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The Vatican Monarchy

The distinguished British-Jewish philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore made a special trip to Rome to plead with the Pope, but he was rebuffed. In England and the United States, the plight of Edgardo was used by anti-Catholics. The case was important enough to generate thirty-one major news articles in the Baltimore American, twenty-three in the Milwaukee Sentinel, and more than twenty in The New York Times. The New York Herald said that interest in the affair had reached “colossal dimensions.” Pressure was put on President Buchanan to speak out against the outrage, until he was forced to respond that he could not meddle in another country’s internal affairs. He was paralyzed by the fact that children were still being separated from their parents in America’s slaveholding Southern states. To protest against one instance of that would have made the United States position not only hypocritical but ridiculous.

In 1864, six years after the kidnapping, a nine-year-old Jewish boy, Giuseppe Coen, was baptized in Rome and withheld from his parents. The outrage over Edgardo was renewed, with such effect that the Pope’s loss of his temporal dominions in 1870 was attributed by some to this added kidnapping. It so disaffected the Pope’s supporters in the Catholic countries of Austria and France that the Austrian ambassador wrote, “Italy should be erecting arches of triumph in honor of this little Jew [Coen].” By violating natural law (as Aquinas expounded it), by wronging the parents and the boy himself, Pius had staked the patrimony of his office on a widely detested crime. As he himself put it in 1867, writing to Edgardo in his seminary:

Your case set off a worldwide storm against me and the apostolic See. Governments and peoples, the rulers of the world as well as the journalists—who are the truly powerful people of our times—declared war on me. Monarchs themselves entered the battle against me, and with their ambassadors they flooded me with diplomatic notes, and all this because of you….And in the meantime no one showed any concern for me, father of all the faithful.

The opposition of “the world” actually convinced Pius he was right. It is the Pope’s job to defy the world, to stay true to a higher revelation (one that condones kidnapping children). In the very year of the Coen baptism, Pius issued his condemnation of the entire modern world, his Syllabus of Errors. Pius was now on a course that made even a loyal Catholic like Newman write, in 1870:

We have come to a climax of tyranny. It is not good for a Pope to live 20 years [in office]. It is anomaly and bears no good fruit; he becomes a god, has no one to contradict him, does not know facts, and does cruel things without meaning it.2

2. Outpoping the Pope

Since our Church claims to be the repository of unchanging truth, Catholics of my generation were instilled with a temperament resisting change in Church matters. When some changes did occur, at and after the Second Vatican Council, there was a natural resistance on the part of people fostered in the earlier ethos. Mr. Buckley, thirty years after the changes, still calls the new liturgy “fascistic” in its encouragement of greater participation.

But the panel of conservative experts Mr. Buckley calls on to judge developments in the Church is entirely made up of converts, not of old Catholics. They prove just as opposed to change as Mr. Buckley. That explains, perhaps, their choice as experts. People who adopted the Church because it was a still point in flux—an exception in the modern world, and a rebuke to it—are especially pained to see it yield on any issue. Father Richard Neuhaus, for instance, tells Buckley that he opposes the idea of a non-celibate clergy “when it would be seen so widely as yielding to social pressures.” Buckley’s own investment in ecclesiastical changelessness is clear from his introduction.

But the church is unique in that it is governed by a vision that has not changed in two thousand years….Nothing in that vision has ever changed, nothing at all, and this is for all Christians [he means Catholics, a significant slip] a mind-shaking, for some a mind-altering certitude, with which Christians [sic] live, in our earnest if pitiable efforts to clear the way for a love that cannot be requited.

Like Pius IX, the conservative takes calls for change from “the world” as a proof that the Church is superior to the world in its changelessness (though in fact the papacy has changed its position on secret baptism of Jewish children).

The most interesting (though, thank God, not the most typical) resisters to change in the Church are neither people old enough to be nostalgic for pre-conciliar ways nor converts, but “born Catholics” too young to remember the Council, yet dismayed, nonetheless, by what is happening in the post-conciliar Church. These dissident Catholics are studied by Michael W. Cuneo in The Smoke of Satan.

The most rigorous thinkers in this strange subculture have a doctrine of sedevacantism (empty-chairism) with regard to the papacy. They carry Buckley’s doctrine of an absolutely changeless Church to its logical conclusion, arguing that a) an authentic papacy would not change the Church, but b) the modern (conciliar and post-conciliar) papacy has changed the Church, so c) the modern papacy is not authentic. By an appeal to history, during which for some periods no new pope was elected (the electing conclave not assembling, or not assembling to effect), or rival popes had their legitimacy in doubt, these believers say that the papal throne is currently unoccupied. The papal throne has been empty for one or two years at a time, and was in dispute for thirty-nine years from 1378 to 1417, as Eamon Duffy makes clear in his fine survey of the papacy, Saints and Sinners.

Some sedevacantists believe the seat has been unoccupied since 1958, when John XXIII was elected by what they call an invalid process and proceeded to initiate changes. Others, holders of the jauntily named “Siri theory,” think that the throne has only been empty since 1989, when the conservative Cardinal Giuseppe Siri died. They say Siri was elected pope in 1958, and then the conclave, in a Jewish-inspired coup, covered up his election and created the sham procedure that presented John XXIII as pope. Siri theorists rely on reports of alleged secret interviews with Siri in his retirement, in which he said he could not claim the apostolic title that was rightly his, because “they can kill me at any time.”

A different school of thought on Roman usurpation holds that “Paul VI,” not John XXIII, was the fake pope. The real Paul VI, who was elected to succeed John XXIII in 1963, was secretly imprisoned, while an “exact double” let the Vatican Council do its evil work. The Virgin Mary revealed Paul’s imprisonment in an apparition to the Spaniard Clemente Dominguez Gomez. She also ordered Gomez to be ordained a priest by the dissident bishop Ngo Dinh Thuc, brother of Vietnamese ex-president Ngo Dinh Diem. Paul VI himself appeared to Gomez, confirming the Virgin’s order. When the real Paul VI died, in 1978, Gomez became his successor under the title of Gregory XVII.

Gregory XVI (1831-1846) is a great favorite of the conservatives. As Eamon Duffy says, Gregory’s government “became a by-word for obscurantist repression.” So it may not be surprising that there was already a Gregory XVII on the scene when Paul appeared in a vision to Gomez. A Canadian named Gaston Tremblay, but known as “Father John,” had previously received a revelation that he was Pope Gregory XVII.

The Tremblay pope, like Saint Peter, had to spend some time in prison in Montreal—six months of a two-year sentence for contempt of court and illegal sequestration (a father had tried to get back the children kept in Gregory’s monastery by their mother, a modern echo of the Mortara case).

Despite these troubles, the papal monastery of Father John, in Quebec, had two hundred priests and nuns in residence when Cuneo visited it in 1995 (about fifty of the nuns are under forty, at a time when nuns are no longer entering Catholic convents). Though Pope Gregory is aging himself, many sedevacantist bishops are young, often in their thirties, and their congregations are surprisingly youthful. Cuneo found at one center of the movement, Mount Saint Michael’s in Spokane, “fifty blue-and-white-habited nuns, at least half of whom looked to be under thirty years of age.”

Bishops proliferate in the sedevacantist movement, since the defection of the papacy just makes it more urgent for the apostolic succession to be guaranteed through other channels. Yet how is this to be done? Only validly consecrated bishops can consecrate new bishops, and the sedevacantists do not recognize the authority of bishops in communion with the papal usurper in Rome. There have been several sources for the new hierarchy—the line of “old Catholic” bishops who left the church at the time of Vatican I, or Marcel Lefebvre, who left after Vatican II, or retired bishops sympathetic to the sedevacantists (Thuc of Vietnam or Alfred Mendez of Puerto Rico).

Though the number of core believers in such alternative popes is small, it includes hundreds of priests and nuns and thousands of laity, with a penumbra of sympathizers in right-wing Catholic circles, especially those in the widespread Marian cults. The largest Marian group in America was formed during the cold war on the basis of the Virgin’s 1917 promise at Fatima, in Portugal, that Russia would be converted if the country were consecrated to her. This focus on Russia in the year of its revolution (1917) was pleasing to Archbishop Eugenio Pacelli, who was a papal diplomat at Munich in that year. Later, as Pope Pius XII, he would make Fatima one of the ten officially approved apparitions of the Virgin and encourage devotion to her as a means of converting Russia. Even during World War II he treated Russia and communism, not Hitler and Nazism, as the major threat to the Church. In 1942, Pius consecrated the entire world to Mary’s Immaculate Heart, the title she had used for herself at Fatima.

During the cold war, Catholic parishes added a Fatima prayer for Russia’s conversion to the prayers at the end of Mass, and a Fatima prayer to the end of each decade of the rosary. In 1946, Lucia dos Santos, the only survivor from the group of three children to whom the Virgin appeared at Fatima, said that the Pope’s consecration of the world to the Immaculate Heart did not fulfill the command that Russia specifically be consecrated. In 1947, the Blue Army of Our Lady of Fatima was founded in New Jersey and soon spread around the world. Teams traveled with statues of the Lady of Fatima for rallies and all-night vigils. At the Jesuit high school I was attending in 1950, there was no lights-out while the statue was on campus. (I was able, in a 24-hour readathon, to gulp down War and Peace at one sitting, with only a half-hour taken out for my pre-dawn spell of kneeling before the statue.)

  1. 2

    Charles Stephen Dessain and Thomas Gornall, S.J., editors, The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, Volume XXV (Oxford University Press, 1973), p. 231.

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