Who’s really on the safe side theologically?

Playing it Safe? Kennedy Hall and the Sedevacantist Wager

Kennedy Hall is a Canadian journalist, author, and internet pundit who falls squarely into the recognize-and-resist camp theologically.

On Oct. 21, 2022, writing for Crisis Magazine, Hall published a blog post entitled, “The Sedevacantist Wager”, in which he explains why he believes that, leaving aside all theological arguments, it is ultimately a much safer bet to accept Francis and his five predecessors as true Popes, as long as one sufficiently sifts their magisterium for whatever is heretical, erroneous, or otherwise dangerous to one’s soul.

Before we dive into this topic in detail, a quick clarification will be helpful. We often refer to those who hold the recognize-and-resist position as “semi-traditionalists” (or “semi-trads” for short). The label is not meant to be disparaging but rather descriptive, as the recognize-and-resisters claim to believe in, and seek to return to, the traditional Catholicism from before Vatican II, yet (unwittingly) embrace all sorts of ideas that are actually incompatible with that Faith. Hence we like to refer to them as semi-trads, as in actual fact they accept only some of Tradition.

Kennedy Hall’s “Sedevacantist Wager” article contains in a nutshell everything that is wrong with the recognize-and-resist position, as well as everything its proponents misunderstand about Sedevacantism. This being so, however, it also presents a wonderful opportunity for us to set the record straight and illustrate where and how the semi-trads get things wrong.

Some other sedevacantists have already offered a reply to Hall’s article. They can be found here:

In this post we will give our own rejoinder to Mr. Hall’s challenge, and hopefully provide a nice complement to the other two sede contributions.

Hall’s wager regarding Sedevacantism is modeled, as it were, on Blaise Pascal‘s famous wager argument for God’s existence: “If there is a God and you believe, you gain everything; if you don’t, you lose everything; if there is no God and you still believe, you lose nothing” (as summarized by Hall). The idea behind Hall’s approach is to reassure people who don’t see themselves as capable of properly evaluating all the theological arguments for and against Sedevacantism that it is simply a “safer bet” to take the recognize-and-resist position over Sedevacantism. In other words, it’s a position of, “Let’s just say he’s the Pope, in case he actually is.”

This might indeed seem safe at first sight… but is it? Not in light of Catholic teaching about what it means for someone to be the Pope. It is that teaching we must now examine.

The Foundation of Sedevacantism

The conviction that the resistance position is the “safe” alternative to a rather “risky” Sedevacantism is very common among semi-trads, but it has its origin in a serious misunderstanding of the issues, beginning with how the basic controversy is even framed.

Those who think that Sedevacantism and the resistance position are mostly the same and differ only (or chiefly) in that the Sedevacantist haughtily arrogates to himself the authority to judge a Pope guilty of formal heresy, whereas the recognize-and-resister humbly refrains from making such a perilous judgment, will necessarily find Hall’s Sedevacantist Wager convincing. However, that is not at all what is going on.

The Sedevacantist position will quickly emerge as the only reasonable and possible theological stance for anyone who examines and firmly assents to the traditional Catholic doctrine regarding the Papacy. A number of traditionalists mistakenly think that all there is to the Papacy is that the Pope is the visible head of the Church and he’s infallible under extremely limited conditions. Although both of these things are true, it would be a horrendous mistake to the reduce the Papacy to only these two dogmas.

There is abundant magisterial teaching regarding the Papacy that most semi-trads are not aware of, probably because they have never come across it. Perhaps the reason they never have is that they read popular recognize-and-resist literature, such as material by Abp. Marcel Lefebvre, Michael Davies, and Peter Kwasniewski, rather than the actual magisterial texts or pre-Vatican II theology books.

Here are some of the lesser-known magisterial pronouncements regarding the nature and function of the Papacy, as well as the divine assistance promised for it, to the benefit of the entire Church (all underlining added):

…In every age it has been preached as the teaching of the Gospel that the sheep were entrusted to Peter, by Christ for him to provide for their food, not Peter who was entrusted to the sheep to receive his spiritual nourishment from them.

(Pope Pius VI, Bull Super Soliditate)

There has never been an enemy of the Christian religion who was not simultaneously at wicked war with the See of Peter, since while this See remained strong the survival of the Christian religion was assured.

(Pope Pius VII, Encyclical Diu Satis, n. 6)

But if one wishes to search out the true source of all the evils which We have already lamented, as well as those which We pass over for the sake of brevity, he will surely find that from the start it has ever been a dogged contempt for the Church’s authority. The Church, as St. Leo the Great teaches, in well-ordered love accepts Peter in the See of Peter, and sees and honors Peter in the person of his successor the Roman pontiff. Peter still maintains the concern of all pastors in guarding their flocks, and his high rank does not fail even in an unworthy heir. In Peter then, as is aptly remarked by the same holy Doctor, the courage of all is strengthened and the help of divine grace is so ordered that the constancy conferred on Peter through Christ is conferred on the apostles through Peter. It is clear that contempt of the Church’s authority is opposed to the command of Christ and consequently opposes the apostles and their successors, the Church’s ministers who speak as their representatives. He who hears you, hears me; and he who despises you, despises me [Lk 10:16]; and the Church is the pillar and firmament of truth, as the apostle Paul teaches [1 Tim 3:15]. In reference to these words St. Augustine says: “Whoever is without the Church will not be reckoned among the sons, and whoever does not want to have the Church as mother will not have God as father.”

Therefore, venerable brothers, keep all these words in mind and often reflect on them. Teach your people great reverence for the Church’s authority which has been directly established by God. Do not lose heart. With St. Augustine We say that “all around us the waters of the flood are roaring, that is, the multiplicity of conflicting teaching. We are not in the flood but it surrounds us. We are hard pressed but not overwhelmed, buffeted but not submerged.”

(Pope Leo XII, Encyclical Ubi Primum, nn. 22-23)

The Church is the pillar and foundation of truth — all of which truth is taught by the Holy Spirit. Should the church be able to order, yield to, or permit those things which tend toward the destruction of souls and the disgrace and detriment of the sacrament instituted by Christ?

(Pope Gregory XVI, Encyclical Quo Graviora, n. 10)

[Christ the Lord] granted this [primacy] to Peter alone out of all the apostles when He promised him the keys of the kingdom of heaven and entrusted to him the obligation of feeding the Lord’s sheep and lambs and the duty of strengthening his brothers. He wanted this to extend to Peter’s successors whom He placed over the Church with equal right. This has always been the firm and united opinion of all Catholics. It is Church dogma that the pope, the successor of St. Peter, possesses not only primacy of honor but also primacy of authority and jurisdiction over the whole Church. Accordingly the bishops are subject to him.

(Pope Gregory XVI, Encyclical Commissum Divinitus, n. 10)

This consideration too clarifies the great error of those others as well who boldly venture to explain and interpret the words of God by their own judgment, misusing their reason and holding the opinion that these words are like a human work. God Himself has set up a living authority to establish and teach the true and legitimate meaning of His heavenly revelation. This authority judges infallibly all disputes which concern matters of faith and morals, lest the faithful be swirled around by every wind of doctrine which springs from the evilness of men in encompassing error. And this living infallible authority is active only in that Church which was built by Christ the Lord upon Peter, the head of the entire Church, leader and shepherd, whose faith He promised would never fail. This Church has had an unbroken line of succession from Peter himself; these legitimate pontiffs are the heirs and defenders of the same teaching, rank, office and power. And the Church is where Peter is, and Peter speaks in the Roman Pontiff, living at all times in his successors and making judgment, providing the truth of the faith to those who seek it. The divine words therefore mean what this Roman See of the most blessed Peter holds and has held.

For this mother and teacher of all the churches has always preserved entire and unharmed the faith entrusted to it by Christ the Lord. Furthermore, it has taught it to the faithful, showing all men truth and the path of salvation. Since all priesthood originates in this church, the entire substance of the Christian religion resides there also. The leadership of the Apostolic See has always been active, and therefore because of its preeminent authority, the whole Church must agree with it. The faithful who live in every place constitute the whole Church. Whoever does not gather with this Church scatters.

(Pope Pius IX, Encyclical Qui Pluribus, nn. 10-11)

This chair [of Peter] is the center of Catholic truth and unity, that is, the head, mother, and teacher of all the Churches to which all honor and obedience must be offered. Every church must agree with it because of its greater preeminence — that is, those people who are in all respects faithful….

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.

(Pope Pius IX, Encyclical Inter Multiplices, nn. 1,7)

…[I]t is not sufficient for learned Catholics to accept and revere the aforesaid dogmas of the Church, but that it is also necessary to subject themselves to the decisions pertaining to doctrine which are issued by the Pontifical Congregations, and also to those forms of doctrine which are held by the common and constant consent of Catholics as theological truths and conclusions, so certain that opinions opposed to these same forms of doctrine, although they cannot be called heretical, nevertheless deserve some theological censure.

(Pope Pius IX, Apostolic Letter Tuas LibenterDenz. 1684)

Nor can we pass over in silence the audacity of those who, not enduring sound doctrine, contend that “without sin and without any sacrifice of the Catholic profession assent and obedience may be refused to those judgments and decrees of the Apostolic See, whose object is declared to concern the Church’s general good and her rights and discipline, so only it does not touch the dogmata of faith and morals.” But no one can be found not clearly and distinctly to see and understand how grievously this is opposed to the Catholic dogma of the full power given from God by Christ our Lord Himself to the Roman Pontiff of feeding, ruling and guiding the Universal Church.

(Pope Pius IX, Encyclical Quanta Cura, n. 5)

To the shepherds alone was given all power to teach, to judge, to direct; on the faithful was imposed the duty of following their teaching, of submitting with docility to their judgment, and of allowing themselves to be governed, corrected, and guided by them in the way of salvation. Thus, it is an absolute necessity for the simple faithful to submit in mind and heart to their own pastors, and for the latter to submit with them to the Head and Supreme Pastor.

…[I]t is to give proof of a submission which is far from sincere to set up some kind of opposition between one Pontiff and another. Those who, faced with two differing directives, reject the present one to hold to the past, are not giving proof of obedience to the authority which has the right and duty to guide them; and in some ways they resemble those who, on receiving a condemnation, would wish to appeal to a future council, or to a Pope who is better informed.

(Pope Leo XIII, Letter Epistola Tua)

Wherefore it belongs to the Pope to judge authoritatively what things the sacred oracles contain, as well as what doctrines are in harmony, and what in disagreement, with them; and also, for the same reason, to show forth what things are to be accepted as right, and what to be rejected as worthless; what it is necessary to do and what to avoid doing, in order to attain eternal salvation. For, otherwise, there would be no sure interpreter of the commands of God, nor would there be any safe guide showing man the way he should live.

(Pope Leo XIII, Encyclical Sapientiae Christianae, n. 24)

For He who is the Spirit of Truth, inasmuch as He proceedeth both from the Father, who is the eternally True, and from the Son, who is the substantial Truth, receiveth from each both His essence and the fullness of all truth. This truth He communicates to His Church, guarding her by His all powerful help from ever falling into error, and aiding her to foster daily more and more the germs of divine doctrine and to make them fruitful for the welfare of the peoples. And since the welfare of the peoples, for which the Church was established, absolutely requires that this office should be continued for all time, the Holy Ghost perpetually supplies life and strength to preserve and increase the Church. “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Paraclete, that He may abide with you for ever, the Spirit of Truth” (John xiv., 16, 17).

(Pope Leo XIII, Encyclical Divinum Illud, n. 5)

the Church has received from on high a promise which guarantees her against every human weakness. What does it matter that the helm of the symbolic barque has been entrusted to feeble hands, when the Divine Pilot stands on the bridge, where, though invisible, He is watching and ruling? Blessed be the strength of his arm and the multitude of his mercies!

(Pope Leo XIII, Allocution to Cardinals, March 20, 1900; excerpted in Papal Teachings: The Church, p. 349.)

In the Catholic Church Christianity is incarnate. It identifies itself with that perfect, spiritual, and, in its own order, sovereign society, which is the mystical body of Jesus Christ and which has for its visible head the Roman Pontiff, successor of the Prince of the Apostles. It is the continuation of the mission of the Saviour, the daughter and the heiress of His redemption. It has preached the Gospel, and has defended it at the price of its blood, and strong in the Divine assistance, and of that immortality which have been promised it, it makes no terms with error, but remains faithful to the commands which it has received to carry the doctrine of Jesus Christ to the uttermost limits of the world and to the end of time and to protect it in its inviolable integrity.

(Pope Leo XIII, Apostolic Letter Annum Ingressi)

Wherefore, let the faithful also be on their guard against the overrated independence of private judgment and that false autonomy of human reason. For it is quite foreign to everyone bearing the name of a Christian to trust his own mental powers with such pride as to agree only with those things which he can examine from their inner nature, and to imagine that the Church, sent by God to teach and guide all nations, is not conversant with present affairs and circumstances; or even that they must obey only in those matters which she has decreed by solemn definition as though her other decisions might be presumed to be false or putting forward insufficient motive for truth and honesty. Quite to the contrary, a characteristic of all true followers of Christ, lettered or unlettered, is to suffer themselves to be guided and led in all things that touch upon faith or morals by the Holy Church of God through its Supreme Pastor the Roman Pontiff, who is himself guided by Jesus Christ Our Lord.

(Pope Pius XI, Encyclical Casti Connubii, n. 104)

We could go on and on, but we have to stop somewhere. Many more such quotes regarding the Papacy and the Church can be found on our web site at the following page:

Anyone who accepts the teachings just laid out, as all Catholics must, will quickly come to understand that there are only two alternatives here a priori: Either the “Popes” since Vatican II are legitimate, and then we must swallow the entire Conciliar revolution hook, line, and sinker; or they are not legitimate, and that alone can allow us to reject their magisterium. A middle position — one that accepts these men as valid Popes but then rejects what they teach, decree, and establish in the official exercise of their office — is clearly not an option. Far from being “safe”, it puts people in the subjective position of refusing submission to the man accepted as the Roman Pontiff, which is the very definition of schism: “The refusal to submit to the authority of the pope or to hold communion with members of the Church subject to him” (A Catholic Dictionary, p. 451).

Thus we see that the conclusion that Jorge Bergoglio (“Pope Francis”) and his five predecessors of infelicitous memory are not true Popes is a conclusion based on the loyal acceptance of traditional Catholic teaching regarding the Papacy and the desire to avoid schism. The conclusion of sede vacante is therefore a necessary one, for which reason we know it cannot be wrong.

Notice that in all of this, we have not “judged the Pope”. Rather, we have arrived at the certain judgment that Jorge Bergoglio is not the Pope because he cannot possibly be. Any other conclusion would imply a rejection of the traditional Catholic doctrine, or would require us to deny what is right in front of us (i.e. the obvious divergence of the Vatican II religion from traditional Catholicism, to the point where the “Pope” now teaches that God wills there to be many different religions because they are an “enrichment” for humanity and show that there are many “different ways of coming to God”).

It is true that the sedevacantist position raises all sorts of other questions and difficulties, but that does not change the truth of the matter, since the conclusion, as we have seen, is necessary.

A Point-by-Point Response to Kennedy Hall’s Article

Sedevacantism and the ‘Heretical Pope’

Let us now review Mr. Hall’s article in detail. We will quote every part of his article and respond as we go:

As things heat up in the Church, and as even mainstream diocesan bishops and clergy are questioning whether Pope Francis has published material or formal heresy, the nagging question of whether the “Pope is the pope” is circulating.

Personally, I don’t subscribe to the notion that the Pope, Francis or otherwise, has lost his office, and thus I am not a sedevacantist and will never be. Now, this does not mean that the “sedes,” as they are called, do not present strong arguments. It is true, there are great saints and theologians of the past who have opined about what it might be like in an age where the pope promulgated heresy or caused great scandal to the faithful.

(Kennedy Hall, “The Sedevacantist Wager”, Crisis Magazine, Oct. 21, 2022; bold print removed, here and throughout.)

Notice first of all that Hall equates Sedevacantism with the idea that a true Pope has lost his office. While there are some sedevacantists who believe that John XXIII and Paul VI started out as true Popes and subsequently lost their office, no one believes that with regard to Francis. Fr. Anthony Cekada (1951-2020) wrote about this many years ago:

Now, the Pope can be understood to become a heretic in two ways: (a) in the official exercise of his magisterium; (b) as a private person. The first of these alternatives, (a), is absolutely impossible, for it would mean the defection of the Church, which is heretical and absurd (despite what Eric Sammons says). It is only in the second sense, (b), that theologians have admitted the possibility at least in theory.

Many, including St. Robert Bellarmine, did not think it possible to actually happen in practice, but since they could not prove that, they were willing to entertain the possibility theoretically. Hence Bellarmine affirmed: “It is probable and may piously be believed that not only as ‘Pope’ can the Supreme Pontiff not err, but he cannot be a heretic even as a particular person by pertinaciously believing something false against the faith” (De Romano Pontifice, Book IV, Chapter 6), while at the same time arguing at length what would happen if a Pope did become a heretic as a private person.

We have laid out extensively documented argumentation regarding the whole “heretical Pope” issue in the following study:

The most important thing to remember is that the “heretical Pope” issue is moot with regard to Francis because he has promulgated heresy in the official exercise of his magisterium, which is precisely what is absolutely impossible because manifestly incompatible with all the Catholic teaching on the Papacy quoted and referenced above.

We can see, then, that it is wrong of Hall to reduce the issue of Sedevacantism to that of a Pope becoming a heretic; and it is inaccurate of him to say that “there are great saints and theologians of the past who have opined about what it might be like in an age where the pope promulgated heresy…”, for their disputes concerned only the Pope who becomes a heretic in his private capacity, not as head of the Church exercising his magisterium.

Hall continues:

However, as strong as those arguments are, I believe that ultimately they cannot be taken as dogmatic, as there has never been a definitive teaching on how a pope could lose his office, or what we should do if he did. Ultimately, these are questions I cannot answer, and I wait for the day—if it ever comes—when a dogmatic pronouncement is made to settle this issue.

As we just shown, the matter is irrelevant, as we are not talking about a Pope who (possibly) lost his office after having become a heretic as a private person.

Hall continues:

In the meantime, we are left with a bit of a mess, and there are souls who earnestly consider the idea that Francis is not the pope, or that one of his predecessors may not have been the pope either. My intention here is not to argue with the sedes—from my experience it is a bit of a thankless task, at least on social media—but instead to consider what any consideration of the sedevacantist position might do to our catholicity.

Yes, what might Sedevacantism do to our Catholicity? It is a great question. Let’s go!

The Argument from ‘Fittingness’

Hall continues:

Again, I make no judgment on any individual who questions this papacy or another. I am just offering some points for consideration to Catholics who find themselves between the proverbial “rock and a hard place” as we suffer through this papacy.

When you read through Aquinas you will of course find logically sound and invincible arguments about a number of theological quandaries. Aquinas presents something like theological mathematics, which is to say he presents arguments that offer moral certainty that no stronger counter argument could be made. However, in the works of the Angelic Doctor, we also find a line of argumentation or speculation that is more ethereal, which is not to say less logically invincible.

There are certain theological questions that are difficult to answer, such as why Christ had to die in the exact manner He did, or why it had to be Rome and not some other place where the Church was established. There are, of course, good reasons for this. But when Aquinas comes to what might be an impasse for some in consideration of such questions, he sometimes offers the following answer: Such and such is the way it is because it is fitting for it to be so.

In other words, it is the way it is because in God’s wisdom it is fitting that Catholics would have a faith, a Church, and a Savior in the way that they do.

I would offer to the reader that I view the papacy in such a manner. While I see the potential in the arguments of some sedevacantists, I cannot follow them because I believe that it is not fitting for there to be no pope. Take that as you will, but it is what I believe.

(italics given)

Now this is an extremely shortsighted argument. It is fine to argue from fittingness, but then we must look at the whole picture, not merely a tiny cutout of it.

First, let us clarify that in actual fact Hall is not merely arguing that it is unfitting that there should be no Pope at this time; he is also arguing, at least implicitly, that is is more fitting for Jorge Bergoglio to be the Pope quite specifically, than for there to be no Pope at all. In other words, he maintains that it makes more sense for the Catholic Church to have a manifest apostate leading the flock of Christ astray — which each individual sheep must then recognize and heroically resist — than to leave that flock, to all appearances, without a visible shepherd for the time being. But does that make any sense? Is it really better to have an evil or false shepherd (wolf) devouring the flock (resulting in a bloodbath for all those sheep who didn’t manage to escape or fight back) than to have no shepherd tending the flock (resulting in the sheep scattering — cf. Mk 14:27)?

Now, it is clear that either scenario would be intensely distressing for the Mystical Body of Christ; but only one of the two is directly contrary to the promises of Christ for the Papacy and the clear teaching of the Church; whereas the other was even prophesied in Sacred Scripture and Tradition and, at the very least, leaves room for mystery and uncertainty as to what is actually happening to the Mystical Body. The former argues for a defected Church firmly in the grip of false shepherds; the latter for a shepherd-less Church in great distress:

Kennedy Hall is asking for trouble with his argument from fittingness, for unless one understands the whole picture, it is very easy to be led astray in this manner. How many heretics denied that it was fitting for God Himself to become incarnate, suffer, and die, and yet He did! How many thought it would not be fitting for Jesus Christ to be one Person with two natures, and yet He is! And how many thought it was not fitting that Christ should be truly and substantially present in the Holy Eucharist under the appearances of bread and wine, although He definitely is!

Can Hall be so sure it is not fitting for us to lack a Pope at the present time, especially considering what he proposes as the alternative? What answer will he make to St. Paul, who wrote:

Do not let anyone find the means of leading you astray. The apostasy must come first; the champion of wickedness must appear first, destined to inherit perdition. This is the rebel who is to lift up his head above every divine name, above all that men hold in reverence, till at last he enthrones himself in God’s temple, and proclaims himself as God. Do not you remember my telling you of this, before I left your company? At present there is a power (you know what I mean) which holds him in check, so that he may not shew himself before the time appointed to him; meanwhile, the conspiracy of revolt is already at work; only, he who checks it now will be able to check it, until he is removed from the enemy’s path. Then it is that the rebel will shew himself; and the Lord Jesus will destroy him with the breath of his mouth, overwhelming him with the brightness of his presence. He will come, when he comes, with all Satan’s influence to aid him; there will be no lack of power, of counterfeit signs and wonders; and his wickedness will deceive the souls that are doomed, to punish them for refusing that fellowship in the truth which would have saved them. That is why God is letting loose among them a deceiving influence, so that they give credit to falsehood; he will single out for judgement all those who refused credence to the truth, and took their pleasure in wrong-doing.

(2 Thessalonians 2:3-11; Knox translation.)

Although a Catholic is not required to interpret it this way, Cardinal Henry Edward Manning (1808-1892), based on his extensive study of Catholic Tradition, has shown this to be a likely prophecy of the removal of the Pope for a time to allow the “mystery of iniquity” to gain the upper hand so as to usher in the reign of the Antichrist, which is prophesied in the book of Daniel, in 2 Thessalonians, and of course in the Apocalypse:

This also jibes with certain private revelations and other theologians’ interpretations of the Bible:

If it is not fitting that there should be no Pope, much less is it fitting that the Pope should no longer be leading souls to Heaven but instead to hell. The Papacy was made for souls; souls were not made for the Papacy (cf. Mk 2:27). The Papacy is not an end in itself. It has a purpose, and the same God who founded the Papacy has also given it the all the necessary means to achieve its end, even against all human failings and corruption, to the very end of time. Again, we are speaking not about a human work but about God’s work. We cannot look at this merely with human eyes.

It is crucial to understand that the Catholic teaching regarding the Papacy is not simply normative, it is descriptive. That is, it does not simply provide a norm for the Pope to follow (as in: The Pope is supposed to teach safe doctrine and lead souls to eternal life), it describes what each and every Pope actually does by virtue of his office (as in: The Pope does in fact teach safe doctrine and lead souls to Heaven).

It would do no good, and prove no divine assistance at all, to consider the teaching on the Papacy as merely normative. So what if the Pope is “supposed to” teach in accordance with the Deposit of Faith if he doesn’t actually do so? How would that make the Pope any more of a reliable guide to the Faith than your local grocery store clerk, dentist, or school bus driver? Besides, whom would a Catholic follow if not the Pope? “Lord, to whom shall we go?” (Jn 6:69).

No, when Vatican I teaches that “the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles” (Pastor Aeternus, Chapter 4), it affirms that the Pope’s magisterium is divinely assisted so as to preclude the possibility of the Pope leading the Church astray with “some new doctrine” of his own making. That is the divine miracle of the Papacy — and not what Peter Kwasniewski ludicrously teaches, namely, the blasphemous idea that the Popes are safe and reliable guides most of the time.

What we can say with absolute certitude, then, is that it is not fitting for someone to be Pope and yet not match the description of the Papacy that the holy Catholic Faith gives us. It is not fitting because it is not possible, and it is not possible because it involves a contradiction.

To boil things down to their essentials, we can put it this way: A vacant Chair of Peter is possible; a defected Chair is not. Even though, granted, we are dealing with more than merely a vacant Chair, none of the difficulties that arise from recognizing the vacancy can possibly outweigh the impossibility of a defected Papacy, which would mean the refutation of Catholicism.

Mystery is compatible with Catholicism, but contradiction is not. Our opponents like to say Sedevacantism is a dead end, but the opposite is true: A dead end is what we find in their recognize-and-resist position, whereas in Sedevacantism we find an open end. That, at least, is clear when we accept the Catholic Church for what she truly is: a supernatural and divine institution, not the mere work of men. The semi-trad idea of “fixing” the defected church with a better Pope in the future may make sense to someone who considers the Catholic Church to be a human work, but that is not the Church of Jesus Christ, which is forever “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15).

The Sedevacantist position, therefore, is first of all trying to offer a correct diagnosis of the situation, without even pretending to have all the answers as to a solution. But no matter what the solution may be, it will not be found without a correct diagnosis.

Parsing the Wager Argument

But we must return to Hall’s article. He now comes to the wager argument:

Let us make a wager.

We have all heard of Pascal’s Wager in reference to the question of the existence of God. It goes roughly as follows: If there is a God and you believe, you gain everything; if you don’t, you lose everything; if there is no God and you still believe, you lose nothing.

Basically, believing in God and acting as if He exists costs you nothing in the long run if there is no God. What is the worst that could happen? You behave too morally?

The atheist might retort that it would be a wasted life to live by God’s supposed laws, as there is no eternal point because there is no afterlife. But the atheist betrays his lack of reasoning skills when he says this because if there is no afterlife, then he should not be concerned with how you live your present life which will amount to nothing—just like his.

In any case, I think we can take this logic and made [sic] the “Sedevacantist Wager.”

Suppose there is a pope and we have to be in the Church where he reigns in order to be saved—normally speaking. Then we ought to do just that. If we submit to the pope—in a manner properly understood—then we lose nothing ultimately and stave off the risk of losing everything. If there is no pope but in our Catholic sense we act as if there is, what could we lose?

Will we stand before God at the end of our lives and be chastised for praying too much for Francis or any other pope?

Notice that in his wager, Hall includes some curious caveats that, alas, he does not elaborate on, even though his entire argument hinges on them: “normally speaking” and “in a manner properly understood”. He does not explain what exactly he means by these explosive qualifiers, but they were important enough for him to include them.

Anyway, let’s parse this wager step by step:

“Suppose there is a pope and we have to be in the Church where he reigns in order to be saved—normally speaking. Then we ought to do just that.” Yes, that is how it always is in the Catholic Church, not just normally: “…we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff” (Pope Boniface VIII, Bull Unam Sanctam); “Faith orders Us to hold that out of the Apostolic Roman Church no person can be saved, that it is the only ark of salvation, and that whoever will not enter therein shall perish in the waters of the deluge” (Pope Pius IX, Allocution Singulari Quadam).

But being and remaining in this Church as members requires a little more than simply praying for the man recognized as Pope. In his 1928 encyclical against the budding errors of ecumenism, Pope Pius XI clarified that there is only one Church founded by Jesus Christ, and “in this one Church of Christ no man can be or remain who does not accept, recognize and obey the authority and supremacy of Peter and his legitimate successors” (Mortalium Animos, n. 11; underlining added).

“If we submit to the pope—in a manner properly understood—then we lose nothing ultimately and stave off the risk of losing everything.” The entire recognize-and-resist position is conveniently wrapped into that harmless-sounding phrase “in a manner properly understood”. Leave it out, and it would collapse, and then Hall could not subscribe to his own proposal.

We can illustrate this very simply. Recall that earlier we saw Pope Leo XIII’s teaching:

Wherefore it belongs to the Pope to judge authoritatively what things the sacred oracles contain, as well as what doctrines are in harmony, and what in disagreement, with them; and also, for the same reason, to show forth what things are to be accepted as right, and what to be rejected as worthless; what it is necessary to do and what to avoid doing, in order to attain eternal salvation. For, otherwise, there would be no sure interpreter of the commands of God, nor would there be any safe guide showing man the way he should live.

(Pope Leo XIII, Encyclical Sapientiae Christianae, n. 24)

Now, substitute “Francis” for “the Pope”, and the text becomes a grotesque instruction on how to lose one’s soul:

Wherefore it belongs to Francis to judge authoritatively what things the sacred oracles contain, as well as what doctrines are in harmony, and what in disagreement, with them; and also, for the same reason, to show forth what things are to be accepted as right, and what to be rejected as worthless; what it is necessary to do and what to avoid doing, in order to attain eternal salvation. For, otherwise, there would be no sure interpreter of the commands of God, nor would there be any safe guide showing man the way he should live.

Would Kennedy Hall subscribe to that? Hardly! He would never wager his soul on that precisely because he would recognize that it is not safe but incredibly dangerous.

This, of course, is precisely where Hall’s convenient little qualifier comes in: “in a manner properly understood”. The way to get out of his dilemma, he will simply assert that whatsoever in the Novus Ordo magisterium is heretical, erroneous, sacrilegious, blasphemous, or otherwise harmful, requires our resistance, and that is exactly what a “proper” understanding of submission means.

Very well, then, let Mr. Hall provide evidence from pre-Vatican II Catholic theology manuals or directly from the Popes’ magisterial teachings that (a) it is possible for the papal magisterium (or other official papal acts) to contain heresy, harmful error, sacrilege, indecency, or blasphemy; and that (b) the onus of discovering this is on each Catholic believer, or on those clerics each Catholic decides to attach himself to, even though he knows they too might mislead him; and that (c) each Catholic believer must then mount a serious resistance against the Pope and those who scandalously follow him.

Don’t hold your breath, folks. Hall won’t be able to present any evidence like that because it doesn’t exist. Whenever the semi-trads have to come up with evidence for resistance, they will turn to arguments that talk about how sinful commands from individual superiors must be resisted. And indeed they must, but here we are not talking about sinful commands, as if the problem with Francis were that he constantly orders his cronies to steal, murder, fornicate, or calumniate. No, the problem is that Bergoglio, in the official exercise of his putative office, teaches heresy, blasphemy, and other outrageous things to the entire church; that he officially declares public sinners like “Pope” Paul VI to be saints worthy of veneration and imitation; and that he legislates evil disciplines throughout the church (such as Novus Ordo sacraments for unrepentant adulterers) and imposes evil liturgical laws.

Such things are impossible for a true Pope to do, and to that end we do have magisterial evidence. In addition to all the teachings already quoted, consider also what was taught by Pope Pius IX:

We congratulate you, therefore, on the fact that although you suffer, doubtless, at the defection of your brothers, separated from you by the breath of perfidious teaching, you are not troubled for all that, and are even being stimulated by their error to receive with greater willingness and to follow with more zeal not only the orders, but even all the directives of the Apostolic See; and by so doing you are certain that you cannot be deceived or betrayed.

(Apostolic Letter Didicimus Non Sine; excerpted in Papal Teachings: The Church, n. 439; underlining added.)

Would Kennedy Hall affirm that by clinging loyally to Francis’ orders, teachings, and directives for the church, one is certain of not being deceived or betrayed? Of course not!

This means that Hall has only one solution: He must refuse Francis submission on whatever he personally deems to be incorrect, harmful, false, blasphemous, intolerable, etc. This is not always easy, and because the ultimate authority of settling such matters (the Pope) has been rejected by him and his semi-trad colleagues, they will before long disagree with each other on what exactly is necessary to resist and what is fine to accept, with no possible way ever to resolve the disagreement.

Thus Hall is faced with a dilemma: If he rejects Francis’s magisterium, he is refusing submission to the man he accept as Pope, which is the definition of schism. But if he does submit to Francis the way a Catholic must submit to the Pope, then he can no longer retain the traditional Catholic Faith, which Bergoglio repudiates, and he will be guilty of accepting heresy, sacrilege, blasphemy, and all the rest the Conciliar circus has to offer.

Precisely what is safe about such position? How does embracing such a stance mean “we lose nothing ultimately and stave off the risk of losing everything”?

“If there is no pope but in our Catholic sense we act as if there is, what could we lose?” Your Faith, your hope, and your charity, Mr. Hall — in two words: your soul. If you follow him and he leads you astray, your soul is in grave danger; but if you refuse to follow him lest he might lead you astray, your soul is also in great danger, since Christ requires you to follow the Pope, to whom He has given, through St. Peter, the keys to the kingdom of Heaven (see Mt 16:18-19).

Alas, Hall seems totally oblivious to what submission to the Pope actually means when he asks:

Will we stand before God at the end of our lives and be chastised for praying too much for Francis or any other pope?

No doubt there are plenty of Anglicans, too, who pray for Jorge Bergoglio and do not follow him in his teachings. But that doesn’t make them traditional Catholics.

Hall continues:

It is Catholic to believe and act as if there is a pope, as this is how Catholics have always lived. In a word, it is fitting to live and think as such.

No, it is not Catholic “to believe and act as if there is a pope” if the man occupying the Chair of St. Peter clearly does not in any way match the description of what a Catholic Pope is and does; if, in fact, he is a manifest apostate whose infernal task it obviously appears to be to destroy as many souls as he can influence. Nor is it “fitting” to accept such a man as Pope, especially not if one of the requirements for said acceptance is that we refuse him submission — a complete theological absurdity.

The only reason why Hall and his recognize-and-resist confreres can be so generous in accepting Bergoglio’s claim to the Papacy — even declaring it to be the safer course — is that they reserve the right to refuse him submission “as needed”. But if he is the Pope, then such a right does not and cannot exist.

It is of the utmost importance to recognize that the Papacy is real, it is not just a label. Only someone who doesn’t accept the Church’s teaching of the Papacy — one who basically considers “Pope” to be a mere title, with no reality signified by it — could say that accepting Francis as a true Pope while rejecting his magisterium is a safe position for a Catholic to take.

We might call such people “papal nominalists”, because the Papacy is for them just a name. And how could it be otherwise, seeing that they have to empty the Papacy of all meaning in order to be able to affirm that Jorge Bergoglio holds it! Apparently, having a warm body to occupy this divinely-instituted office is more important to such people than the office itself. They would rather have the office become meaningless than not be able to point to a definite person occupying it. Does such an attitude not have everything backwards? What good is it to have a Pope if being Pope has no real meaning? How is that “fitting”?

We come to the last two paragraphs of Hall’s article. He writes:

Even if the sedevacantists were right—which I don’t believe is true—they run a great risk if they are wrong. Of course, if someone is confused, that is one thing—God knows the heart; but if one lives a life of anathematizing other Catholics for an opinion they have no business to dogmatize, then this presents a grave problem.

Considering how distressing and confusing the times are, we must obviously have great forbearance to individuals who are sincerely trying to be authentically Catholic and do not share the sedevacantist position because they sincerely believe it to be unacceptable. However, we must not become relativists or subjectivists. There is a real and objective truth to be discovered, and that truth is objectively binding on us. As we have seen, Sedevacantism is not based on some “opinion” which we arrogantly presume to “dogmatize”. It is based on what the Catholic Church herself teaches about the Papacy and the Church, and it is as binding on people as that teaching is.

The following lecture, transcribed with all necessary documentation, makes this case very cogently:

No, we Sedevacantists do not run a grave risk if we are wrong. For even if, per the impossible, Bergoglio did turn out to be a true Pope, we would not be guilty of schism since we sincerely did not believe him to be a true Pope and considered ourselves exempt from the duty of submitting to him for that reason alone. Here is what one of the most celebrated 20th-century canonists wrote in his magnificent 7-volume tome on Church law:

Finally, one cannot consider as schismatics those who refuse to obey the Roman Pontiff because they would hold his person suspect or, because of widespread rumors, doubtfully elected (as happened after the election of Urban VI), or who would resist him as a civil authority and not as pastor of the Church.

(Rev. Franz Xaver Wernz, S.J., Ius Canonicum, ed. by Rev. Pietro Vidal, S.J. [Rome: Gregorian University, 1937], vol. 7, n. 398. Translated by Fr. Anthony Cekada in, “Have I Rejected the Pope?”, TraditionalMass.org.)

This only makes sense, for schism isn’t accidentally being wrong about who the Pope is, it is the deliberate refusal of submission to the person recognized as the Roman Pontiff.

Hall ends his piece as follows:

In the end, if we wager that there is a pope, then we live as Catholics have always lived and we hope to die as Catholics ought to hope to die. Ultimately, wagering that there is no pope offers us little if anything, other than a great risk if we aren’t careful.

To be clear: We are not wagering. We know that Francis is not the Pope, and we know that Benedict XVI is not the Pope either. We do not know of any Pope currently reigning, but if there should be one, we seek with all our hearts to be united to him and to submit to him. The reason we reject Bergoglio and Ratzinger is because, enlightened by the holy Catholic Faith, which cannot be false and which cannot mislead us, we know them to be charlatans, enemies of the Catholic Faith and in no wise the Supreme Pontiffs of the Mystical Body of Christ.

Kennedy Hall may think that to recognize an apostate as Pope and then refuse him submission is to “live as Catholics have always lived”, but it is obviously not.

Concluding Remarks

Kennedy Hall’s wager argument relies on all kinds of false assumptions. For instance, it assumes, falsely, that it is safe to refuse to be taught and governed by the person one recognizes as the Vicar of Christ and head of the Catholic Church. It assumes, falsely, that it is safe for each individual Catholic to make himself the final authority on what papal teaching is to be accepted and what is to be rejected or tossed aside until a “better Pope” comes along. It assumes, falsely, that Catholics have the right effectively to overrule the Pope’s liturgical decisions, his decrees of canonization, and his laws for the universal Church.

Furthermore, the wager argument assumes, again falsely, that the Pope of the Catholic Church is even able to teach heresy and other dangerous errors to the entire Catholic flock, which each individual believer then has the obligation to reject and resist. On the flip side, we must infer, each Catholic has the corresponding obligation to tune in regularly to the semi-trad resistance network, which will inform him of the existence of an auxiliary bishop from Kazakhstan and a retired papal nuncio in hiding, who have taken it upon themselves to be the orthodox correctors of the Pope. Even though the Apostolic See alone has the guarantee of divine assistance for a safe and salutary shepherding of the flock, and these third-tier bishops have been given charge over no one, nevertheless it is those papal correctors who are to be followed. Anything else would amount to some ridiculous “hyper-uber-papalism”!

This, at least, is what is said by the self-appointed semi-trad journalists, lawyers, professors, and pundits who operate the resistance network, working day and night to ensure people get what the Apostolic See has been divinely guaranteed to give to the Church but in actual fact doesn’t, that is, true doctrine, salutary discipline, holy sacramental rites.

Things get even more interesting when the resisters then disagree with one another about exactly what should and shouldn’t be resisted, or whether this or that “traditionalist” group is legitimate or to be avoided. That is why they end up needing their own ecumenical movement, currently styled “Unite the Clans!” (as in: “Ut Unum Sint”?) by one of the chief resistance personalities, Michael Matt of The Remnant.

Precisely what is theologically safe about such a position, is something Kennedy Hall does not explain.

To illustrate further the absurdity of the semi-trad recognize-and-resist position, we have created the following meme. People are encouraged to spread it far and wide:

In this post, we have seen why Kennedy Hall’s Sedevacantist Wager is anything but a safe bet. We should really call it “Hall’s Wager” instead, for the true “Sedevacantist Wager” is what is expressed elsewhere on this web site:

Remember that Sedevacantism, the position that there has been no (known) true Pope of the Catholic Church since the death of Pius XII in 1958, and that the current Vatican establishment is not the Catholic Church, is entirely safe theologically. By adhering to it, you cannot be led into heresy, nor into schism, if you are faithful to traditional Catholic teaching. Even supposing, for the sake of argument, that the position were false, where would be the danger? What could you be accused of? The worst that could be said of you is that you were wrong about who the Pope was. You believed, in good faith, that there was no Pope when in fact there was one — but at least you acted consistently and in accordance with Catholic teaching, to the best of your ability and in peace with your conscience. You could be accused of having made a sincere mistake, nothing more; a mistake regarding the identity of the true Pope, as many others did before in Church history, and quite innocently. This is the worst that could be said. You could not be accused of adhering to or spreading false doctrine (heresy), nor of refusing to be subject to the man you acknowledged to be the Pope (schism).

(“‘Now What?’ – How to be a real Catholic today”, Novus Ordo Watch; italics given.)

Now we can see how people who are interested in taking the genuinely safer course should embrace Sedevacantism and reject Hall’s Wager, which has shown itself to be nothing but a really bad bargain.

Image source: composite with elements from Shutterstock (Cornelius Krishna Tedjo and Bojan Pavlukovic)
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