Fake bishop or episcopi vagantes?

Media outlets had a lot of fun with a recent story about a Vatican gatecrasher. A sample of the headlines include Time: Fake Bishop Tries to Sneak into Vatican Meeting; Vanity Fair: Theological Espionage! Fake Bishop Sneaks Into Vatican; NPR: At The Vatican, ‘No Rush’ To Set Conclave; And A Fake Bishop Tries To Get In; Daily Beast: Fake Bishop Sneaks Into Vatican; San Francisco Chronicle: Vatican not amused by fake bishop who posed with cardinals; and CNN: Fake bishop busted and booted from Vatican.

That story begins:

Move over, Tareq and Michaele Salahi, the Virginia ex-couple who famously – or infamously – crashed President Obama’s first White House state dinner. There’s a new impostor posing with dignitaries, and he set his sights on an even more coveted gathering.

Meet Ralph Napierski, a German self-declared bishop who reportedly called himself “Basilius,” said he was with the nonexistent “Italian Orthodox Church” and set out to infiltrate a Monday meeting of cardinals at the Vatican.

The fake bishop donned a purple sash (really a scarf) over his vestments and mingled with cardinals and others who’d flown in from around the globe ahead of the conclave to pick a new pope. He smiled wide and posed for cameras while shaking hands with Cardinal Sergio Sebiastiana. He tried to blend in.

And here’s ABC News: Prankster Nearly Sneaks Into Meeting of Cardinals

The Swiss Guard promptly ejected the man, later identified as Ralph Napiersi, who told reporters his name was “Basilius.” Napierski said he belonged to an Italian Orthodox Church, which does not exist.

A website that appears to be associated with him describes him as a bishop of Corpus Dei, a fictional Catholic group. The site not only has a fanciful coat of arms for the fake bishop – the motto “Horse of Christ” – it traces his phony credentials all the way back to an 18th Century Patriarch of Babylon.

Napierski is a proponent of “Jesus Yoga” and claims to be a keeper of relics, items of religious veneration because they were touched by or belonged to a saint.

“We want to equip churches (especialy [sic] those with low income) with high class relics,” it says on his website. There are lots of spelling mistakes on the site.

Now what’s fascinating to me about the media coverage of this situation is how it is 180 degrees different from the coverage we see of Roman Catholic WomenPriests! In those stories, there is no such language mocking the individuals claiming to be Catholic priests or the group they’re aligned with. There’s no real questioning of the claim to being genuinely Catholic in at least some sense.

But, as could be said about many extreme positions, this coverage goes way too far in the opposite direction. To understand how and why, I’d recommend reading through Orthodox pastor Andrew Damick’s post “Media Discovers Episcopus Vagans at Vatican, Film at 11.”

From Wikipedia:

Episcopi vagantes (singular: episcopus vagans, Latin for wandering bishops or stray bishops) are persons who have been consecrated as Christian bishops outside the structures and canon law of the established churches, and who are not in communion with any generally recognized diocese. Also included are those who have in communion with them small groups that appear to exist solely for the bishop’s sake.[1] Those described as wandering bishops often see the term as pejorative.

Damick notes that while the Roman Catholic Church may consider this man to be a fake bishop or a prankster with a fictional Catholic group, that might not be the only view. And while Napierski is described as self-appointed, he at least claims to have been ordained by others. There’s more:

Of course, there’s actually a chance that the Vatican might regard his episcopal ordination as “valid” (though unlawful), if it can be shown that his episcopal succession is “valid” in all its propers. Roman Catholic theology of ordination regards it as an “indelible mark” that continues even in heresy, apostasy and schism, so there may be “valid” bishops outside the actual communion of the Roman Catholic Church. (This is how Rome can regard Orthodoxy as “valid” even though it doesn’t submit itself to the pope.) Orthodoxy, by contrast, regards ordination as existing only within the ecclesial community.

Those who have done some study of episcopi vagantes would recognize all the marks here of such a man’s presence online—the prominent display of the claim to apostolic succession, the badly-fitting and not-quite-right clerical garb, the confusing and misspelled website, the attempts to associate one’s ecclesiastical associates with mainstream authorities (e.g., pictures with the pope), pictures of official-looking documents, and so on.

None of that means that these people are “fake,” however, nor that they are pulling some kind of “prank” or promoting a “fictional” religious group that “does not exist.” It would certainly be true to say that they are on their own and not recognized by any ecclesiastical authority other than themselves. It is probably also true their flocks (if any) are quite small and insignificant compared to the Roman Catholic Church. It may well also be true that they are hucksters out to make a buck (or a Euro, I suppose, in this case), but that of course is true of people in many religious groups that the media might not consider “fake.” It may well also be the case that there are more bishops than laity in this man’s church. (Once you take away all that pesky ecclesiastical bureaucracy, why not make anyone a bishop?)

Contrast all this with the media’s treatment of Westboro Baptist Church. Anyone ever see a reporter saying that WBC are “fake” Baptists? I daresay some Baptists might see them that way.

Father Damick has much more to say on the topic, including some surprises about how common episcopi vagantes are. He ends:

So, once again, the press doesn’t quite get religion. They certainly realized that Ralph Napierski didn’t belong there in the Vatican with the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church. And he’s certainly a rather unusual sort of cleric. But wouldn’t it have been far more interesting to learn a little something about the wild, wacky and fascinating world of espicopi vagantes?

Heck, even just a bit of consistency in how we cover these issues might be nice.

Photo of Arnold Harris Mathew, one of the original episcopi vagantes.

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  • tmatt

    Another WomenPriests connection: the group’s claim to apostolic succession for its bishops rests on the validity of Old Catholic orders or bishops rebelling against Rome — the source for almost all of these alternative clerics.

    This man’s claim to be Catholic is essentially the same as the WomenPriests.

    • Patrick

      Man. That observation is devastating. The only possible explanation for taking women-priests seriously and treating this guy as a joke is bigotry.

    • Will

      “Validity of Old Catholic orders”? I was not aware that anyone denied it. It’s not that they’re like those English Erastian nosy Parkerites.

    • Will

      “Validity of Old Catholic orders”? I was not aware that anyone denied it. It’s not that they’re like those English Erastian nosy Parkerites. (v. Apostolicae Curae)

  • Martha

    I was going to say that if this were a woman rather than a man, their claims would be every bit as valid as the Roman Catholic Womenpriests (to quote from their website):

    “The ordinations of Roman Catholic Womenpriests are valid because of our apostolic succession within the Roman Catholic Church. The principal consecrating Roman Catholic male bishops who ordained our first women bishops are bishops with apostolic succession within the Roman Catholic Church. Therefore, our bishops validly ordain deacons, priests and bishops. Consequently, all qualified candidates, including baptized ministers and priests from other Christian traditions, who are presented to our bishops for ordination are ordained by the laying on of hands in apostolic succession in the Roman Catholic Church. ”

    So if Mr. (Fr? Bishop?) Napierski was validly (even if illicitly) ordained, he should be treated with as much respect as the self-described womenpriests. If reporters really are “only printing what the people in the story call themselves”, then why mock Corpus Dei or the Italian Orthodox Church as non-existent?

    I’m sure it’s every bit as existent as the various Mary of Magdala Catholic Communities listed on the RCWP website, and I see that you don’t even have to be a woman – there are at least two men in the list of ordained members of the RCWP (one who was a Roman Catholic priest and another who tried three seminaries but did not complete his studies) .

    So if Mr. Napierski associates himself with the international RCWP movement, will he then suddenly become legitimate in the eyes of the press?

  • Julia

    Martha: spot on. Why not accept the illicit male bishops and priests the same as the female priests?

  • helen

    Are you suggesting that the “womenpriests” are accepted?
    [Honest question, all I know is what I've read here... not much yet.]

    • Martha

      Well, when the topic has been raised on here before, the rationale given by papers for saying “Ms So-and-So is going to be ordained a Roman Catholic priest next Wednesday in a Lutheran/Unitarian/wherever church” is that “We’re only using the terms the people themselves use, we’re not taking a position one way or the other on are they or aren’t they priests, if they call themselves Reverend then that’s what we put in the story”.

      But the papers seemed to have no difficulty calling this guy a fake bishop, deriding his website, and declaring that his alleged church didn’t exist.

      So which is it? You just print the words the person in the story says, or you decide that X is really valid but Y isn’t?

  • Julia

    Accepted by the media – I should have said.

  • http://orthodoxyandheterodoxy.org/ Fr. Andrew S. Damick

    In comparison to the Womenpriests, it’s actually possible that Ralph Napierski’s claim to be Catholic is more valid from the Vatican’s viewpoint: Assuming his apostolic succession is all in order according to RC standards of validity, he could be a real (though illicit) bishop by RC standards. But the RCC has explicitly said that it’s not possible for women to be ordained. In their view, women are actually incapable of receiving ordination or apostolic succession, even illicitly.

    • Patrick

      That’s it – Napierski might even actually be a validly consecrated priest. The media, rather than note this guy’s very existence as the scandal it is to Catholic Christians, play it for laughs – ‘fake’ bishop tries to break into Vatican, like he’s some kind of over-excited fan who just hopped the fence and ran onto the field during halftime.

      The undertone this projects is that our events, the very life of our church, is a kind of a game, and only when our frivolity rises to the discussion of politics do we become (in the case of womenpriests, who “deserve to get to play”) noble or (in the case of of our teachings – how dare we insist that the score ‘means’ something?) offensive.

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