“We would contend that Mr Hall is submissive to Francis in precisely the same way that we are.”
Image: Wiki Commons CC
In a recent Crisis Magazine article, Mr Kennedy Hall has submitted a respectful “sedevacantist wager,” as an explanation as to why he thinks that it is more “fitting” to live and act as if Francis is the pope.
I’d like to offer a similarly respectful reply to this.
In this discussion, it is customary to use the unfortunate terms “sedevacantists” and “sedeplenists”, which refer to those who think that the See of St Peter is or is not vacant, respectively. These terms, particularly the former, are unfortunate due to the amount of historical and intellectual baggage accompanying them. For those purposes of this discussion, these terms refer solely to “The Pope Question”, and no other issues which often accompany it.
Let’s have a look at the different stages and explanations of this wager.
Problems with the first prong
Mr Hall begins:
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.
With all due respect to Mr Hall, this contains two instances of assuming what is under discussion here. They are:
- What it means “to be in the Church where he reigns”
- What is the “properly understood” manner in which we must submit to the Roman Pontiff’s teaching and governing authority.
Being in the Church
In order to be in the Church, a member of the Church, one must be baptised, profess the faith, and not be separated from the body either by oneself or by authority. The last two points are sometimes summarised as being “submissive to legitimate authority.”
First, it is not possible or wise to be submissive to doubtful authority. Let’s see the comments made by the canonists Wernz and Vidal, who said that “it would be rash to obey such a man [as pope] who had not proved his title in law”:
“[J]urisdiction is essentially a relation between a superior who has the right to obedience and a subject who has the duty of obeying. Now when one of the parties to this relationship is wanting, the other necessarily ceases to exist also, as is plain from the nature of the relationship.
“However, if a pope is truly and permanently doubtful, the duty of obedience cannot exist towards him on the part of any subject. For the law, ‘Obedience is owed to the legitimately-elected successor of St. Peter,’ does not oblige if it is doubtful; and it most certainly is doubtful if the law has been doubtfully promulgated, for laws are instituted when they are promulgated, and without sufficient promulgation they lack a constitutive part, or essential condition.
“But if the fact of the legitimate election of a particular successor of St. Peter is only doubtfully demonstrated, the promulgation is doubtful; hence that law is not duly and objectively constituted of its necessary parts, and it remains truly doubtful and therefore cannot impose any obligation.
“Indeed it would be rash to obey such a man who had not proved his title in law. Nor could appeal be made to the principle of possession, for the case in question is that of a Roman pontiff who is not yet in peaceful possession. Consequently in such a person there would be no right of command – i.e. he would lack papal jurisdiction.
“The same conclusion is confirmed on the basis of the visibility of the Church. For the visibility of the Church consists in the fact that she possesses such signs and identifying marks that, when moral diligence is used, she can be recognised and discerned, especially on the part of her legitimate officers. But in the supposition we are considering, the pope cannot be found even after diligent examination. The conclusion is therefore correct that such a doubtful pope is not the proper head of the visible Church instituted by Christ.”
Wernz and Vidal are primarily focusing on the question of procedural problems in an election, but the general principle evidently has wider implications.
Let’s be clear: when a man concludes that Francis’ (and his recent predecessors’) claims are even just doubtful, he is placed closer to sedevacantists, than he is to those who hold that he is certainly the pope. Further, noticing this doubtfulness does not thereby separate him from the body.
Everyone who is a Catholic is in the Church; and being wrong about a confusing contingent matter is not, in itself, sufficient to make someone not a Catholic. If Mr Hall is a Catholic, then as far as I can see, sedevacantists are united to him, and he with sedevacantists, and each are in communion with each other. The disagreement over “The Pope Question” is not, in itself, sufficient evidence of a rupture of unity – neither of faith, nor even of government.
Contingent matter or dogmatic fact?
I deliberately say a “contingent matter” rather than a “dogmatic fact.” It is well known that the peaceful and universal adherence of the Church to a man as pope is a “dogmatic fact,” and constitutes a conclusive proof that he is what he appears to be. However, if we look at the explanation for the proof in Cardinal Billot’s work, we find the following:
“[F]or the Church to adhere to a false pontiff would be the same thing as if she were to adhere to a false rule of faith, since the Pope is the living rule which the Church must follow in belief and always follows in fact […] By all means God can permit that at some time or other the vacancy of the see be extended for a considerable time. He can also allow a doubt to arise about the legitimacy of one or another man elected.
“But He cannot permit the entire Church to receive someone as pontiff who is not a true and legitimate [pope].”
It is not credible to claim that Francis – nor indeed any claimant since Vatican II – has certainly and clearly been received in this way, as the proximate rule of faith, by the entire Church. Traditionalists have followed, cited and applauded these claimants when they agree with traditional doctrine – but these claimants have by no means been their proximate rule of faith. In simplistic terms, the traditionalist has been compelled by circumstances to adopt, as his proximate rule, what is called the “remote” rule of faith, namely Holy Scripture and Tradition. This is because it is impossible to adhere to Francis et al. as our proximate rule without either losing the faith, or contradicting things which we have a prior obligation to profess.
Similarly, liberals have followed, cited and applauded Francis et al. when they did liberal things, but otherwise disregarded them.
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Aside from being obviously true, this situation – and its implications for the idea of peaceful and universal adherence – was also observed by the respected author Arnaldo Vidigal Xavier da Silveira, who posed these questions and left them unanswered:
“[W]ould a certain very generalized though not always well defined distrust be sufficient to destroy the apparently pacific and universal character of the acceptance of the Pope? And if this distrust became a suspicion in numerous spirits, a positive doubt in many, a certainty in some, would the aforementioned pacific and universal acceptance subsist?
“And if such distrusts, suspicions, doubts and certainties cropped out with some frequency in conversations or private papers, or now and again in published writings, could one still classify as pacific and universal the acceptance of a Pope who was already a heretic on the occasion of his election by the Sacred College?”
In light of these questions, we can see that it is quite doubtful whether there has been a peaceful or universal adherence to these men in the relevant sense. If there had been, we would have assurance of their legitimacy. This adherence is not a requirement of being a true pope – and its absence does not necessarily prove that a man is illegitimate or doubtful. But this absence in our time does nullify the common use of this argument for the legitimacy of the recent claimants’, and means that their claims can be no more than contingent matters, rather than dogmatic.
The proper manner of submitting to the Roman Pontiff
From foregoing we can see that the second assumption – the proper manner of submitting to the Roman Pontiff – could be the subject of a wager of its own. If those doubting or rejecting these men’s claims are right – and they take their stand on the authority of pre-conciliar theologians – then it could well be that Mr Hall and others are not submissive to the Roman Pontiff in the “manner properly understood.”
In fact, I would contend that beyond verbal claims and occasional optimism about things like the consecration of Russia, Mr Hall is submissive to Francis in precisely the same way that most sedeplenist and sedevacantist traditionalists are – viz., not at all.
“[T]here exists a twofold rule of faith: one remote and one proximate. The remote rule of faith is the Word of God (handed down in writing or orally), which was directly entrusted to the Church’s rulers that from it they might teach and guide the faithful.
“The proximate rule of faith, from which the faithful, one and all, are bound to accept their faith and in accordance with which they are to regulate it, is the preaching of the ecclesiastical magisterium.”
Van Noort continues:
“The Church’s preaching is a rule of faith which is nicely accommodated to people’s needs. For:
“(a) it is an easy rule, one that can be observed by all alike, even the uneducated and unlettered. What could be easier than to give ear to a magisterium that is always at hand and always preaching?
“(b) It is a safe rule, for the Church’s teaching office is infallible in safeguarding and presenting Christ’s doctrine.
“(c) It is a living rule, in accordance with which it is possible in any age to explain the meaning of doctrines and to put an end to controversies.” (Line breaks added)
Wilhelm and Scannell explain further:
“The Rule of Faith was given to the Church in the very act of Revelation and its promulgation by the Apostles. But for this Rule to have an actual and permanently efficient character, it must be continually promulgated and enforced by the living Apostolate, which must exact from all members of the Church a docile Faith in the truths of Revelation authoritatively proposed, and thus unite the whole body of the Church, teachers and taught, in perfect unity of Faith.
“Hence the original promulgation is the remote Rule of Faith, and the continuous promulgation by the Teaching Body is the proximate Rule.” (line break added)
“The fact that all the members of the Church actually agree in one Faith is the best proof of the efficiency of the Catholic Rule of Faith. This universality is not the Rule of Faith itself but rather its effect. Individual members are indeed bound to conform their belief to that of the whole community, but this universal belief is produced by the action of the Teaching Apostolate, the members of which are in their turn subject to their Chief.
“Hence the Catholic Rule of Faith may be ultimately reduced to the sovereign teaching authority of the Holy See.” (Line break added)
To return to the quote from the above, Cardinal Billot summarises succinctly:
“[T]he Pope is the living rule which the Church must follow in belief and always follows in fact.”
None of this can credibly be claimed of Francis and his recent predecessors – not as a universal fact, and certainly not on behalf of traditionalists.
Note what is not being said here: there is no extension of infallibility to everything a pope says, nor an assertion that everything a pope says, “even at breakfast,” constitutes our rule of faith.
But the point is that there is nothing like this kind of submission on the part of traditionalists – including Mr Hall. So while we are basically all “un-submissive” to Francis, there is little scope for a wager of this kind until there is adequate agreement on the terms.
Dangers of submission to a false authority
Mr Hall continues:
If there is no pope but in our Catholic sense we act as if there is, what could we lose?
First, although Mr Hall does not suggest otherwise, let’s be clear that there can be no obligation to submit to a man who is a false or doubtful pope – and the very fact of his article and this discussion show that Francis’ claim is at least doubtful.
Second, as a traditionalist, Mr Hall should be well aware of the dangers associated with acting as if Francis is the pope. He should be well aware that confusion has reigned ever since Vatican II: there has been incredible apostasy from priestly, religious and parish life; rampant confusion; unreliable sacramental administration; the adoption of gross errors of faith and morals, including some touching matters of dogma; and so on.
He should be well aware that all this happened precisely because so many Catholics were led by Francis’ recent predecessors into errors and heresy. Without the apparent prestige of Rome, the conciliar revolution would not have been as it has been. Mr Hall and others might object that the Catholics of those generations should have known better, and not accepted errors: we agree that they should have refused to accept error, but it would be begging the question to draw further conclusions on the topic from this. It also does not prove either side of the wager.
He might object that they should have been wiser about a proper understanding of our relationship to the Roman Pontiff and the exercise of the magisterium; but again, the proper relationship is precisely what must be proved before making such an argument.
Third, as we’ve already seen, it would be rash to submit to a doubtful pope – which is why the axiom holds that “a doubtful pope is no pope.” If a man were to usurp this exalted office, he may or may not teach and govern in accordance with the faith – but he would not be protected by the papal prerogatives and the general doctrinal providence of the Church of Rome. It would therefore be rash to treat such a man as if he was so protected – and yet this is precisely what is entailed in acting as though Francis is the pope.
Some might believe that contemporary writers, in “rethinking the papacy,” have rediscovered lost truths about how we Catholics should really relate to the papacy, meaning that this rashness is only a danger for the uninitiated. But again, this is assuming what needs to be proved for such a wager to have any force.
Mr Hall asks what might be lost by treating Francis et al. as true popes. In fact, this “rethinking of the papacy” is itself a loss and danger arising from such a course of action.
The dangers of rethinking the papacy
Our first duties in the current crisis are to cleave to tradition and to separate ourselves from dangerous occasions – and insofar as this represents a practical programme, it is certainly legitimate.
However, once someone tries to formulate arguments or theories to justify this practical course, it is absolutely necessary that they conform to Catholic theology. Rethinking Catholic theology is completely unacceptable, and such a phrase, to my mind – in all kindness – comes close to an admission of heretical intent.
This is not to judge or condemn anyone repeating this phrase – nor do we even need to judge a false claimant to the papacy, who might be in good faith. But again, this mode of acting is dangerous. Those who are misled with regards a false pope’s claims may find themselves adopting any errors and harmful laws promulgated by this false claimant.
They can only avoid this danger by either a) this abominable idea of “rethinking the papacy”; or b) withdrawing themselves from the claimant’s influence and reserving judgment on his claim. I am sympathetic towards those who do the latter, but only when it is completely consistent and is not confused with a dogmatic insistence on the impossibility of forming a judgment.
In other words, there are several dangers in submitting to a false claimant as Roman Pontiff, even for a committed traditionalist like Mr Hall. Even though this supposed submission consists, in most cases, in nothing more than calling him “Pope,” there is an ongoing danger – greater or lesser, depending on other circumstances – of being deceived or drawn into compromise.
Some simple clauses
Will we stand before God at the end of our lives and be chastised for praying too much for Francis or any other pope?
This isn’t relevant to our claims, nor does it bolster Mr Hall’s.
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.
On the contrary, it is Catholic and fitting to believe, act, live and think in accordance with what is true – first of all, the Catholic faith; and then, whatever else is true as well.
It is most unfitting to rethink Catholic theology for the sole reason of harmonising it with a contingent matters like Francis’ claim to be pope.
Mr Hall continues:
Even if the sedevacantists were right—which I don’t believe is true—they run a great risk if they are wrong.
What risk is this, exactly? Mr Hall does not make clear. Is it perhaps the loss of salvation, as is loosely suggested earlier in the article? I cannot believe that Mr Hall would mean anything so grotesque as saying that Catholics, mistaken in good faith about the contingent matter of the identity of the Roman Pontiff, will be lost for that fact alone.
Might it be the risk of schism, by withdrawing submission from a true pope? But commonly-cited texts should dispel such fears. First, Wernz-Vidal:
“They cannot be numbered among the schismatics, who refuse to obey the Roman Pontiff because they consider his person to be suspect or doubtfully elected on account of rumors in circulation.” 
“If someone, for reasonable motive, holds the person of the pope in suspicion and refuses his presence and even his jurisdiction, he does not commit the delict of schism, not any other whatsoever, provided that he be ready to accept the pope were he not held in suspicion.”
This latter clause – mentioning readiness to submit to an undoubted Roman Pontiff – certainly applies to us.
We could provide other such texts. Mr Hall implicitly concedes that sedevacantists do present some strong arguments – and strong arguments are the very essence of a “reasonable motive.” So much for schism there.
In fact, there are no grounds for either side to be accusing each other of even “material schism” based on their attitude towards Francis’ claim. As with material heresy, such a term does not apply to this situation at all.
However, one can also enter into schism by separating oneself from the unity of the body – in other words, by forming a sect and refusing communion with other Catholics. This is a danger for many groups today, on all sides – and it is not necessitated by either conclusion, even if it can accompany both.
In other words, there may be sedevacantist sects or sectarians, but the conclusion is just that – a conclusion. One does not pass from one club to another by forming this conclusion. Our membership of the Church is determined by the criteria already explained, and not by adherence to or mistakes about contingent matters alone, nor by merely verbal claims on one side or another.
As a corollary to this, we should keep clear that there are no “tenets of sedevacantism.” It’s no good to say, for example, that sedevacantism is false because it would mean all the Novus Ordo ordinations are invalid. To take that example: the validity or doubtfulness of these orders must be justified by further, independent arguments; and persons on all sides hold all sorts of different opinions. Again, no particular opinion is necessitated by the conclusion.
And need we remind anyone of Archbishop Lefebvre’s attitude towards the reformed rites of the sacraments?
The foregoing comments answer Mr Hall’s next point:
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.
Forming a conclusion based on Catholic theology and advancing it to those discussing the matter is not anathematizing anyone, nor is it dogmatising anything.
If some sedevacantists act in such a way, that is their affair. It has no bearing on the truth or safety of the conclusion – still less on those who hold the conclusion without doing such things.
The final prongs of the wager
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.
On the contrary: at best, a traditionalist who treats Francis as pope lives in a state of resistance against the legitimate authority, relying on a contested understanding of proper relations to that authority; and at worst, is led to this “Great Rethink,” which is nothing more than a rejection of Catholic authority and theology.
He must constantly scrutinise the teachings of those whom he claims have been given divine authority to teach. He must qualify almost everything he reads about the Church in pre-conciliar texts. He is in constant danger of the more subtle deceptions – deceptions which those of such a position acknowledge to be inherent in their way of acting.
Ultimately, wagering that there is no pope offers us little if anything, other than a great risk if we aren’t careful.
First, no position is without risk – especially not sedeplenism!
Second, it is “wagering” nothing, but rather forming conclusions of reason based on pre-conciliar theology.
Finally, those who form this conclusion of a vacancy (or at least the doubt about the recenr papal claimants) can thereby attain safety and peace. To explain: it is a fact that many recent “converts” to traditionalist groups maintain one foot in what Archbishop Lefebvre called “the conciliar church” – something which he and the older generations of traditionalist faithful and priests firmly rejected.
This conclusion leads them to withdraw themselves and their dependents from the whole monstrous edifice of the new religion, from the modernists claiming to hold authority in the Church, and from any temptation to fall into their more subtle errors. In place of this, those who form this conclusion or doubt receive the tradition of our ancestors and the entire doctrinal and theological patrimony of the Church, for their spiritual edification and sanctification.
I could end this piece with a counter-wager to Mr Hall, but I have already said that such a wager requires agreement on the nature of assent to be given to the teaching of the Roman Pontiff and the magisterium. As such, while thanking Mr Hall for his contribution for the debate, I shall instead end with some observations on the results of accepting this conclusion.
If the claims of Francis and his recent predecessors are doubtful, then the conclusion which follows is not that they should be treated as popes – rather, it is that they should treated as though they are not popes, until such a time as the contrary becomes clear (if ever).
To many, the more firm conclusion may seem a difficult pill to swallow. Doubt about their claims may seem easier, but it ends in the same place.
But once the “pill” has been swallowed, the conclusion is a seemingly unending source of joy and peace. It is so, not because of the bare idea itself, but because of what it shows us about the Church.
It is the joy of knowing that we are the members of a divinely instituted, divinely guided and guarded Church, the safe teacher of religion, the safe guide of salvation. She is not a withered, impotent thing whom we must save by our activism.
We are not saving her – she is saving us, as the instrument of her Divine Spouse.
It’s been said by one critic that this conclusion is “sugary Catholic candy, tasting sweet going down”, but ultimately “unfulfilling and unhealthy”. But everything there is backwards. It does not at all taste sweet going down – it is a struggle. But once accepted, we have all that is fulfilling and healthy ahead of us.
This conclusion opens up, at last, the theological and spiritual tradition of the Catholic Church. Before, one can only be confused and reserved when reading about the Church in classics like Dom Guéranger’s The Liturgical Year – or in Cardinal Newman, Fr Kearney, and all the works of traditional ecclesiology.
But after, one accepts, understands – and rejoices.
Once we have seen that the Church truly is as she is described in her approved and traditional theology, we see that she does not need us to rethink anything about her at all. Rather, we can say, paraphrasing St Paul: “I reckon that the sufferings of this time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come.”
This is no mere appeal to emotion. Removing a pair of spectacles which we never needed and finally seeing clearly would make anyone happy.
But this happiness is merely a secondary result – not the primary result, nor cause, reason or proof – of clear vision.
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 Wernz, P. F-X, and Vidal, P. Petri,. Ius Canonicum ad Codicis Normam Exactum, Universitatis Gregorianae Universitas Gregoriana, Rome, 1938. The translator of this text could not be identified, but it has been checked against the original by Mr Cristian Jacobo. A screenshot of the Latin, along with the translation, is available in this thread: https://web.archive.org/web/20210226071737/http://www.strobertbellarmine.net/viewtopic.php?p=10051
 Louis Cardinal Billot, Tractatus De Ecclesia Christi 5th Edition, Rome: Gregorian Pontifical University, 1927. Excerpt: Thesis XXIX, translated by Novus Ordo Watch, available at https://novusordowatch.org/billot-de-ecclesia-thesis29/. Cited text from §3.
 Arnaldo Vidigal Xavier da Silveira, Two Timely Issues: The New Mass and the Possibility of a Heretical Pope, The Foundation for a Christian Civilization, trans Spann and Schelini, Penn, 2022, p 247.
 Ibid 122
 Joseph Wilhelm and Thomas B. Scannell, A Manual of Catholic Theology Vol. I, based on Scheeben’s “Dogmatik”, Benziger Brothers, New York 1899, p 85. Cf. also Matthias Scheeben, Handbook of Catholic Dogmatics, Book One, Part One, Emmaus Academic, Steubenville, Ohio, 2019, n. 398, pp 469-70.
 Wilhelm and Scannell 85-6, cf. also Scheeben n. 399, pp 470-1
 Billot Ibid.
 Francisco X. Wernz, Petri vidal, Ius Canonicum, Vol vii, 1937, n. 398.
 Cajetan, Commentarium, 1540, II-II, 39, 1.