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Sede vacante device, used by the Holy See from a Pope's death to the election of his successor

Sedevacantism is the position held by a minority of Traditionalist Catholics who claim that the Papal See has been vacant since either the death of Pope Pius XII in 1958 or Pope John XXIII in 1963.

Sedevacantists believe that Paul VI (1963–1978), John Paul I (1978), John Paul II (1978–2005) and Benedict XVI (since 2005) have been neither true Catholics nor true Popes, by virtue of allegedly having espoused the heresy of Modernism, or of having otherwise denied or contradicted solemnly defined Catholic dogmas. Some of them classify John XXIII (1958–1963) also as a Modernist antipope.

The term "sedevacantism" is derived from the Latin phrase sede vacante, which literally means "the seat being vacant", the seat in question being that of a bishop. A specific use of the phrase is in the context of the vacancy of the Holy See between the death or resignation of a Pope and the election of his successor. "Sedevacantism" as a term in English appears to date from the 1980s, though the movement itself is older.[1]

Some small groups of Traditionalist Catholics give allegiance to alternative Popes of their own. Since they hold that the Holy See is headed by their nominee and therefore is not in fact vacant, they are not sedevacantists in the strict sense, and are sometimes called "conclavists". However, the term "sedevacantist" is often applied to them because they reject the generally accepted papal succession.

Early history

One of the earliest proponents of sedevacantism was the American Francis Schuckardt. Though he was still working within the "official" Church in 1967, he publicly took the position in 1968 that the Holy See was vacant and that the Church that had emerged from the Second Vatican Council was no longer Catholic.[2] An associate of his, Daniel Q. Brown, arrived at the same conclusion. In 1969, Brown illicitly received episcopal orders from an Old Catholic bishop, and in 1971 he in turn consecrated Schuckardt. Schuckardt founded a congregation called the Tridentine Latin Rite Catholic Church.

In 1970, a Japanese layman, Yukio Nemoto (1925–1988), created a sedevacantist group called Seibo No Mikuni. [3]

Another founding figure of sedevacantism was Fr. Joaquín Sáenz y Arriaga, a Jesuit theologian from Mexico. He put forward sedevacantist ideas in his books The New Montinian Church (August 1971) and Sede Vacante (1973). Sáenz's writings gave rise to the sedevacantist movement in Mexico, led by Sáenz, Fr. Moises Carmona and Fr. Adolfo Zamora, and also inspired Fr. Francis E. Fenton in the United States.

In the years following the Second Vatican Council other priests took up similar positions. They include:

  • The Dominican theologian Fr. Michel Louis Guérard des Lauriers, who developed a thesis similar to sedevacantism called sedeprivationism in the 1970s.
  • Several students at the SSPX seminary at Econe in the early or mid-1970s — Richard Williamson, Daniel Dolan, Anthony Cekada and Donald Sanborn — who are reported to have been sedevacantists in that period.[4] Three of these four individuals are now bishops within the traditionalist movement.
  • The English parish priest Fr. Oswald Baker, who was a sedevacantist at least by 1982,[5] and reportedly some time before that.
  • The American missionary Fr. Lucian Pulvermacher, who left the Roman Catholic Church in 1976 and in October, 1998 was elected pope of the conclavist true Catholic Church with the name of "Pius XIII".

The Sedevacantist position

As with traditionalist Catholicism in general, sedevacantism owes its origins to the rejection of the perceived theological and disciplinary changes implemented following the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965). Sedevacantists thus reject the Council, on the basis of its documents on ecumenism and religious liberty, which they see as contradicting the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church and as denying the unique mission of Catholicism as the one true religion, outside of which there is no salvation. They also say that new disciplinary norms, such as the Mass of Paul VI, promulgated on 3 April 1969, undermine or conflict with the historical Catholic faith.

Other traditionalist Catholics recognise as legitimate the line of Popes leading to Pope Benedict XVI. Some of them hold that one or more of the most recent Popes have held and taught unorthodox beliefs, but do not go so far as to say that they have been formal heretics or have been widely and publicly judged to be heretics. Sedevacantists, on the other hand, claim that the infallible Magisterium of the Catholic Church could not have decreed the changes made in the name of the Second Vatican Council, and conclude that those who issued these changes could not have been acting with the authority of the Catholic Church. Accordingly, they hold that Pope Paul VI and his successors left the true Catholic Church and thus lost legitimate authority in the Church. A formal heretic, they say, cannot be the Catholic Pope.

Claims used by sedevacantists to defend their position include the following:

  • Most pre-Conciliar Catholic theologians and canon lawyers taught that it is inherently impossible for a heretic to hold the papal office.
  • Particular provisions of Church law prevent a heretic from being elected or remaining as pope. Paul IV's 1559 Bull Cum ex apostolatus officio stipulated that a heretic cannot be elected Pope, while Canon 188.4 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law provides that a cleric who publicly defects from the Catholic faith automatically loses any office that he holds in the Church.

Mainstream Catholics have engaged sedevacantists in debate on some of these points. Brian Harrison of Puerto Rico, for example, has argued that Pope Pius XII's conclave legislation permitted excommunicated cardinals to attend, from which he argues that they could also be legitimately elected [2].

Opponents of Harrison have argued that a phrase in Pope Pius XII's legislation "Cardinals who have been deposed or who have resigned, however, are barred and may not be reinstated even for the purpose of voting", though it speaks of someone deposed or resigned from the cardinalate, not of someone who may have incurred automatic excommunication but has not been officially declared excommunicated, means that, even if someone is permitted to attend, that does not automatically translate into electability.

There are estimated to be between several tens of thousands and more than two hundred thousands of sedevacantists worldwide, mostly concentrated in the United States, Canada, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, and Australia, but the actual size of the sedevacantist movement has never been accurately assessed. (See further the section on statistics in the article Traditionalist Catholic.)

Catholic doctrine has taught that the four marks of the true Church are that it is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, and sedevacantists base their claim to be the true remnant Roman Catholic Church on what they see as the presence in them of these four "marks", absent, they say, in the Church since the Second Vatican Council. Their critics counter by saying that sedevacantists are in fact not one, forming numerous splinter groups, each of them in disagreement with the others.

Most sedevacantists hold the holy orders conferred with the present revised rites of the Catholic Church to be invalid due to defect both of intention and form. They conclude that the great majority of the bishops listed in the Holy See's Annuario Pontificio, including Benedict XVI himself, are in reality merely priests or even laymen.

Bishops and holy orders

Catholic doctrine holds that any bishop can validly ordain any baptised man to the priesthood or to the episcopacy, provided that he has the correct intention and uses a doctrinally acceptable rite of ordination, whether or not he has official permission of any sort to perform the ordination, and indeed whether or not he and the ordinand are Catholics

On the other hand, while unapproved and irregular ordinations are valid in that the recipient truly becomes a priest or bishop, they are canonically illegal (or illicit), and entail penalties under church law for those involved. Canon law currently forbids ordination to the episcopate without a mandate from the Pope,[6] and both those who confer such ordination without the papal mandate and those who receive it incur automatic excommunication.[7] Orthodox Catholic doctrine therefore considers sedevacantist ordinations of priests and bishops valid where the appropriate conditions are fulfilled, but regards them as sinful and canonically criminal acts without any standing in Church law. Sedevacantists take the position that the normal legal requirements, such as the need for a papal mandate for an episcopal consecration, cannot be applied in the context of a collapse of the Church's structures and the prolonged lack of a pope.

In a specific pronouncement in 1976, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared devoid of canonical effect the consecration ceremony conducted for the Palmarian Catholic Church by Archbishop Ngô Ðình Thuc on 31 December 1975, though it refrained from pronouncing on its validity. This declaration applied also to later ordinations by those who received ordination in the ceremony.[8] Of those then ordained, seven who are known to have returned to full communion with Rome did so as laymen,[9] but Alfred Seiwert-Fleige, who was ordained bishop within the Palmarian Church and who later received another (irregular) conditional episcopal ordination, currently ministers as a priest in good standing. Again, when Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo conferred episcopal ordination on four men in Washington on 24 September 2006, the Holy See's Press Office declared that "the Church does not recognize and does not intend in the future to recognize these ordinations or any ordinations derived from them, and she holds that the canonical state of the four alleged bishops is the same as it was prior to the ordination."[10]

The bishops who are or have been active within the sedevacantist movement can be divided into four categories.

  • Bishops consecrated within the "official" Church who were subsequently persuaded to the sedevacantist position. To date, this category seems to consist of only two individuals, both now deceased: the Vietnamese Archbishop Ngô Ðình Thuc (who, before he died in 1984, may have been reconciled to Pope John Paul II) and the Chicago-born Mgr. Alfredo F. Mendez, the former Bishop of Arecibo, Puerto Rico. The late Bishop Antônio de Castro Mayer of Campos, Brazil is also said to have embraced, or at least flirted with, sedevacantism, despite his association with the non-sedevacantist Society of St. Pius X.
  • Bishops whose lineages derive from the foregoing bishops, which essentially means the "Thuc line" of bishops deriving from Archbishop Ngô Ðình Thuc. While the "Thuc line" is lengthy and complex, reportedly comprising 200 or more individuals,[11] the sedevacantist community generally accepts and respects most of the 12 or so bishops following from the three or four final consecrations that the Archbishop performed (those of Bishops Guerard des Lauriers, Carmona, Zamora and Datessen). Bishop Mendez consecrated one priest to the episcopacy, Fr. Clarence Kelly of the Society of St. Pius V,[12] who in turn has consecrated one further bishop.[13] In addition, many bishops in the "Thuc line" are or have been associated with the conclavist Palmarian Catholic Church.
  • Bishops whose lineages derive from earlier schisms. A considerable number of sedevacantist bishops are said to derive from Bishop Carlos Duarte Costa, who in 1945 set up his own schismatic "Brazilian Catholic Apostolic Church".[14] More numerous are those who have had recourse to the Old Catholic line of succession. Bishops of this category include Francis Schuckardt and others associated with him. The orders of the original Old Catholic Church are regarded by the Roman Catholic Church as valid, though no such declaration of recognition has been issued with regard to the several Independent Catholic Churches that claim to trace their episcopal orders to this Church. Some shadow of doubt hovers over the validity of the orders received from these bishops, and the claimants have not received wide acceptance in the sedevacantist community, though most have at least some small congregation.
  • Bishops whose orders are generally regarded as invalid through lack of proper lineage. Lucian Pulvermacher and Gordon Bateman of the small conclavist true Catholic Church fall into this category.


Against sedevacantism, mainstream Catholics advance arguments such as:

  • According to standard Catholic doctrine, the Catholic Church is a visible identifiable body that is literally catholic, in the sense of universal ("for all people"). This is seen as incompatible with the sedevacantist claim that the true nature of the Catholic Church has been hidden from the world for half a century.
  • The 1870 Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus of the First Vatican Council reaffirmed that "it has always been necessary for every Church — that is to say, the faithful throughout the world — to be in agreement with (the Roman Church) because of its preeminent authority" and that consequently the bishop whom the Church in Rome acknowledges as its head "is the successor of blessed Peter, the prince of the apostles, true vicar of Christ, head of the whole Church and father and teacher of all Christian people. To him, in blessed Peter, full power has been given by our lord Jesus Christ to tend, rule and govern the universal Church." This is seen as incompatible with the sedevacantist claim that the papal line of succession has been broken since 1958 (or 1963).
  • Critics of sedevacantism argue that this also means that the theory advanced by the seventeenth-century theologian and Doctor of the Church Robert Bellarmine that a Pope who fell into heresy would automatically forfeit his office and could be formally deposed has been overruled by Church authority (in the same way that Thomas Aquinas' non-belief in the Immaculate Conception of Mary was overruled by Pius IX's declaration that the Immaculate Conception was indisputably Catholic doctrine) — while sedevacantist Catholics point out that no such supposed "overruling" has ever been documented — and that sedevacantist appeals to Bellarmine's authority in this point cannot be sustained. They add that Bellarmine envisaged that such a deposition, even if possible, could only be undertaken by a significant body of the Church including many bishops and cardinals, rather than by a few individuals.
  • The Catholic doctrine of the indefectibility of the Church, which appeals to Christ's promise to the Apostle Peter in Matthew 16:18 ("You are Peter (the Rock), and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it") excludes the possibility that the Catholic bishops around the world and the Pope with whom they are in communion would succumb to heresy and fall from office.
  • They say that sedevacantists wrongly treat certain papal statements of the past as if they were ex cathedra declarations.
  • They claim that sedevacantists fail to distinguish between matters of discipline — such as the use of Latin and of the Tridentine Mass — which can be reformed at any time, and infallible dogmatic teachings.
  • They say that sedevacantists indulge in the logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc when they attribute problems that the Church has experienced in the Western world since the reforms of the Second Vatican Council to the reforms themselves rather than to the general decrease in religiosity in the West.

Sedevacantists advance counter-arguments, such as:

  • They deny that they implicitly repudiate the dogma of papal infallibility as defined at the First Vatican Council, and maintain that, on the contrary, they are the fiercest defenders of this doctrine, since they teach that the Apostolic See of Peter, under the rule of a true Pope, cannot promulgate contradictory teachings.
  • To rebut the accusation of denying the catholicity and indefectibility of the Church, they say that, between the death of every Pope and the election of his successor, there is a sede vacante period during which there is no visible Head of the Church, and — while mainstream Catholics hold that, according to the dogmatic constitution Pastor aeternus of the First Vatican Council, which speaks of "perpetual successors" in the pontificate, there must be, apart from such transitory periods, a perpetual presence of the Bishop of Rome, not merely of his office — that the absence of a Pope has become a long-term feature of the Church's structure.
  • They recall that, during the 40-year Great Western Schism, while nobody claimed that the see of Rome was vacant, there was uncertainty about which of the two (eventually three) claimants was the true pontiff, with even canonized saints taking opposing sides in the controversy. In his 1882 book, The Relations of the Church to Society — Theological Essays, the Jesuit theologian, Father Edmund James O'Reilly, wrote: "... not that an interregnum covering the whole period would have been impossible or inconsistent with the promises of Christ, for this is by no means manifest." [3]
  • They say that they primarily base their claim of the empty Apostolic See on "proven" denial of Catholic dogma by post-1958 or post-1963 popes, and only secondarily on the thence originating changes in discipline and liturgy.
  • They interpret the Book of Revelation as speaking of an end-times Great Apostasy on the City of Seven Hills (Rome) and say that Our Lady of La Salette warned on 19 September 1846 that Rome would lose the faith and become the seat of the Antichrist.

Sedevacantist groups

  • The Holy Catholic Mercedarian Church. []
  • Most Holy Family Monastery, a sedevacantist community living in Fillmore, New York, under the headship of Michael (official name Frederick) Dimond. Only Michael and his biological brother Peter (official name Robert) Dimond write the contents of the their website. Most Holy Family Monastery
  • Society of St. Pius V, formed when nine priests of the Society of St. Pius X split from that organization over a number of issues including using the liturgical reforms implemented under Pope John XXIII.[15] The SSPV maintains that much of the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church no longer adheres to the Catholic faith but instead profess a new, or Conciliar religion. They regard the question of the legitimacy of the present hierarchy and the possibility that the Holy See is unoccupied to be unresolved. The SSPV does not impose sedevacantism as a morally binding teaching.[16]
  • The Pierre Martin Ngô Đình Thục lines of episcopal succession
  • Catholic Restoration, consisting of the founding members-- dissenters from SSPV-- (Anthony Cekada, Daniel Dolan,Donald Sanborn), together with newer priests who were trained in their seminary.
  • Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen
  • The Society of the Immaculata, founded by Dennis McCormack
  • Apostles of Infinite Love, founded by Michel Collin.


  1. See this article by sedevacantist priest Fr. Antony Cekada.
  3. Seibo No Mikuni (Zoccatelli) — CESNUR
  4. [1]
  5. This being the date of the compilation of church bulletins quoted on this page
  6. canon 1013
  7. canon 1382
  8. "As for those who have already thus unlawfully received ordination or any who may yet accept ordination from these, whatever may be the validity of the orders (quidquid sit de ordinum validitate), the Church does not and will not recognize their ordination (ipsorum ordinationem), and will consider them, for all legal effects, as still in the state in which they were before, except that the… penalties remain until they repent" (Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Decree Episcopi qui alios of 17 September 1976 — Acta Apostolicae Sedis 1976, page 623).
  9. See Thuc Consecrations
  10. Declaration in Italian and English
  11. See list and line of descent at Thuc Consecratons
  12. The Most Reverend Clarence Kelly, Sacred and Profane (Oyster Bay Cove, NY: 1997), 101.
  13. See photos of consecration at
  14. For the many who look to him as the origin of their episcopal orders see Costa Consecrations.
  15. A more comprehensive list of objections can be found at
  16. "A Statement of Principles in a Time of Crisis," The Roman Catholic Association, Inc., (1988):

See also

External links

Sedevacantist sites