In recent days, a number of articles defending the legitimacy of Francis’s papacy have appeared on websites that are usually critical of the Holy Father, including a two-part blog post on One Peter Five by Robert Siscoe (click to read parts 1 and 2). Siscoe, who co-authored a 2015 book entitled True or False Pope? Refuting Sedevacantism and Other Modern Errors, appears to be a member of what is colloquially known as the “Recognize and Resist” faction of contemporary Catholicism, a group that includes the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) and other traditionalist Catholics who reject much of post-Vatican II liturgy and theology, while still insisting that the current pope is the legitimate Successor of Peter.
The visibility of those who endorse this view has grown in the age of social media, and has been galvanized during the pontificate of Pope Francis, who many see as the embodiment of the “errors” and “heresies” of the post-Vatican II Church. And while many in these groups openly defy the authoritative and magisterial teachings of the last 50+ years–ordaining priests and celebrating sacraments without papal or episcopal approval; preaching and teaching that current liturgical norms are spiritually harmful and theologically suspect; and writing books, articles, and blog posts criticizing nearly every aspect of the institutional Church — they insist that they are faithful and obedient to the pope and respect papal primacy.
Despite their constant criticism and their often scandalous rejection of papal and conciliar teachings, they have been constant in their acknowledgement that the pope is the pope. So it is not surprising that in a climate where even Monsignors who served in the Vatican under Pope Benedict XVI are openly questioning the legitimacy of Benedict’s resignation and Francis’s papacy, veteran Recognize and Resistors are weighing in with doctrinal justifications in favor of the pope’s legitimacy. In the case of the SSPX, for instance, Pope Francis doesn’t pose any particular difficulty. They regard him as another modernist pope who teaches error–the same as they view the previous 4-5 popes.
Siscoe’s argument boils down to this:
“All that is required to ascertain [a pope’s] legitimacy is to find out if he was recognized as pope by the Church. If the answer is yes, that alone provides infallible certitude of his legitimacy, as well a corresponding degree of certitude that all the conditions required for him to have become popes were satisfied — such as the condition that the papal office was vacant at the time. And the certitude of the pope’s legitimacy occurs the moment the entire Church learns of his election, provided it is not at once contested.”
Recognize-and-Resistors have been embroiled in a debate since the 1970s with another faction of traditionalists: the sedevacantists. The typical Sedevacantist believes that there has not been a legitimate pope since 1958 (although agreement on the identity of the last pope varies among sedevacantists). While the SSPX and Sedevacantists agree on many of the same principles about the Church since Vatican II regarding the liturgy, theology, and magisterial teaching (they don’t like it), sedevacantists like to draw attention to one fairly obvious point: if you believe he’s the pope, then why do you disobey him and denounce his teachings?
While the SSPX and those with a similar mindset correctly recognize who the pope is, they empty his authority and primacy of all of its meaning. Certainly they’ve developed excuses and justifications for their behavior (it’s a “state of emergency,” which provides them with “supplied jurisdiction”), and perhaps this helps them sleep better at night, but there is no precedent for what they’re doing. Much of our site is dedicated to point out this fact. They’ve given their personal disagreements with the Church priority over the clearly defined Magisterial authority of the Church. Pedro Gabriel describes this at length in his piece “Sola Tradito.” Rather than following the actual Magisterium, they’ve created their own imagisterium and follow that.
Sedevacantists recognize the hypocrisy in that position, and instead have decided the pope isn’t the pope. If there was a pope, they argue, they would be bound to obey him and respect his primacy. Of course, while doing so, they ignore the teachings on the legitimacy of the pope that Siscoe and others so clearly articulate. They see, very clearly, that “Recognize and Resist” is incompatible with Catholic teaching, and make very strong arguments, rooted in magisterial teaching, to that effect (here’s one example among many), but are blind to the impossibility of their own position.
Radical traditionalists are split over which set of doctrines to choose: recognition of the pope or papal primacy. The Catholic position, of course, is to accept both. Here’s a chart to illustrate what I’m saying:
An orthodox Catholic would hold SSPX’s view of who the Pope is AND the sedevacantist’s view on papal primacy. Perhaps if you took a sedevacantist and a member of the SSPX and combined them, your result would be one pretty good Catholic. But until that’s possible, they’re two sides of the same coin.
Mike Lewis is a writer and graphic designer from Maryland, having worked for many years in Catholic publishing. He’s a husband, father of four, and a lifelong Catholic. He’s active in his parish and community. He is a founding editor for Where Peter Is.