Sedevacantist Errors On Fact And Law:
Tying It All Together, and Unraveling the Sedevacantist Thesis

 (For PDF, click here)

       In our last two articles (here and here) ,[1] we have discussed the critical distinction between questions of fact and law regarding the loss of office for a heretical Pope. We’ve also shown that Sedevacantists have consistently overlooked this distinction as they attempt to defend their position (you will not find this distinction mentioned in any of their articles, and it’s no
wonder why). Having exposed these fatal errors in our book and recent articles, and with the latest Sedevacantist “rebuttals” growing weaker and more desperate (descending almost completely into ad hominem attacks and accusations of “fear”), it is now safe to say: We hear the death knell for Sedevacantism.

       This article summarizes what we have presented in prior articles and ties the relevant concepts (of fact and law) together, which will help the reader close the coffin on the Sedevacantist corpse. 

Questions of Law

       In our prior articles, we demonstrated that questions relating to precisely how and when a heretical Pope loses his office are questions of law. These questions have been debated by theologians for centuries and have never been settled by the Church. We cited the letter from “the nine” (the nine priests who were expelled from the S.S.P.X. in 1983 and eventually became public Sedevacantists), who admitted that no one has the right to treat such speculative questions (e.g., questions of law) as having been settled, before the Church itself has rendered a judgment. These priests also admitted that pretending to definitively answering such questions by private judgment is a dangerous practice which opens the door to great evils, because it usurps the authority of the Church (in other words, precisely what they themselves now do).

       The admission by these nine Sedevacantist priests confirms what should be obvious – namely, that no lay person or cleric has the right to declare precisely how and when a heretical Pope loses his office (questions of law), simply because certain theologians of their choice have provided an opinion with which they happen to agree. We have also shown that St. Bellarmine himself did not present his opinion concerning how a Pope loses his office (questions of law and speculative theology) as being certainly correct; nor did he claim that those with whom he disagreed (those with different opinions) were certainly wrong.[2] Bellarmine knew full well that questions of law and speculative theology can only be settled by the Church – just as the nine Sedevacantist priests themselves admitted.

       What this means is that no one can claim that just because a certain theologian held an opinion concerning a question of law, that their opinion must be correct; nor can an individual draw a conclusion based upon a theological opinion and then declare their conclusion to be a fact. Before the Church renders a judgment on questions of law, differing theological positions are nothing more than opinions, and therefore cannot be used as a certain premise to draw a certain conclusion, as the very theologians who held the opinions would readily concede.

Questions of Fact

       The question of fact concerns whether a Pope is, in fact, a heretic. As we showed in our previous article, even the Sedevacantist Bishop Dan Dolan admitted that “questions of fact” (e.g., is the Pope a heretic?) can only be settled by the Church, not by individual priests, much less individual layman (and, needless to say, the question of law would have
Bishop Daniel Dolan
to be answered by the Church first, before she could apply any facts that she established to the relevant law).

       What the admission of Bishop Dolan confirms is that whether the Pope is a heretic (question of fact) must be established by the Church, and not “discerned” by private judgment, as Mario Derksen and his fellow Sedevacantists imagine. As Dolan rightly observed, only the Church has the authority to investigate and decide the facts. We will cite Bishop Dolan once again regarding this point. The following is from Dolan’s reply to Fr. Kelly, who questioned the validity of his ordination:

       “The Church, not Father Kelly, investigates and decides the facts. Those impugning the validity of an ordination present their case to the Holy Office, which conducts an investigation, hears the evidence of all parties, examines the witnesses and establishes what the facts are.”[3]

       Just as the question of whether Dolan’s ordination was valid is a question of fact that only the Church has the authority to judge, so too is the question of whether a Pope is a heretic a question of fact that the Church alone has the authority to judge. Certainly, individuals can have an opinion concerning the matter before it is judged by the Church (for example, many are of the opinion that Pope Francis is a heretic, and even publicly express their opinion), but such private opinions do not constitute a fact in the ecclesiastical forum.  As St. Thomas said, a public judgment must come from the public authority.

“Since judgment should be pronounced according to the written law, as stated above, he that pronounces judgment, interprets, in a way, the letter of the law, by applying it to some particular case. Now since it belongs to the same authority to interpret and to make a law, just as a law cannot be made except by public authority, so neither can a judgment be pronounced except by public authority, which extends over those who are subject to the community” (St. Thomas Aquinas).[4]  

Ipso Facto Loss of Office

Mario Derksen
       Because the Church alone has the authority to judge the question of fact, it should be evident that when the theologians speak of a Pope losing his office ipso facto (which means “by the fact”), they are referring to the fact having been established by the public judgment of the Church (a “fact” according to the Church’s judgment), not simply “discerned” by Cekada, Derksen & Company (an alleged “fact” according to private judgment).

       Any ipso facto loss of office (which itself is an opinion concerning the question of law that has not been adopted by the Church) would not occur until the Church established the fact that gives rise to the loss of office, since only then would the matter become a fact in the ecclesiastical forum.[5] For example, concerning the loss of office for a heretical Pope, Suarez wrote:

       “Therefore on deposing a heretical Pope, the Church would not act as superior to him, but juridically and by the consent of Christ, she would declare him a heretic [declare the fact] and therefore unworthy of Pontifical honors; he would then ipso facto [“by the very fact”] and immediately be deposed by Christ, and once deposed he would become inferior and would be able to be punished.”[6]

       Notice that the ipso facto loss of office occurs after the Church establishes the fact, and even, according to Suarez, after the Church declares the fact – that is, “declares him a heretic.”

Declaratory Sentence

       Regarding the need for a declaratory sentence of the fact/crime, Suarez said it was the common opinion of the Doctors that the ipso facto loss of office would follow the declaration.[7] He wrote:

       “I affirm: if he were a heretic and incorrigible, the Pope would cease to be Pope just when a sentence was passed against him for his crime, by the legitimate jurisdiction of the Church. This is the common opinion among the doctors.”[8] 

       Other theologians and canonists, such as Wernz and Vidal, held that the ipso facto loss of office would occur, technically, before any declaration - but not, of course, without the Church first establishing the fact, since the Church alone is the competent authority to decide the facts, as Bishop Dolan concedes.

       Now, the reason some theologians held that the fall from the pontificate would occur before any declaratory sentence was issued, was to avoid any complications with respect to the Church inappropriately judging the Pope (i.e., the heresy of “conciliarism”). If one maintains that the fall occurs before the declaratory sentence is issued, the declaratory sentence would be issued against a former Pope, thus avoiding the problem. For example in their commentary on the 1917 Code of Canon Law, Wernz-Vidal wrote:

       “Through notorious and openly divulged heresy, the Roman Pontiff, should he fall into heresy, by that very fact is deemed to be deprived of the power of jurisdiction even before any declaratory judgment by the Church…”[9]

       According to this opinion, the Church would establish the fact of the crime (“notorious and openly divulged heresy”), and the fall from office would occur at once (ipso facto, or “by the very fact”), but before the declaratory sentence was issued.[10] In this case, when the Church declared the office vacant, it would be declaring the fact of the crime, by which the Pope had already lost his office (after the crime was established by the Church, but before it was declared). Regarding this point, Wernz-Vidal wrote:

       “the General Council declares the fact of the crime by which the heretical pope has separated himself from the Church and deprived himself of his dignity.”[11]

Fr. Anthony Cekada
       Thus, according to this opinion, the Church (1) would establish the fact of the crime; (2) the Pope would fall from office, and (3) the Church would then declare the fact by which he had lost his office. In either case (whether the fall would occur before or after the declaration), the fact by which the Pope would lose his office is the Church’s judgment that the Pope is guilty of the crime of heresy. The “fact” is most certainly not established by individual Catholics who “discern” that the Pope is guilty of the “sin of heresy,” as Mario Derksen and Fr. Cekada maintain (and who incorrectly cites Wernz-Vidal for his position).
       Others, such as St. Robert Bellarmine,[12] explicitly held that the Church can judge a Pope in the case of heresy. In the following quotation, Bellarmine begins by explaining that although God makes the man a Pope (unites the man to the office), He does not do so without the agreement of the men who elect him.  He then explains that, in like manner, a Pope will not be removed by God except through men – that is, without man first judging him. He then explains that in the case of heresy a Pope can be judged (i.e., by the same men who elected him or, according to the more common opinion, by a council). In Bellarmine’s own words:

       “Jurisdiction is certainly given to the Pontiff by God, but with the agreement of men [i.e. the election] as is obvious; because this man, who beforehand was not Pope, has from men that he would begin to be Pope, therefore, he is not removed by God unless it is through men. But a secret heretic cannot be judged by men (…) heresy, the only reason where it is lawful for inferiors to judge superiors … in the case of heresy, a Roman Pontiff can be judged.”[13]

       Contrary to what Sedevacantists have claimed for so many years (that a council cannot judge a Pope, but they themselves can!), Bellarmine clearly held that judging a Pope in the case of heresy is the exception to the rule that “the First See is Judged by No One.” This is also demonstrated from the canon that Bellarmine references (just after the above quotation), which is taken from the Decretum of Gratian. It reads:

       “Let no mortal man presume to accuse the Pope of fault, for, it being incumbent upon him to judge all, he should be judged by no one, unless he is suddenly caught deviating from the faith.”[14]

       Thus, when Bellarmine says that a manifest heretic loses his office “by the fact” of the heresy, he means after the “Roman Pontiff is judged” by the Church, who alone has the authority to establish the fact.

       It is also critical to note that Bellarmine does not say the former Pope can be judged, as if the Church’s judgment is only an administrative declaration that the heretic Pope already fell
St. Robert Bellarmine
from office, based upon the private judgment of individual Catholics (as Fr. Cekada incorrectly maintains).[15] Rather, Bellarmine teaches that the “Roman Pontiff is judged,” meaning the Church establishes the fact of the crime while the man is Pope, and before he would be found guilty of the crime of heresy by which he would lose his office.

       Accordingly, for those (such as Bellarmine) who hold that a council can judge a Pope for the crime of heresy, it is not necessary to maintain that the fall would take place before the declaratory sentence was issued.  It is certainly permissible to maintain that the fall would happen after the declaratory sentence was issued by the Church (as we saw above, Suarez said this was the common opinion in his and Bellarmine’s day).   But the precise moment in time in which the fall occurs is only a minor technical matter (question of law) that offers no help for the Sedevacantist position, since the Church itself must first establish the fact, before the ipso facto loss of office occurs, irrespective of whether or when the Church issues a declaratory sentence. Just as the Church is the sole judge of the questions of law (e.g., how and when a heretical pope would lose his office), so too is it the sole judge of the question of fact (e.g., is the Pope a heretic?) by which the Pope loses his office for heresy.

How Does the Church Establish the Fact of Heresy?

       The eminent eighteenth century Italian theologian, Pietro Ballerini, who is an adherent of Bellarmine’s opinion concerning how a heretical Pope loses his office (the question of law), explains how the Church would establish the fact that would bring about the ipso facto loss of office.

       Fr. Ballerini explains what all of the other theologians teach – namely, that the proper authorities in the Church (most say the bishops gathered at an “imperfect council”) warn the Pope that the doctrine (the material error) he holds is heretical. Once the Pope shows himself to be obstinate in holding the position, the fact of his public heresy (which requires public pertinacity) is established by the Church. Fr. Ballerini explains that by publicly holding to heresy in the face of solemn warnings,[16] the Pope essentially abdicates the papacy. In his own words:

       “Is it not true that, confronted with such a danger to the faith [a Pope teaching heresy], any subject can, by fraternal correction, warn their superior, resist him to his face, refute him and, if necessary, summon him and press him to repent? The Cardinals, who are his counselors, can do this; or the Roman Clergy, or the Roman Synod, if, being met, they judge this opportune. For any person, even a private person, the words of Saint Paul to Titus hold: ‘Avoid the heretic, after a first and second correction, knowing that such a man is perverted and sins, since he is condemned by his own judgment’ (Tit. 3, 10-11). For the person, who, admonished once or twice, does not repent, but continues pertinacious in an opinion contrary to a manifest or defined dogma - not being able, on account of this public pertinacity to be excused, by any means, of heresy properly so called, which requires pertinacity - this person declares himself openly a heretic. He reveals that by his own will he has turned away from the Catholic Faith and the Church, in such a way that now no declaration or sentence of anyone whatsoever is necessary to cut him from the body of the Church. Therefore the Pontiff who after such a solemn and public warning by the Cardinals, by the Roman Clergy or even by the Synod, would remain himself hardened in heresy and openly turn himself away from the Church, would have to be avoided, according to the precept of Saint Paul. So that he might not cause damage to the rest, he would have to have his heresy and contumacy publicly proclaimed, so that all might be able to be equally on guard in relation to him. Thus, the sentence which he had pronounced against himself would be made known to all the Church, making clear that by his own will he had turned away and separated himself from the body of the Church, and that in a certain way he had abdicated the Pontificate…”

       Here we see exactly how the Church establishes the fact of the crime of heresy (pertinacity through warnings). Once the fact is established, according to this opinion, the Pope’s fall from office happens “by the very fact” (ipso facto), according to the Church’s judgment. Again, whether one holds that the loss of office occurs when the declaratory sentence is issued (e.g. Suarez), or before any declaratory sentence is issued (e.g., Wernz-Vidal), it makes no practical difference, since the fall would not occur before the Church establishes the fact.

       This was further confirmed by the canonist Sebastian Smith. He begins by mentioning the two main opinions concerning the question of law (how and when a heretical Pope loses his office),[17] and then notes that both require that he be declared guilty by the Church (that the Church must establish the fact of the crime). He wrote:

Question: Is a Pope who falls into heresy deprived, ipso jure, of the Pontificate?

Answer: There are two opinions: one holds that he is by virtue of divine appointment, divested ipso facto, of the Pontificate; the other, that he is, jure divino, only removable. Both opinions agree that he must at least be declared guilty of heresy by the Church - i.e., by an ecumenical council or the College of Cardinals.”[18]

       Again, whether the fall technically happens just before the declaration or at the moment the declaration is issued is merely a speculative question for theologians to discuss.  But what is not in question is that before the Church establishes the fact of the crime,[19] a heretical Pope will retain his office.

       This was explained by Fr. Paul Laymann, a contemporary of Bellarmine and Suarez, and fellow member of the Jesuit Order. Fr. Laymann, who was considered one of the greatest canonists and moralists of his day, explains that a heretical Pope will retain his office as long as he is being tolerated by the Church and recognized as the universal pastor. In the following quotation, also notice that he mentions both of the opinions concerning the question of law:

       “It is more probable that the Supreme Pontiff, as a person, might be able to fall into heresy and even a notorious one, by reason of which he would merit to be deposed by the Church [one opinion], or rather declared to be separated from her [second opinion] (…) Observe, however, that, though we affirm that the Supreme Pontiff, as a private person, might be able to become a heretic … while he was tolerated by the Church, and publicly recognized as the universal pastor, he would really enjoy the pontifical power, in such a way that all his decrees would have no less force and authority than they would if he were truly faithful. The reason is: because it is conducive to the governing of the Church, even as, in any other well-constituted commonwealth, that the acts of a public magistrate are in force as long as he remains in office and is publicly tolerated.”[20]

      As Fr. Laymann clearly teaches, a heretical Pope will not lose his office while he is being tolerated by the Church - in other words, at least up to the point that the proper authorities establish the fact of the crime. The reason is because it must be a fact in the ecclesiastical forum (according to the Church’s judgment), not simply according to the private judgment of any Catholic in the street.

       Because the Church alone has the authority to decide questions of fact and law, it follows that the Church alone has the authority to declare when the Pope has lost his office for heresy. This was confirmed by the manualist, J. M. Herve, who wrote:

       “Given that, as a private person, the Pontiff could indeed become a public, notorious, and obstinate heretic… he would fall by the very fact of heresy… In that case, only a Council would have the right to declare his see vacant so that the usual electors could safely proceed to an election.”[21]


       Sedevacantists have based their entire case upon the erroneous premise that the fall from office for heresy would occur before the Church itself had established the fact of heresy. This error forces them to reject the teaching of numerous theologians, and twist others (such as Bellarmine) to support their position. As one can see from reading this article, we have not rejected the teaching of any approved theologian. We accept that any of their positions on the question of law could be correct. But no matter which opinion is correct, all of them negate the Sedevacantist thesis, since the Church alone is the sole judge of both the question of fact and the questions of law (as the Sedevacantist priests we mentioned confirm). And this is why no theologian has ever taught that such a grave matter as the loss of office for a heretical Pope is to be decided – a declared - by the private judgment of individual Catholics. On the contrary, as Herve clearly taught, even if faced with a notoriously heretical pope, “only a Council would have the right to declare his see vacant.”

And this is the end for Sedevacantism.

[1] “Mario Derksen’s Elementary Error on Fact vs. Law” and “Sedevacantist Bishop Dan Dolan Concedes the Church is the Judge of the Question of Fact” at
[2] For example, in response to the Third Opinion (that a heretical Pope cannot lose his office), Bellarmine said it was only “highly improbable,” not definitely wrong. In response to the Fourth opinion (that the Church itself plays a part in severing the bond uniting the man to the pontificate), Bellarmine simply said “to my judgment, this opinion cannot be held.” Bellarmine went on to defend his own opinion (just as those who held the contrary opinions did), but he never claimed that his opinion is certainly correct.
[3] Fr. Dolan’s reply to Fr. Kelly, October 5, 1990. 3/DOLAN-S-REPLY.
[4] ST, II-II, q. 60, a. 6 (emphasis added).  
[5] We again note that the Church would establish the fact of the crime of heresy only after settling the question of law, that is, exactly when and how the Pope would be judged and lose his office for the crime.
[6] Suarez, De Fide, Disp. 10, Sect. 6, n. 10, p. 317 (emphasis added).
[7] John of St. Thomas, a contemporary of Bellarmine, who knew his position well, also stated that Bellarmine did in fact hold the common opinion that a heretical Pope would have to be “declared incorrigible” before he would be “deposed immediately by Christ.” Cursus Theologici, II-II, Disp. II, Art. III, De Depositione Papae, p. 138.
[8] Suarez, De Fide, disp. X, sect. VI, nn. 3-10, pp. 316-317.
[9] F.X. Wernz, P. Vidal, Ius Canonicum (Rome: Gregorian 1943) 2:453.
[10] As we explain in True or False Pope?, according to this opinion, the Church’s determination of the crime is only the dispositive cause for the loss of office; Christ Himself is the efficient cause who severs the man from the papacy.
[11] Wernz-Vidal, Ius Canonicum (Rome, 1943), II, p. 518.
[12] “That a heretical Pope can be judged is expressly held in the Canon, Si Papa, dist. 40, and with Innocent (Serm. II de Consec. Pontif.) …  heresy [is] the only reason where it is lawful for inferiors to judge superiors” (Bellarmine, De Romano Pontifice).
[13] De Romano Pontifice, bk. 2 ch. 30.
[14] Si Papa, Dist. 40.
[15] See our feature “Father Cekada’s Glaring Error on Canon 151” at www.trueorfalse
[16] As we explain in True or False Pope?, these are warnings given in fraternal correction (acts of charity), not juridical warnings (acts of jurisdiction), since no one on Earth has jurisdiction over the Pope. 
[17] The two main opinions are those of Bellarmine/Suarez, and John of St. Thomas/Cajetan.  The former maintain the a heretical Pope loses his office ipso facto; the latter hold that the Church must play a part in the deposition itself, over and above merely establishing and declaring the crime.
[18] Smith, Elements of Ecclesiastical Law, (New York: Benzinger Br., 1881), third ed., p.210
[19] If someone wants to argue that the loss of office happens by the “public sin” of heresy, rather than the “public crime,” it doesn’t change the unanimous teaching of the theologians that the fact (“crime” or “public sin”) would have to be established by the Church, not “discerned” by private judgment.
[20] Laymann, Theol. Mor., bk. 2, tract 1, ch. 7, p. 153.
[21] HervĂ©. Manuale Theologiae Dogmaticae (1943), quoted in “Pope Sifting - Difficulties with Sedevacantism” (Angelus Press Magazine October 1995), by Laszlo Szijarto.