Magazine article The Spectator

Cult Classic - Damian Thompson

Magazine article The Spectator

Cult Classic - Damian Thompson

Article excerpt

The truth about the Palmarian Catholic church is stranger than Dan Brown's fiction

In Dan Brown's new thriller, Origin, we are introduced to the Catholic church's sinister far-right rival -- a paranoid worldwide cult dedicated to undermining the reforms of Pope Francis.

This toxic outfit has its own pope, who runs it from his 'Vatican' at El Palmar de Troya, on the Andalusian plain; hence its name, the Palmarian Catholic church. Brown describes a 'soaring Gothic cathedral' dominated by 'eight towering spires, each with a triple-tiered bell tower'. Inside, members are required to attend interminable masses and pray to hundreds of freshly created saints, including St Adolf Hitler.

Origin is a clumsily fashioned thriller, even by Brown's standards, and you might imagine that he invented the Palmarian church. But it's real. Not only does it have a pope -- Peter III, the fourth pontiff since the church separated from Rome in 1978 -- but the cathedral at El Palmar de Troya is much as he describes it.

The ceremonies are indeed lavish and the vestments gorgeous. According to Professor Magnus Lundberg of Uppsala University, whose book A Pope of their Own is the only authoritative study of the Palmarians, at the height of the church's fortunes its many cardinals and bishops 'kept some of the finest jewellers and embroiderers in Andalusia busy for years'.

This isn't to say that Brown tells the truth about the Palmarians. They haven't canonised Hitler. Franco is more their cup of tea. In 2014, a statue of 'St Francisco Franco' appeared outside their basilica, but had to be removed because monuments to the Generalissimo are illegal in Spain.

Their creepiness, however, is not in doubt. On YouTube you can find a video of the first Palmarian pope, Gregory XVII, who died in 2005, experiencing a vision in 2001. He kneels, bowing on the floor of his basilica, surrounded by prelates in towering mitres, some of whom are strikingly handsome young men. When he lifts his chubby face to heaven you see he has no eyeballs.

Pope Gregory, previously an insurance broker from Seville called Clemente Domínguez y Gómez, lost his eyes in a car accident in 1976. Ironically, at the time he had made himself 'principal seer' for a group of Spanish schoolgirls who claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary near El Palmar de Troya in 1978, though they disowned him. That same year, he began styling himself a bishop of the Catholic church -- a claim easy to dismiss but for one inconvenient detail. Two years earlier, before his accident, he had been ordained bishop by the Roman Catholic Archbishop Ngo Dinh Thuc, older brother of the assassinated President Diem of South Vietnam.

During the 20th century there were hundreds of small quasi-Catholic denominations run by episcopi vagantes or 'wandering bishops'. Unlike Gregory, these self-styled prelates, many of them English, had nothing resembling a basilica. They had to make do with a disused chapel or, failing that, their living room. Space was always a problem: it's hard to carry off a 50ft purple cape if it keeps getting tangled up with the coffee table.

These episcopi vagantes could produce complicated pedigrees 'proving' that they were Catholic bishops because their orders derived from a valid source -- for example, the 'Old Catholic' see of Utrecht, which broke from Rome in the 18th century. …

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