The following letter by Fr. Martin Stepanich, O.F.M., is a response to those who claim that the first Vatican Council’s reference to “perpetual successors in the Primacy” is a proof that the Chair of Peter could not have been vacant for the past forty years and more. Although originally written several years ago, the letter is just as relevent today.
You quote the passage from Vatican Council I, Session IV, which states clearly that St. Peter, the first Pope, has “perpetual successors in the Primacy over the universal Church....”
You, understandably, wonder how it could be that there are still “perpetual successors” of St. Peter if the men who have claimed to be Popes in our times have been in reality public heretics, who therefore could not, as heretics, be the true successors of St. Peter.
The important thing here is to understand just what kind of “perpetual succession” in the Papacy Our Lord established.
Did Our Lord intend that there should be a Pope on the Chair of Peter every single moment of the Church’s existence and every single moment of the Papacy’s existence?
You will immediately realize that, no, Our Lord very obviously did not establish that kind of “perpetual succession” of Popes. You know that, all through the centuries of the Church’s existence, Popes have been dying and that there then followed an interval, after the death of each Pope, when there was no “perpetual successor,” no Pope, occupying the Chair of Peter. That Chair became vacant for a while whenever a Pope died. This has happened more than 260 times since the death of the first Pope.
But you also know that the death of a Pope did not mean the end of the “perpetual succession” of Popes after Peter.
You understand now that “no Pope” did not mean “no Papacy.” A vacant Chair of Peter after the death of a Pope does not mean a permanent vacancy of that Chair. A temporary vacancy of the Chair of Peter does not mean the end of the “perpetual successors in the Primacy over the universal Church.”
Even though Our Lord, had He so willed it, could have seen to it that the moment one Pope died, another man would automatically succeed him as Pope, He nevertheless did not do it that way.
Our Lord did it the way we have always known it to be, that is, He allowed for an interval, or interruption, of undesignated duration, to follow upon the death of each Pope.
That interruption of succession of Popes has, most of the time, lasted several weeks, or a month or so, but there have been times when the interruption lasted longer than that, considerably longer.
Our Lord did not specify just how long that interruption was allowed to last before a new Pope was to be elected, and He did not declare that, if the delay in electing a new Pope lasted too long, the “perpetual succession” was then terminated, so that it would then have to be said that “the Papacy is no more.”
Nor did the Church ever specify the length or duration of the vacancy of the Chair of Peter to be allowed after the death of a Pope.
So it is clear that the present vacancy of the Chair of Peter, brought on by public heresy, despite the fact that it has lasted some 40 years or so, does not mean that the “perpetual succession” of Popes after St. Peter has come to an end.
What we must realize here is that the Papacy, and with it the “perpetual succession” of Popes, is a divine institution, not a human institution. Therefore, man cannot put an end to the Papacy, no matter how long God may allow heresy to prevail at the Papal headquarters in Rome.
Only God could, if He so willed, terminate the Papacy. But He will not do it, because He has made His will known to His Church that there will be “perpetual successors” in the Papal Primacy that was first entrusted to St. Peter.
We naturally feel distressed that the vacancy of the Chair of Peter has lasted so long, and we are unable to see the end of that vacancy in sight. But we do realize that the restoration of the Catholic Faith, and with it the return of a true Catholic Pope to the Papal Chair, will come when God wills it and in the way He wills it.
If it seems to us, as of now, that there are no qualified, genuinely Catholic electors who could elect a new and truly Catholic Pope, God can, for example, bring about the conversion of enough cardinals to the traditional Catholic Faith, who would then proceed to elect a new Catholic Pope.
God can intervene in whatever way it may please Him, in order to restore everything as He originally willed it to be in His Holy Church.
Nothing is impossible with God.
Father Martin Stepanich, O.F.M