowels of mercy, benignity, humility, modesty, patience: bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if any have a complaint against another: even as the Lord hath forgiven you, so do you also” (Col 3:12-13).

Let us further keep in mind the exhortations and admonitions given by Our Lord Himself with regard to how to treat our brothers:

But I say to you, that whosoever is angry with his brother, shall be in danger of the judgment. And whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council. And whosoever shall say, Thou Fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.

Judge not, that you may not be judged, for with what judgment you judge, you shall be judged: and with what measure you mete, it shall be measured to you again.

(Matthew 5:22; 7:1-2)

These admonitions do not preclude all judgment, of course, but rash judgment, as well as rash suspicion. It is unjust to attribute to fellow-Catholics we disagree with, evil motives, heretical depravity, faithlessness, lack of trust in God, etc., without compelling evidence that cannot reasonably be explained any other way. We are to err on the side of excusing the faults we see in others, not on the side of finding fault. Let a simple rule of thumb guide the combox discussion: Before denouncing a fellow-Catholic as a theological reprobate, assume that he is simply sincerely mistaken. And consider, moreover, that perhaps the one who is sincerely mistaken is you (yes, you!). If both sides observe that reasonable rule, it may just happen that even a passionate exchange of arguments will yield good fruits.

Let us also recall that merely being right will not do us any good if we do not have charity: “And if I should have prophecy and should know all mysteries, and all knowledge, and if I should have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing” (1 Cor 13:2).

All this can be summed up nicely in the famous maxim attributed to St. Augustine: “In essential things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity.”

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