This is both a terminology question and a Catholic doctrine question regarding the status of sedevacantists, that is, those who reject the current pope as illegitimate. I found the following Catholic definition of "schism" in Canon §751:

schism is the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.

This seems like it could plausibly applied to sedevacantists by the "official" Catholic Church, but I'm not sure that it actually is. The penalty for schism is severe – excommunication, per canon §1364 – and I haven't heard of this being applied.

So my question is, according to the post-Vatican II magisterium of the Catholic Church – that is, the official teachings of the pope (Francis, Benedict XVI, etc.) and his bishops – are believers of sedevacantism necessarily in schism with the Church? If not, why not? And if only some are in schism, where is the dividing line?

Note that I'm focusing here on the magisterium – not the views of sedevacantists themselves, nor those of theologians who recognize the legitimacy of post-1970 popes. Here I'm interested in the official teaching of the Catholic Church (as led by Francis, Benedict XVI, John Paul II, etc.).

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    Sedevacantists don't refuse to submit to the Pope. They just believe he isn't the Pope. It's not quite the same; in fact it rather implies a strong belief in the necessity of the obedience to the Pope, otherwise they wouldn't confuse heretical notions and statements being published with a sure sign that he cannot be Pope, breaching some supposed absolutely infalliblity in every circumstance, which is the only real problem with Sedevacantism—Papalism. Commented Aug 21, 2018 at 13:20
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    @SolaGratia I wasn’t confused until I read your comment :)
    – 007
    Commented Aug 21, 2018 at 14:16

3 Answers 3


Bishop Ngô Đình Thục, a sedevacantist, was declared excommunicated, but not considered schismatic. (He did not die in the state of excommunication, though.)

On how excommunication does not necessarily imply schism, cf. p. 60 of An Open Letter to Bishop Clarence Kelly on the "Thuc Bishops" and the Errors in The Sacred and the Profane by Mario Derksen, M.A..

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    Interesting... though I'm still wondering if you have a source for the Vatican itself not considering him schismatic (I agree that excommunication does not automatically imply schism). Then I suppose the extension would be that if even Thuc was not considered schismatic, then no sedevacantist would be. Commented Aug 21, 2018 at 18:42
  • @Nathaniel cf. this: "In memoriam: Monsigneur Peter Martin Ngo-Dinh-Thuc" by Bp. Des Lauriers, O.P. (who received his episcopal consecration from Abp. Thuc). He argues against any schismatic character in Abp. Thuc.
    – Geremia
    Commented Aug 21, 2018 at 18:57

According to the Catholic magisterium, are sedevacantists by definition schismatics?

The short answer is yes.

Under Canon Law schism is a crime against religion and the unity of the Catholic Church and thus a sedevacantist incurs a latae sententiae excommunication (c. 1364.1).

Sedevacantism is a word not found in Canon Law because it does not have a term for Catholics who refuse to summit to the authority of the pope, or the bishops he has appointed as cardinals. Canon 751 tells us that schism is the withdrawal of submission to the pope or from communion of the members of the Church subject to the Supreme Pontiff. This is were sedevacantists fit in.

Can. 751 Heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.

The reason you do not hear about Sedevacantists being excommunicated rests in the fact that the penalty of schism is incurred automaticly in canon law. For a Catholic to incur a latae sententiae pentalty all the conditions in canon 1323 must be met first. The concept of latae sententiae has no parallel in modern criminal law in most countries; but in a nutshell, a person who incurs a latae sententiae penalty does so ipso facto, without any judge or ecclesiastical authority imposing it on him.

In the 1983 Code of Canon Law (CIC) eight other sins carry the penalty of automatic excommunication: apostasy, heresy, schism (CIC 1364:1), violating the sacred species (CIC 1367), physically attacking the pope (CIC 1370:1), sacramentally absolving an accomplice in a sexual sin (CIC 1378:1), consecrating a bishop without authorization (CIC 1382), and directly violating the seal of confession (1388:1). - Apart from abortion, are there other sins that incur automatic excommunication?

From a Catholic perspective this is a logical conclusion when dealing with sedevacantists. How can one be in full communion with the Universal Catholic Church, if you refuse to acknowledge the pope, the Magisterium of the Church and the leaders of the Catholic Church and yet remain in full communion with the entire Catholic Church.

Sources and further reading:

Can You Be a Catholic and a Sedevacantist?

Decree Remitting the Excommunication "Latae Sententiae" of the Bishops of the Society of St. Pius X

Have Pro-Abortion Politicians Excommunicated Themselves?



For an extensive, if visually unappealing, treatment of this question, see here.

There is far more, but that is sufficient.

Also, note those answering with Canon Law (Not the Magisterium) and who are almost certainly incompetent to do so unless they are (Actually Catholic) canon lawyers, and not, for example, tax attorneys from Wisconsin or whatever. *ahem

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