My brush with pope Boniface X has been quite thought-provoking in an odd sort of way. There always has been tension between religion – any religion – being essentially a book containing precepts and teachings, compliance with which being the condition for salvation (a pleasant afterlife rather than the traditional image of eternal hell) – that, or an incarnate and mystical life based on symbols and sacraments making eternal realities present in time. Reading authors like Dom Casel, Louis Bouyer, Josef Ratzinger, Jean Hani, René Guénon and others brought me to condense a staggering amount of knowledge and experience in these terms.
In the history of Roman Catholicism, or simply the Western Church before the Reformation, and Orthodoxy, there were schisms at various times caused largely by the corruption of the clergy. There was a number of sects that arose in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries that rejected the sacramental system and the priesthood, or sought to bring about a new kind of priesthood. Many were based on the message of St Francis of Assisi. There were also Gnostic based groups like the Cathars. One of the most informative books I have read about them is the psychiatrist Dr Arthur Guirdham, The Great Heresy, St Helier 1977. Guirdham sets his subject in the historical context of the Lollards and Hussites who were the progenitors of the Protestant Reformation. The one common idea was to reject the tyranny of the clergy, bishops and the Pope and return to the practice of a Christian life based on individual and common prayer, nourished by the reading of the Scriptures.
However, not all the reactions from clericalism rejected the sacramental life and the liturgy. In this category we find the Raskol or Old Believers in Russia who refused the reforms of Czar Peter the Great and Patriarch Nikon of Moscow between 1652 and 1666. In France, there was the Petite Eglise that split off from the mainstream French Church in 1801 because of the Concordat between Pope Pius VII and Napoleon Bonaparte. They were both traditionalist reactions against changes they deemed to be unacceptable. They became “time capsules” of their Churches at a particular moment of history. The Amish in America came from the Reformed tradition and also set themselves in the period of time from when they emigrated from Europe to the USA. In the early Church, at the time of Saint Augustine, the Donatists showed their fierce rigour faced with Christians who had compromised in any way with the Roman Empire and the persecutors.
In more recent times, in the Roman Catholic world, there was the traditionalist reaction of Archbishop Lefevbre against the reforms of Paul VI following Vatican II in the liturgy and questions of religious freedom. However, the Society of St Pius X took a more pragmatic attitude and was prepared for certain compromises with Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis. They kept the 1962 version of the Roman liturgy, remained in the scholastic mould for theology and Aristotelian philosophy and continued to complain about religious freedom as the enemy of “integral Catholicism”, meaning rule by the clergy and a king or a Franco or Pinochet style dictator. In the 1980’s and at some other times, there were dissidences from the Society in the form of sedevacantism or the position of Bishop Richard Williamson objecting to too much compromise with Rome. Sedevacantism itself divided into several “positions”, sometimes combined with Feeneyism, a modern form of Donatism.
The most prevalent form of sedevacantism was the most pragmatic. Most of the founders were ordained before the changes or left the SSPX. As priests with a vocation to training new priests, they needed bishops. The solution was being consecrated by a small number of “respectable” bishops in the Ngô Đình Thục succession or former clandestine prelates found in the old Soviet bloc. They justify their ministry in terms similar to those used by the SSPX: in a situation where literal observance of canon law opposes its intended purpose, the letter of the law can be broken and otherwise illegitimate ministry becomes legitimate. This principle is called epikeia (ἐπιείκεια) roughly corresponding with the notion of οἰκονομία in the Orthodox Churches. However, Roman Catholics have always had a problem with private interpretation and the risk of abuse.
Within this “liberal” branch of sedevacantism, Fr Louis-Michel Guérard des Lauriers OP, a former professor at the Angelicum in Rome, formulated his Cassiciacum Thesis based on the notion of hylomorphism, Aristotle’s theory of matter and form. Matter and form would then be applied to the person occupying the Papacy: the Holy See being materially (materialiter) occupied but formally (formaliter) vacant. The theory is clever, but few follow it. One priestly institute following it is the Istituto Mater Consilii near Turin in Italy. The priests who founded this institute are also dissidents from the SSPX.
We then go a step further and find the conclavists. In the 1990’s certain prominent sedevacantist laity like Elizabeth Gerstner and priests seriously undertook the possibility of electing a Pope by extraordinary means and producing the situation in which that Pope would be legitimate. Here is an explanation of the theory by a fairly articulate lay author. The best known, distinguished from those who believed themselves to be appointed directly by God, are:
Pope Michael (1990). Teresa Stanfill-Benns and David Bawden of Kansas in the US, called for a conclave to elect an alternative pope. They publicised their request around the world, but only six people participated in the election. On 16 July 1990, they elected Bawden who took the name Pope Michael.
Pope Linus II (1994). Another conclave, this time held in Assisi, Italy, elected the South African Victor von Pentz, an ex-seminarian of the Society of St Pius X, as Pope Linus II in 1994. Linus took up residence in Hertfordshire, England. Nothing is known about his present ministry, if any.
Pope Pius XIII (1998–2009). In October 1998, the U.S.-based “true Catholic Church” elected Friar Lucian Pulvermacher as Pope Pius XIII. He died on 30 November 2009. No successor has been named since his death.
Pope Leo XIV (2006–2007). It is not known whether this group is a spoof or an existing group. It is claimed that on 24 March 2006, a group of 34 independent bishops elected the Argentine Oscar Michaelli as Pope Leo XIV. On his death on 14 February 2007, he was succeeded by Juan Bautista Bonetti, who took the name of Pope Innocent XIV, but resigned on 29 May 2007. He was succeeded by Alejandro Tomás Greico, who took the name of –
Pope Alexander IX (2008 – present day). Alejandro Greico was born in 1983, in Buenos Aires. This group claims bishops and churches all over the world. One of my principles is to take a step back and what “What seems to be too good to be true is not true”. No radical traditionalist group could have survived for so long without being known, suffering from splits and fraught with scandal. Pope Alexander is always represented by a photo of a man’s head photoshopped onto the cassock and body of Benedict XVI. This is clear skulduggery.
Alongside that, there are well-known characters like Clemente Dominguez y Gomez who claimed to be appointed directly by God. These are clearly cult gurus and are known for abusive practices. Magnus Lundberg has extensively studied the cult of Palmar de Troya in Spain, now led by a Swiss man going by the name of Peter III.
Going further down the hole of sedevacantism, we find a phenomenon akin to the priestless (Безпоповцы) Old Believers and the French Petite Eglise. These are the Home Aloners (description given by a priest of the first category of sedevacantists mentioned above). These are lay people for whom no mainstream Catholic bishops or priests are legitimate or even valid, and nor are the various priests and bishops deriving from illicit ordinations like those of Archbishop Ngô Đình Thục. Everything is stripped away in terms of liturgical observance or access to the Sacraments other than Baptism and Marriage. Perhaps some of these people say the Office. They will pray the Rosary and other standard devotions, and they will read the Scriptures, apologetics and a certain level of philosophy and theology. The circle is closed when I hark back to my definition of Protestantism: “The one common idea was to reject the tyranny of the clergy, bishops and the Pope and return to the practice of a Christian life based on individual and common prayer, nourished by the reading of the Scriptures“. The reasons might be different in theory, but the result is the same. However, I know of no “Home-Alone” church like the Old Believers and the Petite Eglise. How long will a person persevere in such conditions before lapsing into modern life like the rest of his family and friends?
Outside Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, there is Continuing Anglicanism, in which I serve as a priest. Frankly, there is no comparison with the radical ideologies described above. Our bishops and their predecessors simply broke away from the Anglican Communion because of matters like the ordination of women – and formed new Churches with their proprietary names. There has been a lot of trouble in the past between quarrelling bishops, but I am happy to relate that the difficulties of the past are being repaired through the “G4”: the primates of the Anglican Catholic Church, the Anglican Province of America, the Anglican Church of America, and the Diocese of the Holy Cross signing an agreement pledging to seek “full, institutional and organic union with each other”. This grouping of the more mainstream Continuing Anglican Churches is also in dialogue with the Polish National Catholic Church and the Nordic Catholic Church led by Bishop Flemestad in Norway.
The lesson to be learned from all this is balancing the notion of Tradition with life, growth and progress. I have approached this subject from various points of view, my most recent being Ecclesial Cosmopolitanism. There is the paradoxical posting “Catholicism made me Protestant” discussing Newman’s conundrum at trying to find Papal Infallibility more coherent than Anglican Liberalism in the early nineteenth century.
There is tension between Tradition and life as there is between faith and reason. It is not by accident that John Paul II and Benedict XVI spent so much time on this question which was at the heart of the Modernist “crisis” in the 1900’s.
Newman tried a distinction between homogenous or organic growth, a hermeneutic of continuity, and changes that involved rupture and contradiction. It is a good base, not perfect, but something. I discuss many issues of continuity and change in Nostalgia and Hope. Static traditionalism is compared with the changelessness of Parmenides – “all reality is one, change is impossible, and existence is timeless, uniform, and necessary” – and the semper idem of Bossuet.
The way ahead is accepting a via media between tradition and organic change whilst resisting rupture and contradiction. In medio stat virtus. The churches of the Reformation other than the glitzy American mega churches are declining. The Old Believers have happily gone back into communion with the Russian Orthodox Church, and they are allowed to keep their liturgical particularities. The Petite Eglise is declining as the children of those families marry Roman Catholics or embrace modern secularism. Anything can flourish in America, and there are some “moderate” sedevacantist communities in France. Palmar de Troya will end up as an exotic theme park or something that makes money. The other alternative popes will die lonely deaths. Continuing Anglicanism seems to have pulled itself together, and needs more time to be more firmly established without falling into the same traps as the mainstream churches.
Wisdom is sometimes found in the most unlikely places and the deepest of man’s folly!
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I have just discovered the site of a man called John C. Pontrello, an American. I haven’t been through his writings yet, but I have the impression that he on the right track and coming to a state of self-awareness and critical mind. If he ever sees what I write here, I advise him to embark on a study of serious philosophy and theology, not merely the use of proof texts for the purposes of argumentation and refutation. I have just bought the Kindle version of his book The Sedevacantist Delusion. He has obviously chosen his title based on the God Delusion of Richard Dawkins and the Science Delusion of Rupert Sheldrake which I am presently reading. Interestingly, Dawkins writes from a point of view of mechanistic and materialist science, and Sheldrake also writes from a scientific point of view but with the notion of consciousness being the intrinsic principle of both energy and matter.
I will need to read Pontrello’s book so that I can ascertain the premisses on which he bases his arguments and critical thinking, and above all where he is going. I have already read some of the short articles on his site which indicate that he recognises some psychological aspects of religious memes as viruses of the mind and complete bunk. Two reactions are then possible on emerging from Plato’s Cave: denying everything except matter like Dawkins, or finding a higher dimension of Christianity that reveals the profound message of Christ. The enquirer might then be inclined to align with the contemporary Roman Catholic Church and Pope Francis, become Orthodox, Old Catholic or Anglican – or seek among the other religious and philosophical traditions of the world.
Do I still have an axe to grind after so many years? Honestly, à chacun sa merde, let each of us find our own way and deal with our own problems. We will never sort out the problems of the world, change people’s minds or get everyone to adhere to the best and truest message. Our truth is found in our own experience of life and above all our Sehnsucht. Sedevacantism is not a problem in my Church. My Archbishop is called Mark Haverland and my Bishop is Damien Mead. We do not speculate about whether Archbishop Justin Welby truly occupies the See of Canterbury or not. The Anglican Catholic Church is a distinct Church in the same way as the Orthodox Churches are distinct from each other and fully Catholic by virtue of their faith and their episcopate.
John Pontrello does not need to worry about the pathetic psychotic claiming the papacy any more than I do. In our age, we are not used to such violent and vile language. Some of us, like Magnus Lundberg, are collectors of curiosities and exhibit these creatures for the enquiring public. I think Mr Pontrello needs to sort out his own mind and soul, decide what he feels he is called to do, and then adopt a critical attitude without trying to convince others. There, there is Wisdom!