Is Tom Woods a Sedevacantist? On Dealing with Rome’s Mistakes

Those who read my earlier ramblings on Papal authority are aware that I am using the work of Tom Woods as an occasion to investigate the various camps within Roman Catholic circles on the issue of the nature of Papal Authority. Two reasons for this: I trust Tom as a solid thinker, able to employ nuance and reason to important issues; and also because Tom is a figure in the libertarian movement and is therefore interesting to learn more about.

One question that comes up from time to time is whether Tom Woods, being a staunch traditionalist Catholic, a dissenter from the second Vatican Council, is therefore a Sedevacantist. A sedevacantist believes that, based on the Pope’s deviation from Catholic teaching and Rome’s embrace of modernism, the See of Peter is, in fact, currently unoccupied. That is, the current “Pope” (Francis) is not the true successor of Peter and this has been the status of the See since 1958.

How Tom Woods and his fellow traditionalists deal with this issue has bearing on our effort to understand the schools of thought relating to papal authority. The simple answer is “no,” Tom Woods is not a Sedevacantist. I will now set the scene.

Whether it is appropriate to dissent from Rome is determined by the nature of Romish teaching authority over the laity. If everything that the “Pope says or does in the exercise of his office” is binding, then dissent is worthy of excommunication. This is what the traditionalists consider to be the key mistake of the Neo-catholics (both conservative and liberal). They falsely attribute to Rome the authority over the general church members on a wide range of matters. Thus, when the Pope engages in a series of statements to modernize the church, dissenters from this are engaging in schism and ought therefore to be disciplined.

But in Tom Woods’ (the traditionalist) view, the Sedevacantist suffers from the same misunderstanding of Roman authority. The Sedevacantist says, “Rome has made this statement, it is heretical, therefore the Pope is illegitimate.” Or, in the Woods/Ferrara summary of the Sedevacantist position:

“See,” they [the Sedevacantists] exclaim, “a change in Church teaching is admitted! But since the Church cannot change her teaching, those have changed it, including the Pope, cannot be members of the Church!”

From this same line of reasoning (the true Pope cannot err), the Neo-catholic decides: _Rome has made this statement, she cannot err, therefore those who dissent are causing problems.

Thus, the Sedevacantists and the Neo-catholics “are animated by the same error: that the Magisterium embraces whatever the Pope says or does in the exercise of his office.” Therefore, they conclude:

Proceeding from this error, they reach different but equally untenable conclusions: the latter claim that we must embrace the oxymoron of novel tradition or a “Magisterium” that appears to contradict itself, while the former claim that we have had no Pope since John XXIII.

And to drive home this point:

Now, for someone who is willing to overlook crucial distinctions and leap to unwarranted conclusions about the present crisis, it would be easy to say, with the sedevacantists, that all of these novelties and apparent contradictions of past teaching are “heresy,” and that in consequence we have had no Pope since John XXIII or even Pius XII. The neo-Catholic’s very insistence that no one may doubt that everything a Pope teaches is free from error plays right into the sedevacantist argument; for they need only demonstrate some error somewhere in the Pope’s voluminous writings or speeches in order to “prove” that, according to the neo-Catholic’s own principle of papal inerrancy, John Paul II cannot be the Pope.

However, neither of these conclusions are acceptable to the traditionalists who argue that the problem lies in a misunderstanding of Papal authority.

For the traditionalists, the statements of Vatican II are all categorically

below the level of the authentic Magisterium and are to be found entirely in the realm of the pastoral in various forms: activities, “orientations,” undertakings, initiatives, dialogues, exhortations, opinions, observations, predictions and statements of fact, and ambiguous new expressions—all of which lack the character of binding Catholic doctrine.

The traditionalist divides between dogmas on matters of “faith and morals,” (which was the Vatican I phrase that qualified the content of infallible statements) and comments on pastoral and practical concerns. The fact that both Sedevacantists and the Neo-catholics blur this distinction is the root of their errors.

To assert that one Pope may never contradict another in anything he proposes as Catholic teaching is to expand the charism of papal infallibility to include every single papal utterance touching on Catholic doctrine, contrary to the strict limits on papal infallibility in the definition of Vatican I, which we discuss further on.

And again, to summarize their disagreement with both Sedevacantism and Neo-catholicism:

the traditionalists we would defend have been in just the right place all along: the postconciliar novelties are neither Magisterial nor formally heretical; they do not actually bind the Church to an act of belief in what is wrong. The Pope is still the Pope, and yet this is the worst crisis the Church has ever endured, in part because the conciliar Popes, helped along by the blind “obedience” of the neo-Catholics, have refused to acknowledge that there is a crisis, but instead persist in the very novelties that have engendered it.

As this short post comes to a close, let me reiterate that the above is mere description— critiques and analysis will come separately. Whether the Neo-catholics (so-called) or the traditionalists are correct in their interpretation of Rome, and of course in light of Reformed Christianity, will be dealt with in different ways.