by Matthew Walther
Like many observers I was saddened to hear that Father David Bawden, a.k.a. “Pope” Michael, had died earlier this week at the age of sixty-two.
Those of you who have not traveled much in the murkier byways of modern ecclesiastical history will perhaps not have heard of Bawden, who was “elected” in 1990 by a conclave of six, among them his own parents and—less unusually—the pontiff-elect. At the time of the election, Bawden was not himself in holy orders. This was not so strange. Amadeus VIII, the Duke of Savoy who claimed the papacy between 1439 and 1449 (and after renouncing his schism was appointed papal legate to his duchy), was a widowed layman. Even among legitimate occupants of the Holy See, it is not unheard of. When Leo X was elected in 1513, he was only a deacon.
By all accounts things were rather dire for the would-be papal court-in-exile. Of the dozens of episcopi vagantes invited to the Conclave of Belvue (Kansas), none chose to attend. Nor could the pontiff following his election readily secure episcopal consecration, or even ordination to the sacrificing priesthood. His Holiness reigned for twenty-one years before celebrating his first Pontifical Mass. (The vagans bishop who raised Michael to the episcopate had himself been made a successor of the Apostles only a month prior, in November 2011.) Only five years into his papacy, Michael’s father (who had pronounced the “habemus papam” upon his son’s election) died; deprived of his benefices and other incomes, the paparch earned a meager living as a publisher of out-of-print religious literature.
Lest it go unremarked by future ecclesical historians, it should be noted that Antipope Michael’s theological opinions were frequently less extreme than those of many ordinary tradition-minded parish priests. He had no qualms, for example, about Pius XII’s revisions of Holy Week. As he put it with admirable frankness on his website: “Considering that Pope Pius XII was the last Pope prior to Pope Michael, in holy obedience, those who accept him as Pope are duty bound to accept the calendar revision of 1955.” In his published reflections on the Old Testament (“Anthropomorphic language represents God’s unchanging attributes in the changing circumstances and different moral conditions of His creatures”) Michael often sounded like a rather middle-of-the-road Ratzingerian biblical critic. Unlike many traditionalists, he did not object to the Divine Mercy Chaplet, but he also insisted that it was a mortal sin to read the diary of Sister Faustina, on the grounds that it had been placed on the Index.
Immediately after his death, reports that Bawden had reconciled himself to the Church after abjuring his false claims to the Petrine supremacy were disputed by many of his followers. This was to be expected. But it is worth mentioning that his obituary notice, which referred to him simply as “Father David” and carried a photograph of him in a plain black cassock, made no mention of his claim to the papacy. Instead it informed readers that Bawden was “an active member of the Oakland Neighborhood Improvement Association where he was currently serving as president” and “a member of the Citizen Advisory Council along with various other organizations.” What is true of all of us who are not eventually raised to the altars is true of Bawden, that the precise state of his soul at the time of his death cannot be known, and that we must commend him to God’s infinite mercy.
What we do know is that, the objective gravity of schism notwithstanding, Bawden’s false reign was essentially harmless. He raised no armies against the Holy See. He was not, unlike virtually all of his predecessors, the creature of some powerful financial interest or coterie. He had no illegitimate children and did not attempt to swell the ranks of the Curia with venal and worldly cardinal-nephews. And it would be absurd not to admit that, while not a man of any extraordinary erudition, he seems to have possessed a better understanding of the essentials of the Catholic faith than the overwhelming majority of bishops.
It is a melancholy fact that, like many other colorful clerical figures of our day—e.g., His Excellency Sean Manchester, Superior General of the Ordo Sancti Graal and Presiding Bishop of the British Old Catholic Church, who once killed a vampire in Highgate Cemetery during the 1970s—Bawden will not benefit from the pen of a Sabine Baring-Gould or a Peter Anson. Indeed it is Robert Hawker, the Anglican vicar of Morwenstow immortalized by Baring-Gould, of whom Michael most reminds me. Hawker was an eccentric who insisted that his old horse blanket was the lost habit of Saint Padarn and excommunicated one of his nine cats; before being received into the Catholic Church on his deathbed, Hawker gave Christian burial to an untold number of poor drowned sailors off the coast of Cornwall, whose bodies would otherwise have been left to sink or become carrion.
Like Hawker’s, Bawden’s flock was never very numerous. (At its height, his claim to the papacy seems to have been accepted by some thirty souls.) Looking back on his career such as it was, one is reminded of those lines spoken by Beattie’s titular solitary in “The Hermit”:
Tis night, and the landscape is lovely no more;
I mourn, but, ye woodlands, I mourn not for you;
For morn is approaching, your charms to restore,
Perfumed with fresh fragrance, with glittering dew.
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