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Devolution of the Papacy

By John C. Pontrello (November 2018)
*Revised 4/19/19*

In August 2018, I wrote a piece addressing the Sedevacantists’ claim that they can call an "Imperfect Council" and restore the Holy See. Because such a feat would require proof that the man elected actually held the primacy I had no problem stating that the Sedevacantists can only elect another antipope. Attempting to prove me wrong, one Sedevacantist apologist reached into his nifty bag of theologians and pulled some quotes. First up, Cardinal Louis Billot, S.J.

Indefectibility Plan B - Papal Devolution

According to Cardinal Billot, in the event the ordinary means of electing a pope became impossible, the Church has Plan B. Here is the Billot quote as presented by the Sedevacantist:

Well, once we grant the occurrence of such circumstances [no cardinals or Roman clergy] it is to be admitted without difficulty that the power of election would devolve upon a general council. For the natural law itself prescribes that in such cases the attribute of a superior power descends, by way of devolution, to the power immediately below insofar as it is indispensably necessary for the survival of the society and for the avoidance of the tribulations of extreme lack. “In case of doubt, however (e.g. when it is unknown if someone be a true cardinal or when the Pope is dead or uncertain, as seems to have happened at the time of the Great Schism which began under Urban VI), it is to be affirmed that the power to apply the papacy to a person (the due requirements having been complied with) resides in the Church of God. And then by way of devolution it is seen that this power descends to the universal Church, since the electors determined by the Pope do not exist.​

I was skeptical that this quote was presented accurately. I wanted to verify the clause in brackets "no cardinals or Roman clergy." Did Billot really say "no Roman clergy"? I looked for this quote and found another version here: https://novusordowatch.org/billot-de-ecclesia-thesis29/:

As a matter of fact, these conclusions, to be sure, hold good, apart from controversy, for the ordinary and regular state of affairs. But the question is, what is the law, if by chance an extraordinary case should arise in which it might be necessary to proceed to the election of a Pontiff without the possibility of any longer preserving the conditions that the antecedent pontifical law had laid down, as indeed many think occurred in the time of the Great Schism in the election of Martin V.

Furthermore, having supposed the occurrence of such circumstances at any one time, one must admit without difficulty that the power of election would devolve to a general council. For it is in accordance with the natural law itself that in cases of this sort the attribution of a higher power extends, by way of devolution, to the power closest to it in succession, as far as it is absolutely required, so that a society can be preserved and escape the distress of direst necessity. “But in a case of ambiguity (on the grounds that it is unknown if someone is a true cardinal …, the Pope’s being dead or uncertain, as seems to have occurred in the time of the Great Schism begun under Urban V), after making a duly diligent examination of the subject, it must be asserted that, in the Church of God, the power of the papacy is applicative to the person. And then by way of devolution this power seems to reach the universal Church, just as if there were no existing electors designated by the Pope.”[2] This, I say, is easily understandable, admitting the contingency of the case. But it is an entirely different question whether a de facto case has occurred. And furthermore, among scholars it is now held almost with certainty that the election of Martin V was not effected by the Council of Constance’s own authority, but by faculties expressly granted by the legitimate Pope, Gregory XII, before he renounced the papacy[3], such that Cardinal Franzelin justly and correctly says, that is, of course, “why, in humble praise of Christ the King, the Spouse and Head of the Church, we marvel at providence because He put in order that vast confusion occasioned and sustained by greed and ignorance, saving all laws, demonstrating very clearly that the indefectibility of the rock upon which He built His Church so that the gates of hell may not prevail against her depends not on human effort but on divine fidelity to His promises and on His omnipotence in governing.”[4]

This version of the Billot quote was found on a Sedevacantist website and translated by the site owner (I couldn’t help but notice the ellipses inserted in his translation). In this version, it is clear that Billot is speaking about a situation where there are no Cardinals. In fact, he mentions neither Cardinals nor Roman clergy but Cardinals may be implied by this sentence which precedes the second version of Billot’s quote above:

"But the question is, what is the law, if by chance an extraordinary case should arise in which it might be necessary to proceed to the election of a Pontiff without the possibility of any longer preserving the conditions that the antecedent pontifical law had laid down."

The law in place to which Billot is referring is that only the Cardinals may elect the pope. But he does not specify that there are no other Roman clergy in existence. So why did the Sedevacantist think it was OK to insert “no Roman clergy” into the Billot quote? And he is not the only one to do so. Why is this distinction even important? The Catholic Encyclopedia answers that question in the following passage (emphases mine):

The supreme headship of the Church is, we have seen, annexed to the office of Roman bishop. The pope becomes chief pastor because he is Bishop of Rome: he does not become Bishop of Rome because he has been chosen to be head of the universal Church. Thus, an election to the papacy is, properly speaking, primarily an election to the local bishopric. The right to elect their bishop has ever belonged to the members of the Roman Church. They possess the prerogative of giving to the universal Church her chief pastor; they do not receive their bishop in virtue of his election by the universal Church. This is not to say that the election should be by popular vote of the Romans. In ecclesiastical affairs it is always for the hierarchy to guide the decisions of the flock. The choice of a bishop belongs to the clergy: it may be confined to the leading members of the clergy. It is so in the Roman Church at present. The electoral college of cardinals exercise their office because they are the chief of the Roman clergy. Should the college of cardinals ever become extinct, the duty of choosing a supreme pastor would fall, not on the bishops assembled in council, but upon the remaining Roman clergy. At the time of the Council of Trent Pius IV, thinking it possible that in the event of his death the council might lay some claim to the right, insisted on this point in a consistorial allocution.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia devolution stops with the Roman clergy. Whether or not Billot meant that there were no Roman clergy remaining in the Church I cannot say but regardless, Billot is contradicted either way. If the Church could lose all Roman clergy then the particular Church of Rome would defect. If there were Roman clergy yet remaining he is contradicted by the above passage from the Catholic Encyclopedia as well as papal history.

Continuing on, Billot’s devolution theory says that the power to elect a pope devolves to the next lower rank in the Church should the higher rank become extinct and the Sedevacantists are exploiting this for their own purposes. For example, per the current papal election laws, only the Cardinals are designated electors. But because Sedevacantists do not recognize the current Cardinals under Pope Francis, the responsibility of electing the next pope would fall to the Sedevacantist bishops. If all the Sedevacantist bishops were heretics (as many other Sedevacantists believe) the responsibility would then fall on the remaining Sedevacantist clergy. Theoretically, anyone in the Church can elect a pope depending how far down the totem pole the crisis reaches. That is because, as Billot said, the survival of the Church depends upon the capacity to elect a pope. This is also the rationale for lay Sedevacantist papal elections, one of which produced David Bawden as Pope Michael I.

So, does Billot’s devolution theory save the Roman Church from the possibility of defection and give the Sedevacantist new life? No. Three reasons. 1. The Church of Rome in particular is indefectible. If there are no remaining valid and licit Roman clergy then it defected and the Sedevacantist diagnosis is immaterial. 2. The power of election could never descend beyond the level of the episcopacy because the episcopal body as a whole is also indefectible. There must always be a college of bishops in the Church even if it were comprised of only a few members. This rules out all elections comprised of lower ranking members of the Church including priests, deacons, and ordinary laymen. It also rules out divine intervention as these would all be unnecessary. 3. A general council of bishops implies that they are real bishops not pseudo bishops as found in the traditional Catholic movement. Real bishops are distinguished from pseudo bishops in that they are appointed by popes and possess authority to teach, govern, and sanctify. Pseudo bishops are self-constituted and have no authority to teach, govern, and sanctify. Don’t believe me? Ask the Sedevacantist bishops and they will flat out tell you the same. Therefore, if the responsibility of election must devolve to pseudo bishops because all the real bishops are extinguished, then once again it is because the Church defected in its Fourth Mark Apostolicity. This rules out any Sedevacantist bishops or other clergy currently residing within the diocese of Rome.

But my Sedevacantist opponent wasn’t quite finished making his case. He reached back into his bag of theologians and produced Indefectibility Plan C by Monsignor G. Van Noort, S.T.D.

Indefectibility Plan C - Papal Castling

The particular Van Noort quote concerned a nuclear bomb wiping out the City of Rome and all its inhabitants in relation to the Roman Church’s Imperishability. In my original article I paraphrased the Van Noort quote just as it was presented to me. As I did not possess the quote I could not verify it. Interestingly, I searched online and discovered that my Sedevacantist opponent was not the only Sedevacantist to mention the Van Noort quote without actually providing the text. Knowing Sedevacantists as I do, I was suspicious so I decided to pay a visit to a local seminary library to track down the quote and others pertinent to this discussion. The Van Noort quote is found in Dogmatic Theology Volume II, Christ’s Church, pg. 276. Here it is:

Corrollary. The imperishability of the Roman See

The above teaching on the complete inseparability of the Primacy from the see of Rome involves the imperishability of that episcopal see and consequently of the Roman Church. Be sure, however, not to confuse the city of Rome taken in a purely physical sense with the Roman Church itself, i.e., the faithful of that region united with their bishop. The imperishability of the Roman Church, then means simply this one thing: God will see to it that there will never be completely lacking in or from* that region a group of the faithful united to their bishop.

* We add the alternative preposition from because it does not seem inconceivable in this nuclear age that hydrogen bombs might some day so lay waste to Rome and its surrounding territory that it would be impossible for the faithful of the Roman Church to dwell in that region. Even in such an hypothesis, if the bishop of Rome and a remnant of his flock were living in exile in London or New York, the Roman Church would still be in existence despite the obliteration of its familiar physical landmarks.

As seen above, Van Noort expanded on Billot’s devolution theory in such a way that not only is the power to elect the pope subject to devolution, but is the whole Roman Church. This made me laugh. According to the theologian, we need not identify the Roman Church with the actual territory of Rome; “Church of Rome” is just a title. In fact, under duress another territory can actually “become” the Church of Rome. This reminds me of Chess. In the game there is a move called “castling” that takes place when a King and a Rook exchange places on the board. Like castling, when danger is apparent, the Church of Rome could suddenly be somewhere other than Rome. All that is necessary for this to occur is that the pope along with a handful of laymen from the diocese hop in the Pope Mobile and move to a new location. In other words, according to Van Noort, the primacy is not really bound to the diocese of Rome in perpetuity; it is bound to the bishop of Rome who retains the power to transport the diocese elsewhere if need be. How would this still be the Church of Rome you ask? By simply calling itself the Church of Rome.

So, does Van Noort’s castling theory save the Roman Church from the possibility of defection and give the Sedevacantist new life?” No. Even if Van Noort’s opinion were true it still cannot be used to support the Sedevacantists and their aspirations for an imperfect council. Why? Once again three reasons: 1. Rome has not been laid waste by a nuke and is still habitable. There would have been no need for the Roman Church to employ the castle move. 2. Imperishability. Remember, according to Van Noort, if the Church of Rome is no longer “in Rome” it must exist elsewhere. How will it be known as the Church of Rome if it is not in Rome (other than by calling itself the Church of Rome)? It will have been established by the Bishop of Rome and a remnant of his flock from the Roman diocese. Whoa! Now we know why some Sedevacantists prefer to paraphrase Van Noort instead of producing the whole text. There would have to be a real bishop of Rome, which they do not have. 3. It is incontrovertible that the Church of Rome did not transport to another location. It remained where it is supposed to be and morphed into a modernist sect. We know this because of the actual timeline of events leading up to and including the Second Vatican Council, the actual people who held offices in the Church, and their immediate and subsequent successors. There is no such thing as a “true” Roman Church in existence anywhere in the world other than the one in Rome under Rome’s elected bishop, Francis Bergoglio. Translation: Rome defected.

I have other problems with Van Noort. Clearly, the mind of this theologian was that the diocese of Rome could be destroyed. This is problematic because the Church bound the primacy to the diocese of Rome and it cannot be moved or transported. The idea of transferring the papacy to another city was condemned by Pius IX in his Syllabus of Errors.

There is nothing to prevent the decree of a general council, or the act of all peoples, from transferring the supreme pontificate from the bishop and city of Rome to another bishop and another city ~ Condemned.

No one can become pope without holding the primacy and no one can hold the primacy without becoming bishop of the diocese. This is not to imply that the RCC is bound to physical structures such as churches or cathedrals. But it is bound to an actual territory- Rome. That is why it is correct to say that the Diocese of Rome is the Catholic Church. All of the other dioceses of the world receive their right to exist and exercise power directly from Rome. And if all people, places, and things Roman Catholic in the whole world except Rome were to disappear this very day, the essential constitution of the Catholic Church is supposed to remain intact in Rome. Some trads have a problem with me for pointing this out but they should just remember that I am not the idiot who bound the primacy to something perishable in the first place. Van Noort’s nuclear scenario underscores the absurdity of binding the primacy to a diocese and it should go without saying that nobody can become bishop of a diocese that doesn’t exist. I suppose I should add that if the Church of Rome were nuked then it would cease to exist. That is why Van Noort had to mention papal castling. Moreover, if the territory of Rome is inconsequential, then what would be the logic of binding the primacy to a see in the first place? If anyone is interested I answered that question in my book, The Sedevacantist Delusion, Why Vatican II's Clash with Sedevacantism Supports Eastern Orthodoxy. Furthermore, Van Noort then yields to the idea that physical landmarks do have some place in the papal system as he sees a necessity for a remnant flock “of that region” (Rome) to remain united to their bishop (also from Rome) in a satellite location. But why? Can’t we all be Romans if we identify as Romans Van Noort? Sure we can, just ask any Sedevacantist especially the ones who created their own bishops and clergy.

All of the above proves the man-made origin of the papacy. If you’re still not seeing it then try and answer the question, “why is it a divine law that Peter’s Primacy is bound to a specific see if that see could relocate, defect, or perish?” Did God not know about nuclear weapons? The correct answer should be that Rome could not relocate, defect or be destroyed because divine law makes Rome integral to the Church's foundation and as such it must remain until the end of the world. Maybe Van Noort, who lived through the World War II era, was a little shaken by the awesome display of atomic power and wrote what he wrote “just in case.” Whatever the reasons, I think the subject of the city of Rome being wiped out by a bomb reveals some important things about Roman Catholicism and its papal dogmas. Thank you Van Noort for addressing it and inadvertently exposing the Roman Church’s man-made doctrine of the papacy in yet another important way.

The real foundation of the Church of Christ is not a person, place, or thing that could be destroyed or altered to adapt to the times. To be certain, no individual bishop or see could be that foundation because they are all susceptible to error, forced relocation, being conquered, and destruction as history demonstrates. You ask, “even the indefectible, infallible, immovable, imperishable, unshakable Church of Rome?” Most definitely, as proven to demonstration by Vatican II.

So where does Billot’s devolution theory leave today’s traditional Catholics, particularly the Sedevacantists? Unfortunately, it gives them false hope again. By way of devolution, the Sedevacantists could continue their role playing fantasy even after the Holy See defects because its immaterial power can be claimed to devolve to some farmer guy in Kansas or some false mystic nutcase in France. And if Rome is destroyed? No problem thanks to Van Noort. Just throw a little castling in the mix and suddenly Tehran or Moscow can *be* the diocese of Rome. Like the popular game played with a fuzzy mallet, “Whac-A-Mole”, after being struck down the Roman Church can just pop up somewhere else.

One question still remains. What if Van Noort’s pope (the one who escaped Rome before the nuclear explosion) died before designating electors? Not to worry thanks to Billot because any Sedevacantist can elect the next pope. He just has to find the present location of the "real" Holy See. Sedevacantist historians and archaeologists have been searching for it for a half-century.


Roman Catholicism is once again exposed by its own theologians who teach that the defection and / or annihilation of the City of Rome including all the Roman clergy is possible. This reveals foundational components of a purported divine system that can be destroyed and subsequently re-created by subordinates including laymen if need be, who possess absolutely no legitimate connection to the apostolic Church of Rome. The conclusion that must be drawn from this discussion is that the papacy is a man-made foundation superimposed over the real one.

The Sedevacantists cannot elect a pope. If they could have they would have a long time ago. As it stands now, all traditional Catholics remain in schism with their own foundation and they have no substitutes. That is why Plan D is the latest up and coming thing. Plan D is “Sedeprivationism” or as I call it, “Partial Pope Theory.” According to the partial pope theorists, Francis is the pope after all; it’s just that his papal powers remain on standby. Good one. So the Sedeprivationists are only “partial” schismatics. I guess some would call that an upgrade. And all of this absurd nonsense is what Roman Catholicism’s indefectibility has been reduced to. Is it any wonder that Orthodox Christians consider the papacy to be such a destructive, hideous, blasphemous doctrine? In addition to its numerous other crimes, this one teaches that Jesus built his Church upon a man of the Diocese of Rome, Italy and his successors ... minus all the heretics.

John C. Pontrello

John C. Pontrello is a former Sedevacantist activist and seminarian in a traditional Catholic religious community. Prior to his association with traditional Catholicism, he managed an investment planning practice for many years. He currently resides in Western New York. His book entitled "The Sedevacantist Delusion: Why Vatican II's Clash with Sedevacantism Supports Eastern Orthodoxy" can be purchased through Amazon.com and is highly recommended.

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