I’m not a Roman Catholic. Nevertheless, I admire much about the tradition. Its perceived unchanged continuity with the past is a big draw. Still, one of the largest issues most religions face as they evolve is that things change. No religion can stop it. Edward Jarvis’ brilliant Sede Vacante: The Life and Legacy of Archbishop Thục explores the life and possible theological motivations for one of the most fascinating people in recent church history. Ngô-dinh-Thục became a Roman Catholic Archbishop in his native Vietnam. He was the brother of Ngô-dình-Diệm, the first president of South Vietnam, and likely one of the reasons behind the Vietnam War. In fact, Thục had two other extremely prominent brothers and the four of them formed a junta that ruled the country with authoritarian vigor and utilized all the corruption for which authoritarianism is famed. They became enormously wealthy, they used torture and extortion to get what they wanted, and Thục supported all of this.
Eventually excommunicated (twice), Thục had to leave Vietnam. Two of his brothers were arrested and assassinated. After his self-imposed exile Thục attended Vatican II, the papers of which he signed, but his prominence faded. Without his holdings in Vietnam he was poor, and in fact lived in poverty. Then he started consecrating bishops for breakaway Catholic groups, including the strange sect of the Palmarians. This led to his first excommunication. Later in life, after restored to the graces of the church, he again started consecrating bishops for the Sedevanctantists. These were Catholics who believed the Pope was invalid and his chair (sede) was vacant (vacante). He was excommunicated again and, after moving to the United States, died in poverty.
I keep these posts brief enough that I don’t have space to spell out all the amazing angles from which this life could be viewed (read the book for that). In our authoritarian-loving times, however, the nature of those who reject “modernization” stood out. Many Sedevanctantists insist on the restoration of the Latin mass. They somehow believe the Popes since about Pius X have been liberals(!). Like Trumpists, they believe it is possible to halt the movement of culture and go back to the way things were in the 1950s when outward conformity was all the rage. Even Fonzie, after all, was really a nice guy instead of a dangerous biker. Although there is some theological minutiae here, I recommend this book for anyone who has even the slightest interest in the history of Vietnam, the Roman Catholic Church, or the mindset of those who reject the modern world.
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