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Salza on Sedevacantism: Same Old Fare

IN 2005 Catholic Family News and The Fatima Crusader published “Opposing the Sedevacantist Enterprise,” a lengthy anti-sedevacantist tract by Christopher Ferrara, a New Jersey lawyer who has also written extensively for The Remnant and other traditionalist publications.

Improving the leftovers?

Improving the leftovers?

Mr. Ferrara’s pompous pronouncements provided an irresistibly juicy target. I responded with Sedevacantism and Mr. Ferrara’s Cardboard Pope (August 2005) and Resisting the Pope, Sedevacantism and Frankenchurch (November 2005).

Now comes another lawyer, John Salza, from my native Milwaukee, to plead the same case with the same arguments in the same forum, this time around with an article entitled “Sedevacantism and the Sin of Presumption” (Catholic Family News, April 2011).

Mr. Salza, it seems, has not bothered to read either my responses to Mr. Ferrara’s arguments against sedevacantism or those of other writers who weighed in at the time, despite the ready availability of all this material on the internet (yes, even in Milwaukee). His seems to be a research-free undertaking, launched with the aid of a vernacular paraphrase of the Code of Canon Law.

Consequently, Mr. Salza does nothing more than recycle the same mythical objections to sedevacantism that I and others have answered over and over for at least twenty years.

Though in court a judge would promptly cut off a lawyer who tried this — “Asked and answered, counselor. Move on.” — this apparently did not occur to the Editor of Catholic Family News.

So, we will need to repeat our previous responses to these stale objections as we point out two of Mr. Salza’s most egregious errors: (1) How he confuses the sin of heresy with the canonical crime of heresy, and (2) How he mistakenly assumes that before one can conclude someone is a heretic, one must engage in some sort of mind-reading.


Mr. Salza devotes six columns of his eight-column article to the passages in the Code of Canon law that pertain to heresy. He serves up a disorganized little sampler of his thoughts on canonical concepts such as “notoriety,” pertinacity, due process, legal presumptions, “habitual inculpable ignorance,” “inadvertence,” and of course, required “canonical warnings.”

On the latter, he points to canon 2314 as a gotcha quote that would supposedly require canonical warnings before a heretical pope would lose office. No warning, no heresy, no sedevacantism.

All the technical lingo, we suppose, is meant to impress the groundlings. But Mr. Salza has committed a category error. For the principles, criteria and processes he discusses pertain to the canonical crime of heresy (heresy as an criminal offense against canon law) and not to the sin of heresy (heresy as a grave sin against divine law).

The distinction is easily grasped by considering abortion. The act has a two-fold aspect: as a sin against divine law (Thou shalt not kill) that brings with it the loss of sanctifying grace, and as a canonical crime against church law (canon 2350) that brings with it certain canonical penalties. One may commit the sin of abortion without necessarily fulfilling all the legal conditions required for the canonical crime of abortion.

In the matter at hand, when canonists and theologians say that “heresy” automatically deprives a pope of his office, they are referring to the sin of heresy, not to the canonical crime of heresy.

So all the rigmarole that Mr. Salza trots out from canonical criminal proceedings about pertinacity and the need for “warnings” to the post-Conciliar popes is irrelevant to refuting the sedevacantist case.

This much is evident from the canonist Michel’s discussion of the nature of heresy when he says that the “pertinacity” that must be present for the sin of heresy “does not of necessity include long obstinacy by the heretic and warnings from the Church. A condition for the sin of heresy is one thing; a condition for the canonical crime of heresy, punishable by canon laws, is another.” (“Héresie, Héretique,” Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique [Paris: Letouzey 1913–1950] 6:2222)


Having wrapped his canonical red herring in six columns of newsprint, Mr. Salza then takes one column to dismiss the sedevacantist argument based on divine law (one I have frequently made) as “nonsensical, it also does nothing for their case.”

Underlying this claim is Mr. Salza’s assumption that, to be able to impute even the sin of heresy to anyone, a Kreskin-like ability to read minds is required. No moral imputability is possible, because one is “dealing with the Pope’s heart and mind… judging his internal dispositions… a Pope may have a mental reservation…” and a one ends up “arrogat[ing] to oneself the authority to determine a Pope’s level of malice or lack of ignorance.”

This claim is absurd. As I have demonstrated elsewhere, such mind-reading is not required to establish the existence of sin of heresy. Again, we turn to the canonist Michel:

“Because the act of heresy is an erroneous judgment of intelligence to commit the sin of heresy it suffices to knowingly and willingly express this erroneous judgment in opposition to the Church’s magisterium. From the moment that one sufficiently knows the existence of the rule of the faith in the Church and that, on any point whatsoever, for whatever motive and in whatever form, one refuses to submit to it, formal heresy is complete.” (Ibid. 6:2222)

Nor is the type of mind-reading Mr. Salza envisions required to establish even the canonical crime of heresy. In canonical penal procedure, any act that signifies heresy establishes the presumption of heretical depravity:

“The very commission of any act which signifies heresy, e.g., the statement of some doctrine contrary or contradictory to a revealed and defined dogma, gives sufficient ground for juridical presumption of heretical depravity… [E]xcusing circumstances have to be proved in the external forum, and the burden of proof is on the person whose action has given rise to the imputation of heresy. In the absence of such proof, all such excuses are presumed not to exist.” (McDevitt, The Delict of Heresy, CU Canon Law Studies 77. [Washington: 1932] 35. My emphasis)

This also shoots down arguments Mr. Salza made earlier in his article when he claimed that Benedict XVI cannot be guilty of heresy because:

“A person can make heretical statements while maintaining orthodox internal dispositions, that is, he may not necessarily believe what he says, [!!] based on many factors (peer pressure, misplaced zeal, emotional imbalance, even diabolical disorientation).… Pope Benedict confessed that what he says and what he believes may be two different things (evidence that he may be laboring under inculpable inadvertence or error of mental reservation).”

As an attempt to exculpate Benedict XVI, this scenario is hilarious: The Pope cannot be a heretic because (1) he says things he doesn’t believe and (2) what comes out of his mouth may have no connection with what’s in his head.

However, “hypocrisy/robot mouth” is not one of the defenses recognized by canon law. Boiled down into non-technical language, these are limited to: I was crazy, I was stupid, I was daydreaming, heretics forced me to get drunk, someone twisted my arm, I got really ticked, and finally, self-defense — which works out to something like “I ducked down to kiss that Koran because the imam took a swing at me.” So, as defense counsel for John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Mr. Salza would be stuck with one of these.

And if Mr. Salza still wants to plead ignorance as a defense for his distinguished clients (both doctors of sacred theology, please note) he should be aware that:

If the delinquent making this claim be a cleric, his plea for mitigation must be dismissed, either as untrue, or else as indicating ignorance which is affected, or at least crass and supine… His ecclesiastical training in the seminary, with its moral and dogmatic theology, its ecclesiastical history, not to mention its canon law, all insure that the Church’s attitude towards heresy was imparted to him.” (McDevitt, 48. My emphasis)

Bottom line: mind-reading is not required before you are permitted to conclude that someone is a heretic.

* * * * *

There are other errors in Mr. Salza’s article that one need mention only in passing:

• The passage in St. Thomas which Mr. Salza cites in footnote 3 (to Summa II–II, Q 21, art 1–2) has nothing whatsoever to do with the assertions about heresy that Mr. Salza makes in his main text.

• Mr. Salza’s comments on canon 188.4 (automatic loss of ecclesiastical office due to public defection from the Catholic faith) confuse tacit resignation, penalties and criminal procedure.

• Mr. Salza accuses sedevacantists of “the sin of presumption” when he in fact appears to mean “rash judgment.”

As an alternative to sedevacantism, he serves up the same old and moldy dishes from the SSPX/Remnant buffet table: the out-of-context “resistance” quotes from Bellarmine and others, the pope-as-bad-dad scenario, and Paul resisting Peter. None of these leftovers has been rendered any more palatable by the dash of Salza.

Though all lawyers are schooled in how to argue effectively, the good ones do their research and make every effort to understand their opponents’ arguments. Mr. Salza has not done so here.

Catholic Family News readers should therefore disabuse themselves of the notion that Mr. Salza’s “Sedevacantism and the Sin of Presumption” is an effective or convincing response to the sedevacantist case.

For the one thing Mr. Salza’s article has demonstrated is the unlikelihood of his future success in the exciting and challenging field of canon law.

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  1. : Quidlibet : › Sedevacantism: A Quick Primer on Thursday, March 31, 2016 at 5:13 am

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