On either side of the “narrow gate” of Christ and His Church, there are those who see it but refuse to enter it; some of them want to enlarge it, some of them want to make it still narrower, and some want to move it altogether.
This post deals with those who wish to both displace and narrow the gate beyond what Our Lord intended. They are “sede vacantes,” those who insist that the Seat of Peter (“sede”) is vacant (“vacante”) — in plain English, those who believe in the Church and the papacy, but hold that the current pope is not validly elected and that the Catholic Church is not really, well, the Catholic Church any more. Therefore, for them, their pope-less band is the “Catholic Church,” not that group of imposters in Rome and elsewhere, and if you’re not one of the chosen few of them, you’re a heretic.
I’ve only recently become somewhat acquainted with this rather bizarre belief by reading and attempting to understand the webpages of some of its adherents. It seems that this group (small, but loud and obstinate) does not believe there has been a valid pope since Pius XII, who reigned until 1958, and dissents from anything proceeding from the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, including the Ordinary Form of the Mass, recently canonized saints, recently approved Church movements, and just about any papal teaching that doesn’t directly derive from Pius XII or an earlier pope. That covers a lot of ground.
I have a hard time understanding the logical or emotional appeal of the “sede vacante” position, particularly since its adherents don’t seem interested in explaining it beyond spewing strange conspiracy theories, or in debating it, and seem to pride themselves on being a tiny “remnant” of the real Church. Additionally, I don’t see how their problems can ever be resolved. The conundrum they’ve asserted (a pope-less Church and invalid actions galore for four decades) has no solution and their habit of fault-finding/-inventing and bitter rebellion will make it hard for them to ever humble themselves and re-enter the Church. Nonetheless, I’ll attempt to identify and address their major arguments.

Sede vacantes hold that a cardinal named Siri was elected pope in the conclaves of 1958 and 1963, but was prevented from assuming power by some sort of conspiracy. Of course, as conclaves are secret, only the cardinal electors can state with any authority what occurs in them, and they are sworn not to. Furthermore, Cardinal Siri himself remained obedient to the popes of the Church until his death in 1989, so it seems hardly likely that he considered himself a pope-in-exile. The sede vacantes, like all conspiracy theorists, have their photos (in this case, inlvolving the colors of the different emissions of smoke from the conclave) and bad guys, but they are long on innuendo and short on fact or reason.

Still more illogically, sede vacantes hold that Vatican II and the popes of that time and subsequent to it have somehow been “condemned” by popes who were dead before the council even met! Essentially, the sede vacantes will cherry-pick the statements of popes whom they like and apply the words of these popes to popes who don’t suit their tastes. It’s quite a trick to assert that a dead pope condemns a successive pope from the grave! There are other serious problems with this argument. For one, when He established the papacy upon Peter, Christ assured the invincibility of the Church (Matt 16:18) and if She truly has no pope, She has been conquered and He lied, which He cannot do. Also, the Church teaches that each pope is a successor of St. Peter and holds all of the powers of that office, so the powers of the office do not “dilute” over time (that is, it is erroneous to say that St. Peter was the pope with the most authority, that each of his successors have had less authority than those before them, and that Pope Benedict XVI has still less authority than Pope John Paul II).

What the sede vacante position boils down to is a profound disagreement with the doctrines and implementation of the Second Vatican Council — “modernism,” in their catch-all term. Hence, the mental contortions to discredit the Council and recent popes. There are many legitimate complaints about the implementation of the Council, though the documents themselves are quite profound. Our Holy Father has frequently critiqued the changes-for-the-worse in liturgy and one need only look at the sad decline in practice and numbers of many religious orders to see big problems, but the spiritual-Luddite mentality of the sede vacantes and their ugly rhetoric that often smacks of anti-Semitism (for example) is not the solution!

My admittedly limited dealings with members of this group have been frustrating and, for the reasons I’ve discussed above, I doubt most Catholics will get very far in discussions with the sede vacantes. However, we always have recourse to prayer and that, frankly, is what I recommend for these souls lost in their self-made sea of errors. And, it is also important that we pray that they not lead more troubled Catholics out into the murky waters with them!

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