Pauly Fongemie
Updated January 3, 2007

She wrote a terse note telling me that I was outside the Church, that my salvation was in danger. I was stunned, not because I might go to Hell, since as a sinner I must pray daily for salvation as St. Paul teaches that we all "work out our salvation in fear and trembling." Hell has always been a fearful possibility, so it occurred to me that she must be writing to the wrong person because I am Catholic in the way the Pontiffs have infallibly defined. She suggested that I visit a certain web site, which I clicked on: it was a sedevacantist enterprise.

The past few months have been unnerving as I continue to count the friends and or acquaintances who  join the sedevacantist cause, to the point that there is scarcely anyone left. You will note that the title of this piece says "Sedevacantism", not Sedevacantists. Individuals scandalized and alarmed at the pronouncements from the Holy See can be forgiven for taking this course, as we are left with a Shepherd who will not defend the Faith and who has----under a misguided idea of ruling through the novelty of collegiality----
abandoned us to our bishops, many of whom give the impression that they have apostatized by their words and actions. Only they and God actually know. I have no quarrel with sedevacantists as individuals who have been deeply wounded by Churchmen, although some of them, based on letters, have several with me and are even quite provocative and judgmental at times. I guess when you have given yourself permission to personally judge the heart of the Pontiff, it is a small thing to judge the heart of an insignificant lay woman. Of course they do not realize the dynamic at play, being Catholics who are confounded and bewildered at such a Papacy, and with little wonder! It is one thing to judge the actions of a Pope regarding the safeguarding of dogma, as Scripture tells us to be wary of casting our pearls [faith] before swine; and quite another to judge the intention and personal beliefs of him.

Or, to ironically quote a well-known sedevacantist, who cited an old expression:

'As was a famous expression in the Middle Ages, "He who strikes the Pontiff strikes Christ;
He who strikes the King strikes Christ", and there was also the expression that "the son who
hits his father strikes God" '.

[Taken from an unnamed web site, for my purpose is not to attack him, but to only use his words.]

When one is faced with the enormity of the plight we find ourselves in I cannot be harsh with particular individuals, for I know not their temperaments and the other vast influences in their lives for they have kept the Faith as best they can, and intend to keep the Faith, just as I hope I have and intend with all my heart and strength to do. I do not feel aggrieved by their unkind remarks, for I am certain they have the best of intentions, and if they were not so bewildered and perhaps even frightened, I know their responses would be tempered with a patient kindness.

I am not a theologian, but this week I have spent a lot of time perusing the arguments of and the conclusions that follow therein from non-dissident theologians and canonists about judging the Roman Pontiff. They are divided as to whether a Pope in manifest heresy in of himself invalidates his pontificate insofar as the canonical definition of manifest heresy is in dispute, and thus they are not in agreement. The purpose of this article is not to discuss the fine points of canon law and theology: if the experts cannot be certain, the exercise is a pointless waste of time. Only a subsequent ecumenical council, or the body of Cardinals, or a Pontiff can make that determination according to Tradition: ordinary lay men and women are spinning their wheels when engaging in these out-of-bounds debates and discussions. But there are some practical considerations that readily leap to mind, considerations that any thinking Catholic who cares about this matter of salvation might dwell on. God did give us an intellect which He expects us to use for our salvation and His glory and our knowledge of theology has very little to do with it in the academic sense. As intellectual beings with the use of reason in conjunction with the gift of faith and the graces provided by God, we are supposed to know the canons of the Faith as given in the creeds, the teachings from the Pontiffs, Apostolic Tradition, and the declarations of dogmatic councils that pertain to faith or morals [our salvation], each according to our ability. This familiarity with doctrine and morals is less than an understanding at the depth of great minds of those like St. Thomas Aquinas or St. Paul who grasped the Faith so profoundly, but the fundamentals, such as are found in traditional catechisms approved by the Pontiffs, and the obligations that belong to us. We will not be judged on what our neighbor knew and did, but what we knew and have done or not done and could have. Countless generations of Saints and Martyrs did their duty and obeyed the Commandments in the order given by God and merited Heaven. Those who had the opportunity for study did so, those who did not, embraced the Faith through the Mass, the counsel of their confessors and devotional life. God instructs us differently in the circumstances He places us according to His holy Will. He does not impart equal graces to all, as the Church teaches, but He does give each of us enough grace to save our souls. We live in the 21st century when most of us not only read at a proficient level, but have readily available to us the accumulated written works of the Church Pastors, although we are not expected to be theologians per se, nor should we elevate ourselves to that status.

My thoughts, which are on the plain of a simple faith, and from the heart as a lifelong Catholic, begin with that of Vatican Council I, emphasis in bold mine:

SESSION IV July 18, 1870

The Eternal Pastor and Bishop of our souls, in order to continue for all time the life-giving work of His Redemption, determined to build up the Holy Church, wherein, as in the house of the living God, all who believe might be united in the bond of one faith and one charity. Wherefore, before He entered into His glory, He prayed unto the Father, not for the Apostles only, but for those also who through their preaching should come to believe in Him, that all might be one, even as He the Son and the Father are one. [John xvii. 20 f.]  As then He sent the Apostles whom He had chosen to Himself from the world, as He Himself had been sent by the Father; [Ibid., xx. 21] so He willed that there should ever be pastors and teachers in His Church to the end of the world. And in order that the episcopate also might be one and undivided, and that by means of a closely united priesthood the multitude of the faithful might be kept secure in the oneness of faith and communion, He set Blessed Peter over the rest of the Apostles, and fixed in him the abiding principle of this twofold unity and its visible foundation, in the strength of which the everlasting temple should arise, and the Church in the firmness of that faith should lift her majestic front to Heaven. [From Sermon iv, chap. ii, of St. Leo the Great, A.D. 440, vol. 1, p. 17, of edition of Ballerini, Venice, 1753; read in the eighth lection on the feast of St. Peter's Chair at Antioch, February 22] And seeing that the gates of Hell with daily increase of hatred are gathering their strength on every side to upheave the foundation laid by God's Own hand, and so, if that might be, to overthrow the Church: We, therefore, for the preservation, safe-keeping, and increase of the Catholic flock, with the approval of the Sacred Council, do judge it to be necessary to propose to the belief and acceptance of all the faithful, in accordance with the ancient and constant faith of the universal Church, the doctrine touching the institution, perpetuity and nature of the sacred Apostolic Primacy, in which is found the strength and solidity of the entire Church; and at the same time to proscribe and condemn the contrary errors so hurtful to the flock of Christ.

On the Institution of the Apostolic Primacy in Blessed Peter

We therefore teach and declare that, according to the testimony of the Gospel, the primacy of jurisdiction over the universal Church of God was immediately and directly promised and given to Blessed Peter the Apostle by Christ the Lord. For it was to Simon alone, to whom He had already said: "Thou shalt be called Cephas," [John i. 42] that the Lord, after the confession made by him, saying, "Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God," addressed these solemn words, "Blessed art thou, Simon, Bar-Jona, because flesh and blood have not revealed it to thee, but My Father, Who is in Heaven. And I say to thee that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church; and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of Heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in Heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in Heaven." [Matt. xvi. 16 ff.] And it was upon Simon alone that Jesus, after His resurrection, bestowed the jurisdiction of Chief Pastor and Ruler over all His fold in the words, "Feed My lambs, feed My sheep." [John xxi. 15, 17]  At open variance with this clear doctrine of Holy Scripture, as it has ever been understood by the Catholic Church, are the perverse opinions of those who, while they distort the form of government established by Christ the Lord in His Church, deny that Peter in his simple person preferably to all the other Apostles, whether taken separately or together, was endowed by Christ with a true and proper primacy of jurisdiction; or of those who assert that the same primacy was not bestowed immediately and directly upon Blessed Peter himself, but upon the Church, and through the Church on Peter as her minister.

(Canon) If anyone, therefore, shall say that Blessed Peter the Apostle was not appointed the Prince of the Apostles and the visible head of the whole Church Militant, or that the same directly and immediately received from the same our Lord Jesus Christ a primacy of honour only, and not of true and proper jurisdiction; let him be anathema.

On the Perpetuity of the Primacy of Blessed Peter in the Roman Pontiffs

That which the Prince of Shepherds and great shepherd of the sheep, Jesus Christ our Lord, established in the person of the Blessed Apostle Peter to secure the perpetual welfare and lasting good of the Church, must, by the same institution, necessarily remain unceasingly in the Church, which, being founded upon the Rock, will stand firm to the end of the world. For none can doubt, and it is known to all ages, that the holy and Blessed Peter, the Prince and chief of the Apostles, the pillar of the faith and foundation of the Catholic Church, received the keys of the kingdom from our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour and Redeemer of mankind, and lives, presides and judges to this day, always in his successors the Bishops of the Holy See of Rome, which was founded by Him and consecrated by His Blood. [From the Acts (session third) of the Third General Council, namely, that of Ephesus, A.D. 431, Labbe's Councils, vol. viii, p. 1154, Venice edition of 1728. See also letter of St. Peter Chrysologus to Eutyches, in life prefixed to his works, p. 13, Venice, 1750.] Whence, whosoever succeeds to Peter in this see does by the institution of Christ Himself obtain the primacy of Peter over the whole Church. The disposition made by Incarnate Truth (dispositio veritatis) therefore remains, and Blessed Peter, abiding in the rock's strength which he received (in accepta fortitudine petra: perseverans), has not abandoned the direction of the Church. [From Sermon III, chap. iii, of St. Leo the Great, vol. 1, p. 12.] Wherefore it has at all times been necessary that every particular Church----that is to say, the faithful throughout the world----should come to the Church of Rome on account of the greater princedom which it has received; that all being associated in the unity of that see whence the rights of venerable communion spread to all, might grow together as members of one head in the compact unity of the body. [From St. Irenreus against Heresies, book III, cap. iii, p. 175, Benedictine edition, Venice, 1784; and Acts of Synod of aquileia, A.D. 381. Labbe's Councils, vol. ii, p. 1185, Venice, 1721.] (Canon) If, then, anyone shall say that it is not by the institution of Christ the Lord, or by Divine right, that Blessed Peter has a perpetual line of successors in the primacy over the universal Church; or that the Roman Pontiff is not the successor of Blessed Peter in this primacy; let him be anathema.

Therefore, I am left with a clear sign from Christ through the infallible teaching of this dogmatic council, replete with anathemas, which in effect condemn a person as being outside of the Church, that there are two primary truths I must believe under pain of mortal sin or anathema regarding the perpetuity of the Papacy and a third an admonition:

1. That the papacy must be visible so that all who want to remain united with Christ's Church or who seek to enter, will know where it is. I was taught as a child that "where there is Peter, there is the Church."

2. That perpetuity of the papal seat held by a successor of Saint Peter is a matter of doctrine, and not Church "politics".

3. That contrary opinions and propositions are hurtful to the Body of Christ and the unity of the Church.

Now I turn to Pope Boniface VIII:

 Ex Cathedra: We declare, say, define, and pronounce that it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff. [Pope Boniface VIII, the Bull Unam Sanctam, 1302]

Now, how can I be subject to the Roman Pontiff if I do not know who, where or even if he reigns? One wing of sedevacantism says there is a Pope somewhere, another acclaims a particular one, always controversial, while most simply await some future Pontiff. This begs the above question. During the Avignon Papacy and multiple claimants, at least there were actual men to look to and there was always one actual Pope, even if not every single Catholic ratified a particular claimant. The chaos was scandalous enough, so much so that St. Catherine of Siena was called by God to bring the rightful Pontiff back to Rome so that the Catholic people had a Shepherd without doubts. People say that these turbulent times are unprecedented, and in some ways this is probably true, but overall not so at all. The only difference is the mass media communications network whose reportage and opinions almost demand an immediate reaction. Back then many a Catholic spent his entire life without knowing much controversy and simply went about saving his soul wherever and however he found himself. This will always be the situation. If you mention the crisis in the Church, countless Catholics ask "what crisis?" In St. Catherine's time the flock, even if they were mistaken about the Shepherd, at least had one to point to; they just knew there was a man at the helm of the Barque of Peter. And the Saints disagreed with one another on occasion, but there was always a true Pope because the Chair of Peter is occupied in perpetuity. It was to Peter and his successors that the guarantee for protection against the gates of Hell was given. No Peter, no guarantee. Peter was weak and Christ prayed for him to "strengthen his Faith" so that he would strengthen the others in turn. Could Christ, in His perfect wisdom have chosen Peter, specifically as a sign to us today and in past generations of crises? Recall that St. Paul had to "withstand him to his face", when he was in error.

An ex cathedra declaration of a Pontiff means I must believe or place myself outside the Church; how can Christ, Head of the Church, demand something from me that is not possible, not an interregnum between the death of one Pope and the election of another which is not the same thing at all, but say, for most of my life on earth, if I am to believe at least one group of sedevacantists? Roman Pontiffs who speak ex cathedra are guided by God the Holy Spirit and to say the Holy Spirit does not mean what He says is blasphemy! If I must remain united to the Roman Pontiff----not the notion of just the papacy itself----then I must. I am a simple, plain-spoken woman and life is this simple for me. Unless I know that someone is speaking in metaphorical language, I take him literally at his word, always. How things may come to pass or come to be worked out in the future is not my concern, I just know that I believe every word of the Word Himself and therein place all my trust, always, forever.

A former friend, now in the sedevacantist camp, claims that the Council of Constance of 1415, supports the sedevacantists. She referred me to a treatise by a priest whom I have never heard of until now, who uses the same Council to document the sedevacantist position.

My answer is a simple refutation: No dogmatic council can contradict another. Knowing this truth about Catholic truth, I took a look at the Council, a few sessions of which condemned the error of heretics, mini syllabi as it were. Well, logically enough, Session XV, July 6, 1415 condemns the following errors of the heretic John Hus [I include only those that pertain to the discussion at hand----there is a long list of his heresies]:

12. No one takes the place of Christ or of Peter unless he follows him in character, since no other succession is more important, and not otherwise does he receive from God the procuratorial power, because for that office of vicar are required both conformity in character and the authority of Him who institutes it. 638

13. The pope is not the true and manifest successor of Peter, the first of the apostles, if he lives in a manner contrary to Peter; and if he be avaricious, then he is the vicar of Judas Iscariot. And with like evidence the cardinals are not the true and manifest successors of the college of the other apostles of Christ, unless they live in the manner of the apostles, keeping the commandments and counsels of our Lord Jesus Christ. 639

In other words, Pontiffs who are very imperfect are still validly elected popes, John Hus notwithstanding!

On a more practical level there exist these questions that would haunt me if I chose to give into the temptation of sedevacantism:
One of my sedevacantist-leaning friends informed me that she was uncertain about the validity of the Holy Orders of most modern priests and bishops, including those ordained in the traditional Roman Rite. There is a rule in the Church, that "a doubtful Sacrament is not a Sacrament." Again I am struck with the irony she fails to see. I was taught from the very beginning that it is a heresy to believe that a faithless priest cannot confect the Sacraments, provided he intends to do what the Church intends, and in the way intended, and that unless he gives some certain sign to us that he does not intend to confect we are to presume that he will confect, period. In other words, his heresy does not remove the powers of his priesthood. A "doubt" has to be real, serious, and based on something more than gossip, speculation and conspiracy theories or some misguided opinion about the formula used for Holy Orders. Could not then, a faithless bishop confer Holy Orders in the same way a like-minded priest can absolve me in Confession? Or are we all to be Jansenists now? A number of persons, given to high drama and intrigue, disconcerted because of a Shepherd who will not lead or protect the flock, are easily swayed by all that makes the rounds in traditional circles. Those who suffer from scrupulosity and other spiritual flaws can be harmed to the point they could lose their Faith. I know such individuals who go about casting suspicion here and there and everywhere are in all likelihood well-intended but this does not diminish the gravity of the harm they may unknowingly be causing. Anyway, only the Holy See has the ultimate authority about the validity of Holy Orders, as we know regarding Anglican Orders. I await Her pronouncements, not those of Her children. The Church has been a wise Mother and the precept provided above on the validity of a Sacrament in re a particular priest or bishop still serves us well.

But, for the sake of argument, let us take this lady at her word, that most priests and bishops in the Novus Ordo chain have no valid orders, that is, not since Pope Pius XII. How many priests who have gone over to sedevacantism from after Pius been re-ordained conditionally? She does not know, well if she is correct, should not they all be re-ordained? She cannot have it both ways. What guarantee other than her say-so can she provide without any doubt, that her sedevacantist bishops are valid? Recall that most of them are from the Thuc line and some of his "consecrations" are in doubt as to validity. No one really knows until the Holy See rules. How can she be so sure about her "bishops" but so sure in reverse about those ordained through the Pontiff and the bishops? After all, is not a doubtful Sacrament, still doubtful, even in the sedevacantist line, by her definition? She has no answers, but I am expected to believe her, just because she is well-meaning? I prefer to believe a Sacred Council and Pope Boniface. I have far greater assurance than I could as a sedevacantist, so much so that I am not perturbed, nor do I think that most bishops, as weak as they are, do not intend to ordain priests. I have to have a true sign from them or else I am violating a precept on Sacraments of the Church. There is more to a valid doubt than mere rumor from those with itching ears or those who are easily given to bone-piercing judgments.

Other practical considerations keep burrowing their way into sedevacantist claims:

The matter of plenary indulgences, absolution reserved to the Holy See, and the prophecies of St. Malachy of Armagh.

To obtain a plenary indulgence, one has to pray for the Holy Pontiff, among other requirements. Does this mean that those sedevacantists whose priests do not add the name of the Pope at Mass, also are without the ability to gain plenary indulgences for themselves? It may seem a small thing to many Catholics today, but it is a big thing for me, a sinner. Just a thought . . . In this and related matters, how does the Church through Peter bind and unbind? Which Raccolta do they recognize?

The Church reserves the absolution of some grave sins to the Holy See itself, and not just the bishop. Now to be forgiven our mortal sins, we have to have contrition, either imperfect or perfect. Imperfect contrition is sorrow for sin because of the fear of Hell, the dread of punishment, and or the recognition of the malice of sin. Confession and absolution is required for this kind, the usual kind of contrition. Perfect contrition is that sorrow that is based solely on our offending God Who is all good, and for no other reason. Because we cannot be certain that our sorrow is perfect, the Church has always insisted on the necessity of Sacramental Confession. In times past, say under the 1918 Code of Canon law reservation of absolution to those sins exceptionally malicious or grave to the Holy See were more numerous as Holy Mother Church was more exacting of Her children. The Code of Canon law since Vatican II reduced the number and kind of these cases.

Now let us consider a very probable situation that can easily arise. A person, say a priest, has committed such a sin and has repented, sincerely, and at length. He is a sedevacantist by absolute conviction. What chance does he have of Heaven, if his contrition is imperfect, although sincere, if he should die in that state before his group of sedevacantists has a Pontiff? Does Extreme Unction absolve him? Which code of canon law does he use to know he must have absolution from the Holy See? The older one, much more strict or the newer one from a non-Pope, an absent Holy See? Just a thought . . . a scary one . . .

We are not bound to put credence in the prophecies of St. Malachy who predicted the line of successive Popes, both valid and invalid. To date he has been accurate, so much so that I would be careless if I did not at least consider his forecast, so to speak. After all when God gives a Saint a charism or what seems to be a charism of such long-standing, it could be for our edification as well. According to St. Malachy, who rightly gave the name of Pope Benedict XVI and in the right order of succession, there is but one Pope to go, Peter the Roman. Of course one can interject, "Oh, Cdl. Ratzinger was familiar with the prophecies and decided to take that name." Fair enough. But he only gave two names after John Paul II. And unless there is some advantage for a Pope to do such a thing, if St. Malachy's prophecies are chimerical, I discount it. Even if he knowingly took the name of Benedict, could not he be inadvertently co-operating with God? This papacy might be the point of the Saint finally being fallible, but I would not bet the bank on it. If he is in error, then we are just back to where we are now and nothing is changed. For the sake of argument, if he is correct, how do all the sedevacantist "popes" figure in? Just a thought . . .

This past week one of my dearest friends left for sedevacantism, declaring, "NON HABEMUS PAPAM." The week just prior to her announcement, I had by coincidence a chance to discuss the coming storm with a priest. I said to Father, "You know, the way some of them are talking, finding every excuse to criticize any and every argument against sedevacantism, while ignoring Vatican I, I think they have already decided on some level, and that the criticisms are a convenient rationale, for they are sedevacantist at heart and need a final reason to announce to themselves and others that they are in conviction." He said he hoped "I was wrong", but a dread feeling came over me to the point I was barely able to do my daily duties. My devotional life was marred by annoying distractions. When my friend called to say she had sent me a letter, I did not say anything to her----"Gotcha" would have been unkind and unCatholic, but I told my husband, "she is a sedevacantist." Two days later when the mail arrived, unfortunately my instinct was on target. Human nature is a very predictable thing, there are patterns of thought and expression of those ideas that precede major changes or decisions, a kind of ritual. The signs are telling and rarely mistaken. The person is actually waging a battle within himself, whether he recognizes it or not, usually leaving clues for those who are perceptive and are close to him. Hence that feeling of dread, as if I had been by her side through the battle, looking on quite hopeless, simply because she had already decided, the rest merely a last ditch effort to go through the motions.

Sometimes spiritual battles are as unfair as the wartime kind, for the burden of victory falls to only one side in strictly human terms. Unless I and others could prove to her to her satisfaction that we had a Pope, then she had the high ground all to herself. But she miscalculated, for which I cannot blame her, when we are in immense pain, we miss things easily. You see, it is not up to me and others, far more educated and knowledgeable than I am----I won't give you their names, but they are prominent on the traditional scene----to prove anything to her, since she is the one making the break, it is up to her to prove that what she is doing is licit and the safest course for her salvation; oh not to prove to me, but to herself. Psychologically she shifted the blame of burden on us. Now if I said to you that I was going to divorce my husband, unless you can demonstrate with certainty that I ought not to, what would be the normal reaction? Of course! The burden is on me to prove to Almighty God why it is licit for me to leave my spouse and has nothing to do with you. But as I said this was a stratagem, for no arguments that we could have and have put forth would ever do, she set the bar so high no one could meet it, not even Vatican I and the Roman Pontiffs. That was the whole point. All of this was under the table, buried deep down in the ground of her subconscious. Being an exceptionally moral and upright and intelligent person she would never intentionally do anything resembling this. Thus the term, psychologically.

I love her dearly and will always, this I am certain of, whether I see her again or not. She may have broken my heart but not my spirit:


Let us pray for him and for each other . . .