|Election of Antipope Paschal III|
fresco in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, by Spinello Aretino
The title of this essay is meant to be provocative, but not because I'm asking that question. I am not. Rather, this is the question I've been hearing over and over again, starting shortly after my conversion to the Catholic Church in 2000, and much more frequently after the election of Pope Francis in 2013. That question is: "Do we have an antipope?"
What is an antipope? For some of my non-Catholic readers, this may sound a bit ominous. I imagine that some of my Evangelical friends might wonder if I'm speaking of the Antichrist. I am not. An antipope is not the same thing as an antichrist or the Antichrist. In fact, they have virtually nothing in common. An antichrist is a person who is pretending to be Christ. While an antipope is a person who is pretending to be the pope. Since the pope is not Christ, there is a huge difference.
To simplify, an antipope is really nothing more than a man who is presumed to be the pope, but in fact he is not, either through impersonation or some kind of defect in his election to the papacy. In the case of impersonation, that would imply a wilful act of deception on the part of the papal pretender. In the case of election defect, the pretender to the papal throne may not even realise he is an antipope. Because of this, it is possible to have a very good man (even a Saint) acting as an antipope, who has no intention of deceiving others and no ill intent whatsoever. He himself may be a victim of unfortunate circumstances. Such was the case with Saint Hippolytus of Rome (AD 170 - 235), who allowed himself to be "elected" as the first antipope from AD 217 - 235, but was reconciled with the true pope shortly before his death. He was later canonised as a Saint and shares the same feast day with Saint Pontian (August 13), who was the legitimate pope he reconciled with.
In short, antipopes are a real thing in Catholicism, and a real problem. Fortunately they haven't been that big of a problem in a very long time. That is, unless you're part of a small group of Traditional Catholics called sedevacantists which is translated as sede, meaning chair, and vacante meaning vacant. Thus the term means "vacant chair" and is a Latin reference to the notion that the Chair of Peter (the papacy) is currently vacant, and we have no lawful pope. These people propose that every pope, following the death of Pope Pius XII in 1958, is an antipope. This would include: John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Pope Francis.
I should be clear in stating that most traditional Catholics are NOT sedevantists. However, I think it's safe to say that most sedevacantists are traditionalists. In other words, sedevantism is a small strain that runs within traditionalism, but we should never pin sedevanctism on all traditionalists. In fact, most Traditional Catholics are loyal to the current pope.
I first encountered these sedevacanatist shortly after my conversion to the Catholic Church in 2000 and quickly dismissed them. Then, after Pope Benedict XVI liberalised the celebration of the old Latin mass in 2007, a number of them came out of the woodwork in the years following. Apparently they had been in hiding for some time, but thought they could reveal themselves now that the old Latin mass was back. Sadly, there is quite a disproportionate number of them in the Ozarks where I live. I believe this was because of some poor decisions made long ago, wherein the old Latin mass was denied to the faithful for a number of years, and many traditional Catholic practises were openly discouraged.
As a former Evangelical, and Anglican, I learned that one simply does not deny accommodations to those who seek traditional expressions of faith. For example; as an Evangelical, I remember our community having both traditional and contemporary services. The traditional service had old hymnals, a piano player, and a choir. While our contemporary service had a band, with a drummer, and the lyrics of praise and worship songs projected onto screens. As another example; while I was an Anglican, I distinctly remember every Episcopal church I attended as celebrating two "rites" from the Book of Common Prayer. Rite One consisted of traditional English (thees and thous), traditional sung liturgy, pipe organ music, incense, bells, etc. While Rite Two consisted of contemporary English, a much more modern spoken liturgy (similar to the new Catholic mass), some occasional stringed instruments, with much less pomp and circumstance. In both the Evangelical and Anglican world, those who preferred traditional worship always had that option available, and those who preferred contemporary worship always had that option available too. My wife and I frequently bounced back and forth between both forms of worship, as we found positive aspects in both. Never, and I mean never, did we encounter an Evangelical or Anglican community wherein those who preferred traditional worship were "denied." So when we encountered this very thing in the Catholic Church, in our own diocese no less, I was both surprised and extremely curious.
I firmly believe this denial of traditional Catholic liturgy is the very thing that spawned this disproportionate rise in traditionalism and sedevacantism within the Ozarks. My family and I have since transferred to the Ordinariate for former Anglicans, but in the diocesan territory we still reside, a number of corrective actions were undertaken by the previous bishop, and as a result a significant amount of healing has thankfully taken place. Now, various forms of traditional liturgy are much more accessible to local Catholics. This hasn't completely eliminated the problem, but it has gone a long way toward preventing it from getting any worse.
The question arises as to why. Why do some Catholics go down this road? Why does this happen? In ages past, this sort of thing was much more understandable. The papal election process wasn't always clear, and often enough, too influenced by ancient and medieval politics. That came to an end, however, in AD 1449, and since then we haven't had any antipopes with significant following. So what would compel some Catholics to actively believe that every pope following Pius XII was/is an antipope?
I think the trouble that many devout Catholics sometimes run into is the question of "how?" Specifically; how can the Church be in such a crisis today, when we have a pope? This has led some traditional Catholics to the sedevacantist position. The assumption here is that the Church simply could not be in such crisis today if we had a real pope on the Chair of Peter. A real pope would straighten this mess out. A real pope would "put the hammer down" so to speak. A real pope would excommunicate all the trouble makers. A real pope would put a stop to all of this. Mixed into that mindset is the notion that a real pope would never make any serious error, and a real pope would never tolerate any heresy. Thus, there is a strain of ultramontanism in the mindset of today's traditional Catholics, which has led some into sedevacantism. The term ultramontanism is Latin and translated as "beyond the mountains." It was a term that was used in medieval Europe to point to the power and authority of the pope, who lived "beyond the mountains" (specifically the Alps) and ruled from Rome. The concept here is one of a highly centralised Church, wherein the pope exerts absolute control. Some aspects of ultramontanism won the day in the First Vatican Council (1869 - 1870), but that was counterbalanced by some aspects of conciliarism in the Second Vatican Council (1962 - 1965). Many traditional Catholics put less emphasis on Vatican II, and some of them reject it entirely. (On a personal note, I fully accept Vatican II, but interpret it squarely within the larger context of the Council of Trent and Vatican I.) This ultramontane approach to the papacy, typical of many traditional Catholics, has led some to the conclusion that the pope can make no serious error in the governance of the Church, because he is always guided by the Holy Spirit. It doesn't allow much room for the pope to have free will, and reject the guidance of the Holy Spirit if he so chooses. Therefore, they surmise that if we have a pope who is making serious errors in the governance of the Church, we must have an antipope on the Chair of Peter. Or at least, that's how the thinking goes. To accompany this, they usually cite a long list of grievances against the popes they claim to be antipopes. These include such things as; limitation of the old Latin mass, discouraging the traditional practise of Catholicism, allowing liturgical innovations in an innumerable amount of parishes, ignoring immoral and scandalous behaviour from Catholic public figures, and finally a general failure to teach the Catholic faith in its entirety since the Second Vatican Council.
Now, in recent years, two camps have developed among the sedevacantists. The first is the old guard, which I call the old sedevacantists. These are those traditionalists who insist that every pope since the death of Pius XII (in 1958) was/is an antipope. Then we have the new sedevacantists, who believe that Pope Benedict XVI was the last lawful pope, and that his retirement was an act of disobedience which resulted in the election of Pope Francis. They claim that Pope Francis, and he alone, is now an antipope. To prove this, they point out many of the various actions Pope Francis has taken that have been interpreted as unfriendly toward the traditional practise of Catholicism, culminating in two scandalous synods on the family, and his recent apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia which appears to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion without an annulment.
While I admit that all of these complaints are in some way legitimate, and simultaneously problematic, that does not automatically mean the popes responsible for these things are antipopes. The Catholic Church has never been free of scandal and crisis. Understanding history is to understand that the Catholic Church is ALWAYS in some kind of struggle, either internal or external, and often this struggle leads to the level of crisis. The crisis escalates until it is no longer sustainable. Something breaks. Then some kind of correction is finally made, (which should have been done years prior), and the Church gradually heals, just long enough to find itself in another crisis of some different type. Now admittedly, from a historical perspective, some crisis are worse than others. One of the worst was the Arian Heresy of the early 4th century, and I think its probably safe to say the current situation in the Church is rapidly approaching a crisis comparable to that. How will it end? I don't know exactly. But if things stay true to historical form, it will go something like this. The crisis will escalate until something breaks. The Church will be put into a tailspin, and something will need to be done to pull it out. At that time some corrective measure will be put into place (late as usual), and the problem will gradually be corrected. Then the Church will be given enough time to heal before the next crisis comes along.
Does any of this, however, mean the pope is illegitimate? Well, no. Because if we measured a pope's legitimacy by the level of crisis in the Church, almost no pope would qualify as legitimate. I dare say that St. Peter himself would be disqualified! The plain and simple truth is, throughout history, we have had good popes, bad popes, and mediocre popes. Just because a pope is bad or mediocre doesn't mean he's an antipope. On a personal note, I try to look at things through the lens of history, not the media. If we judged all the popes since Vatican II through the lens of the media, they would all be judged as Saints, except of course for my favourite -- Benedict XVI -- who many in the media dislike. I, however, try to look at things more historically. Since Vatican II, I would judge one pope as great, one as good, one as bad, and two as mediocre. I won't tell you which is which, but I will say that as of this date, Pope Benedict XVI was my favourite, and I'll leave it at that. I think that if we judge our popes through the lens of the media we run the risk of a kind of ecclesial narcissism, which looks only at the good while ignoring the bad. If we judge them through a more historical lens, we end up with a much more objective view.
Now I should note here that no papacy can truly be judged until it is over, because you see, popes can change. Indeed, they have changed in the past. The first half of Pius IX's reign was very different from his second half. The same can be said of Saint John Paul II, who's reign began as very progressive and ended as very conservative.
In closing, I think the sedevacantists end up shooting themselves in the foot with their own arguments. Because you see, if their ultramontanist (absolute rule) view of the papacy is to be taken seriously, then they would have to admit that nobody can judge a man as an antipope, except of course a legitimate pope. For nobody can sit in judgement of a pope, except another pope. By calling Pope Francis, or any previous pope, and antipope, they are in effect acting as "little popes" themselves. As Catholics, we must always operate under the assumption that the current elected pope is indeed the legitimate pope. Failure to do that puts us in a very bad position. We have to operate under this assumption until we hear otherwise from a legitimate Catholic authority.