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The Pope's Question in Fringe Catholicism: A Note on "Sedevacantism", "Sedeprivationism", and "Antipopes"

by Massimo Introvigne

imgIn the wake of Vatican II, several arch-conservative Roman Catholic groups began to adopt a critical attitude towards the hierarchy. The largest of these groups later became the Society (or Fraternity) of Saint Pius X under the leadership of French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (1905-1991), which later expanded to United States. Lefebvre, however, never questioned the legitimacy of Pope Paul VI (1897-1978), or that of his successors. Lefebvre’s view was that they were leaders of dubious doctrines and actions (thus justifying Lefebvre in promoting what, according to Rome, amounted to a schism), but did not conclude that such wrongdoings should automatically invalid their Papal canonical role. Inside and outside the Society of Saint Pius X, more radical groups emerged, each concluding that, after Vatican II, the Popes had lost their legitimacy as a result of their heretical teachings; this implied that the Holy See of Rome (“Sedes”, in Latin) was technically “vacant”, i.e. there was no legitimate Pope. Hence the name of “Sedevacantism” given to the movement, which was vehemently critical of Lefebvre and his Society of Saint Pius X. The latter, in fact, although critical of the Pope, continued to pray for him in its Masses with the ritual formula “una cum Pontifice nostro” (“in unity with our Pope”). Sedevacantists regarded what they called the “una cum Masses” as ipso facto invalid, just as both Sedevacantists and members of the Lefebvre movement regarded Masses celebrated according to post-Vatican II liturgical renewal as invalid.

Sedevacantism was never a well-organized movement, consisting as it did of several small groups, often divided on questions of leadership and on the finer points of how “non-una cum” Masses should be celebrated. The very fact that they considered the Holy See to be vacant, meant that Sedevacantists by definition could not recognize an international authority, and it kept their movement divided. Some influential centers did emerge, however. Many Sedevacantist leaders were consecrated as Bishops in the late 1970s and early 1980s by arch-conservative Vietnamese Archbishop Pierre-Martin Ngô-Dhinh Thuc (1897-1984). These consecrations, not authorized by the Vatican, were, according to Roman Catholic Canon Law, illicit but not invalid (and they led ultimately to Thuc’s excommunication). This means that Thuc’s consecration of the Sedevacantist leaders as Bishops was regarded as valid, although they were automatically excommunicated. They were, however, according to Roman Catholic Canon Law, “real” Bishops, with the power to consecrate other Bishops in turn and to validly ordain priests (forthwith excommunicated by virtue of the fact of their ordination by an excommunicated Bishop). The question is quite important in Catholic Canon Law and doctrine, which states that a validly ordained priest (although excommunicated), when pronouncing the words of the consecration in the Mass, really does convert the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ (something an invalidly ordained priest is not empowered to do). Thus, thanks mostly to Archbishop Thuc (who died in 1984 fully reconciled with Rome) and to more than one hundred “Thuc Bishops” ordained directly or indirectly by him, Sedevacantists could rightly claim to have “real” priests and to be able to offer “real” Masses to their followers.

Among those consecrated by Thuc was Father Michel Guérard des Lauriers (1898-1988), who prior to Vatican II had been a respected Catholic Dominican academic theologian, and had joined Lefebvre in 1970 and left him in 1977. Guérard was initially regarded as a leading intellectual light in the international Sedevacantist network. He insisted, however, that he was not technically a “Sedevacantist” and that his position was slightly different. In his “Cassiciacum theory” (originally expounded in 1979 in the journal Les Cahiers de Cassiciacum), Guérard explained that the Holy See was vacant only “formally”; “materially” Paul VI (as, later, his successors) could still be regarded as Pope. Only if a significant number of Cardinals and Bishops were prepared to start a canonical process against the Pope, would he cease to be the “real” Pope also “materially” (and not only “formally”). Guérard criticized both Lefebvre (who regarded Paul VI as Pope both formally and materially) and the Sedevacantist majority (for which Paul VI was not the Pope, neither formally nor materially). Guérard’s complicated theory succeeded in rallying only one section of what was the Sedevacantist network around him. The “Cassiciacum theory” (occasionally described as “Sedeprivationist” rather than strictly “Sedevacantist”) is currently promoted by the Italian-based Mater Boni Consilii Institute (Località Carbignano 36, 10020 Verrua Savoia [Torino], Italy) and by a number of U.S. groups originating from ex-Dominican Bishop Robert McKenna (b. 1927), who was consecrated Bishop by Guérard himself in 1986.

Sedevacantism (not connected with the “Cassiciacum theory” and regarding the Holy See as vacant in both the formal and the material sense) has its main centers in Mexico, thanks in particular to the activities of a “Thuc Bishop”, Moisés Carmona-Rivera (1912-1991), who, together with Adolfo Zamora Hernandez (1910-1987, yet another “Thuc Bishop”) founded the Union Católico Trento and the Seminar of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in Hermosillo (Sonora, Mexico). In the early 1980s, a popular Sedevacantist leader in the U.S. was Francis Schuckhardt (b. 1937), who in 1967 had founded the Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen (CMRI, from its Latin acronym) at Mount Saint Michel near Spokane (Washington), and subsequently broke with Rome in 1970. Schuckhardt, however, was accused of a number of personal wrongdoings and had to leave his own community in 1984; in 1987 he was found in possession of illegal drugs and arrested in California. After his release from jail, he established and now runs a semi-clandestine organization known as the Oblates of Mary the Immaculate (not to be confused with the Roman Catholic religious order of the same name). CMRI survived, however, and even prospered in its post-Schuckhardt phase, with the help of the Mexican Sedevacantists, and under the leadership of Bishop Mark Anthony Pivarunas (b. 1958), consecrated by Carmona-Rivera in 1991. In 1993, Pivarunas in turn consecrated as Bishop Father Daniel L. Dolan (b. 1951), who converted his parish of St. Gertrude the Great in Cincinnati (11144 Reading Road, Cincinnati, Ohio 45241) from a Society of Saint Pius X Mass center to the central point of a Sedevacantist network extending to several nearby States.

There may be some ten thousand Sedevacantists throughout the world, with the most important centers in the U.S., Mexico, France, Italy, Germany and the Czech Republic. The small Japanese group Seibo no Mikuni (33-2 Aza Ubasaku Oaza, Matuzuka, Sukagawa-shi, Fukushima 969-04, Japan), founded in 1970 by Yukio Nemoto (1925-1988), remains largely isolated because of its peculiar millennial beliefs, which have been studied by CESNUR’s PierLuigi Zoccatelli. Most of them believe that forming a central organization would be tantamount to establishing a schismatic alternative Roman Catholic Church. They prefer to remain a network of small groups, and see themselves as the only surviving remnant of the one true post-Vatican II Catholic Church. One of their main problems is how to respond to the issue of the future of Catholic authority. By definition, they regard the Pope as essential for the Church’s very survival and infallibility, but, at the same time, they maintain there is no (legitimate) Pope in Rome at present. A large majority of Sedevacantists dismiss as non-canonical, and even ridiculous, the very idea that they could convene a conclave and elect a Pope of their own; they prefer to wait for a solution to come directly, and perhaps unpredictably, from God, whose ways, they say, are after all not human ways. A few Sedevacantists, on the other hand, are “conclavist”, i.e. they believe a conclave should be called (composed of all, or at least most, Sedevacantist Bishops), and a new Pope duly elected. Conclavists realize nonetheless that, should a conclave be organized, the majority of the Sedevacantist Bishops would refuse to attend it, and some groups (such as the Italian Association of St. Mary “Salus Populi Romani”, headquartered at Via Luigi Chiala 8, 10080 Feletto, province of Turin, Italy) regard a conclave as certainly desirable but, at least for the time being, impracticable. Attempts have been made to organize a conclave, however: in 1994, for example, some twenty Sedevacantist Bishops from twelve different countries met in Assisi, Italy, and elected as Pope a South African priest (and former student at Lefebvre’s seminary), Victor Von Pentz, under the name of Linus II. He currently resides in the U.K. and maintains but a limited following.

Some conclavists have, on the other hand, joined other alternative Popes (“Antipopes”, according to Roman Catholic theology), who, even before the full development of the Sedevacantist network, had claimed that their role was based both on the alleged heresies of Vatican II and on mystical visions calling them to the Pontificate without the need of any conclave or election. One of the earliest “pretenders” was a French priest, Michel-Auguste-Marie Collin (1905-1974), who claimed to have been called by Heaven itself to become “Pope Clemens XV” during Vatican II, in 1963. Collin established an alternative “Vatican” in Clémery, Lorraine, where he also founded a Renewed Church of Christ, known outside France as the Church of the Magnificat. After Collin’s death in 1974, his Church nearly collapsed entirely, and is now reduced to a small remnant of what it once was. One of Collin’s followers, however, the Québec priest Gaston Tremblay (b. 1928), had already ceased to recognize the French claimant in 1968, and had proclaimed himself “Pope Gregory XVII”. His movement is known as the Apostles of Infinite Love.

Tremblay’s main competitor was Clemente Domínguez y Gómez (1946-2005), one of the seers in the alleged Marian apparitions of Palmar de Troya, Spain (1968-1976) and later a ?Thuc Bishop?, consecrated by the Vietnamese Archbishop on January 11, 1976. In 1978, Domínguez (in the meantime blinded by a car accident in May 1976) revealed that he had been mystically designated by Jesus Christ as the new Pope in a 1976 vision, and his followers confirmed his election as ?Pope Gregory XVII? (the same name adopted by Tremblay in Québec). His ?Catholic, Apostolic and Palmarian Church? (named after the town of Palmar de Troya) is probably the single largest organization bowing to the authority of an ?alternative? Pope, with more than a thousand followers in Spain and several hundreds more internationally (address: Abad Gordillo 5, Apartado 4058, 41080 Sevilla, Spain). In the 1990s, however, Domínguez was accused of sexual immorality with several nuns of the order he had established in the meantime; in 1997, he admitted his sins and asked for his community’s forgiveness. Most followers remained loyal to Domínguez and to his hand-picked successor, former lawyer and ?Thuc Bishop? Manuel Alonso Corral. Others, however, have both doubted the sincerity of Domínguez in his apology and questioned his decision to appoint a successor rather than leave this choice to a conclave including the many cardinals he had in the meantime appointed from among his Bishops. At the end of 2000, 17 Bishops with a couple of hundred followers left the Palmarian Church, and formed a splinter movement known as ?The Tribe?. It is unclear whether this splinter group will elect a new Pope after the death of Dominguez on March 21, 2005. In the meantime, Dominguez has been succeeded by Corral, who has been crowned as Pope on March 26 under the name of Peter II.

Other claimants to the role of Pope have included Father Gino Frediani (1913-1984), the parish priest of Gavinana (province of Pistoia, Italy) who in 1973 claimed to have been mystically consecrated by Jesus Christ and several Old Testament prophets as “Pope Emmanuel I”. He gathered several hundred followers; after his death, a hundred have remained active in his “New Church of the Holy Heart of Jesus” (Via Maresca-Gavinana 9, 51028 San Marcello Pistoiese, province of Pistoia, Italy) under the leadership of his successor Father Sergio Melani (who makes no claim to being the new Pope, however). A couple of dozen rival “antipopes” operate in several countries, but none of them has more than a handful of followers. A special position is nonetheless maintained by William Kamm (b. 1950), a German-born Catholic lay preacher living in Australia and known as “Little Pebble”. It is claimed that he Virgin Mary has revealed to Kamm that the post-Vatican II Popes, including John Paul II, are indeed legitimate (contrary to the Sedevacantist thesis). On the other hand, Heaven has designated Kamm as the only legitimate successor of John Paul II; when he dies, any Pope elected in Rome other than Kamm will not be the real Pope. Kamm has more than a thousand followers in several countries, some of them living communally and most of them members of a religious order known as the “Order of Saint Charbel” (named after the popular Catholic Lebanese saint Charbel Maklouf, 1828-1898). As long as John Paul II lives, Kamm claims to be in full communion with him and the Roman Catholic Church: an opinion not shared, however, by the Australian Catholic Bishops who, despite his protests, have repeatedly branded Kamm’s organization as schismatic.

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