I learned today of the death of Bishop Maurice Archieri a few days ago at the age of 93 years. Who was he? He was an automobile mechanic (highly skilled and honourable trade) who claimed the Papacy under the name of Peter II. He was one of several men claiming the Papacy in the place of the current incumbent in Rome. The basis of this claim is a phenomenon called Sedevacantism, something that has parallels with the schism of the Old Believers from the Russian Orthodox Church in the seventeenth century.

These claims very often collude with episcopi vagantes or Independent Sacramental Delinquency as I have had to name some of the more shady elements in France and elsewhere. The simple reason is the availability of supposedly valid (in ontological but not legal terms) orders. One of the finest studies of this phenomenon is by Dr Jean-François Mayer of Fribourg University who is specialised in the study of religious and sectarian movements: Quand le pape n’est plus à Rome: antipapes et sédévacantistes. The article is in French.

pope-michaelDr Mayer gives the examples of David Bawden (Michael I) in the USA, Clement XV in France and several others. The study is calm and irenic, historical and clearly written. I first met Dr Mayer in the 1980’s when I was a student at the University, and appreciated his erudition and sound judgement. The subject matter is a quagmire of human beings searching for something they will not find in this world, and whose practical judgement had ceded its place to illusions and myths. It is often the psychology involved in cults, including fundamentalist Islam and terrorist groups.

Antipopes (men claiming to be the Pope in opposition to the generally accepted Pope in Rome) have been made possible by the mythology that accompanies the reaction against the perceived infiltration of liberalism and modernism into the Roman Catholic Church. They see it as their duty to build a Platonic universal idea of the true church and defend it. Historically, the term antipope designated rival claimants to the Papacy in the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries. Then, each pretender had a large following of western Christendom. Now, most are simply episcopi vagantes with traditionalist Roman Catholic ideas, extremely marginal and with very few followers. Only the Palmar de Troya cult in Spain had any significant “success” through its ability to amass large amounts of money, enough to buy significant amounts of real estate in Seville and a site on the outskirts of the village of Palmar de Troya where they built a cathedral in baroque style. Clement XV and his successor Jean-Gregory XVII built up a significant community in France and French-speaking Canada.

A few modern antipopes had a small following in such wise as they could be elected by some kind of reduced “conclave”. This was the case of Pius XIII and Michael I in the USA and Linus II in Italy (a South African who lives in England and is apparently inactive). Most modern antipopes claimed some kind of mystical experience in which God himself made them Pope or simply constructed some kind of cynical farce to cheat people out of money.

Dr Mayer’s article is worth reading in French, since machine translation would not do it justice! I note that he does not pass these men off as insane, but guided by an alternative reality that seems logical enough to them. The approach is empirical and gives a good synthesis of the thought of these men and those who follow them as their pope.

Apart from the academic interest, we should not exaggerate the influence of these men in the de-christianised society in which we live. The media discusses the issue of cults much less than it did twenty or thirty years ago. The issue is just not news. The real threat now is Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism and the real influence they have to the extent of being able to be a challenge to superpowers and their armed forces. There are parallel apocalyptic strands of belief, something that makes a cult strike a chord in our less rational instincts.

I am left with a thought for that old man in Perreux, some way to the east of Paris. He was a retired mechanic who had worked hard all his life, and followed the sedevacantist logic, obtaining the priesthood and episcopate from apocryphal sources, setting up his chapel, internet site (no longer existing) and his little ministry. He seemed to be well liked by a number of Facebook users who are curious about such matters. I would hope that his eternity will correspond more with his alternative reality than this world, and I don’t express this wish flippantly.

Where are the limits? I am hardly mainstream either, belonging to a continuing Anglican Church which does not have to compromise with secular agendas. What is sane and what is insane? It is too easy to call the other Raca or Fool. These religious groups are largely as futile as those who warn their own from frequenting their places of worship. Perhaps something I have learned from the Russians is that being futile doesn’t matter if we are forgiven much because we loved much. Who knows, Don Camillo?

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