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Sedevacantism is the position, held by a minority of traditionalist Catholics, that the alleged present occupant of the Holy See is not truly pope due to the mainstream church's espousal of the heresy of modernism and that, for lack of a valid pope, the see has been vacant since the death of Pope Pius XII in 1958.


The term "sedevacantism" is derived from the Latin phrase sede vacante, which literally means "with the chair [of St. Peter] vacant". The phrase is commonly used to refer specifically to a vacancy of the Holy See from the death or resignation of a pope to the election of his successor. "Sedevacantism" as a term in English appears to date from the 1980s, though the movement itself is older.

Among those who maintain that the see of Rome, occupied by what they declare to be an illegitimate pope, was really vacant, some have chosen an alternative pope of their own, and thus in their view ended the vacancy of the see, and are known sometimes as "conclavists".

The number of sedevacantists is largely unknown, with estimates given in tens to hundreds of thousands.


Sedevacantism owes its origins to the rejection of the theological and disciplinary changes implemented following the Second Vatican Council (1962–65). Sedevacantists reject this Council, on the basis of their interpretation of its documents on ecumenism and religious liberty, among others, 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 and are deemed heresies. They conclude, on the basis of their rejection of the revised Mass rite and of postconciliar Church teaching as false, that the popes involved are false also.

This is a minority position among traditionalist Catholics and a highly divisive one, so that many who hold it prefer to say nothing of their view, while other sedevacantists have accepted Episcopal Consecrations from sources such as Archbishop Pierre Martin Ngô Đình Thục.

Traditionalist Catholics other than sedevacantists recognize as legitimate the line of Popes leading to Pope Francis. 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.

Sedevacantists defend their position using numerous arguments, including that particular provisions of canon 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 he had held in the Church. A number of writers have engaged sedevacantists in debate on some of these points. Theologian Brian Harrison has argued that Pius XII's conclave legislation permitted excommunicated cardinals to attend, from which he argues that they could also be legitimately elected. Opponents of Harrison have argued that a phrase in 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 UK, 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 teaches the four marks of the true Church are that it is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. Sedevacantists base their claim to be the 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 that sedevacantists are not one, forming numerous splinter groups, each of them in disagreement with the rest. 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. Because they consider the 1968 revision of the rite of Holy Orders to have invalidated it, they conclude that the great majority of the bishops listed in the Holy See's Annuario Pontificio, including Benedict XVI and Francis themselves, are in reality merely priests or even laymen.

Early proponents

One of the earliest proponents of sedevacantism was the American Francis Schuckardt. Although 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. An associate of his, Daniel Q. Brown, arrived at the same conclusion. In 1969, Brown 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 (1925–88), created Seibo No Mikuni (Kingdom of Our Lady), a sedevacantist group. Another founding sedevacantist was Father 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). His writings gave rise to the sedevacantist movement in Mexico, led by Sáenz, Father Moisés Carmona and Father Adolfo Zamora, and also inspired Father Francis E. Fenton in the U.S.

In the years following the Second Vatican Council other priests took up similar positions, including:

  • Dominican theologian Fr. Michel Louis Guérard des Lauriers, who developed a thesis similar to sedevacantism called sedeprivationism in the 1970s.
  • Several priests of the Society of St. Pius X in the early/mid-1970s – i.e. Daniel Dolan, Anthony Cekada and Donald Sanborn, reportedly sedevacantists in that period – were expelled, along with several other priests, by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre for holding this view. Some of these later formed the Society of St. Pius V (SSPV).
  • English priest Fr. Oswald Baker, who was a sedevacantist at least by 1982, and reportedly some time prior to that.
  • 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".
  • 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. Absent specified conditions, canon law forbids ordination to the episcopate without a mandate from the pope, and both those who confer such ordination without the papal mandate and those who receive it are subject to excommunication.

    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 Pierre Martin Ngô Đình Thục on 31 December 1975, though it refrained from pronouncing on its validity. This declaration also applied pre-emptively to any later ordinations by those who received ordination in the ceremony. Of those then ordained, seven who are known to have returned to full communion with Rome did so as laymen. 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." This denial of canonical status means Milingo had no authority to exercise any ministry.

    However, Rev. Ciro Benedettini, of the Holy See Press Office, who was responsible for publicly issuing, during the press conference, the communiqué on Milingo, stated to reporters that any ordinations the excommunicated Milingo had performed prior to his laicization were "illicit but valid", while any subsequent ordinations would be invalid.

    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 later took a sedevacantist position

    To date, this category seems to consist of only two individuals, both now deceased: the Vietnamese Archbishop Thục (who, before his death in 1984, may have been reconciled to Pope John Paul II) and the Chicago-born Mgr. Alfredo F. Méndez, the former Bishop of Arecibo, Puerto Rico.

    Bishops whose lineages derive from the foregoing bishops

    Which essentially means the "Thục line" of bishops deriving from Archbishop Thục. While the "Thục line" is lengthy and complex, reportedly comprising 200 or more individuals, 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 Méndez consecrated one priest to the episcopacy, Fr. Clarence Kelly of the Society of St. Pius V, who consecrated one further bishop. Many bishops in the "Thục line" have been associated with the conclavist Palmarian Catholic Church. On 24 September 1991, Father Pivarunas was consecrated a bishop at Mount Saint Michael by Bishop Moisés Carmona. On 30 November 1993, Bishop Pivarunas conferred episcopal consecration to Father Daniel Dolan in Cincinnati, Ohio, and on 11 May 1999, he consecrated Martin Davila for the Unión Católica Trento to succeed Bishop Carmona.

    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". 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 (also known as Pope Pius XIII) and Gordon Bateman of the small conclavist "True Catholic Church" fall into this category, as does Boniface Atticus I of the small form Minnesota Conclave known as "Full Circle Catholicism".

    Arguments Against Sedevacantism

    Against sedevacantism, Catholics advance arguments such as:

  • The First Vatican Council, "5. Therefore, if anyone says that it is not by the institution of Christ the lord himself (that is to say, by divine law) that blessed Peter should have perpetual successors in the primacy over the whole Church; or that the Roman Pontiff is not the successor of blessed Peter in this primacy: let him be anathema." (Vatican I, Session 4, Chapter 2, Paragraph 5) Vatican I teaches that St. Peter will have perpetual successors. It further teaches that the Roman Pontiff is the successor. This paragraph wouldn't allow sedevacantism to exist, because sedevacantists believe the last valid Pope was Pius XII (or John XXIII).
  • According to 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, e.g., 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 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 by Benedict XIV in "De Synodo Dioecesana" (10,1,5) and by the 1917 Code of Canon Law, Can. 2232, Par. 1, "A penalty that is latae sententiae, whether medicinal or punitive, holds for one who is aware of his own delict in both fora [i.e., public and private]; but prior to a declaratory sentence, the delinquent is excused from observing the penalty any time that he cannot observe it without infamy, and in the external forum no one can compel the observance of that penalty from him unless the delict is notorious, with due regard for Can. 2223, Par. 4." Sedevacantist appeals to Bellarmine's authority in this point accordingly could not be sustained, adding 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 cite the Catholic doctrine of "the peaceful and universal acceptance of the Pope" by the Church, which provides infallible certitude of his legitimacy. As Cardinal Billot wrote in his highly celebrated book, De Ecclesia, "the adhesion of the universal Church will always be, in itself, an infallible sign of the legitimacy of a determined Pontiff, and therefore also of the existence of all the conditions required for legitimacy itself." This doctrine is expounded at length in chapter 12 of the monumental anti-Sedevacantist book, "True or False Pope: A Refutation of Sedevacantism and Other Modern Errors" by John Salza and Robert Siscoe.
  • They claim sedevacantists wrongly treat certain papal statements of the past as if they were ex cathedra declarations.
  • They claim 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 claim 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.
  • Catholic Answers give a refutation:
  • There were popes in the past history of the Church whose immoral actions imply that they might have lost Faith, such as Pope Alexander VI
  • Counter-arguments

    Sedevacantists advance counter-arguments, such as:

  • They say that they don't 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.
  • They argue that the Dogmatic Constitution Pastor aeternus concerns the permanence of the primacy of the Holy See over the universal church and condemns as heretical the propositions that the authority granted to St. Peter by Christ either was abolished after his death or devolved to the college of bishops, both positions that were argued by Orthodox theologians. The very purpose of the Constitution was to solemnly and dogmatically refute those errors. The perpetuity granted divinely to the Petrine ministry was not the constant occupation of that office but that the monarchical structure of the Church, with the Seat of Peter as its head, would never be abrogated and endure throughout history. It is this permanence which allows the Holy See to function as the point of unity even during papal interregnum.
  • 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 claim that, during the 40-year Great Western Schism, although no one asserted the see of Rome to be vacant, there was great 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, a Jesuit theologian, Father Edmund J. 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."
  • Liturgical criticism

    Like other traditionalist Catholics, sedevacantists criticize liturgical revisions made by the Holy See since the Second Vatican Council:

  • Anthony Cekada, an assistant pastor of sedevacantist bishop Daniel Dolan, in his book Work of Human Hands, says that the Mass of Paul VI is invalid and moreover strips down or removes completely every prayer in the Latin Rite which covers subjects such as judgment, heaven and hell, Satan, et al., and suggests that their full-scale removal, if such were to happen, would contribute to a lack of self-discipline and eventual loss of faith and skepticism among Catholics, responding to the post hoc ergo propter hoc accusation above. He criticizes the Mass of Paul VI for what he calls its "Protestantizations", such as referring to the service as a "supper" with a "table" and "cup" instead of a "sacrifice" with an "altar" and "chalice", making the congregation, in his view, the center of worship instead of God, and so forth. He claims that the Mass of Paul VI uses a Modernist method of mixing traditional language with Protestant language to appeal to both sides, and thus falling into heresy, in the same way as the Church of England is said to be "both Catholic and Reformed". The observation about the use of the word "cup", rather than "chalice", concerned only the English translation in use from 1973 to 2011, which employed both terms. It does not concern the original Latin text of the Mass of Paul VI, translations into other languages, or the present English translation, which always uses the word "chalice".
  • Cekada, Patrick Henry Omlor and Rama Coomaraswamy criticize what they consider the wholescale removal of prayers and revisions to the consecration of the Eucharist. Omlor has objected to pro vobis et pro multis being translated in an earlier English translation as "for you and for all", instead of "for you and for many" as in the present English translation. On this see pro multis. They have also said that the revision of the words of consecration of the wine invalidates the sacrament by moving the phrase mysterium fidei (in the English translation, "the mystery of faith"), from the middle of the formula of consecration of the wine to after it and changing its context from, they say, referring to the transubstantiated Sacrament to the mystery of Christ's death and resurrection.
  • Many of them claim that the new rites of ordination and consecration are invalid, for not explicitly endowing the priest with the power to "offer Mass for the living and the dead", but simply, they say, "to preside over the assembly of the people". The new rite in reality does mention sacrifice, both in the model homily proposed and in the prayer of consecration. However, others consider the new rite of ordination of priests to be dubious rather than invalid, but therefore still to be avoided due to the grave risk involved. Anthony Cekada considers categorically invalid the new rite of consecration of bishops. Accordingly, some sedevacantists say bishops consecrated under the new rite are unable to validly ordain bishops, leading to the end of apostolic succession in the mainstream Catholic Church, or even priests, so that those ordained by them cannot provide sacraments at all, but only simulate them. They consider Pope Benedict XVI, who was consecrated a bishop in 1977 in the new rite, to be only a priest, who cannot therefore have been Bishop of Rome, and Pope Francis, ordained in 1969 in the new rite and consecrated in 1992, to be doubtfully a priest and possibly only a layman.
  • Groups

    Sedevacantism appears to be centred in, and by far strongest in the United States, and secondarily other English-speaking countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom, as well as Poland, Mexico, Italy, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Brazil. Anthony Cekada has described the United States as a "sedevacantist bastion", contrasting it with France, where the non-sedevacantist Society of St. Pius X has a virtual monopoly on the traditional Catholic movement.

  • Most Holy Family Monastery, a sedevacantist Feeneyite community living in Fillmore, New York, under the headship of Michael (né Frederick) Dimond. They deny the Catholic doctrine of baptism of desire, and as such are not generally considered in communion with traditional Catholicism.
  • 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. 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.
  • Some of the Archbishop Thục lines of episcopal succession
  • Catholic Restoration, consisting of founding members such as Cekada, Dolan and Sanborn, together with newer priests who were trained in their seminary.
  • Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen, a sedevacantist clerical organization based in Omaha, Nebraska and Spokane, Washington, with operations elsewhere in the world, including Latin America and Europe.
  • Ukrainian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church, who profess the primacy of the Roman Pontiff, but have declared both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI excommunicated, leaving the Holy See vacant. They, however, recognise John XXIII and Paul VI as legitimate, and further consider the condemned heretic Jan Hus to be a saint.
  • Istituto Mater Boni Consilii, which holds to the position of sedeprivationism, is based in Italy.
  • References

    Sedevacantism Wikipedia