Was St. Vincent Ferrer a Sedevacantist?

Robert J. Siscoe

For years, Sedevacantists have been spreading the myth that St. Vincent Ferrer was a “theoretical and practical Sedevacantist” - that is, that he used his private judgment to determine that Peter de Luna (Benedict XIII) had lost his office, ipso facto, and then declared, on his own authority, that the Papal See was vacant.   There was no need for official warnings or a declaration from the Church, they assure us, for the Saint to reach his verdict.  He simply applied the proper theological principles and arrived at the obvious conclusion that any Catholic who knew his faith would have reached.  Furthermore, as the story goes, St. Vincent had the “courage” to take matters into his own hands to make the fact known.  Therefore, on the Feast of the Epiphany, in the year of our Lord, 1416, in the presence of nobleman, prelates, and even Benedict XIII himself, the great St. Vincent Ferrer heroically declared before a crowd of 10,000 that the Chair of Peter was vacant – all based on nothing but his own “private judgment”.

Before seeing what really happened on January 6, 1416 (and the months leading up that day), let’s read Steve Speray’s account of this Sedevacantist fairytale, taken from his article “The Sedevacantist Saint Vincent Ferrer,” which, needless to say, did not include a single footnote:

“After years of defending the Avignon papacy, St. Vincent Ferrer became a sedevacantist officially on the Feast of the Epiphany, 1416 A.D. [January 6, 1416], at the Castle of Majorca.

“Using private judgment, St. Vincent Ferrer denounced his friend Pope Benedict XIII for going into schism because he wouldn’t step down with the other papal claimants in order that the Church could be unified under one pope. The great miracle worker had many followers and when St. Vincent Ferrer declared the Chair of Peter empty, nearly the whole Catholic world pulled away their allegiance to all papal claimants making way for Pope Martin V. (…)

“St. Vincent Ferrer’s example destroys all arguments against the principles of sedevacantism that no warnings, no declarations, etc. are necessary to know that a pope has lost his office due to heresy or schism. (…) St. Vincent believed Benedict XIII was the true pope who lost his office automatically without any declaration from the Church. … St. Vincent Ferrer, a Dominican highly educated in the Faith, became a sedevacantist by his own judgment against his friend, Pope Benedict XIII. He knew his Faith, and he put it into practice. St. Vincent Ferrer, pray for us!”[1]

That’s the fable Sedevacantist apologists have been spreading for years to support their position.  The alleged facts are rarely if ever questioned and the story is almost always received with great enthusiasm. 

In this article, we will see what really happened in the case of St. Vincent and Benedict XIII, which is far different than what the Sedevacantists storytellers would have their audience believe.  Then, in a follow up article, we will consider a real historical example of Sedevacantism – one that serves as a true precedent for their position - and see what was revealed to a great saint and mystic who lived at the time about these Sedevacantists of her day.

The Council of Constance

The events concerning St. Vincent and Benedict XIII took place during the Council of Constance, which had been convened to bring an end to The Great Western Schism. At the time, there were three papal claimants, John XXIII, Gregory XII and Benedict XIII.  They had all been elected to the papacy by a conclave, and each one publicly professed to being the true Pope.  For decades, the hierarchy and membership of the Church had been divided by multiple papal claimants, and a real danger existed that the tripartite split would become permanent, resulting in three separate Churches, each believing their line of Popes were the true successors of St. Peter. And the difficulty in determine which claimants was the legitimate Pontiff was so great, that there were saints on opposite sides.

In December of 1413, the Holy Roman Emperor, Sigismund, convoked the Council of Constance in an attempt to resolve the matter and restore the unity of the Church. It was announced that the council would open on November 1st the following year, and all three claimants were summoned to attend.  John XXIII accepted the invitation, but Gregory and Benedict refused.  

On November 5, 1414, the Council was convened by John XXIII (the only pope to show).  The bishops proceeded to depose John XXIII in May of the following year, and demand that the other two claimants abdicate, so that a single, non-disputed pope could be elected.  Fr. Hogan relates these events in his book, St. Vincent Ferrer, O.P. (1911):

“The confusion at the time was extreme. The “Council” of Pisa in 1409 had intensified it by electing Alexander V as Pope, and so the Christian world was scandalized by the spectacle of three claimants to the Papacy. Alexander died ten months later, and Balthazzar Cossa was chosen in his place, taking the name of John XXIII. Gregory XII, the legitimate Pontiff, was in exile. John XXIII reigned at Rome. Benedict XIII, as obstinate as ever, asserted his claims and would not hear of any compromise. In November, 1414, John XXIII, compelled by the Emperor Sigismund, had opened the Council of Constance, which solemnly deposed him and demanded the abdication of Gregory XII and Benedict XIII.” [2]

Gregory XII (the true Pope) submitted and agreed to abdicate, provided that Benedict XIII would do the same. If the latter would agree to renounce his claims to the papacy, it would clear the way for the election of a single, non-disputed pope, and the crisis that had divided the Church for nearly four decades could be brought to an end.  Unfortunately, Benedict, obstinate as ever, refused to abdicate. 

King Ferdinand of Aragon who, along with St. Vincent, recognized Benedict as the true Pope, sent a letter to St. Vincent requesting that the two meet with Benedict to discuss the matter.  St. Vincent had always been Benedict’s most loyal defender, so if anyone could convince him to renounce his claims to the Papacy, it would be him.  The Saint arrived at Perpignan several months later (August 1415), where he and the King did all in their might to persuade Benedict to obey the Council and abdicate for the good of the Church; but it was all to no avail, as Fr. Hogan explains: 

Ferdinand wrote to St. Vincent to meet him at (…) Perpignan, where they would discuss the steps to be taken to ensure the union of the Church with Benedict XIII. St. Vincent arrived at Perpignan towards the end of August and began to use all his tact and powers of persuasion to make Benedict yield. Gregory XII had already signified his intention of resigning, and Benedict therefore was the sole obstacle in the way. But all the efforts of St. Vincent proved useless; Peter de Luna [Benedict XIII] would not give in…”[3]

Congress of Perpignan (September 1415)

The Holy Roman Emperor, Sigismund, traveled from Constance to Perpignan, along with representatives of the Council and embassies from the Kings of France, England, Hungary, Castile, and Navarre, in the hope of obtaining Benedict’s renunciation.  They arrived in mid-September and spent the next six weeks exhausting all efforts to secure his abdication, only to be met with deception and trickery from Benedict, who refused to cast aside personal ambition for the good of the Church.   All manner of concessions were offered to him and his cardinals, but nothing could bend the obstinate will of the ill tempered old man.  The verbal trickery of the stubborn Antipope eventually gave way to physical threats, and by the end of October the Emperor had seen enough.  Having abandoned all hope of securing Benedict’s abdication, Sigismund’s entourage departed north for Narbonne, on their way back to the Council.

Benedict’s behavior had scandalized even his most loyal his followers, and proved to be the beginning of the end for his supposed Pontificate.  As Pradel would later write, “The Congress of Perpignan was fatal to Peter de Luna [Benedict XIII].”[4]  St Vincent “was so deeply afflicted” by what he had witnessed, “that he fell grievously ill,” [5] and King Ferdinand, along with the Kings of Castille and Navarre, were so infuriated by Benedict's behavior that they immediately dispatched an embassy to Narbonne, to inform Sigismund that if Benedict persisted in his refusal to abdicate, they would withdraw their obedience from him and submit to the authority of Constance.  Delighted with the news from the three Kings, the Emperor returned at once to Perpignan along with representatives of the Council, in the hope of securing their obedience to the Council. Benedict, seeing the handwriting on the wall, fled south with his Cardinals to Peniscola, to a rock fortress belonging to his family. 

In early November (1415), the bishops and theologians representing the obedience of Avignon began formal discussions with the representatives of the Council about withdrawing their obedience from Benedict and transferring it to the Council.  Before making the decision, an embassy again was dispatched to Benedict in a final attempt to secure his abdication.  Benedict responded by issuing a bull against the Council and threatening to deprive the Kings of their crowns if they withdrew their obedience from him and submitted to the Council.

Due to St. Vincent’s popularity with the faithful, and because he was known as Benedict’s most loyal defender, he was asked by the Council to give his opinion on whether the kingdoms should withdraw from Benedict.  Concerning this, Fr. Hogan writes:

“Stubborn to the last, Benedict XIII fled to Peniscola, whither an embassy was sent by Ferdinand to try and obtain his consent to the proposed abdication. Again he refused; he would not abdicate. We must not forget that in the eyes of St. Vincent and Ferdinand, Benedict XIII was the true Pope, hence their difficulties and embarrassing position. But at last, when all efforts had proved unavailing, Ferdinand asked St. Vincent to decide the question finally. St. Vincent replied that since Benedict XIII had resisted all attempts to procure the union that was so necessary, and since his conduct gave scandal to all the faithful, they were justified in withdrawing their obedience to Benedict. This decision was confirmed by the assembly of Bishops convened by Ferdinand and representing the obedience of Avignon.”[6]

The decision was made, then and there, that if Benedict refused to abdicate, the kingdoms would withdraw their obedience from him.

Papa Dubius est Papa Nullus

Here it should be noted that because Benedict was a doubtful Pope (in the true sense of the word), according to the principle ‘a doubtful pope is no pope at all’ (papa dubius est papa nullus) withdrawing obedience from him was permitted.

For reasons that will become clear below, it is important to note that the axiom ‘a doubtful pope is no pope’, does not mean a pope whose legitimacy is doubtful cannot be the true Pope objectively – or cannot be the pope quoad se (‘of himself’).  This is evident from the fact that during the Great Western Schism there was always a legitimate pope quoad se, even though all the legitimate popes during the years of the schism, as well as the Antipopes, were all “doubtful popes” quoad nos (according to us).  What the axiom means is that a pope who is ‘doubtful’ according to the judgment of the hierarchy (quoad nos) is considered to not be the Pope, and can licitly be treated as such. For this reason, St. Bellarmine more accurately phrases the axiom as “a doubtful pope is considered no pope at all.” [7]

The famous Jesuit canonist, Fr. Wernz, discusses the axiom at length in Ius Decretalium (1898). He not only explains a) how a pope would be considered positively doubtful, but also b) why the faithful would not be obliged to obey him.  Concerning the first part, he writes:

The ancient authors everywhere admitted the axiom, ‘A doubtful pope is no pope’ and applied it to solve the difficulties which arose from the Great Western Schism.  Now this axiom could be understood in several ways. For instance, a ‘doubtful pope’ can be understood not negatively, but positively - i.e., when, after a diligent examination of the facts, competent men in the Catholic Church would pronounce: 'The validity of the canonical election of this Roman pontiff is uncertain’.  Moreover, the words 'No pope' are not necessarily understood of a pope who has previously been received as certain and undoubted by the whole Church [since the previous universal acceptance already proved that he is a legitimate Pope], but concerning whose election so many difficulties are subsequently brought to light that he becomes 'a doubtful pope' so that he would thereby forfeit the pontifical power already obtained.  This understanding of the axiom concerning 'a doubtful pope' should be reproved…”[8]

He then goes on to explain why obedience to a truly doubtful pope does not bind:

“[T]his is what is deduced in the first place from the very nature of jurisdiction; for jurisdiction is essentially a relation between a superior who has the right (ius) to obedience and a subject who has the duty (officium) of obeying. Now when one half of this relationship is lacking, the other necessarily ceases as well (cessante igitur uno termino alter necessario cessat), as is plain from the nature of the relationship.  So if a pope is truly and permanently doubtful, the duty of obedience cannot exist towards him on the part of any subject. (…) For a doubtful pope has no right of commanding and therefore there is no obligation of obedience on the part of the faithful.”[9]

Now, without question Benedict XIII was permanently a doubtful Pope – in the true sense of the word,.  Even those who believed him to be the legitimate pope quoad se, could not deny that he was a doubtful pope quoad nos.. Therefore, one can easily understand why the bishops and theologians who recognized Benedict as the legitimate Pope would have concluded that it was licit to withdraw obedience from him.

Treaty of Narbonne (December 1415)

Following the judgment of the bishops and theologians at the Congress of Perpignan, an agreement was quickly reached between the subjects of Benedict and the representatives of the Council.  The kingdoms of Aragon, Castile, and Navarre would withdraw their territories from obedience to Benedict XIII and would transfer it to the Council of Constance.  The Council would then depose Benedict XIII so that a new undisputed pope could be elected. This was agreed to in the famous Treaty of Narbonne, which was signed by both parties on December 13, 1415.  As the Catholic Encyclopedia (1913) explains, this is when Benedict “was abandoned by the Kings of Aragon, Castile, and Navarre, hitherto his chief supporters.” [10]  

“By the Treaty of Narbonne (13 Dec., 1415), they [the Kings of Aragon, Castile, and Navarre], bound themselves to co-operate with the Council of Constance for the deposition of Benedict and the election of a new pope.  St. Vincent Ferrer hitherto the main support of Benedict, and his confessor, now gave him up as a perjurer, [11] 

The Treaty was subsequently confirm by the Council of Constance during the XXII Session.

The Feast of the Epiphany (January 6, 1416)

We now arrive at Feast of Epiphany, 1416. This is the day that the Sedevacantists claim St. Vincent “declared the Chair of Peter vacant” based on nothing but his own “private judgment”. 

After signing of the Treaty of Narbonne, King Ferdinand, along with the Kings of Castile and Navarre, prepared an edict that would juridically withdraw their kingdoms from obedience to Benedict.  The edict was promulgated on January 6, 1416, the Feast of the Epiphany.[12]  Later that day, after saying Mass and preaching to a crowd of 10,000 faithful, prelates, and noblemen, St. Vincent Ferrer read the edict to the throngs of faithful that had come to hear him preach.  You read that correctly.  All the saint did was read the edict of the King, which itself was based on the formal agreement that had been reached between the secular and religious authorities who recognized Benedict as Pope, and the representatives of the Council of Constance the previous month.  Contrary to what the Sedevacantist storytellers claim, the saint took no actions based on his private judgment. 

Here is how Fr. Hogan relates the events of January 6, 1416: 

“On 6 January, 1416, the Feast of the Epiphany, St. Vincent sang Mass, and preached to some 10,000 persons. After the sermon, he read in the presence of the King, Ambassadors, and people, the act by which all those who had been of the Avignon obedience withdrew their allegiance to Benedict. The Emperor was notified of this; and the Fathers of the Council of Constance sang a Te Deum in thanksgiving.”[13]

That’s what happened on the Feast of the Epiphany, 1416.  St. Vincent did not “become a Sedevacantist” and “declare the Chair Vacant” based on his own “private judgment”.  All he did was read the edict that had been promulgated by the three Kings, announcing to those present that they were no longer obliged to obey Benedict as Pope.  That’s it!   

Yet the Sedevacantist apologists have entirely twisted the story by omitting everything that transpired prior the date, and then pretending that the Saint took matters into his own hands by declaring that the Papal See was vacant.  Nothing could be further from the truth. 

St. Vincent Never Declared the Chair Vacant

In fact, St. Vincent never judged (or declared) that Benedict XIII had lost his office at all; he only judged that it was licit to withdraw obedience from him due to the agreement that the Kings had reached with the representatives of the Council,  As the Original Catholic Encyclopedia (1913) relates, on the very day the Saint read the King’s edict, he “declared anew” to the crowd that Benedict was the legitimate Pope:

“Vincent was one of the most resolute and faithful adherents of Benedict XIII, and by his word, sanctity, and miracles he did much to strengthen Benedict's position. It was not until 1416, when pressed by Ferdinand, King of Aragon, that he abandoned him. On 6 January, preaching at Perpignan, he declared anew to the vast throng gathered around his pulpit that Benedict XIII was the legitimate pope, but that, since he would not resign to bring peace to the Church, Ferdinand had withdrawn his states from the obedience of Avignon.”[14]

St. Vincent did not believe Benedict lost his office, ipso facto, and neither did any of the others who withdrew their obedience from him on that day. This is further confirmed by the third article from the Treaty of Narbonne, which explains why it was necessary for Benedict to be legally deposed (or legally declared deposed) before another pope could be elected by the Council.  Read carefully what this Article says:

“Article III “But as Benedict's said Obedience cannot legally recognize any Pope, unless the See becomes vacant, either by the Death, or by the voluntary Abdication, or by the deposing of Benedict; the Council, before they elect another Pope, shall proceed to such Deposition in due course of law…”[15]

According to this Article, which was agreed to by both sides and confirmed by the Council itself, the only way those who believed Benedict was the legitimate Pope consider the Papal See vacant,  is if he died, abdicated, or was legally deposed by the Church (or legally declared not to be Pope, if you prefer). 

This again entirely refutes the claim that those at the time, such as St. Vincent, who believed obedience could be withdrawn from Benedict, did so because they thought he had already lost his office, and that the See had fallen vacant.

The Source of the Fable

The exact source of this Sedevacantist fable is difficult to pinpoint, but it is certain that one of the earliest accounts of the myth was written by a Sedevacantist apologist, John Lane, who has been using the false story to promote Sedevacantism for years.  The following is taken from an article Mr. Lane wrote many years ago (and which is likely where Mr. Speray got his information).

“When the great day arrived, St. Vincent was seated with an audience of churchmen, nobles, and Benedict himself, and he delivered the most astonishing address that one could imagine; he declared that whilst Benedict was the rightfully elected Roman Pontiff, his ill-will in refusing to sacrifice his rights for the good of the Church had made it clear that he was, in fact, a schismatic. And as a schismatic, he had forfeited his membership in Holy Church and with it his papal office. He was no longer pope. This epiphany was delivered on January 6, 1416, at Perpignan. St. Vincent Ferrer was a practical and theoretical “sedevacantist,” who "judged" a pope (that is, judged the validity of the claim of a man to the papacy), and found him wanting, and then rejected him.  He had never expressed any doubts about the legitimacy of Benedict's election. Nor had he considered his claim doubtful in any way. His case was quite clearly that Benedict lost his membership in Holy Church by schism, and thus forfeited his office. In other words, St. Vincent applied the principles of St. Thomas and of the Fathers; the same principles later presented by Bellarmine, with perfect, and perfectly clear, consistency. The effect was stupendous. All but a couple of cardinals abandoned Benedict, and the schism was effectively ended.”[16]

Notice how Mr. Lane cleverly refers to the act of St. Vincent, which took place on Epiphany, as itself an epiphany – “this epiphany” – thereby making it seem as if the Saint received an extraordinary light from the Holy Ghost while he was delivering the speech, which instantly enabled him to apply the theological principles necessary to know Benedict had lost his office, while at the same time moving his will to courageously and heroically declare it to all!  

And what was the result of this divine inspiration and heroic act of St. Vincent, according to Mr. Lane's fable?  Why, it brought an end to The Great Western Schism!  And what does Mr. Lane want his readers to conclude from this fable? What he wants them to conclude is that if Catholics today only had the knowledge and "courage" to become public Sedevacantists like himself and the great St. Vincent Ferrer, the current crisis in the Church would be brought to a speedy end. 

The truth, however, is quite difference.  The great St. Vincent did nothing based on his own authority or private judgment.  Everything he did was an act of obedience to the judgment of both the spiritual and temporal authorities.  Yet the Sedevacantists apologists shamelessly distort the history and end by making the obedient St. Vincent Ferrer appear as the rebellious heretic, William of Ockham, and his rebellious and heretical friends, the Spiritual Franciscans – who are the real precedents for the Sedevacantist heretics of our day, as we shall see in a follow up article.

[1] Steve Speray, “The Sedevacantist Saint Vincent Ferrer,” November 27, 2014
[2] Fr. Stanislaus M. Hogan, O.P., St. Vincent Ferrer, (London, Longmans Green and Co. 1911), p. 73.
[3] Op. cit. p. 73-4.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Fr. Andrew Pradel, St. Vincent Ferrer: His Life Spiritual Teaching and Practical Devotion (London: R. Washbourne, 1875), p. 73
[6] Fr. Stanislaus M. Hogan, O.P., St. Vincent Ferrer, (London, Longmans Green and Co. 1911), p. 73.
[7] De Concilii, bk. ch.
[8] Fr. Franz Xaver Wernz, Ius Decretalium ad Usum Praelectionum In Scholis Textus Canonicisive Juris Decretalium, , Tomus II, (Romae: De Propoganda Fide, 1898) Scholion 618.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Catholic Encyclopedia (1913) Vol. IV, p. 289.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Teoli, lib. i Trait, iii. per totum.  See Pradel, Op cit. p. 73, footnote 1
[13] Fr. Stanislaus M. Hogan, O.P., St. Vincent Ferrer, (London, Longmans Green and Co. 1911), p. 73.
[14] Catholic Encycopedia (1913), article on St. Vincent Ferrer
[15] Treaty of Narbonne, Article III