Sedevacantist Cult Excommunicated for Schism
by Fr. Brian Harrison, O.S.
Front-page headlines in the Puerto Rican secular and Catholic press are being made by a religious anomaly unprecedented in the island's history. A group of Catholics dwelling in a secretive commune-type situation in the northwestern municipality of Aguada has been formally declared by their local Ordinary, the Most Rev. Ulises Casiano, Bishop of Mayaguez, to have incurred excommunication for schism by virtue of cc. 751 and 1364 of the Code of Canon Law. None of the group recognizes Benedict XVI as true pope. The first of the aforesaid canons states that schism is "refusal of subjection to the Roman Pontiff, or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him". The second specifies that the penalty for this delict (canonical crime) is latae sententiae (automatic) excommunication.
In a decree dated December 11, 2005, and published in the December 18 issue of the island's official Catholic newspaper, El Visitante, Bishop Casiano declared that since repeated admonitions and attempts at conciliatory dialogue initiated by himself and the Aguada clergy have proved fruitless, Edwin González, 44, a bushy-bearded former fireman, together with all his followers over the age of 15, are "excluded from the communion of the faithful, with all the effects and prohibitions prescribed by the canonical laws". González and his flock number about thirty persons (nearly all women, apart from an estimated ten children of both sexes).
Even though there are now numerous small groups throughout the Western world claiming that the present occupant of the Vatican's Apostolic Palace is not even a true Catholic, much less a true successor of Peter, their local bishops - and indeed, the Holy See - have up till now usually refrained from declaring any canonical sanctions against such sedevacantist groups. This 'hands-off' policy would appear to be based on an episcopal perception that since these persons themselves are usually the first to declare openly that they have no allegiance whatsoever to the man they regard as a false pope, and that they have absolutely no intention of receiving Communion - or even assisting - at any Masses where he is prayed for by name in the Eucharistic Prayer, any official declaration of the hierarchy to the effect that they are not in communion with the Holy Father, or with those who recognize him as the lawful Successor of Peter, would be superfluous and unnecessary.
Indeed, declarations that such Catholics have incurred excommunication for schism are problematic from another angle. It is indeed evident that sedevacantists are materially in schism. After all, they worship and operate in total independence and separation from the Church's authentic hierarchy and the recognized parochial structures. However, the formal aspect of their delict, namely, the malice or bad will which has to be reasonably presumed if they are legally to deserve the canonical punishment of excommunication, is more difficult to establish. Ironically, this difficulty arises precisely because of, not in spite of, the sedevacantists' insistence that the man now known to the world as Benedict XVI is not in fact a true pope.
Canon Law has to be interpreted in line with the Church's tradition, and the classical theologians and canonists envisaged this formal, malicious aspect of this particular delict to consist in the schismatic's proud, stubborn, rebelliousness, and his consequent withdrawal of subjection from the man he himself recognizes (however grudgingly) to be a legitimate pope. That is why, after the resolution of the chaotic Western Schism of 1378-1417, during which two (and eventually three) rival popes each had millions of followers in different parts of Europe, subsequent canonists and church historians did not regard the followers of the objectively false popes as having been true schismatics, even though they were materially out of communion with the genuine popes during those four decades. For the question of who was in fact the true pope had been desperately confused. And since evidently holy and well-intentioned Catholics - including even subsequently canonized saints! - followed the various rival claimants to the papacy in good conscience, a post-schism consensus grew that the proud, rebellious spirit essential to formal schism simply could not be imputed retrospectively to those who turned out to have 'backed the wrong horse'.
St Thomas Aquinas classifies true (formal) schism as a sin against charity, not against faith (even though he recognizes that these two types of sin usually go together). Essentially, therefore, schism does not consist in a false belief (even though the sedevacantist belief that the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is not now the true Successor of Peter is certainly false). Rather, it consists of sinful contention and discord - willfully dividing the Body of Christ. So a text-book case of 'pure' formal schism would be that in which certain Catholics, evidently spurred on by pride or anger, appeal insincerely to flimsy pretexts in an attempt to justify their total withdrawal of submission from the prelate who, as they themselves know (consciously or at least in their heart of hearts), still enjoys that divinely-ordained jurisdiction over the Church on earth which Christ guaranteed to Saint Peter's successors in perpetuity.
In short, to the extent that today's sedevacantists show signs of being sincerely convinced that Benedict XVI is not pope and so has no such jurisdiction, they do not qualify as formal schismatics incurring automatic excommunication. The truth is that sedevacantism, while claiming to represent 'traditionalist' Catholicism, is actually a radically novel phenomenon in Church history. False popes, of course, we have seen in abundance over the past two millennia, in competition with the contemporary true popes. But the idea that whole decades can pass, and are in fact passing, during which true popes simply vanish from the scene and are replaced in Rome by a new succession of brilliantly successful impostors - this idea was totally unheard-of before the 1970s. Perhaps it is not too surprising, therefore, if those who adhere to it cannot very easily be categorized or penalized according to traditional canonical norms based on classical Catholic ecclesiology.
What has been said so far applies to the more typical forms of sedevacantism. But the new Puerto Rican variety adds novelty to novelty. Edwin González and his little band of devotees have in fact developed a cult so bizarre that one could fairly say they are giving sedevacantism a bad name.
Nevertheless, at first sight they seem like relatively commonplace Catholics, for they show no attachment to the Traditional Latin Mass. Far from refusing communion with the other faithful subject to Benedict XVI, they assist at the regular Novus Ordo Masses in their parish church and want to receive Holy Communion there. This, no doubt, is one reason why Bishop Casiano (in contrast to North American and European bishops with sedevacantist groups in their dioceses) has felt it necessary to decree publicly that González and his followers are not to be admitted to the sacraments. It seems their only reservation about Novus Ordo practices has been their refusal to receive Communion from extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, whom they classify as pecadores - sinners. (This attitude to lay eucharistic ministers, which would probably be shared by not a few traditionalist Catholics in other countries, is actually mentioned in the Bishop's decree as one of the factors contributing to his decision to declare the group excommunicated for schism.)
What, then, is so bizarre about this new, Latino brand of sedevacantism? For one thing, its adherents have developed a style of "assistance" at parish Masses that is now prompting discussion as to whether the police should be called in. Led by González, the entire band of thirty-something troops process silently into the small church, clad in distinctive habit-like garments, with each clutching a small crucifix. They all then proceed to prostrate themselves face downwards in two rows in the central aisle, either remaining there motionless throughout Mass, ignoring the priest's requests to rise and sit down, or else moving to the side aisles in order to remain standing there. Not only does this attention-seeking behavior, although silent, prove highly distracting to other worshippers; it can physically impede their own approach down the aisles to receive Communion.
As regards to their distinctive tenets, the sect's members not only deny that Benedict XVI is truly pope; they openly denounce him as none other than the Antichrist! So it would seem the end of the world is nigh. The man tagged by the left-liberal media as the "Rottweiler Pope" is presumably about to unleash the final great persecution of the faithful before Our Lord returns to destroy him and judge the living and the dead. But if you're thinking that Edwin González' apocalyptic view of Pope Benedict implies a super-censorious rejection of his immediate predecessors as well, then get ready for another surprise. Perhaps the most striking difference between González-style sedevacantism and the common-or-garden variety is that he regards all of the new pope's predecessors as having been completely legitimate successors of Peter. For him, our new and gentle German Shepherd thus stands totally alone and isolated in consummate, diabolical villainy! Indeed, far from claiming that John Paul II was a false pope during his lifetime, Mr. González claims that he is still leading the Church after his lifetime! (That's right: a whole new meaning to the phrase 'John Paul the Great'.) According to this new Puerto Rican prophet, he himself has received the 'spirit' of the late Pontiff (rather as Elisha received that of Elias after the latter's ascent into Paradise). Thus, John Paul continues to speak to the Church through Edwin. (One of the latter's young female followers, Gladys Miranda, is said to be channeling messages from Our Lady.)
Finally, secular as well as church authorities are concerned about the group's peculiar living arrangements, particularly insofar as they may endanger the children's physical and/or emotional health. González has succeeded in persuading a score of women, most of them married, to abandon their husbands and move in with him, together with their children, to a large house acquired by the sect's leader. Their communal existence has prompted troubling comparisons with Waco, Texas, for the group's seclusion is almost total. So far no outsiders have been admitted to inspect their hermetically sealed premises, and no public comments have been made by González or any of his group following the excommunications that have gained them island-wide attention. Reports that the children are being severely 'disciplined' and obliged to fast for days on end are now prompting the Puerto Rican Department of the Family to seek judicial authorization to enter the commune in order to investigate, together with police escorts if necessary.