What is the Church like during a period of sede vacante? Journet & Cajetan tell us

“When the Pope dies the Church is widowed.”

Papal elections without the cardinals, and the state of the Church during a a papal interregnum
St Robert Bellarmine
Journet and Cajetan on elections
Journet and Cajetan on the state of an interregnum

Image: Cardinal Journet, by Armand Niquille, Wiki Commons.

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Editors’ Notes

This part of our series on papal elections takes a diversion into an important question: What is the state of the Church during a papal interregnum?

In the extract below, taken from his book The Church of the Word Incarnate, Charles Journet addresses this question, closely following the opinions of the sixteenth century Dominican theologian, Thomas de Vio Cajetan.

As well as the general state of the Church during such a period, Journet considers the continuation and exercise of jurisdiction – including the appointment of diocesan bishops.

He also considers the potential extent of error which might come from an imperfect council of all bishops, in the absence of the Roman Pontiff. This topic, of course, is crucial for explaining how Vatican II could have promulgated its particular documents.

We have already addressed certain points about both Journet and Cajetan in the notes in the previous part, and will not repeat them here.

We are not publishing this text as if it settles any question. This series is merely presenting different views on related topics, so as to have as many views on the table as possible.

Nonetheless, Journet’s account of the state of the Church without the Roman Pontiff is painfully familiar to us today.

We have published some of Journet’s footnotes in line with the text, and relegated his in-text references to the footnotes. We have added some line-breaks and headings for ease of reading.

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Charles Journet
The State of the Church During a
Vacancy of the Holy See

The Church of the Incarnate Word
Sheed and Ward
London and New York
Trans. A.H.C. Downes
pp 409-11 (re-ordered)

Some line breaks and headings added for clarity.
Extensive footnotes presented in line with the text.
References removed from the text and included as footnotes


We must not think of the Church, when the Pope is dead, as possessing the papal power in act, in a state of diffusion, so that she herself can delegate it to the next Pope in whom it will be re-condensed and made definite. When the Pope dies the Church is widowed, and, in respect of the visible universal jurisdiction, she is truly acephalous.*

* During a vacancy of the Apostolic See, says Cajetan, the universal Church is in an imperfect state; she is like an amputated body, body, not an integral body.

The Church is acephalous, deprived of her highest part and power. Whoever contests that falls into the error of John Hus – who denied the need of a visible ruler for the Church – condemned in advance by St. St. Thomas, then by Martin V at the Council of Constance. And to say that the Church in this state holds her power immediately from Christ and that the General Council represents her, is to err intolerably.”[13]

Here are the seventh and twenty-seventh propositions of John Hus condemned at the Council of Constance:

“Peter neither is nor ever was the head of the Holy Catholic Church.”

“There is nothing whatever to show that the spiritual order demands a head who shall continue to live and endure with the Church Militant.”[14]

(The text continues.)

But she is not acephalous as are the schismatic Churches, nor like a body on the way to decomposition. Christ directs her from heaven. There is no one left then on earth who can visibly exercise the supreme spiritual jurisdiction in His name, and, in consequence, any new manifestations of the general life of the Church are prevented.

But, though slowed down, the pulse of life has not left the Church; she possesses the power of the Papacy in potency, in the sense that Christ, who has willed her always to depend on a visible pastor, has given her power to designate the man to whom He will Himself commit the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, as once He committed them to Peter. (See Excursus VI, on the election of the Pope.)

(Article continues below)

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The Supreme Jurisdiction does not belong as a “proper” power to bishops

The sum of particular jurisdictions does not amount to the universal jurisdiction

The jurisdictional power is “proper” both in the Sovereign Pontiff and the bishops. It descends from the Sovereign Pontiff, who possesses it as its source, to the bishops, who possess it as proper power no doubt, but derivatively.

At the stage of the sovereign pontificate as at the stage of the episcopate, the jurisdiction is wholly spiritual, wholly ordered to the same supernatural salvation of souls. So that whether it be found at the one stage or the other, it keeps its profound generic unity.

However, it appears in the bishops and in the Pontiff under forms that are clearly distinct. The jurisdiction proper to the Pope is universal. The jurisdiction proper to the bishops is particular. These two forms do not differ only in a quantitative way, according to more or less. They differ also in a qualitative way, in species. The universal Church is not simply a sum-total of particular Churches; and the jurisdictional order of the universal Church is not simply a sum-total of particular orders.*

* With reference to politics, St. Thomas affirms without self-contradiction, on the one hand, that the happiness of a man and that of society are the same and of the same nature, let us say of the same genus[1]; and, on the other, that the common good of society and the particular good of each of its members do not differ only according to more or less but with a difference that is specific.[2]

(The text continues.)

If therefore each bishop, in virtue of his episcopate, possesses properly only a particular jurisdiction, it follows that the sum of the bishops possess, in virtue of their episcopate alone, only a sum of particular jurisdictions; which sum in no wise amounts to a universal jurisdiction. Supposing even, as Cajetan does, that after the death of a Pope all the bishops in the world meet and agree in a universal synod, there will then be a quantative and cumulative jurisdictional universality; but between that and the qualitative and essential universality of the supreme pastor there remains an abyss.*

* What bishops can and cannot do during an interregnum

If, notes Cajetan, you assemble the bishops simply as such, you get no transcendent jurisdiction which would be distinct from the partial jurisdictions as the sun is distinct from mixed bodies (the ancients, as we know, considered the virtues of the stars as causing and containing eminently the virtues of the mixed bodies); but merely a kind of total jurisdiction made up of an accumulation of partial jurisdictions, just as mankind is made up of the sum of all men:

“Nec est aliqua extranea potestas a potestatibus partialibus, sed velut potestas totalis, consurgens ex partialibus.”[3]

“Nor is there any extraneous power from the partial powers, but as it were a total power, rising from the partial powers.”

Cajetan had previously written:

“The council, if abstraction be made of the Pope, can do no more than can the particular powers that compose it: it can establish no bishop, when the superiors to whom that office reverts are lacking. But the Pope can elect and establish bishops everywhere in virtue of his sole authority; which is not his but that of Him who walks in the greatness of his strength.” (Isaias lxii, 1)[4]

The same theologian goes so far as to say:

“We are sure that neither the Pope, nor, on the other hand, the entire Church or the entire Council can err in matters of faith when they give an authoritative judgment in matters of faith.

“Of an acephalous Church or Council I know nothing: if the head is absent there may be many merits, but no longer any authority. It is because they fail to distinguish a personal faith from an authoritative judgment that some are so ignorant as to prefer the doctors to the Pope; they think of the Pope’s person, not of his office and the divine assistance promised this office.”[5]

(The text continues.)

No decision, for example, belonging to the proper power of the Pope could be taken, no truth implicitly revealed could be explicitly defined.*

* Jurisdiction during an interregnum, and the appointment of bishops

It is even provided in the Constitution Vacante Sede Apostolica, which forms an appendix to the Code of Canon Law, that if the Pope dies during the sitting of a general council, the council is to be suspended at once: it is not for the council but for the College of Cardinals to elect the new Pope.

That does not mean, however, that every exercise of jurisdiction is abolished. The decisions of previous Pontiffs, notably those that fix the conditions of the valid election of a new Pope, remain in force. If the Roman Congregations lose the powers which they cannot exercise without express reference to the Sovereign Pontiff, they keep those which they possess by Letters Apostolic, and which are regarded as belonging properly to themselves.

Similarly, the jurisdictional power of the Cardinal Vicar of Rome and those of the legates, nuncios and apostolic delegates, continue without interruption. The power of naming or instituting bishops belongs to the Roman Pontiff.[6] But, remarks Cajetan in his De Romani Pontificis Institutione, we have to distinguish between the power of the Sovereign Pontiff (auctoritas) and the exercise of this power (executio), which has varied in mode down the centuries.[7] Thus the ancient ecclesiastical discipline left to the Patriarchs of Alexandria or of Antioch the right to elect the bishops of their provinces.

The elections of bishops effected during a vacancy of the Holy See and regarded as valid, are thus to be explained. On the various ways of proceeding to the election of bishops see E. Roland.[8]

From the second to the sixth century [says Roland] the election of bishops was effected by the clergy with the assent of the people.

“No one,” says St. Leo the Great, “can be held to be a bishop who has not been elected by the clergy nor asked for by the people.”[9] The Bishop of Rome did not directly intervene in the election; he was content to see it carried out properly. Discreet, and indirect, his intervention was nevertheless real and undeniable. It was, as it were, a prolongation of his primacy.[10]

The Gregorian reform attempted to take the right of election out of the hands of the princes, into which it had fallen, and to restore it to its old condition.[11] It was in the thirteenth century that the Pope tended to become the supreme arbiter of Catholic elections. A new law was substituted for the old: direct nomination by the Sovereign Pontiff became the common law. The various methods actually in use, which allowed some part in the choice of bishops to others than the Pope, were local concessions, exceptions to the common law.[12]

And the dissident Graeco-Russian Churches, whatever fragments of authentic jurisdiction the Church in fact allows them and they still retain, seem to admit, in their own way, the justice of this doctrine by officially condemning themselves to dogmatic stagnation.

From Charles Journet – The Church of the Incarnate Word

Papal elections without the cardinals, and the state of the Church during a a papal interregnum
St Robert Bellarmine
Journet and Cajetan on elections
Journet and Cajetan on the state of an interregnum


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[1] In Polit., lib. VII, lect. 2

[2] II-II, q, 58, a. 7, ad 2. Cf. Cf. Marcel Demongeot, Le meilleur régime politique selon saint Thomas, Paris 1928, p 89.

[3] Apologia de Comparata Auctoritate Papae et Concilii, cap. vi, 502

[4] ibid., cap. xiii, 203

[5] ibid., cap. ix, 135

[6] Can. 329 §2, and 332 §1

[7] Cap.xii, ad 6

[8] Art. “lection des Evêques”, Dict. de théol. cath., col. 2256 et seq.

[9] ibid., col. 2259

[10] Iibid., col. 2261.

[11] Ibid., col. 2268

[12] Ibid., cols. 2269-71.

[13] De Comparatione etc., cap. vi, 74.

[14] Denz. 633 and 653.

4 thoughts on “What is the Church like during a period of sede vacante? Journet & Cajetan tell us

  1. Michael Wilson

    Very good article; it is helpful in explaining the state of the Church during a Papal interregnum, and how an imperfect General Council could teach errors.

  2. Michael Wilson

    that they can consecrate validly, there is no dispute; that they can possess supplied jurisdiction, I also believe that God would supply for the good of souls. As Billuart held that even if a Pope fell from office because of heresy, he would be supplied with jurisdiction by Our Lord for his acts that were for the good of the Church.

    1. Darrell Wright

      That makes sense to me, thank you. But it looks like the Holy Spirit prevents a heretic from being elected pope or a pope from becoming a heretic.

      “…this See of Saint Peter always remains unblemished by any error, in accordance with the divine promise of our Lord and Savior to the prince of his disciples: ‘I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail….’ (Lk 22:32).” – Vatican I, Pastor Aeternus, 6 See my links.

      The Fathers of the First Vatican Council concluded after extensive research, investigation, and debate that no Pope had ever been a heretic. See https://novusordowatch.org/2015/04/heretical-popes-first-vatican-council (Never happened, never will)

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