Beware of Sedevacantism in the Church

Jesus answered him, Truly, truly, I say to you, if a person is not born from on high, that person is not able to see the kingdom of God.

(John 3:3)

Sedevacantism “seat-empty-ism” is a term commonly used to describe Catholics who think the pope is illegitimate because he is apostate, lacking authority, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, etc. In Catholicism, there has long been a rift over Vatican II, where the Catholic church convened a huge council in 1962-1965 and implemented a set of reforms that included no longer doing the mass in Latin. Remember that one of the core elements of fundamentalism is an idea that things were ideal in the past, and we need to return to some past way of doing things, because back then the faith was more pure or whatever. So fundamentalist Catholics typically reject Vatican II and to the extent they still participate in the Roman Catholic church, they constantly clash with popes and other authorities who maintain the reforms of Vatican II.

When Mel Gibson released his surprising hit movie The Passion of the Christ years ago, scandal erupted after people did some probing and found that Mel’s dad was a fundamentalist sedevacantist and also an antisemite. There are some indications that Mel shared some of his father’s views, but Mel has tried to at least deny the antisemitism.

In any case, if you want to see what Catholic fundamentalism looks like, I highly recommend the YouTube channel Return to Tradition. The name says a lot- again, in the mind of a fundamentalist there’s some idyllic past, some long-gone glory days that we need to return to.

I bring up Catholicism because I wish Latter-day Saints could understand that the behaviors we see in our faith are also found in other faiths. The tendency toward fundamentalism goes back to ancient times. In Christianity, the conflict between liberal destroyers and conservative preservers is centuries old. If you watch some of the material on Return to Tradition, you’ll see a mindset that is found in a lot of Latter-day Saint spaces, particularly Isaiah groups and “remnant” groups. The Latter-day Saint equivalent of sedevacantism is what I would call a delusional “retreat to Joseph,” denying or deprecating all of the prophetic activity that has occurred in the church since Joseph Smith.

And if we can’t appreciate that post-Joseph prophetic activity, the problem is not with the prophets. In the words of Isaiah (6:9-10) quoted by Jesus (Mark 4:12), it’s a problem in our receptivity. That’s a problem with our own spiritual senses and we’ll just be given whatever lesser portion of God’s reality that we are capable of receiving. If we’re not born from on high (converted), then we won’t be able to see the kingdom (including the prophetic mantle); we’ll just be able to see disappointment and things to complain about. How do I know this? I regret to say, honestly, that I have wasted some dark periods of my spiritual life in that headspace.

Yes, there are a lot of things that are awry in the church. As I wrote recently, there are “infinite cats in the bag”. But it is a delusional idea that there is some idyllic past where things were better. It’s also a delusion (this is the more commonly progressive one) that there is some imaginary different church in the future that will be better. The Kingdom has never really existed anywhere but in the present. All of the gifts of the spirit are operative in the church right now, today. The question of whether we perceive The Kingdom or just perceive things to murmur about, is a question of the level of our conversion. President Nelson smiles a lot, and some people may infer that this is because he’s just a nice old man who doesn’t get it. Nothing could be further from the truth. President Nelson has been shown vastly more of God’s plans than his whiny murmuring critics will ever see, and the reason he is a happy soul, full of light, is because unlike his critics, his eye is healthy (Matthew 6:22).

Anyone who knows my thinking, knows I am very critical toward critical biblical scholarship. One of my missions in life is to undermine its excesses wherever they are found among Latter-day Saints. But I include here a link to an article written by biblical scholar Konrad Schmid, to show why I think some awareness of critical scholarship is good. The broad understanding of the concept of “prophet” articulated here by Schmid is so much more accurate and scriptural than the understanding typically held by sedevacantist apostates in and out of the church. Note: before you read Schmid’s article or any other critical scholarship, go refresh your understanding of logical fallacies so you can spot them as you read, and take some of Schmid’s conclusions with a grain of salt.

A final thought- I know that some readers will take this post as a “conservative” reprimand of people who simply conclude different things about the prophetic mantle in the Church of Jesus Christ. I don’t see my views as “conservative” at all. They emerge from my personal cognitive commitments and epistemology, which are published for all the world to see, and fully open to public critique. I would invite sedevacantists in the church to do the same exercise in “showing their work,” but I’m not holding my breath. When I encourage people to accept the prophetic mantle in the church, it’s not out of a conservative mindset; I encourage people to accept the prophetic mantle in the church because we are all best served by embracing the spiritual discipline of living in reality. That means that in every instance where reality doesn’t conform to our paradigm, it is our paradigm that needs transformation.

Likewise, my encouragement to accept the reality of the prophetic mantle is not motivated by “boundary maintenance” or “gatekeeping.” If someone is unable to accept these realities, I still want them to sit by me at church, enjoy dinner with my family, and participate in the church to the greatest extent possible while they honestly seek the truth. Acceptance of the prophetic mantle is not a marker of in-group and out-group, and denial of the prophetic mantle doesn’t make someone a bad person. Denial of reality is simply a muscle that people exercise, and the more we exercise it, the easier it becomes to deny reality. My motivation is the belief that we should do everything in our power to help people develop the intellectual and spiritual muscle groups that allow them to live in as much of reality as possible.

More resources:

Prophets Can’t Win

Latter-day Saint Witness Testimony: Prophets

Quotes and Scriptures on Conversion

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