October 26, 2009
vol 20, no. 299

Is it Too Complicated?

Part 3 of a Series on the SSPX-published book, Sedevacantism - A False Solution To a Real Problem

    By and large, the SSPX consider any argument for Sede Vacante to be a false solution, yet neither in the book nor anywhere else, have they ever come up with a solution, going all the way back to Archbishop Lefebvre who vacillated greatly on this very issue. Yet, today, with Bishop Fellay more and more clamming up when it comes to speaking out for the truths and traditions of holy Mother Church, a solution is necessary for the sake of souls everywhere. Meanwhile the conciliar leaders from the top on down are taking souls further and further from the Roman Catholic Faith and closer to a syncretic New World Order while we all dicker over terms like Formal and Material. We can be formal or informal in taking the matter in hand and providing and proving the material available that makes it material, but if those who should see such are unwilling to understand or research further and connect all the dots, how then can sedevacantists make the point?

      "See the difference I am calling out here: For the SSPX to have said, 'We know there are those who opine that the recent and current Vatican leaders have not been actual Roman Catholic Popes, in the strictly Petrine sense of that word; as to what to make of that, we have no idea,' would have been absolutely legitimate on their part. But to have said of those who believe the Sede Vacante finding, 'well, they are wrong, and we expect you to reject their opinion even though we have nothing worth mentioning to supply in its place and we don't want anybody else looking for one either,' that merely demonstrates a willingness on the part of some of them to arbitrate in matters clearly outside their area of qualified expertise, and even to be a willing partner in sustaining the current malaise."

    In concluding its first part, this book, in attempting to "introduce" sedevacantism finally arrives at what is the largest actual difficulty the Formaliter/Materialiter position has, from a practical standpoint. It states,

    "Neither a normal catechetical training, however complete, nor the most attentive supernatural sensus fidei of the faithful can be sufficient preparation to argue about the application of canon law, papal bulls that may have been abrogated, theological opinions or concepts such as canonical warnings, formal and material heresy, legitimate material succession and illegitimate material succession, subjective and objective intention, etc. But these concepts are unavoidable if one wishes to understand something of the problems that sedevacantism poses and then to orient one's own choices on this basis. Therefore a certain amount of theological baggage is necessary if one wishes to address these subjects. Without such training, all good will notwithstanding, it is very easy to fall into errors such as conclavism, or perhaps even to lose faith in the necessity of the Teaching Church and the indefectibility of the Church. In this respect, the sedevacantists' frequent accusations that others fail to understand their arguments is symptomatic. This claim is in fact most often made by the Guérardians in their conflicts with rigorous sedevacantists, who are sometimes portrayed as rather primitive sedevacantists."

    Note also there the altogether unjustified side swipe taken at moves towards a conclave as though it were erroneous for the Church to elect a pope using a conclave! How did they get from calling it understandible and logical, given the position of absolute sedevacantism, to being erroneous? But I have already discussed the reasonability of a conclave back in the first installment, so that is not on topic here in the third.

    So how complicated is the Formaliter/Materialiter position, actually? I think it validly bears attempting an explanation for the ordinary person, since this theory has some real substantial probability of having been the case for the reign of John XXIII, and/or also the first year and a half of Paul VI. That they were material popes cannot be denied by any chain of reasoning that I have ever found. But the real theological question of which I cannot lay claim to being able to answer is that of whether they were really, really bad formal popes or not formally popes at all. That of course is the sort of question the Church will have to sort out in better days to come, when an authentically Catholic papacy is fully restored. In the mean time, since I have taken (as an assumption) that the Formaliter/Materialiter position is theoretically possible, and given that possibility, highly probable for that crucial 1958-1964 period, what exactly is it, and how does it work?

    The difference works out to one of fact versus choice. What is material pertains to that which is of simple brute fact, that which actually happens to be the case, even though in some few cases it may not make any sense for it to be true. Let's try some examples. A man eating meat on a regular Friday is materially committing a sin. That is to say, meat is not to be eaten on regular Fridays (it can be eaten on a Friday which happens to be a Holy Day of Obligation, for example, and that would not be a sin). But if the man has simply lost track of the days, and assumed that the day was Thursday, then formally he has not sinned. His sin is therefore material (he did eat the meat and it was a regular Friday), but not formal (he had no intention of eating meat on a Friday but ate it mistakenly believing the day to be Thursday).

    On the other hand, if the man knew that today was a regular Friday and nevertheless insisted upon eating the meat, then the sin is not only material (for again he is eating the meat on a Friday), but also formal in that he is willfully choosing to eat the meat when he knows it to be forbidden. Consider also the scenario of a man who thinks it is Friday, but he has lost track of the days and actually it is Thursday, but he willfully eats the meat believing it to be sinful to do so. This would be a case of a formal sin, but not material sin. So there is actually one axis for material sin, and another axis for formal sin. It is possible to be materially sinning only, or formally sinning only, or formally and materially sinning, or not sinning either formally or materially.

    And what separates the two? The different essence of each. One is brute material fact, the other willed choice. While typically they will go together, it is not always necessarily the case, as either one could occur alone. But realistically, they normally go together. The man either knows it is Friday and abstains from meat (does not sin in this matter at all), or else the man eats the meat on the Friday, knowing it to be Friday (sinning both materially and formally).

    So now let's apply this to a pope and the man's election to the papacy. A man is elected to be pope, and seems to have gone through the motions of accepting the office, such that the cardinals electing him all believe the conclave to be compete, put up the white smoke, and escort the man elected to the window over St. Peter's square. Materially, that man is the pope; it is simply a brute fact, and everyone seems to accept it at face value. However, the man himself has no intention of "confirming the brethren" or of performing any actual duties of the papacy, but merely of enjoying the power and palaver that comes with it, merely for his own selfish purposes, pure and simple, or else for some alien agenda. He has no intention of being pope, from the standpoint of what it means to receive and truly accept so great an office over the whole Church. Formally, he is no pope.

    Conversely, any or even many of the various "popes" that have arisen in the absence of real Catholic authority or teaching coming from the Vatican may well formally intend to be popes, but materially some aspect is lacking. Many have not even bothered to hold a conclave but merely hung out their shingle as a new pope, or else claimed some revelation, or what not. Still others relied upon mere laity to function as all of the electors, when authorized clerical electors still exist. When the cardinals are lacking, the election devolves either to some roman congregation (of which there is none of any appreciable number) or else to the bishops (only valid, orthodox, and "sent" bishops, or any additional bishops individually vetted by those who meet those first criteria, can qualify). Any other bishops, or mere laity acting alone, therefore have no such capacity.

    But in the Materialiter/Formaliter scenario, John XXIII and/or Paul VI upon their election, never actually really accepted the office. They remained, as it were, at least in some sense, as a kind of "pope-elect." Unfortunately, even the analogy of a "pope-elect" breaks down at the point that, where a mere "president-elect" really has no real authority, the elected materially but not formally papal "pope-elect" really CAN make valid cardinalate appointments. But that is only a small detail and has little to do with the overall understanding of the Materialiter/Formaliter position. So where do all of those other "details" of specialized expertise which are required to understand the Materialiter/Formaliter position come in? Most of them have to do with distinguishing the Materialiter/Formaliter position from that of the absolute sedevacantist, who has basically neglected issues of Canon Law including such procedures as Canonical warnings, procedures for lawful trial, and so forth. The "papal bulls" that may or may not have been abrogated would be in particular that of Pope Paul IV that decreed the election of a heretic to be null and void, even if (somehow) accepted by all. (cf. Cum ex apostolatus officio) In particular, has it been abrogated? Some say yes, others say no, and obviously the answer to that question requires a great deal of expertise that practically no one living even has.

    Of course, all of this is in merely explaining the Materialiter/Formaliter sedevacantism to absolute sedevacantists, and must seem practically incomprehensible to non-sedevacantists. And it has not helped that the Materialiter/Formaliter sedevacantists have often acted at least as much like absolute sedevacantists as the actual absolute sedevacantists themselves, if not even more so on occasion. Somehow, the rivalry between the two positions has remained somewhat friendly since both accept the evident fact of sedevacantism, though one seeks an explanation while the other seems content to be without explanation. In that of course I place myself as being plainly on the side of those seeking an explanation, since that seeking itself is a necessity. The only difficulty here is that the explanation may likely be inadequate to cover the full extent of the present situation, which also admits another explanation, as I have elsewhere proposed repeatedly, and which covers far more facts and is genuinely the theory to be favored.

    It is however a fair objection that ordinary souls who have not extensive training in subtle concepts of theology nor the means to procure such (nor the time in their busy lives to pursue it properly) should not have to be making decisions of this sort. Obviously, it cannot be essential to the salvation of individual souls to answer this question reliably, or else practically everyone, even those who heroically struggle to do right, are all doomed. It IS important that our clergy all come to a unified understanding of the present situation so as to act together in unison towards restoring all things in Christ. But maybe the book is still slightly distorting the realities here:

    "The two theses [absolute sedevacantism and the Materialiter/Formaliter kind] do not present themselves as simple opinions or attempts to explain the crisis of the papacy. They each represent positions that admit of no alternative point of view, and, at least in the current state of affairs, they present themselves as binding on the conscience as a condition for preserving the faith itself."

    In my observation, it has been the anti-sedevacantists who have presented their position as one that admits no alternative point of view and as binding on the conscience. Repeatedly one finds them altogether refusing to face the evidences or address the theology of it at all. Regrettably, even this book, which purports to do something of the latter, is still obviously written from the perspective of those who have never questioned their anti-sedevacantist stance interiorly. In other words, of all the writers contributing to the SSPX book, not a one of them has ever taken a good hard sincere look at the possibility, asking within themselves, "Could it really be? What if, somehow, the recent and current Vatican leaders really have not been actual popes, at least in some strictly Petrine sense of what the word means?"

    As they go on to say, the present situation, with all of its complex and confusing aspects and overall lack precedent etc. demands

    "a certain degree of prudence. Such prudence would seem to be lacking in those who would present a thesis, intended to resolve the current problem, as definitive and binding on the conscience."

    But how "prudential" could it possibly be to rule out some obvious and clear fact just because one cannot explain it adequately, or even out of sheer unconsidered prejudice? By arbitrarily ruling out the Sede Vacante finding, the SSPX (and other traditional but non-sedevacantist Catholics) have rendered themselves incapable of coming to any real or useful understanding of the present situation. Given that, I think it is absurd to call the SSPX "position" prudential, apart from in its focus on the pragmatic, wherein I readily admit they have excelled. The sooner they admit their position to be purely pragmatic and nothing else, the sooner they will stop spreading yet one further layer of confusion on what is already a confusing enough mess.

    They almost admit as much here in the book:

    "Thus any solution of a prudential character that aims to act on the basis of a sufficient number of elements, without contemplating a definitive solution to the problem of authority in the Church (the position of the Society of Saint Pius X belongs to this category), is a priori excluded and branded as pragmatism."

    Well excuse me, but if a person sets out to "act prudentially" and then goes on in the name of that "acting prudential" to refuse to contemplate "a definitive solution to the problem" I fail to see what their course could be described as but pure pragmatism. And mind you, there is nothing wrong with being purely pragmatic. If one has not the resources or ability to contemplate such things, then by all means let them focus on what they can do, pragmatically, and thereby still accomplish much good. The SSPX has by and large done that, and to that extent is to be justly commended. However, to extrapolate one's own refusal contemplate such a solution into some sort of grandiose prohibition of anyone's contemplating such a solution, THAT goes clearly outside what is fair or right. I think I can even call it imprudent, for how is the Church ever to arrive at a solution (essential for continuing over the long term) if everyone is thus arbitrarily barred from seeking one? Or if every finding that might be helpful in understanding the present situation and/or the way to remedy it is categorically rejected, a priori?

    Imagine a doctor trying to diagnose a patient with some unknown illness, but arbitrarily ruling out cancer and diabetes and tuberculosis and so forth, not because of having performed any valid medical tests for these things, but merely arbitrarily, merely because "If it's any of those then I can't help him." So instead he looks for all other possibilities with the hope that the condition is one he can help with. Even then his work could still be useful, in that the disease might be cured if not on that "arbitrarily ruled out list," and even if it were on that list then at least the patient might still receive some other useful or helpful treatments such as painkillers or an oxygen tent. But another doctor, willing to face the possibilities of the diseases on that first doctor's "arbitrarily ruled out list" will be needed in order to cure the patient. But now imagine the first doctor rejecting a person's right to a second opinion, declaring that "no one is to consider the possibility of of it being any of these ruled-out diseases, and any doctor suggesting any of them is to have his opinion summarily dismissed and his medical license revoked." How fair or right would that be?

    See the difference I am calling out here: For the SSPX to have said, "We know there are those who opine that the recent and current Vatican leaders have not been actual Roman Catholic Popes, in the strictly Petrine sense of that word; as to what to make of that, we have no idea," would have been absolutely legitimate on their part. But to have said of those who believe the Sede Vacante finding, "well, they are wrong, and we expect you to reject their opinion even though we have nothing worth mentioning to supply in its place and we don't want anybody else looking for one either," that merely demonstrates a willingness on the part of some of them to arbitrate in matters clearly outside their area of qualified expertise, and even to be a willing partner in sustaining the current malaise.

    It has not helped that, if one scans enough productions of the various sedevacantist writers, one might well find some "low blow" attacks on the SSPX. Some over-zealous individuals, anxious to draw some battle lines between themselves or the sedevacantist community in general on the one hand, and the SSPX on the other, have at times oversimplified or misrepresented ("caricatured") the SSPX position in ways briefly covered in the last pages of the first part of the book. That such writers have on occasion behaved thus itself proves nothing, but the claim that its existence proves "the intrinsic value of this position [the SSPX's, that] comes from the sedevacantist circles themselves" is merely itself a "low blow" of comparible nature offered in return. OK, tit for tat, and I will let this go for now.

    All of this pushing of a "prudentialism" on their part reflects this clear inadequacy. They have no alternative to offer, or very little in any case. Later on in the book, they will hint at a couple ideas which will certainly be worth exploring in future installments of this series. But even before that, they promise to "proceed by way of a reductio ad absurdum, precisely in order to prove the necessity of a prudential approach," by which "approach" they mean not the commendable praxis of traditional clergy (sede and non-sede alike), but specifically the overall position of the SSPX. In other words, rather than face any of the numerous evidences that the recent and current Vatican leaders cannot possibly be popes (they having done much that actual popes would be incapable of), they think they can get from some of the basic observations of the sedevacantists to some conclusions that would be absurd, and would prove it false if they indeed flowed from those observations (as they in fact do not). More about that in future installments.

Griff L. Ruby

        Griff's book is available from Books for $26.95 or can be read on-line at We at The Daily Catholic strongly urge you to share it with all you can for that could be the gentle shove that moves your friends back to where the True Faith resides forever, rooted in the Truths and Traditions of Holy Mother Church as Christ intended and promised.

Griff Ruby's STRAIGHT STUFF Monday, October 26, 2009, Volume 20, no. 299