Theological Debates Matter

Sedevacantists in the United States have dealt with a lot in the last two years, and while many of those events happened “in public” there are many private facts that remain concealed to a majority of the public. Worse, there is a misguided — though partially understandable — partisanship that seems to involve people taking the sides of “their clergy” rather than looking at the facts and formulating a coherent response to them. For our part, regarding the clergy we have historically been associated with at True Restoration, the conflict has been a challenge on a number of fronts, but the death of Bishop Daniel Dolan has not served as a corrective and potential reconciliation with long-term confreres. Instead, since we have seen a doubling-down on the previous trajectory in league with unproven (and at times, deeply unhelpful) colleagues, I feel compelled to share a few thoughts which I pray may be constructive for all involved.

It has been widely and publicly acknowledged by both St. Gertrude’s clergy and the clergy associated with Most Holy Trinity Seminary that Fr. Anthony Cekada, in addition to the many hats he wore over the years both in Ohio and Florida, served as a diplomatic glue between the two organizations. Both sides agree that the current suspension of diplomatic relations would not, could not, have occurred on his watch.

While no one doubts that Fr. Cekada was Bp. Dolan’s closest friend and collaborator, he sometimes had to actively disagree with/act contrary to him, as he did when Bp. Dolan, for his own reasons, stopped working with us from 2015-2018. Fr. Cekada continued to work with us against Bp. Dolan’s express wishes, for his own reasons, and because he believed many could benefit from the work he was doing with us. Bp. Dolan, in the only interview of its kind that was ever published, admitted publicly that one of his faults was being too quick to fly the flag and initiate conflict:

I would say pride, definitely. Maybe sometimes being too quick to fly the flag, yes possibly so. In the sense that, “I’m right, and this is the way we need to do things.” (emphasis mine)

Indeed, in 2021 when I got Bp Dolan’s final sign-off for publishing the interview we had done together in 2008, he told me that I had “saved the good wine until last,” and did not ask for anything to be removed.

So the first part of understanding what has happened since Fr. Cekada’s death is realizing he kept two parties at peace which had had disagreements for years (as happens this side of the veil), but nothing so major as to cause a break. The first hints of such a break were some years ago, when the draft documents of the Roman Catholic Institute’s theological, liturgical, and pastoral directories were sent to St. Gertrude’s. 

Bp. Dolan has admitted to being “finished” with “organizations” after his journeys with the SSPX and SSPV so it was understandable that he wasn’t that enthusiastic about a new organization, especially one that allied itself with a theological position he disagreed with, but even here one can immediately see a difference between Bp. Dolan and Bp. Sanborn. The latter is dedicated to clear and enunciated principles and a certain way of doing things which flow from having spent the majority of his clerical life forming priests and working on theological issues. Bp. Dolan has primarily worked as a pastor, and as such has not spent a lot of time working on theological issues, preferring to outsource that work to others, like Fr. Cekada. That makes all the sense in the world. Bp. Sanborn has said on numerous occasions in the past that Bp Dolan was in the devotions/saints department, Fr. Cekada ran the liturgy desk, and he was in charge of condemnations. One cannot be all things to all people.

An additional problem is that some sedevacantist priests and organizations are in nonstop “field hospital” mode. They are constantly adding missions and rapidly ordaining priests (some with no working knowledge of Latin and as little as four years of formation) so as to “tend to souls.” There is, for various reasons, some merit in this argument. 

But Bp. Sanborn and the RCI have chosen to go in the opposite direction, making sure that the few RCI worldwide missions that are in place can be competently served by well-formed priests. He would never ordain someone with only four years of seminary formation. RCI priests are also not likely to ever do three different Masses in one day unless it’s December 25th or November 2nd. Such practices are not sustainable for the clergy and give the laypeople a mistaken impression that this is something that can and should be done. For our part, we have long advocated for relocation to Mass centers, which not only gives a full liturgical life to Catholics, but also adds a helpful social dimension that is hard to maintain in distant, far-flung missions.

It is simply not credible to believe that organizations that are busy serving many missions also have the time and energy to deeply devote themselves to theological matters. Many took umbrage at Bp. Sanborn’s saying that neither Bp. Dolan nor Fr. Cekada were “deep theological thinkers,” but such umbrage is mistaken on a number of levels.

Having actively worked with Fr. Cekada for 14 years, I know that he would never have put himself forward as a “deep theological thinker.” He had other passions, music, for example. I remember one time when we spent half an hour looking at a website he helped collaborate on in which musicians uploaded and critiqued each other’s work. Father totally lit up when speaking about it. 

When one thinks about “deep theology” one has to think of someone like Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., who many laypeople have never read a single word of, but consider Fr. Cekada to be in the same league as, and consider it “deeply insulting” that he isn’t considered as so by someone who knew him for longer than many of them have been alive. 

Fr. Cekada couldn’t do everything, much less everything at the highest level, and it’s absurd for people to take offense simply because Bp. Sanborn drew a reasonable boundary as to Fr. Cekada’s (many) talents. Those of us who knew Fr. Cekada know what Father considered himself, and I suspect that few knew Father as well as his confessor, Bp. Sanborn, did.

In any case, other disagreements, be they about vaccines, elections, or about why a few seminarians chose to leave MHT, etc. are not our concern. Our main concern is clearing the way for a sober theological discussion on apostolicity and jurisdiction, issues that should be of interest to any Catholic.

Recently one of the newly ordained Nigerian priests told someone who asked how jurisdiction can be restored in the future to “just become a saint” and that “worrying about such things would do no good.” But this is opposing the exploration of theological matters and sanctity. Those are not mutually exclusive ends.

The most recent model for theological discussions came in 2006, when Fr. Cekada was working on the episcopal consecration issue, and later on, when Work of Human Hands came out and he was defending his thesis that the Novus Ordo Mass was invalid. In the second case, Father was on social media and was very much defending his positions with humor and panache. But he was able to, in those short 140-character replies (back then Twitter still had a tighter leash), refer back to a body of work that explained his position soberly and completely (with footnotes).

What we have seen recently regarding the question of Thesis vs Totalism is theological discussion almost exclusively via social media, in which there is no question of a body of work to reference. Instead what we often see are strange and snarky comments, usually by anonymous and pseudonymous laypeople, who attack priests and speak to them as their equals, delusional about who has spent more time studying theology between the two. There seems to be no understanding that researching these issues takes time, research, and reflection (read: more than Googling and “gotcha” citations), and that 280 characters is not a format that allows for clear communication on disputed theological matters.

There are valid questions that adherents of the Thesis pose that can and should be answered. I personally didn’t even really know about the Thesis until I came to Europe (somewhere serious theological matters are discussed by the clergy and laity regularly), and then recorded a 2017 episode with Bp. Sanborn about it. I closed the episode by saying that these questions and issues should be explored by Catholics. Hand-waving such questions and issues away with eschatological surety (“Our Lady will figure it out”) doesn’t do anybody any good, and using one-sided attack vectors, sometimes, unbelievably, through sermons from the pulpit, for your alleged and imaginary “enemies,” certainly doesn’t do anyone any good either.

If Totalists wish to make their case, they should do so in the way that Fr. Cekada always did, with articles that have extensive footnotes, followed with charity, humor, and panache on social media. It was that spirit that got Father featured on ostensibly hostile platforms like The Remnant or Rorate Caeli.

Father had an instinct for communication that most of his confreres don’t, and that’s okay. Not everyone has the same gifts. But if people want to live up to Fr. Cekada’s standards, they should follow in his footsteps. Make your case, then defend it. Some of the Thesis clergy will agree that they have perhaps reacted too strongly on social media, but one might understand when priests are accused of heresy and novelty when they actually despise the two, they may react more strongly than they normally would.

The guerilla war of snarky lay-led comments on social media must end in favor of something Catholicism has always embraced: that theological debate is perfectly valid until a competent authority considers the debate closed. Since all sedevacantists believe there is no competent authority, there are two options available to them:

  • Engage in the debate with curiosity and charity, having a humble student’s attitude in the forefront of their minds
  • Don’t pay attention to the debate at all, citing “better things to do”

The problem with the second approach is that it leaves you with no answers to SSPX or Novus Ordos who have questions about apostolicity or a possible solution to the current vacancy. 

Fr. Cekada’s formulation of “sedevacantism may lead you into mystery, but it won’t lead you into contradiction” has to be understood in the context of Fr. Cekada always having taught the Thesis as one possible solution (another major and direct disagreement he had with Bp. Dolan) during his decades of teaching at the seminary, decades that included the entire formation of the overwhelming majority of SGG clergy. Even the most recently-ordained clergy owe the bulk of their priestly formation to MHT, formation that Bp. Dolan expressed his gratitude for from the pulpit in 2021. 

If Fr. Cekada considered and taught, for decades, until his death, the Thesis as one possible solution to the current situation, then one cannot consider the Thesis as “savoring of heresy,” “false,” or “novelty,” without directly attacking Fr. Cekada’s theological credentials.

Catholics aren’t afraid of debates. Let’s have one with charity and patience, and be prepared to learn (there’s so much we don’t know!). The laity deserve to hear reasoned, thoughtful, researched arguments from both sides of this issue. I pray that they shall.

Stephen Heiner

Stephen founded True Restoration in 2006 and served as its first President until 2023. He now lives in Reading, Pennsylvania.