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Dear visitors: This website from Catholic Answers, with all its many resources, is the world's largest source of explanations for Catholic beliefs and practices. A fully independent, lay-run, 501(c)(3) ministry that receives no funding from the institutional Church, we rely entirely on the generosity of everyday people like you to keep this website going with trustworthy , fresh, and relevant content. If everyone visiting this month gave just $1, would be fully funded for an entire year. Do you find helpful? Please make a gift today. Thank you. Wishing you a blessed Lenten season.

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The Errors of Sedevacantism

Sedevacantism is the claim, espoused by certain extreme traditionalist Catholics, that there is currently no valid pope because of a great apostasy by either the pope or the whole Church. Jimmy Akin explains why the reasons given by sedevacantists for their position are faulty and contrary to the promises of Christ.


Caller: I was protestant, I then ventured into atheism, and now I am currently at RCIA accepting the Catholic faith. So I’ve come across a website that talks about the sedevacantist-type idea of how the Church might be in the great apostasy and how we might not be only in the great apostasy, but that the Catholic Church has ventured from its original traditions. I know you said in the past that they interpret things wrong, but they’re also very convincing, and so I want to come across this logically.

Jimmy: Sure. So a first thought I’d have is: is this the right time in your journey to be trying to process this kind of information? Because this is a…I mean, I don’t discourage people from looking at information and arguments, but there are questions of timing, and while you’re going through this education of yourself in learning about Church teaching and what the Church says, I don’t know that it’s the most prudent time to be reading material that attacks the Church in this way, because they’re going to be distorting. Anytime someone is attacking somebody else, you have a big risk that they’re distorting things. And if you’re just learning Church teaching for the first time, you may not want to be exposing yourself to material that has a high risk of distorting things or presenting it in an imbalanced way.

The term “great apostasy” does appear in scripture, but it’s used in more than one context. And some of the uses refer to events that are already in our past, but—or actually, “great tribulation” is the term I’m thinking of there. The term “great apostasy” is really a theological term that’s based on some passages that indicate there will be a great falling-away from the faith towards the end of the world. And that’s something the Catholic Church accepts and recognizes, and it’s mentioned in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

But what I find problematic with a lot of these sedevacantist claims is they don’t understand what an apostasy is. Apostasy is defined as—and you can read this in the Code of Canon Law, including the 1917 Code of Canon Law, if I recall correctly, it’s certainly in the 83 Code and it’s in the Catechism—apostasy is defined as the total repudiation of the Christian faith. So in order to be an apostate, you have to say “I was a Christian and I’m not anymore.”

So if you’re a schismatic that has left full communion with the Church, you’re not an apostate. You have not committed apostasy. If you’re a heretic that has denied some dogma of the faith, you’re not an apostate. In order to be an apostate, you have to say “I am not a Christian any more.” And that is not what’s happening in terms of the claims sedevacantists are making with regard to the bishops of the Church.

Have there been individual people who are apostates in our age? Sure. There are people in every age who apostatize. And have there been a large number of them in certain parts of the world today? Sure. You look in Europe, there are a bunch of apostates in Europe. There are also apostates here in America. But those situations are not representative of the Church as a whole.

The Church as a whole is growing, and it’s one-sixth of mankind. The Church is bigger today than it has ever been in the past, and so it has more members now than it has ever had in the past. So it’s hard to say “we’re in a great apostasy” or “THE Great Apostasy” when the Church is bigger than ever. What we would need to have The Great Apostasy is the Church, on a global scale, shrinking, dramatically shrinking. That’s how the Catechism envisions it. It talks about how the Church will almost pass out of existence, but Christ will return to save it at the last moment.

Similarly, Jesus asks “Will the son of man find faith when he comes back?” So all this and various other indicators suggest that by the end of the world we’re gonna have dramatically diminished in size. We’re not gonna be a sixth of mankind and be bigger than we’ve ever been in history. So we just don’t see the conditions necessary for The Great Apostasy.

And you do not have bishops, you don’t have the the pope and the body of bishops saying “Guess what, you know, we used to be Christian, but we’re not anymore.” Therefore, whatever criticisms you have of the pope and the bishops, they have not apostatized. So the people who are making these arguments simply do not understand what an apostasy is.

Now there was another component to your question which is: has the Church abandoned its traditions? Well, one of the things you discover when you read the Church’s documents and when you study the course of history is, although tradition has elements of continuity that are the same all the way down through Church history and have been since the first century, there are other elements of tradition that adapt and that develop with the course of time.

So originally, presumably, Jesus said the liturgy for the first time in Aramaic, at the last supper. Aramaic was the most common language spoken in Palestine at the time, we have indications from the gospels that Jesus regularly spoke Aramaic so the first Mass was probably Aramaic. But very quickly, certainly by Saint Paul’s time, they started saying Mass in Greek. So that aspect of the tradition adapted. It developed. And soon, within a couple of centuries, mass was being said in Latin. Originally, even in Rome, it was said in Greek; but over the course of time, Latin was added, and so were other languages.

And in the 300s, the divinity of Christ was in was infallibly defined, and so even though that had been part of the tradition up to now, now it was an infallibly defined tradition. And in 381, the divinity of the Holy Spirit was infallibly defined. It had already been a tradition, but now it was an infallibly defined one. And so you have elements of tradition that are in continuity with the past, but you also have developments that occur within that tradition.

And so part of the problem with sedevacantists is they don’t recognize the degree to which development can happen. They insist frequently—and frankly—on an uncharitable reading of every development, and portray it as if it was an unacceptable development, and they have essentially fossilized a certain stage of development in the history of the Church and said “Any departure from that is an apostasy.” And that’s just a misrepresentation, both of the concept of apostasy and of the way tradition works. Because it has not only the element of continuity, but it also has the element of development that occurs, and you can’t arbitrarily fossilize a certain stage in the Church’s history and say “There can be no departures from this. Anything else is a betrayal.”

Host: All right, how’s all that, Brent? Does that give you some help?

Caller: Yeah, it definitely helps. And I totally understand when you said that since I’m going through the education of the Catholic Church, and even besides going through RCIA I’ve been doing a lot of my own research on the Catholic Church, which is again why I want to join the Catholic Church, I definitely found the truth in it. So in your opinion, Jimmy, you would say that there are—this is just a clarification for me personally— you would say that there definitely are not any anti-popes, and all of the bishops still have their full succession from the original Church from the beginning, correct?

Jimmy: Well, there are anti-popes. I mean, there’s a guy in Kansas who calls himself Pope Michael, and he’s not the real pope, so that makes him an anti-pope. In fact, I had two anti-popes on Facebook try to become my Facebook friends a while back, but I concluded that they just wanted to be Facebook friends so they could promote their anti-papacies, and I didn’t friend them.

In terms of Pope Francis, he’s the pope. He’s the one that the college of cardinals elected, and I have no doubt about that. I have no doubt that the bishops are, as a college, successors of the apostles. One of the things that Christ promised is that he would be with his church till the end of time. He also promised the gates of hell would not prevail against it. Well, whatever else that means, it means there’s not going to be a sudden apostasy of the bishops who were guided by the Holy Spirit, according to Jesus, and by Jesus himself. There’s not going to be a sudden apostasy with nobody noticing.

So what happens with these sedevacantists is they will typically say things like “Vatican II was the point of the rupture,” and maybe even a little earlier than that, with Pope John XXIII, “He was not a valid pope for…reasons,” which are really hard to specify. And then Vatican II said all kinds of horrible things, in their mind, that contradicted the historic faith.

Well, here’s the thing: the bishops of the world, who are guided by the Holy Spirit and are successors of the apostles—they were there at Vatican II! And if Vatican II had done something that fundamentally betrayed the faith, then number one, the gates of hell would have prevailed against the Church, which Jesus said wouldn’t happen, and number two, there would have been an outcry from the bishops!

I mean, how do you get—maybe you get some of the bishops to have a wrong-headed notion about something, maybe even got a significant number of them to have a wrong-headed notion about something— but some of them are gonna be guided enough by the Holy Spirit that they say “Wait a minute! This is really wrong here!” And that didn’t happen. You didn’t have a protest of bishops denouncing the Vatican II documents at the time of Vatican II. You had a little bit of buyer’s remorse afterwards by one bishop—I’m thinking of Marcel Lefebvre— but at the time of the Council, he didn’t you know, shout from the rooftops, “This is all wrong.” He signed the Vatican II documents.

So there just would have been, at the Council, some kind of massive protest if it did anything fundamentally wrong. So even if you want to say, “Well, I think they could have done better, or think they could have phrased this differently,” fine. But if there was some horrendous theological error that struck at the foundation of the Church, some group of the episcopate would have protested. And they didn’t. And that tells us that Christ is maintaining his Church in the truth fundamentally, just like he said he would.

As Saint Paul says, it’s the pillar and foundation of truth in the world, Christ said the gates of hell are not going to prevail against it, and so consequently, this—and I hate to say this, because I don’t like to say things in general that are negative about people—but the ideas that are being proposed by sedevacantists are just paranoid and delusional ideas that are not in conformity with the promises of Christ.

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