[Editor’s note: The purpose of this post is to define and explain the words sedevacantism and sedevacantist. These terms are not familiar to most people, but they come up from time to time on Where Peter Is in our discussions of radical Catholic traditionalism, and this article can serve as a reference for readers of this site and anyone who is unfamiliar with the concept.
This website does not endorse the position of sedevacantism, and we strongly discourage anyone from becoming a sedevacantist. We are in full communion with and loyal to the current Roman Pontiff, Pope Francis, as well as his successors.]
‘Sedevacantism’ is a term used to describe a belief held by those who identify as members of the Catholic Church yet claim that the office of the pope is currently vacant and has been vacant since a certain point in history. Adherents to this belief are called sedevacantists.
The term ‘sedevacantism’ comes from the Latin words sede (meaning “seat” or “chair”) and vacante (meaning “vacant” or “empty”). During an interregnum — the period after a pope dies or resigns and before a new pope is elected — the office of the pope is described as sede vacante. In recent history, interregnums typically last only a few weeks, but in the history of the Church there have been a few interregnums that have been over a year. The longest is generally considered to be the period between the death of Pope Clement IV on November 29, 1268, and the election of Pope Gregory X on September 1, 1271. The seat was vacant for 2 years, 9 months, and 3 days.
Most sedevacantists will say that the Church is currently going through a very long interregnum, typically holding the view that the popes who have occupied the position since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) have been illegitimate and heretical antipopes. By extension, they reject the teachings of the Second Vatican Council as heretical, as well as the reforms to the sacramental rites. Most importantly, they believe that the sacrament of Holy Orders is invalid in the “Vatican II Church,” and therefore the priests and bishops ordained according to the reformed rites are not real priests and bishops. This means that they believe any Mass celebrated by a priest or bishop ordained according to the post-Vatican II rite is invalid, as well as other sacraments like Confirmation and Penance.
Sedevacantist groups vary in size and organization, ranging from “home-aloners” to small independent groups to larger organized communities.
Different sedevacantist groups may have varying opinions on the precise moment when the papacy became vacant. Most believe it occurred after the death of Pope Pius XII in 1958, although others trace the vacancy to a different pontiff.
Some Sedevacantists argue that the last legitimate pope was Pope Pius XI (1922-1939). They believe that the changes implemented during his pontificate, such as the Lateran Treaty with Italy and certain liturgical reforms, deviated from the traditional teachings and practices of the Church. As a result, they consider the papal seat to have been vacant since his reign.
There are also Sedevacantists who assert that the last legitimate pope was Pope Pius X (1903-1914). They point to his strong opposition to modernism and various reforms in the Church as evidence of his orthodoxy. They argue that subsequent Popes, starting with Pope Benedict XV, embraced teachings and practices that departed from the true faith, leading to the vacancy of the papal seat.
I have seen some sedevacantists insist that the break took place in the 19th century, and there is one group based in Truth or Consequences New Mexico that believes every pope after the year 1130 was a false pope and heretic. (And in case you were wondering why they don’t simply become Eastern Orthodox; they think they are heretics as well.)
Beginning with the Council and moving in the other direction, some sedevacantists are less dogmatic about when the break occurred. For example, years ago the late sedevacantist priest Anthony Cekada called the “Catholic Answers Live” radio show and suggested that St. John XXIII was “maybe” a valid pope, and that St. Paul VI forfeited the papacy early in his pontificate by formally teaching heresy.
There are other theories that have been entertained over the years, such as the “Siri thesis,” which is usually associated with the 1958 conclave but has also been connected to the 1963 conclave and the first 1978 conclave. It is named after the Italian Cardinal Giuseppe Siri, who was Archbishop of Genoa from 1946 to 1987. The Siri thesis suggests that Cardinal Siri was actually elected pope in a conclave, but was coerced or pressured into declining the office (in most versions as the result of a KGB nuclear threat), resulting in the election of an antipope. This theory is bolstered by claims that white smoke emerged from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, which then turned black. This theory has many holes (least of all the fact that Siri never gave any indication that anything was amiss), and was even debunked by longtime sedevacantist Hutton Gibson, the father of Hollywood actor Mel Gibson.
A more recent iteration of sedevacantism emergent today is that of former adherents to the “Benedict is Pope” theory (most commonly known by the nickname “Benevacantism”). These sedevacantists held that the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI was invalid due to a technicality, and that he remained the true pope (with Pope Francis reigning as an antipope) until his death on December 31, 2022. The scant historical precedent indicates that in a situation where the valid resignation of a pope is in doubt and a successor has been elected, the surviving pope has been recognized as valid when the other dies. Some former Benevacantists have done just that, believing that Francis is now the pope after nearly 10 years of confusion. Others, such as “Hope is Fuel” coordinator Patrick Coffin, have decided to reject Pope Francis and opt for sedevacantism.
It goes without saying that sedevacantism is held by only a tiny fraction of those who identify as Catholics, and it is not recognized or supported by the official hierarchy of the Church. The vast majority of Catholics recognize the popes elected since the Second Vatican Council as legitimate successors of Saint Peter. The total number of sedevacantists in the world is estimated to be in the 10,000-30,000 range.
This article is a work in progress and is subject to future edits and modifications.
(Future potential topics include the history of sedevacantism, the divisions between sedevacantist groups, and conclavism.)