The Faith allows for mystery but not for contradiction…
Sedevacantism and the Mystery of the Church’s Passion:
Reply to Robert Morrison
On June 30, 2023, the semi-traditionalist flagship publication The Remnant published a brief article entitled “Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre’s Vision of the Great Mystery of the Church’s Passion”. Its author is Robert Morrison, a writer we have had occasion to critique a number of times before on this blog and in our podcast program.
In this post we will touch on a few things from that article that appear to call for some sedevacantist reaction. Morrison writes:
Whereas Archbishop Lefebvre accepted the existence of a great mystery as it relates to the Church’s crisis, others have attempted to eliminate the mystery, typically in one of two ways described by Archbishop Lefebvre:
“There are people who are seeing the passion of the Church and the tragedy of papacy and so they conclude that such a degradation of papacy is not possible and so the pope can not be the pope. Others draw the contrary conclusion saying: Since the pope is pope, all the reforms coming from Rome must be good, it is only an appearance of bad and so they swallow the poison.” (as recounted in Fr. Schmidberger’s 2005 talk [linked here])
It is a great misconception to think that sedevacantists “have attempted to eliminate the mystery” of the Church’s Passion. The sedevacantist does not try to rid himself of an inconvenient burden, he tries to explain the imposition of a substantially changed faith by the putative Catholic authorities in a way that harmonizes with the traditional teaching of the Church.
When he comes across something he cannot explain, he will ascribe it to his own lack of understanding perhaps but ultimately leave it to mystery, to the inscrutable designs of God, who has told us through the prophet Isaias: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts: nor your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are exalted above the earth, so are my ways exalted above your ways, and my thoughts above your thoughts ” (Is 55:8-9).
In no traditionalist position is there more mystery than in Sedevacantism. Ironically, it is often the recognize-and-resist people who will use precisely the lack of neat and easy answers to all possible objections as an argument against Sedevacantism, saying things like, “Sedevacantism is a dead end”, “Sedevacantism has no solution”, “How will Sedevacantists ever have a Pope again?”, etc.
As we have maintained on this web site for many years, Sedevacantism is not a dead end but, if anything, an open end. It is the mystery-laden position that remains once the impossible positions have been ruled out. It is a position that rejects contradiction, not mystery:
- Playing it Safe? Kennedy Hall and the Sedevacantist Wager
- On those ‘Spiritual Dangers’ of Sedevacantism: A Reply to Eric Sammons
By rejecting contradiction while embracing mystery, sedevacantists demonstrate their adherence to the Catholic Faith, which transcends reason but is never repugnant to it. The dogma of the Holy Trinity, for example, is something that is beyond human reason because it cannot be known by reason alone. We would have no knowledge of it if God had not revealed it to us. Thus it can only be accepted on Faith, that is, on the authority of the all-knowing, all-good, and all-truthful God. We know it is true because He who cannot lie or be deceived has revealed it to us.
There can be no doubt that the Catholic Church, which is the Mystical Body of Christ (see Pope Pius XII, Encyclical Humani Generis, n. 27), is currently undergoing her own Passion, as she must in imitation of her divine Head (cf. Col 1:24). What sedevacantists and semi-traditionalists disagree on is the nature of that Passion: In what does it consist? What kind of Mystical Passion does traditional Catholic doctrine allow for, and what kind is absolutely excluded by the divine promises?
Here are some helpful resources in that regard:
- The True and the False Passion of the Church
- The Papacy and the Passion of the Church
- Sedevacantism and Calvary: A Brief Response to Cor Mariae
- On that “Passion of the Church” Argument (in response to John Salza and Robert Siscoe)
- Fr. Berry on the Persecution of the Church in the Last Days (Part 3): A False Pope and a Vacant Holy See
- A Conspiracy against the Catholic Church? The True Popes Speak
- TRADCAST 009
- Like Sheep without a Shepherd: 60 Years of Sede Vacante
- Eclipse of the Church: The Case for Sedevacantism
The position of Abp. Marcel Lefebvre (1905-1991) and his Society of St. Pius X, by contrast, which Morrison is more or less promoting, is an all-too human “solution”: disobey, resist, ignore, pick and choose, reject, set yourself up as the final arbiter, fight even to the point of excommunication, which you declare to be invalid, of course; and when the Holy See tells you you’re guilty of schism, just maintain that it doesn’t count because you’re just maintaining and defending the true Faith in all its purity, whereas the Holy See is not.
Is this how Jesus Christ set up His Church to work? Is this what Our Lord meant when He said to St. Peter (and his successors): “And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven” (Mt 16:19)? If so, how is the Anglican Church any different?
When looking at the semi-trad program of resistance against the Vatican II Church, one is very much reminded of Pope Pius IX’s description of the self-styled ‘Old Catholics’ of his day, who rejected the dogmatic teaching of Vatican I regarding papal infallibility:
They repeatedly state openly that they do not in the least reject the Catholic Church and its visible head but rather that they are zealous for the purity of Catholic doctrine declaring that they are the heirs of the ancient faith and the only true Catholics. But in fact they refuse to acknowledge all the divine prerogatives of the vicar of Christ on earth and do not submit to His supreme magisterium.
(Pope Pius IX, Encyclical Graves Ac Diuturnae, n. 2)
Does this sound familiar? Perhaps because these words match, almost perfectly, the Lefebvrists and other recognize-and-resisters who love to complain about “Ultramontanism”?
The reason why sedevacantists and hardcore mainstream Novus Ordos (of the Catholic Answers and Where Peter Is type) share the conviction that a Passion of the Church in the manner Abp. Lefebvre understood it is impossible, is that both the sedevacantist and the hardcore Novus Ordo believes the traditional Catholic teaching concerning the Papacy — not only in times when all is well but also, and perhaps especially, in times of crisis, revolution, and persecution:
(For) you know that the Lord proclaims in the Gospel: Simon, Simon, behold Satan has desired to have you, that he might sift you as wheat: but I have asked the Father for thee, that thy faith fail not; and thou being once converted, confirm thy brethren [Lk 22:31-32]. Consider, most dear ones, that the Truth could not have lied, nor will the faith of PETER be able to be shaken or changed forever. For although the devil desired to sift all the disciples, the Lord testifies that He Himself asked for PETER alone and wished the others to be confirmed by him; and to him also, in consideration of a greater love which he showed the Lord before the rest, was committed the care of feeding the sheep [cf. Jn 21:15ff.]; and to him also He handed over the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and upon him He promised to build his Church, and He testified that the gates of hell would not prevail against it [cf. Mt 16:16ff.].
(Pope Pelagius II, Apostolic Letter Quod ad Dilectionem; Denz. 246)
Let the faithful recall the fact that Peter, Prince of Apostles is alive here and rules in his successors, and that his office does not fail even in an unworthy heir. Let them recall that Christ the Lord placed the impregnable foundation of his Church on this See of Peter [Mt 16:18] and gave to Peter himself the keys of the kingdom of Heaven [Mt 16:19]. Christ then prayed that his faith would not fail, and commanded Peter to strengthen his brothers in the faith [Lk 22:32]. Consequently the successor of Peter, the Roman Pontiff, holds a primacy over the whole world and is the true Vicar of Christ, head of the whole Church and father and teacher of all Christians.
Indeed one simple way to keep men professing Catholic truth is to maintain their communion with and obedience to the Roman Pontiff. For it is impossible for a man ever to reject any portion of the Catholic faith without abandoning the authority of the Roman Church. In this authority, the unalterable teaching office of this faith lives on. It was set up by the divine Redeemer and, consequently, the tradition from the Apostles has always been preserved. So it has been a common characteristic both of the ancient heretics and of the more recent Protestants — whose disunity in all their other tenets is so great — to attack the authority of the Apostolic See. But never at any time were they able by any artifice or exertion to make this See tolerate even a single one of their errors.
(Pope Pius IX, Encyclical Nostis et Nobiscum, nn. 16-17; underlining added.)
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, n. 7; underlining added.)
They [the Modernists] will learn many excellent things from such a great teacher [as Cardinal John Henry Newman]: in the first place, to regard the Magisterium of the Church as sacred, to defend the doctrine handed down inviolately by the Fathers and, what is of highest importance to the safeguarding of Catholic truth, to follow and obey the Successor of St. Peter with the greatest faith.
(Pope St. Pius X, Apostolic Letter Tuum Illud)
Additional quotations from the papal magisterium can be found here:
We cannot simply junk all of this true Catholic teaching and decide that it somehow doesn’t apply in our times, all the while still considering ourselves traditional Catholics, the ‘faithful remnant’, so to speak. It’s a contradiction and therefore impossible. We cannot keep the Faith by denying the Faith, any more than we can borrow our way out of debt.
The following meme makes that point in a pithy way:
Continuing now with Morrison’s article, the author offers the following critique of Sedevacantism:
But if one adopts a sedevacantist position, the Church’s passion and accompanying mystery do not relent. At best, one trades instruments of affliction: the sedevacantist is relieved of his need to believe that the Church is led by Francis, but burdened with other questions that should be painful for Catholics. Who was the last pope? Are there any real cardinals living today? What happened to the Church’s visibility? Are the laity really required to declare that we have no pope to remain Catholic? Does it really make sense that the “sedevacantist Church” has not had a pope since Pius XII but has been relatively free from persecution, while the “counterfeit Church” in Rome has been the target of perpetual attacks from Satan during that time?
(Robert Morrison, “Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre’s Vision of the Great Mystery of the Church’s Passion”, The Remnant, June 30, 2023)
We have already seen that the sedevacantist does not “attempt to eliminate the mystery” of the Church’s Passion, he tries to understand it correctly.
The questions Morrison brings up are quite reasonable and perfectly legitimate. Let’s go through them and provide at least some cursory answers:
- Who was the last Pope?
Pope Pius XII died on Oct. 9, 1958. We now know that with the election of Cardinal Angelo Roncalli as his putative successor (‘Pope John XXIII’ [r. 1958-63]), there began a period of transition in the Vatican from Catholicism to the Novus Ordo religion, and thus from the Catholic Church to the Novus Ordo Church (Vatican II/Conciliar Church). On account of this gradual transition, we are confronted not only with black and white but also with a lot of grey when it comes to determining what happened, how it happened, what consequences followed, and who legitimately held what office at what point in time.
As a matter of fact, if today were, say, February 4, 1958, all of the ‘warring’ parties — sedevacantists, recognize-and-resist trads, and conservative Novus Ordos — would be entirely united with each other and in submission to the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Pius XII. We would all be united in doctrine, government, and worship.
It was not until John XXIII that we saw various ‘impossible’ things starting to take place, most notably the encyclical Pacem in Terris (1963). If we go by the principle that “by their fruits you shall know them” (Mt 7:20), it is reasonable to hold that Roncalli was the first false pope of the 20th century. Since the evidence against John XXIII, however, is not as copious or as clear-cut as it is against Paul VI (r. 1963-78), some believe the first false pope was Paul VI.
- Are there any real cardinals living today?
There are no cardinals appointed by a true Pope alive today, that much is certain, unless we want to posit that there is some true Pope in hiding who has appointed cardinals. While that may or may not be possible, either way it would remain a mere hypothesis.
Morrison brings up this question, of course, because if all cardinals are dead, it is legitimate to wonder how a new Pope should ever be elected going forward. Since Pope Pius XII’s Apostolic Constitution Vacantis Apostolicae Sedis of Dec. 8, 1945, stipulates that only cardinals can elect a Pope validly, some draw the rash conclusion that Sedevacantism therefore implies there can never be another Pope again.
However, this does not follow because Pius XII’s constitution on how to elect a Roman Pontiff is merely ecclesiastical law and therefore human law. It is not divine law, and it is therefore limited of its very nature. A human legislator — in this case, the Pope — can never foresee all possible circumstances that may arise, and human laws, even in the Church, are not meant to address all possible scenarios but are typically made only for ordinary circumstances.
In his monumental 4-volume work on moral and pastoral theology, Fr. Henry Davis discusses this: “[N]o human legislator can possibly foresee all circumstances”, he writes, and clarifies that church law “need not be fulfilled … if it has become impossible, or harmful, or unreasonable, or useless in general” (Davis, Moral and Pastoral Theology, vol. 1, pp. 188, 168; italics added). This means that if the Pope and all the cardinals were to die on the same day, the human law concerning the election of the next Pope would automatically cease, because it would be incapable of being fulfilled. The right to elect the Pope would then devolve on those whom the cardinals represent, namely, the clergy of the diocese of Rome, whose bishop the Pope is.
The overall principle that is operative here is essentially this: Church law was made for the good of souls; souls were not made for Church law (cf. Mk 2:27).
- What happened to the Church’s visibility?
That is a great and very difficult question. The following posts may help in sorting things out:
- Apostolic Succession after Pope Pius XII: Where is the Catholic Hierarchy?
- Saint Augustine: “The Church Will Not Appear” during Great Tribulation before Christ’s Return
- Pre-Vatican II Theologian: Catholicity of Church “Very Restricted” during Great Apostasy
- A Church without Popes forever? Response to an Inquiring Writer at OnePeterFive
- The Catholic Church after Pope Pius XII: A Postscript to Fr. Ringrose’s Repudiation of Recognize-and-Resist
- Fr. Berry on the Persecution of the Church in the Last Days: A False Pope and a Vacant Holy See
Let us turn to Morrison’s next question:
- Are the laity really required to declare that we have no pope to remain Catholic?
The laity are required to profess the Catholic Faith, and they are not professing the Catholic Faith if they repudiate what the Church teaches about the Papacy, which they do because they insist on accepting as Pope a man who teaches heresy in his official magisterium and then try to make the Catholic doctrine fit the resulting absurdity.
Morrison’s final question is:
- Does it really make sense that the “sedevacantist Church” has not had a pope since Pius XII but has been relatively free from persecution, while the “counterfeit Church” in Rome has been the target of perpetual attacks from Satan during that time?
First, there is no “sedevacantist Church”. There is simply the Roman Catholic Church in the horrifying state in which she now finds herself on account of what the persecutors have done to her.
Second, Morrison has left out of account that the counterfeit church of Vatican II has not been the target of perpetual attacks from the devil, it has been doing the attacking! That is precisely why they’re all resisting it and why they’re fighting so hard to defy their oh-so valid ‘Pope’, his teachings, and especially his persecution of the Traditional Latin Mass and anything that reminds him of Catholicism. It is evident that the persecution is coming from the counterfeit church, it is not directed against it! That is precisely what makes the whole situation so bewildering, absurd, and unique. Interestingly enough, Morrison himself published an article on Aug. 1, 2023, entitled: “The Only Principle of Coherence for Francis’s Anti-Catholic Religion is Demonic”. There is your demonic attacker: ‘Pope’ Francis!
Third, it is ironic that Morrison, as a columnist for The Remnant, should put “counterfeit church” in quotation marks and suggest that it really is not a counterfeit church at all. Has he not been reading the paper he writes for? The Remnant has long propagated the idea of a “New Church”, “Newchurch”, a “Conciliar Church”, a “Vatican II Church”, a “counterfeit Catholic church” (ha!), a “Francis Church”, an “Ape Church”, indeed a “new religion”.
On May 30, 2023, a Remnant contributor wrote:
Over the past sixty years, since the ecclesiastical revolution of the 1960’s and accelerated in the past decade in particular, there has been a counterfeit Catholic church in the works, forged and fashioned by Modernists who have infiltrated the true Church. This counterfeit church is now so contrary to Catholicism, it can no longer be regarded as true religion.
(Fr. Celatus, “Pseudo Synagogues and Counterfeit Churches”, The Remnant, May 30, 2023; underlining added.)
Barely two weeks ago, the same paper published a new write-up by ‘Archbishop’ Carlo Maria Viganò, who contended that “the time has come to choose which side we are on. Either with Bergoglio and Spadaro, with the Synod on Synodality, with a human and counterfeit church enslaved to the New World Order, or with God, His Church, and His Saints” (underlining added).
In an article dated Oct. 2, 2020, Morrison’s colleague Jason Morgan had written that “Newchurch, the faux Catholic Church headed by Pope Francis, is not a religious organization at all.”
And just over four months ago, Morrison himself acknowledged:
What we see today, with Francis and his blasphemous Synod, is simply the advanced stage of the project announced by John XXIII on October 11, 1962. The human architects and builders died without seeing the fruits of their labors, but Satan remains to approve of what people now mistakenly view as the Church. Whatever we call it — Conciliar Church, Ecumenical Church, Synodal Church, etc. — it no longer resembles the Catholic Church, no matter how it identifies itself.
(Robert Morrison, “Deconstructing John XXIII’s Opening Address of Vatican II to Understand Satan’s Blueprint”, The Remnant, May 3, 2023)
Thus it is clear that, leaving presumably good intentions aside, The Remnant, while presuming to brand itself as authentically Catholic and faithful to traditional Catholicism, is simply another entity that has the blind leading the blind (cf. Mt 15:14).
Lastly, let us look at the five questions raised by Morrison a second time; but this time, we will shift them to his position and see how, duly adjusted, they pose problems just as much (if not more) for the recognize-and-resist camp:
- Who was the last Pope? –> Who was the last Pope whose teaching was sound and reliable and had to be accepted under pain of sin?
- Are there any real cardinals living today? –> What good are living cardinals if in the end they give us a non-Catholic ‘Pope’ like Bergoglio who leads souls to hell in his official magisterium and other ‘papal’ acts?
- What happened to the Church’s visibility? –> What happened to the Church’s visibility if, as soon as one has identified it as the true Church and discovered its whereabouts, one cannot embrace it but must resist it, lest it lead one to hell? Is such a church the Church founded by Christ, and is that the purpose of visibility — so we know which church to resist?
- Are the laity really required to declare that we have no pope to remain Catholic? –> Are the laity really required to consult self-appointed “faithful Catholics” who contradict, reject, dismiss, minimize, ignore, and mock the official documents published by the (supposed) Holy See?
- Does it really make sense that the “sedevacantist Church” has not had a pope since Pius XII but has been relatively free from persecution, while the “counterfeit Church” in Rome has been the target of perpetual attacks from Satan during that time? –> Does it really make sense that a false magisterium, false doctrine, false theology, false moral principles, false sacramental rites, false marriage annulments, false saints, false disciplinary laws, indeed a whole false religion should have come from a series of true Popes?
Perhaps Robert Morrison could answer these at his convenience.
By the way: Our latest podcast, TRADCAST EXPRESS 177, looks at Morrison’s Sep. 4, 2023, article “Now That Francis Has Created Congar’s ‘Different Church,’ Can We Stop Calling it Catholic?”, published, of course, in The Remnant. You can listen below or at this link:
The terrible nightmare we are going through in our day is a great mystery, and we must allow for some latitude, some room for disagreement about things that are not certain or clear.
However, one thing we can never do is accept contradiction; and that is how we know the recognize-and-resist position, as humanly appealing as it may be, is false.
Image source: Shutterstock (Fabrizio Maffei)