This is the first of 24 posts on post-World War II alternative popes (“antipopes” from the perspective of the Roman Catholic Church). Here I give an overview of different kinds of post-Vatican II traditionalist groups, including sedevacantists, who believe that the pope in Rome is not the true pope. I also discuss two types of alternative popes: those who claim supernatural election (“mystically elect”) and those who have been chosen in some type of conclave (“conclavists”). This post will be a useful introduction to the following 20 posts on different alternative popes and religious groups.
Varieties of Catholic Traditionalism
The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) is arguably the most important event in modern Catholicism and a major act on the twentieth-century religious scene at large. On several points, the conciliar fathers made changes in how the Catholic Church perceived the modern world. The language in the decrees was different from earlier councils’, and the bishops opened up for ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, seeing at least “seeds of truth” in other religious traditions. The conciliar fathers also voted in favour of liberty of religion, as meaning something more than the right to practice the Catholic faith.
A very concrete effect of the Council was the introduction of the New Mass Order (Novus Ordo Missae) in 1969 that replaced the traditional Roman rite, decreed by Pius V in 1570. Apart from changes in content, under normal circumstances, the new mass should be read in the vernacular, not in Latin as before.
Though many Catholics welcomed the reforms of Vatican II, many did not. In the period just after the end of the Council, large numbers of priests and nuns were laicized, few new priest candidates entered the seminaries, and many laypeople did not recognise the church and the liturgy, which they had grown up with. In the postconciliar era, there developed several traditionalist groups that criticised the reforms and in particular the introduction of the Novus Ordo. Their criticism could be more or less radical, and more or less activist. Many stayed in their parishes and attended mass there, but remained faithful to traditional forms of devotions and paid much attention to modern Marian apparitions.
The apocalyptic contents of many apparitions helped them understand the crisis they saw in church and society. They can be called Catholic Conservatives. Others joined traditionalist groups that were very critical of the developments and though that the Tridentine mass was the only legitimate, but still accepted the Roman popes and episcopacy. However, a much smaller group maintained that a true pope would never accept the radical changes of Vatican II, and therefore argued that the Holy See was vacant, as the pope and the curia had become heretics. A manifest heretic could not be pontiff.
Furthermore, from the 1960s onwards some individuals claimed that they had been elected true popes, either by direct divine intervention or through alternative conclaves. In this series of articles, I will concentrate on people (males), who have claimed or still claim that they, and not the vastly more recognised popes in Rome, are the true pontiffs. I will refer to these men as papal claimants or alternative popes. From Rome’s perspective, they are antipopes, while the papal claimants denounce the popes in Rome (and other alternative popes) as antipopes, who they think have nothing to do with the Catholic Church founded by Christ.
Before entering the theme of alternative popes, it might be useful to give a somewhat more detailed overview of different types of post-conciliar traditionalist groups. A central person in this movement was French Archbishop Marcel Lefèbvre, who opened a traditionalist seminary at Ecône, Switzerland in 1970 and founded the Priestly Society of St. Pius X (SSPX). Lefèbvre was very critical of the decisions of Vatican II and stopped reading Mass according to the Novus Ordo. He ordained priests for the SSPX, who did only read the traditional mass, and from the 1970s onwards, the Society opened up seminaries and churches in several parts of the world.
Though they were critical of Pope Paul VI and his successors, the official position of the SSPX was that they were true popes and included prayers for them in mass. For some adherents, this was not enough. They thought that the council had founded an entirely new religion, and taken into the account the dogma of papal infallibility, a pope who approved of such decisions could not be the Holy Father, but an apostate. This minority group within the traditionalist movement became known as sedevacantists, as they claimed that the Holy See was vacant, due to the popes’ heresies. One of the early promoters of the view was Mexican Jesuit Joaquín Sáenz y Arriaga, who wrote several works about the matter before his death in 1976. Another early sedevacantist was Francis Schuckardt from the United States. The first sedevacantist communities appeared just a couple of years after the end of the Council, not least in the United States and Mexico, but also in Western Europe.
The most common position among the sedevacantists is that Pius XII, who died in 1958, was the latest true pope, and that none of his successors has been true pontiffs, as they, and the cardinals who elected them, were heretics and accepted Vatican II and the Novus Ordo. Some, however, claim that the sedevacancy only began with the death of John XXIII in 1963, or indeed in 1962 when Pope John promulgated a revised version of the Roman rite. Sedevacantist priests could either belong to established communities or work more independently. Among such groups, one could mention the Instauratio Catholica, the Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen (CMRI), Fundación San Vicente Ferrer, Sociedad Sacerdotal Trento, the Priestly Society of St. Pius V and the Japanese Seibo no Mikuni. To distinguish themselves from the post-Vatican II-church, sedevacantists, but also other traditionalists, often refer to it as the Novus Ordo-church or the Conciliar Church. This emic expression will be used in this article, too.
The post-Vatican II Catholic traditionalists needed to secure apostolic succession in order to have bishops of their own. Many thought that Archbishop Lefebvre would consecrate bishops already in the 1970s, but it would take until 1988 when he finally consecrated four men assisted by retired Brazilian bishop Antonio de Castro Mayer. Traditionally minded bishops with an apostolic succession, who could consecrate and ordain had to be found elsewhere. Moreover, many thought that Lefebvre was too close to Rome, that he had been too involved in Vatican II and was consecrated by a freemason.
One of the men who helped the traditionalist groups in the 1970s and early 1980s was the Vietnamese archbishop Pierre Martin Ngo-Dinh Thuc (1897-1984) who lived in European exile since the mid-1960s. He consecrated a dozen bishops for various traditionalist groups, and today there is a large number of bishops who claim their apostolic succession from the Thuc lineage. Still another group, the Priestly Society of Pius V and their bishop Clarence Kelley claim apostolic succession from Alfredo Méndez González, retired Roman Catholic bishop of Arecibo, Puerto Rico, and assert that the Thuc consecrations are invalid. Still other traditionalist clerics sought consecration from Old Catholic lineages. Some of them are in the lineage of Carlos Duarte Costa, who was a Roman Catholic bishop until 1945, but left to found the Brazilian Catholic Apostolic Church. Other traditionalists claim their apostolic succession through the lineages of René Vilatte and Arnold Mathew Harris.
A variant of sedevacantism is the so-called sedeprivationist position, which was developed by French Dominican Michel-Louis Guérard de Laurier, a Thuc-bishop. He argued that the popes after Pius XII are “materially but no formally popes” (materialiter sed non formaliter). That means that they are indeed lawfully elected, but that they, due to their heretic views could not formally accept the papacy or rule the church. One of the few groups, who defend this position is the Mater Boni Consilii, present in France, Belgium and Italy. Individual bishops who are or were sedeprivationists include Robert F. McKenna and Donald Sanborn.
From the 1980s, there were sedevacantists who did not regard the traditionalist priests and bishops as legitimate. They had no jurisdiction as the Holy See was vacant, and thus administered the sacraments without the official license. These people, who did not have any place to take communion and receive other sacraments, were popularly called home-alone Catholics. Today some call themselves Catacomb Catholic. They are Catholics, not only without a pope, but presently without legitimate bishops and priests.
From the 1960s, there have been a large number of papal claimants, while one claimed that he was elected as early as 1950. The twentieth and twenty-first-century alternative popes can be divided into two main groups: the mystically elect and the conclavists. Most of these alternative popes maintain that Pius XII was the last pope in Rome. Some, however, claim that John XXIII and even Paul VI were legitimate pontiffs, even if they could not act freely, or in the case of Paul VI, was drugged by the curia or publically replaced by a modernist imposter.
There is also a very minor group who defend the so-called Siri thesis, which implies that John XXIII was not the one elected in the 1958 conclave. Instead, Guiseppe Cardinal Siri, the Archbishop of Genua became pope, accepted the office and took the name Gregory XVII. Still, due to the modernist opposition in the curia he was hindered from acting as the pope and was, in fact, kept under surveillance until his death in 1989.
Another very small group are the “Catholic survivantists”, who believe that Pope Paul VI (born 1897) is still alive. They claim that he is jailed, but that he will return to the Holy See and restore the Church. They also maintain that Paul VI was replaced by an actor, and the man who died in 1978 was the impostor, not the real pope.
Mystically Elect Popes
The mystically elect popes maintain that God had chosen them to become pontiff in the end times. In this era, a conclave is not necessary anymore. In fact, there are no orthodox cardinals left who can take part in such a reunion. Quite a few of the mystically elect popes were Roman Catholic priests before the election. They claimed to have succeeded the Roman pope, but in many cases, they announced that the Holy See had moved from Rome to a new place. In the majority of the cases, the church was re-named, but the institution was not seen as anything else than the One Holy Catholic Apostolic Church in a time of almost universal heresy.
Furthermore, they argued that their election was foretold in prophecies, in particular in the Marian messages to the seers at La Salette (1846) and Fatima (1917). Many also referred to the Prophesy of the Pope, attributed to Irish bishop Malachi, and to testimonies by mystics such as Anne Catherine Emmerich and Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort.
Though the mystically elect popes maintained that they were leaders of the one, true Catholic Church, claiming to fight for its traditional teachings, due to frequent private apparitions, the doctrinal development of their churches was often rapid. In some cases, the creed has become very different from a traditional Roman Catholic belief system, though the groups themselves would say that they have developed a deepened, unveiled understanding of the same faith, made possible through continued divine revelation.
It is possible to know quite a lot about many of these mystically elect popes, but sometimes only a few sources are available. In the latter cases, the elections were not widely publicised, and in a few cases, there is even scant evidence that they claimed the papacy. Other cases are possibly hoaxes or misunderstandings.
There are much fewer conclavist popes than there are mystically elected. The first of the conclaves took place in 1990, and two more were held in the 1990s, while a few others have followed in the 2000s. Moreover, there are indications that some groups currently plan conclaves in order to elect a pontiff.
All these groups have a background as sedevacantists and generally argue that the Holy See in Rome has been vacant since 1958. Since there are no true cardinals left, others, including laypeople, have the duty to elect a pope. According to conclavists, it does not matter if the number of voters is small, as long as they all profess what the groups regard as true Catholic faith.
There is also a very different case, which includes a conclave, but that cannot really be called “conclavist”. It is the so-called Siri Thesis, which assert that someone else than John XXIII was elected at the conclave in 1958.
Michael W. Cuneo, The Smoke of Satan: Conservative and Traditionalist Dissent in Contemporary American Catholicism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997
William D. Dinges & James Hitchcock, “Roman Catholic traditionalism and activist conservatism in the United States”, Fundamentalisms observed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1991, 66- 141.
“Tradizionalisti e Sedevacantisti”, in Massimo Introvigne & Pierluigi Zoccatelli (eds.) Le religione en Italia, http://www.cesnur.com/tradizionalisti-e-sedevacantisti,
On the cardinal Siri-thesis, see http://www.thepopeinred.com
On Catholic “survivantists”, see http://paulvipapemartyr.over-blog.com