Recently, Father Anthony Cekada released a video entitled “Why Traditionalists Fear Sedevacantism”. The video is a response to the soon-to-be-released book by John Salza and Robert Siscoe, True or False Pope. Interestingly, rather than demonstrating that Traditionalists fear Sedevacantism, Father Cekada’s remarks suggest that he fears Traditionalists critiques of Sedevacantism.
Rather than responding to arguments and drawing necessary distinctions, Father Cekada resorts to ad hominem attacks and oversimplifications.
The first sign of Father Cekada’s fear is the timing of the video. As Father admits in the first few minutes of the video, he has not even read the new book by Salza and Siscoe, nor could he have because it was not released at the time he made the video. Why would Father Cekada feel the need to attack a book he has not even read yet (other than a preface posted online)? Must he launch this preemptive strike because he fears the unknown text might actually refute his position?
Father Cekada’s only two criticisms of the book (not surprisingly, he has only two since he has not actually read the book) are its reported length and the use of some arguably hyperbolic language on the back cover. As to the first, I can say having reviewed an advance copy of the book that it is quite long but this is because the book is extremely comprehensive. The authors not only dedicate significant space in the book to explaining and refuting the arguments of the Sedevacantists opinion in general but they present significant information on the theological positions of some of the greatest theologians in Church history who have discussed the possibility of a heretical pope, especially Francisco Suarez and St. Robert Bellarmine. The authors present evidence from these writings which to my knowledge have not been analyzed in the debates over this topic in the past few decades.
At a minimum this new book does the service of presenting new historical information to the discussion. In my opinion, a trite argument lacking depth of research is more to be feared than a well-researched and documented argument, although the latter may be a bit intimidating to modern audiences drunk on the thirty-second sound bite and 140-character Twitter limit.
As to the second point, I agree that some of the colorful description of the Sedevacantist opinion on the back cover of the book may be a bit exaggerated in tone. Yet, this style is not uncommon on book covers. Importantly, although they use rather strong language about the Sedevacantist argument the authors in no way insult or personally attack any persons holding the Sedevacantist opinion.
Unfortunately, Father Cekada does not reciprocate but instead attacks and calumniates traditionalist figures in his video. Most appallingly, Father Cekada attacks the Society of St. Pius X and His Excellency Bishop Fellay particularly by arguing that they reject the Sedevacantist opinion because it is more lucrative to do so. He argues that there is more money to be made in what he calls the R&R position (recognize and resist) as it is more popular and acceptable to the donating public. He makes these unfounded claims while displaying pictures of Bishop Fellay and the new SSPX seminary under construction in Virginia. Although the money grubbing calumny is more oblique with reference to the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, the video still implies financial concerns drove the Archbishop’s thinking. Father Cekada further attacks the Archbishop by suggesting his refusal of the Sedevacantist opinion was due to a closet Gallicanism harbored by the late Archbishop.
In any event, Father Cekada’s assertion that the SSPX rejects Sedevacantism out of human respect because the Traditionalist position is viewed as less extreme lacks basis in reality. Be it those attached to the Conciliar Church or secularists, such a distinction is not recognized. Both Traditionalists and Sedevacantists are treated as beyond the pale and extremists by the “mainstream.” In my own SSPX chapel community, I know of a lady who was fired as a teacher in a diocesan school for merely attending one Mass at the SSPX chapel. So much for the cozy acceptance of the SSPX position in contrast to Sedevacantism. Father should simply recognize that anyone overly concerned with human respect would neither be a Traditionalist nor hold the Sedevacantist position.
In addition to the SSPX, Father Cekada calumniates the late Father Nicholas Gruner by also implying a financial motive behind his lifelong apostolate which Father Cekada refers to with the derogatory phrase, “the Fatima Industry.” I know from personal experience that Father Gruner lived in the most simple and humble accommodations. He carefully made certain that the donations made to the Fatima Center were used to make known the message of repentance of Our Lady of Fatima, which Father Cekada dismisses. Contrary to Father Cekada's suggestion neither Christopher Ferrara nor Father Gruner simply dismissed Sedevacantism on the basis of the Third Secret of Fatima. They, especially Father Gruner, gave the opinion due consideration on the merits.
Messrs. Salza and Siscoe have penned hundreds of pages to engaging the issues, rather than dismissing arguments with trite but catchy phrases as in Father Cekada’s video. Like the Archbishop, whom I have heard discuss the issue in a recording of a conference given in English in the 1970s, Father Gruner did not dismiss the possibility that Paul VI or other post-Conciliar Popes would someday be adjudicated false or anti popes. Is it possible? Both the Archbishop and Father Gruner acknowledged the theoretical possibility but, unlike Father Cekada, they recognized that a single priest or even Archbishop was not competent to definitively declare a man to be an anti-pope and require obedience to such a private judgment. The Archbishop and Father Gruner humbly acknowledged the possibility, leaving the matter to competent authorities and simply kept praying and believing as the Church has always done.
Turning to the two attempts at argument that Father Cekada puts forward in the video, we see that he mischaracterizes what figures such as the Archbishop, Bishop Fellay, Father Gruner, and Messrs. Salza and Siscoe have said. They do not say only a statement stamped with infallibility is to be obeyed. They have consistently maintained that only a legitimate exercise of authority must be obeyed, which statement is simply a perennial Catholic principle.
Starting from the premise that all authority comes from God, Catholic theology and philosophy have always held that the binding nature of a command comes not from the human agent who utters it but solely from the authority of God. As St. Thomas explains, the command of a Man holding an office vested with authority binds only to the extent that a command conforms to the Natural and Divine Law. When that Man, be he a pope, king or president, issues a command contrary to the higher law it does not bind in conscience and if it compels violation of higher law it must be refused.
Thus, a command to use the Novus Ordo which offends against both the Divine and Natural Law does not bind in conscience not because it lacks a stamp of infallibility but because it fails to participate in God’s sovereign authority. This is the principle of legitimate disobedience to unjust commands.
Secondly, Father Cekada ridicules the analogy of the “bad Dad.” As Father Cekada well knows, analogies are never perfect but merely illustrative as they are analogical and not univocal. The analogy is merely meant to illustrate a corollary to the above defined principle. When a Man in authority issues an illegitimate command the command lacks the quality of authority requiring obedience but the fact of attempting to bind in conscience erroneously does not in and of itself depose the Man from the office which if used correctly could result in commands that require obedience. There are certainly many distinctions between a father and a pope but the analogy is merely meant to illustrate the principle.
Rather than Traditionalists fearing Sedevacantism, it seems that those holding the opinion rather fear the complexity of the crisis God has willed to permit His Church undergo. Rather than the arduous work of sifting through the confusion that has been coming out of the Vatican and chanceries for decades and applying certain Catholic principles to make proper distinctions between legitimate commands and those that lack authority, the opinion of Sedevacantism proposes an alluring simple black and white solution that avoids this difficult work of discernment.
Like Conciliar Catholics who unthinkingly accept everything coming out of the Vatican press office, Sedevacantists take an analogous approach of accepting nothing. In different ways both avoid the more arduous path.
Traditionalists who hold fast to the principle of discernment have nothing to fear. If Jorge Bergoglio is the Vicar of Christ, they will render obedience when required, if he legitimately commands what is in harmony with higher law, and they will withhold obedience when he exceeds his authority. They will therefore not be led into erroneous actions.
If we learn from the Church someday that he was not a legitimate pope, then we still have nothing to fear. We will have only obeyed commands that are consistent with Divine and Natural Law and we will have made merely an error in factual judgment. We acknowledged a Man who has been accepted as the pope by Catholics throughout the world.
We know from the Great Schism that merely being wrong about this factual issue in the context of confusing times does not separate one from the Church of Rome. Canonized saints were incorrect in their assessment of who in fact was the legitimate pope. Thus, we have nothing to fear if someday the Church adjudicates that one or more of the Men of the post Conciliar era were not legitimate popes. We will have held fast to the truths of the Faith and refused any command contrary to Divine or Natural Law and shown ourselves willing to submit to the legitimate authority. Yet, as we shall see, the longer the crisis in the Church continues the less plausible is the opinion that each and every Man since 1958 has been an antipope (even if perhaps one or the other might have been).
Rather, it is those holding the Sedevacantist opinion who should fear the state of affairs they hold to be true. If it were true that no pope has reigned since John XXIII, there are no valid Cardinals, and there is no Roman clergy (by definition if there is no bishop to validly and legitimately ordain and incardinate them into the Roman church), then the Church in her essential nature would have defected. There would be no method for continuing the Roman Church or the election of a new pope.
The Sedevacantist opinion was more plausible in the early 1970s when there were pre-Conciliar Cardinals who could restore the papacy (or at least a Roman clergy to elect a pope according to prior practice). The longer the crisis continues the less plausible becomes the Sedevacantist opinion that none of the popes since 1958 have held office because the methods consistent with the Church’s Constitution for a valid papal election become impossible to achieve.
Father Cekada essentially admitted to me in email correspondence several years ago that the Sedevacantist opinion holders have no real answer to the preservation of the Church’s indefectibility. The most he could come up with was a Deus ex Machina assertion that God would in some in explicable way give the Church a pope. Yet, in the 2,000-year history of the Church, this is a complete novelty. Even in the darkest hour of the Great Schism and the Babylonian Captivity, the essential structures of the Church remained intact.
God is certainly not bound absolutely by the structures of the Church He created (as He was not bound to transmit the merits of the redemption through a Church) yet having chosen to make use of the structures of the Church, He would not allow those structures to vanish through a complete lapse of a hierarchy for so long that the means of its own preservation have all become extinct. The Church is a perfect society and as such must always be self-sufficient in pursuing its perfect end.
Rather than fearing the misuse of God’s authority that requires subjects to apply the principles of higher law, those holding the Sedevacantist opinion should fear that with every passing year they implicitly deny the indefectibility of the Church.
Brian M. McCall holds the Orpha and Maurice Merrill Endowed Professorship in Law at the University of Oklahoma College of Law. A Professor of Law, he received his B.A. from Yale University, Summa Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa, 1991. He also received his M.A. from Kings College University of London, Fulbright Scholar, 1992 and his J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, Summa Cum Laude, Order of the Coif, 1997. Brian has been a regular contributor to The Remnant since 2004 and his most recent book, The Church and the Usurers, was published in 2012. Along with his wife and six young children, he lives in Oklahoma.