© Copyright 2012, revised 2023; T. Stanfill Benns
Q. Is it true that in 1990 you supported a papal election and acted as an elector?
A. Yes. My continuing studies led me more and more to believe that the only answer to the “crisis” in the Church was the election of a true pope. At that time I thought it could be done, but I was fooling myself. I had not studied long enough to understand the true nature of apostolicity and was being misled by someone I believed was a friend and mentor, someone who claimed to be more knowledgeable because he had studied for years on his own and briefly attended a Traditional seminary. Eventually this person joined me in working actively to promote a papal election and I wrote a book he contributed to, making the case for an election.
In the end, only six people participated and we were left with no one to elect. He and his family insisted it would be a mortal sin if we didn’t elect someone and he was the only eligible candidate. Out of fear we would be harming the Church and our own souls we “elected” him, not understanding that the laity cannot elect or appoint anyone pope or bishop, even in an emergency. It was the emergency part, emphasized out of proportion to the danger of the venture, that made us act. Sixteen years later, after discovering that the “pope” had not been honest with us about his qualifications for “election” and had spoken heresy in a pre-election document, and later on his website, I left him and so did all but one of his original “electors.”
I communicated frequently with him by phone and through the mail and emails, and he routinely sent sermons, moral briefs, reminders and other spiritual material by mail and email to all his followers. He also “counseled” them by letter and by phone. We saw him only a few times each year during his entire “pontificate” because he lived 800 miles away. Had we actually known him and lived in with him I am certain we would have discovered his many shortcomings long before. It was only after leaving that we realized he had presented one face to us and another to others close to him. It was a classic case, in my opinion, of a cult-like situation, insofar as the misinformation we had received was concerned. We later learned that the situation was far more serious than we ever imagined, but that is another story.
Q. But some people have pointed out that the teaching you violated was printed in the book you wrote as being condemned by the Church. Didn’t you read it?
A. This is true, but you see it is all in the understanding. Remember, as I said above, we were told that all was permissible in an “emergency” situation, and Canon Law seemed to support this where a papal election was concerned. It is important also to keep in mind that we were trying to stop Traditionalists from deceiving even a greater number of souls than they already had deceived. They were the ones who were using the emergency and epikeia principles then (as well as now) and were citing “necessity knows no law,” a rule of Canon Law, claiming emergency principles applied to them. It was my understanding that the only true emergency requiring such action was the vacancy of the Holy See, NOT the “need” for Mass and Sacraments, and judging from the laws and practice of the Church in swiftly providing a pope during an interregnum, this seemed to be the case.
But sufficient research was not conducted to prove whether or not a layman with no hope of becoming a priest or bishop could be elected. It appeared from the books we did have at that time that he could. Later, after the election, other information was found stating he could not. But this was all a matter of theological opinion and so was never formally decided upon, which at the time did not forbid us to act, or so we believed. There was an address by Pope Pius XII on the matter which stated that a layman could be elected but could not accept the election (validly become pope) unless he was “fit for ordination and willing to be ordained.” The only way this could happen was if those electing (and they could not be laypeople) were able to take a fine-tooth comb through his background and follow the norms given by the Holy See that qualify men to become priests.
I was told that the address from Pope Pius XII was not binding because it was not an infallible document, but only ecclesiastical law. Nothing in the copy of the address I had indicated it was an infallible document. And remember, then there was no Internet yet. The rules for electing a pope in an emergency — and they were difficult to find and very few in number — stated that the laws for electing a pope could be changed according to a certain canonical formula prescribed by Canon Law because they were only ecclesiastical laws. This led me to review the last law written by Pope Pius XII on papal elections, Vacantis Apostolicae Sedis.
This law did show that Pius XII declared NO ONE, not even the cardinals, could usurp papal jurisdiction, change the laws or violate the rights of the Church, and this he declared by his supreme authority, meaning that this part of the law, at least, was infallible. I reasoned that we were following the rules of Canon Law, not breaking them as Traditionalists were. I also did not understand that by positing an election we were violating the papal and Council of Trent law that prohibits laity from electing, because as I understood the law, they could elect only in emergencies and we were acting in an emergency. I believed, as taught by the man “elected,” that this was obedience to the “higher law” that demanded the Church must have a pope to even exist.
Prior to the election, this man, David Bawden, said the null and void part contained in the law and given by Pius XII’s Supreme Authority that prohibited anyone from acting could not apply in our situation. This was because there were no longer any faithful cardinals or even available bishops. He reasoned that Pius XII would never have wished his law to stop the election of a pope regardless, because it would violate all other Church law and cited the “higher law” principle. What stood in the way was the part about lay people electing a layman, something never before done in the Church. According to theologians we consulted then it seemed possible, and there are documents with the imprimatur stating that lay people can actually elect a pope and have done so in the past. We saw the need to do so as very great since so many were being misled by Traditionalists, who were breaking the law right and left and recruiting more and more people into their non-Catholic sects.
The answer, although I did not know it then, lay in the address given by Pope Pius XII in 1957. At the time I wrote the book promoting the election, I didn’t realize that even addresses of the pope could contain binding statements. And I had no indication from the copy of the papal address I had that that it CONTAINED a binding statement. In continuing my studies after I left the “pope,” I discovered that even a papal address can contain an infallible statement and I learned how a statement can be determined to be issued with the authority of the ordinary magisterium. When I wrote the book, I didn’t understand how to determine this. In fact most Traditionalists ignored the binding nature of the ordinary magisterium altogether, accepting only statements issuing from the extraordinary magisterium (ex cathedra) as truly infallible; to the ordinary magisterium they attributed a lesser authority which excluded strict acceptance and obedience. Afterwards I would learn that anything coming from the ordinary magisterium likewise bound Catholics, and this could be determined by whether or not such a document was contained in something called the Acta Apostolica Sedis.
We know this because Pope Pius XII tells us in Humani Generis that, “20. Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: ‘He who heareth you, heareth me;’”and “generally what is expounded and inculcated in Encyclical Letters already for other reasons appertains to Catholic doctrine. But if the Supreme Pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute, it is obvious that that matter, according to the mind and will of the same Pontiffs, cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion among theologians…”
The pertinent part here is “official documents.” Canon 9 tells us that “The official organ of the Holy See [is] the Acta Apostolica Sedis.” Msgr. Joseph C. Fenton, an American theologian personally commended by Pope Pius XII, wrote about Humani Generis that whatever is found in the Acta is considered as issuing from the ordinary magisterium. Imagine our surprise, several years back to learn that Six ans se sont, Pius XII’s 1957 papal address, was listed in the Acta. Because before that we had discovered that the reason Pope Pius XII gave this address was to clear up confusion concerning the very thing that had stumped us in the beginning: is a layman elected pope able to obtain jurisdiction immediately on election? Pope Pius XII was answering the teaching of a French priest named Yves Congar in his address, who had written a book, Lay People in the Church, (published in France in the early 1950s) that had gained popularity over the years owing to the liturgical and lay autonomy movements.
Pope Pius XII felt it necessary to clarify what Congar wrote when this book was translated into English in 1956. Congar stated that “A layman, by the fact of his election and before any ordination, would have supreme jurisdiction and authority in the Church,” and given the tenor of the rest of Congar’s work, Pope Pius XII wished to clarify this statement. That is why he wrote in his address that only if such a layman could be determined “fit for ordination” and was “willing to be ordained” could he even ACCEPT papal election. Given Pope Pius XII’s teaching in Humani Generis, we can see that this statement was intended to end a dispute in the Church concerning the election of a layman to the papacy. Because this address is listed in the Acta, we know this.
When this was brought to Bawden’s attention, he denied this could be the case and stated publicly that no one had the right to examine his qualifications for ordination prior to election, in direct contradiction to Pope Pius XII’s decision on the matter. He had been eventually dismissed from an St. Pius X Society (SSPX), seminary and (falsely) claimed he was dismissed without cause. But it was the general rule in pre-1959 Catholic seminaries, as well as in the rule book for the SSPX , that seminarians could be dismissed for any reason during the first two years of their studies, and Bawedn was released after 18 months. Being that this seminary was run by non-Catholics and its bishop was a proven heretic, those “electing” him did not think this mattered much. Later we learned that there was indeed more to his seminary dismissal then he was letting on. This fact and the need for priestly examination and qualification before the acceptance of election were the reasons I left him. Only later would I discover that the laity could never validly elect a pope to begin with, per teachings of the Council of Trent and Pope Pius XII’s Vacantis Apostolicae Sedis.
Q. Didn’t anything this man said or did tip you off to his unsuitability for the papacy?
A. As explained above, I thought I knew him well enough to judge his character but this was not the case. He seemed very sincere at the time and insisted that it was because of his former affiliation with the SSPX that he had been vilified by his former associates and his character impugned. He seemed zealous only to uphold papal supremacy concerning jurisdiction and to combat Traditionalists who did not abide by Canon Law concerning the restrictions on jurisdiction that forbid them to function. I believed he was knowledgeable in Canon Law and did not realize then that he was actually promoting himself for the papal position, (later hinted at in a letter he circulated to several friends in the early 1980s), even though he realized that he had been previously excommunicated for his participation in the SSPX (I have the document where he admits this). He also was investigating other “papal” avenues. Once he was “elected” we were bound by “obedience” and I was terrified to leave for fear I would be a schismatic and he would excommunicate me. He did attempt to excommunicate me as a “vitandus” but only after I already had confessed that by participating in the false election I had ipso facto excommunicated myself. I made the final decision to leave after discovering a probable opinion backed by theologians that absolves anyone of schism who, for serious reasons, leaves one they think is a false pope.
Q. So what did you do once you left him? How did you rebuild your life and faith?
A. It wasn’t easy. I had told him if he did not recant his heresies I would take the whole thing to the Internet and expose him, and that is what I was obligated under Canon Law to do. He refused to admit any wrongdoing and falsified the faith many times over in defending himself. He made many false statements about me and his other followers in the process. It was a tumultuous time but eventually I had said all I needed to say and focused on fighting the errors he promulgated, not him personally. By covering the same theological ground over and over again and extending my studies, but especially by seeing Canon Law only through the eyes of pre-1959 canonists and theologians, and not his particular interpretations of these laws, I was able to put the pieces back together and move on.
We had never really been any more than stay-at-home Catholics, so there was no transition to anything else. We simply continued to pray at home. He did not receive “ordination” or “consecration” from a non-Catholic bishop he “converted” until after all of us left, so we were never exposed to that, thankfully. In fact it was precisely his insistence that he could appeal to an Old Roman Catholic for valid and licit ordination (without any examination or investigation), when Pope St. Pius X had excommunicated Mathew Harris as a vitandus, that was the proverbial last straw. I came through this whole experience stronger in my faith than ever before and glad to have been forced to acknowledge my own errors and renounce them publicly, even though it was difficult. Eventually I built a new website, the one I have now, that exposes all the errors of both the Traditionalists and the phony imposter popes.