Within hours of Pope Benedict XVI’s announcement that he was stepping down as Supreme Pontiff, speculation was swirling about the top contenders to succeed him. National Catholic Reporter’s veteran and eminently fair-minded Vatican correspondent, John L. Allen, Jr., was taken aback when the Italian press began floating the idea that the papacy could go to the archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Sean O’Malley. Usually, if an American cardinal is listed among the papabile, it’s the gregarious archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan. But since O’Malley arrived in Boston to replace the disgraced Cardinal Bernard Law, he has impressed the Italian press with his simplicity of life and his tireless efforts to clean up the moral and financial mess left in the wake of the archdiocese’s clerical sex abuse scandal.
As an American Catholic, even a seasoned journalist like Allen couldn’t resist contemplating an American siting in the Chair of St. Peter. Yet, there is an American pope, and a few years back there were two. I suppose I should say, “popes.” Let me explain.
In October 1998, Father Lucian Pulvermacher, a priest of the Capuchin branch of the Franciscan order, was elected pope. The circumstances of this particular conclave were out of the ordinary. Father Pulvermacher had rejected the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and with a small group of like-minded, disaffected Catholics, founded what he called the True Catholic Church. They taught that the last legitimate pontiff was Pius XII (reigned 1939-1958), that John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, and eventually Benedict XVI were false popes who had led the Church off the true path. If the True Catholic Church was going to be a going concern, it needed a pope. Of course, the TCC had no cardinals, so, working on the basis of natural law, everyone agreed that lay men and women could be electors. In 1998, some of the electors met in a remote mountain cabin in Montana. Those who could not make the trip phoned in their votes. Father Pulvermacher was elected on the first ballot. He took the name Pius XIII.
For a time, the Vatican-in-exile was located in Montana, then in Washington state, where Pius XIII died in 2009. The TCC claims a global following, but the precise number of its members is not known. Since Father Pulvermacher’s death, TCC has been without a pope, but its website promises that plans are underway for a conclave to elect Pius XIII’s successor.
Meanwhile, there is yet another American pope living in Delia, Kansas (population: 169). As with Father Pulvermacher, David Bawden and his family rejected Vatican II. For a time they were members of the Society of St. Pius X, a large group of traditionalist Catholics whose split from Rome is now decades old. Eventually, the Society was not traditional enough for the Bawdens. They formed their own little splinter of traditional Catholicism and in 1990 they held a conclave. The electors—David, his Mom and Dad, and three other laypeople—met in a converted thrift store. There they elected David pope. He took the name Michael I. Some of his neighbors actually address him as “Pope Michael,” but others still call him David. The pope in Kansas, by the way, is the subject of a short documentary film, Pope Michael, directed by Adam Fairholm.
There is a term for Pius XIII and Michael I—antipopes. Sadly, there were lots of antipopes during the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance. At that time, if an antipope had the backing of powerful kings and lords (and invariably, he did), he could be a serious contender in church and temporal politics in Europe. And then there was the supernatural issue of all the souls he was misleading. Michael I and the late Pius XIII never came close to wielding the kind of influence the antipopes of the past enjoyed. Our American antipopes are rather sad figures, and more than a little embarrassing.