SEDEVANCANTISM IS A POTENT VIRUS, GUARD AGAINST IT

OnePeterFive

Rebuilding Catholic Culture. Restoring Catholic Tradition.

I was a Sedevacantist and an Enthusiast

 Jeremiah Bannister

October 23, 2021

If Monsignor Ronald Knox is correct, as I contend he is, then, “there is a recurrent situation in Church history—using the word ‘church’ in the widest sense—where an excess of charity threatens unity.” It’s the classic double-edged sword of otherwise good folks taking an otherwise pious proposition or practice a tad too far. To his great merit, Knox goes to great pains (in his 591-page magnum opus, Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of the Church) to show how this often cuts both ways. “More and more, by a kind of fatality, you see [the enthusiast] draw apart from their co-religionists, a hive ready to swarm.” Sadly, subsequent provocations occur.

On the one part, cheap jokes at the expense of over-godliness, acts of stupid repression by unsympathetic authorities; on the other, contempt of the half-Christian, ominous references to old wine and new bottles, to the kernel and the husk. Then, while you hold your breath and turn away your eyes in fear, the break comes; condemnation or secession, what difference does it make? A fresh name has been added to the list of Christianities.

It’s as if the only thing both sides could agree on was that the stroll toward schism should be super-charged into a full-blown arms race, transforming disagreements into divisions… and divisions into All Out War!

As Knox rightly notes, this pattern is recurrent, playing itself out time and time again, always running its course like a sort of simulation. Such was true of the Montanists, the Quakers, the Jansenists, and the Quietists, even of modern revivalists, as well as the madmen reveling in the creative destruction of the schisms that so plagued the underbelly of medieval history. But it’s not as though there weren’t any warning signs, and we never lacked saints, pleading, “Please, Stop! DANGER ZONE Ahead!” It’s true, cautionary tales may have been few and far between for the folks in First Century Corinth, but antinomianism ain’t nothin’ new. And while Luther may have drawn his detestable line at Worms, discontents & rigoristas have had Worms in the brain and enthusiasm in their veins ever since Eve was beguiled in the Garden. It’s tempting, I suppose, to see oneself as a dime-store prophet, weeping over a world being whisked away in a handbasket on the fast-track to the fires of hell—and all the more (as luck – or convenience – would always seem to have it) when you happen to be safe and sound on holy ground, enjoying the celestial company of the saints and martyrs.

What happens, though, when that “world” includes Holy Mother Church? Such has been the charge of many a naysayer decrying doctrinal and disciplinary development, but I contend that this temperament and tendency holds no less true today than it did in the times of the traditores. Daring to dance where others dread to forge ahead, I claim that, if he were still alive today, Msgr. Knox would feel compelled to add a few new chapters to his tome, not least of which would be the sensational drama of the schismatic system of sedevacantism.

After all, sedevacantism has the mixings, bearing the hallmarks of a moment made into a movement, and movement made into a mood, and a mood gone mad by enthusiasm. Its adherents have said and done the darndest things, advancing propositions and enacting positions that would have incurred the (incontrovertibly traditional) ire of inquisitors. And lest I be accused of misreading or misunderstanding the movement, grant me an indulgence permitting me to both give and take credit where it’s due.

Long ago, in a place far, far away, I was a sedevacantist. It was during the heyday of dinosaurs like Xanga & Myspace, and YouTube was still years away from witnessing the advent of Dr. Taylor Marshall and Steve Skojec. Plus, neither universities nor now-popular lay apostolates had a significant presence on the platform, so the landscape was fertile for folks like me, already cranking out vlogs and blogs, highlight videos from my local TV show, and segments from my AM/FM radio program, PaleoRadio. I didn’t begin as a sedevacantist—no one ever does—but as a Protestant-pastor-turned-Catholic-lay-apologist, I had a story. And by the time I became a contributing editor at Distributist Review, I’d already established a burgeoning brand. So it was startling, even scandalous when I announced (on Ash Wednesday, with a crux smudged across my forehead) that I had embraced sedevacantism. The reaction was intense, and it didn’t take long before the views on my videos (both for and against sedevacantism) were rivaled only by the likes of the incorrigible Dimond Brothers and the now-notorious Most Holy Family Monastery.

It was doubly tragic, too, since certain saintly men and women tried so hard to stop me. They cared for me, followed my work for years, and they had fallen in love with my family, but they weren’t blind, and they saw the writing on the walls, worrying that it wouldn’t be long before we’d turn and walk away, maybe never to be seen again. One of these, my priest at St. Mary’s in Kalamazoo, Michigan, went so far as to pull me aside, inviting me into the sacristy, where he handed me a big yellow book.

“This is my copy,” he said, “and I know some of it might feel obscure…” Then he paused, looked at me, and with love in his heart and worry in his eyes, he said, “… but I think you need to read this, Jeremiah.”

Suffice it to say, I was too far gone to hear him that day, so that big yellow book just sat there, collecting dust in my office library.

The year that followed was one of fervent fanaticism. First, my family started attending The Most Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Middleville, Michigan. It was small, belonged to the CMRI, and it was populated by only a few faithful families, but they were sedevacantist, and it was only about an hour drive from our home in Battle Creek. There was something nostalgic, too, about the experience. It was quaint, which was comforting, especially since the people there could relate to having endured the grind resulting from one’s decision to quit communion with the so-called Conciliar (aka Counterfeit) Church. We lost friends, and family members were turned off by our quirky radicalism – a few of them even wondered whether we’d lost our minds. Honestly, they might have been right, but I lost much more than my mind! My YouTube followers were heading for the hills, TV viewers were turning the channel, and readers were flipping to other pages. I even resigned from my post at Distributist Review, and speaking opportunities were now a thing of the past. All those years… all that work… all that progress… gone. But we made the call, took our stand, and we were determined to stay the course.

Things weren’t as they appeared, though. It wasn’t that the people were bad—they were our friends!—but there was something mysterious, even cryptic, underlying all the antiquarianism. Without wishing to press the parallel too far, there existed a kind of underbelly, and the feeling of its presence reminded me of the opening sequence of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, where, deep beneath its plush green grass, white picket fence, and rows of red roses, lay a world of chaos and creeping things. That’s a director’s trick, though, and people aren’t born with x-ray vision, so this sort of thing doesn’t just appear all at once, especially when you’re bedazzled by the spectacle (and paralyzing passions) of the sede scene. Still, it was there and, bit by bit, we began to see the fallacies – and the reality of schism – that lay beneath the surface of the system.

It wasn’t the weird debates over whether Star Wars was a means for George Lucas to peddle New Age nonsense or whether Catholics should listen to anything other than chant and classical music. And it wasn’t the weirdos contending that Twilight wasn’t just poorly-written fiction, it also crossed an age-old line regarding the “true nature and activities” of actual vampires. Heck, it wasn’t even the fact that our priest worried that the Vatican had possibly sent shills to infiltrate our assemblies. Sure, that stuff got pretty wacky, and there was an air of conspiracy about the joint, but we were living on the fringe, so it’s sorta par for the course. No, it was the fact that sedevacantism had, as many -isms do, metamorphosed. It wasn’t really about an argument over vacant chairs. That was how it started, but time happened, systems emerged, and sectarianism ensued…

In short: “… fresh names had been added to the list of Christianities.”

I wouldn’t read Knox’s book for another 10 years, seven of which were spent as an apostate in the cesspool of secular atheism, but I saw what Knox spoke of, and I understood what he meant. I didn’t just understand it, I believed it. More than that, I lived it… and insofar as I lived it, I killed my faith. And if that wasn’t bad enough, my decision resulted in starving my wife and children of the sacraments.

Believe me, then, when I say that, whatever else one may think of the sedes and their thesis, faithful Catholics in communion with Rome would be remiss not to note Knox’s hallmarks of enthusiasm, all of which are at play for the sedes and their system:

  1. Otherwise decent people* taking otherwise good things too far…
  2. More and more, they’re drawn apart from co-religionists…
  3. Provocations begin to happen on both sides…
  4. Condemnation or secession/schism…
  5. For the sect, the Church “unchurched” itself…
  6. This leads to End Times speculation – they’re the remnant…
  7. Leaders arise, divisions begin, resulting in schism after schism…
  8. Inter-sectarian efforts to “Unite!” arise…
  9. Inevitably fail, paralyzed by presuppositions…
  10. The sect continues unabated—failure becomes them…
  11. Laypeople leave, cynical, crushed by the Herculean Sede System…

*I avoid including clerics because enthusiastic sects are almost always hyper-laicized, bordering on a fully-leveled order. This is equally true – no pun intended – of sedevacantists, who tend to be low- to moderately-educated lower-middle-class laypeople. Granted, many of them become rabid autodidacts, but they almost always exhibit a tremendous lack of (and even disdain for) balance. This is par for the course of enthusiasm… and it’s predictable as the morning sun.

Together, these form a system, a system of underlying presuppositions, presuppositions that comprise a paradigm, and a paradigm doomed to the life- and death-cycles of creative destruction, both within and without the confines of the cult: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, schism without end. This is why I’m so pessimistic about traditional methods often employed in apologetic endeavors aimed to dissuade the potential defector, and it’s why I believe so many people struggle to persuade the petulant sede stuck in the rut of trolling trads on Twitter. It’s not an exercise in vanity per se, but the same could be said of running around in circles. But I don’t think it has to be this way, not if we learn from the likes of St. Francis de Sales, who tended to prefer uprooting systems by their roots than to play the game of piecemeal apologetics, scampering around like Edward Scissorhands, trimming trees of heresy, going claim-by-claim, clipping twigs and pruning fruit.

Unsurprisingly, Knox refers to St. Francis de Sales time and time again throughout the book, finding in his temperament and gentle admonitions a kind of salve able to soothe the beast of enthusiasm. I go even further, though, contending that de Sales’ apologetic method in The Catholic Controversy: A Defense of the Faith, provides a blueprint for the most effective means of dealing with discontents like the sedevacantists. I know, it was written for Catholics-turned-Calvinist in 16th Century Geneva, but his efforts to re-evangelize prodigals resulted in nearly 72,000 schismatics returning to Rome sweet home. Something is fitting, too, isn’t there, about this method being found in a book, entitled, The Catholic Controversy: A Defense of the Faith? And, hey, just playing by the numbers, 72,000 might be more than that total number of sedes on the planet.

So, then, how should St. Francis de Sales’ Defense of the Faith influence our New Re-Evangelization efforts toward the sedevacantists? Well, that will be the focus of my follow-up to this article…

Photo by Jean Vella on Unsplash.

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Jeremiah Bannister

Jeremiah Bannister is a writer, YouTuber, and public speaker. After serving in the U.S. Navy, he earned a degree in Journalism & Mass Communication, with a minor in Political Science, from Olivet College (Michigan), where he was awarded the school’s top-honor in three specialties: creative writing, political science, and public speaking. Since then, he has hosted a local TV show, served as a contributing editor for the Distributist Review, and hosted a live AM/FM talk radio program (PaleoRadio). Jeremiah has presented before audiences at Michigan State University, Ferris State University, and Campellsville University. He currently hosts Paleocrat Diaries LIVE on Meaning of Catholic, which airs every Wednesday and Friday morning at 10 a.m. EST on MoC’s YouTube channel. To learn more about his work or to schedule an interview/event, contact him at PaleocratDiaries@gmail.com.

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I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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