[Editor’s note (18 September 2021): Last night I came into contact with a former member of the Holy Family Chapel in Agoura Hills, who, under the condition of anonymity, provided more information regarding the chapel and its doctrinal positions.]

Controversy continues to surround Fr. James Altman, a priest of the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin. On Saturday, Fr. Altman was in Chicago to participate in a “Rally and Rosary of Reparation” sponsored by the Coalition for Canceled Priests (CFCP). The organization was founded by Fr. John Lovell, a priest from the Diocese of Rockford, Illinois, who was removed from active ministry by Bishop David Malloy in 2012. The Coalition is dedicated “to spiritually and materially supporting faithful priests who seek to return to active ministry after being unjustly canceled by their bishops.”

Fr. Altman made a splash onto the national scene in August of 2020 with a video wherein he famously declared “You can’t be a Catholic and a Democrat.” Altman has since been in high demand for speaking and public appearances.

Altman’s Bishop, William Callahan, OFM, Conv., attempted to discipline Altman, beginning in late 2020. These efforts, however, were to no avail, forcing Callahan to remove Altman on July 9, 2021, as pastor of St. James the Less parish in La Crosse.

Bishop Callahan’s removal of Altman as pastor spurred an outcry among many Catholics who see him as a courageous truth-teller in a time when they believe the Church is filled with cowardly bishops, moral laxity, and a decrease in religious liberty. Since he was removed from public ministry, Fr. Altman has largely ignored Callahan’s restrictions and has continued to speak out publicly, often referring to his bishop as “William” during his frequent rants on internet videos.

At the Saturday event, he went even further, referring to Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich as “Blase” and to Pope Francis as “Jorge Bergoglio,” the pontiff’s given name, saying Francis was “no longer Vicar of Christ, he threw out that title.”* His open antipathy towards the pope and the bishops has been growing, but he’s far from the only Catholic figure who has become more radicalized in recent years.

Joining him was a lineup of speakers including InfoWars fill-in host Jason Jones, former USCCB public affairs director Judy Keane, Catholic podcaster David L. Gray, and anonymous blogger “One Mad Mom.” Fr. Altman was the final on-stage speaker, and he introduced Hollywood star Mel Gibson who addressed the rally via a recorded cell phone message. Fr. Altman described Gibson as “a really cool guy” and “a true and faithful son of the one true Church.”

Here is a transcript of Gibson’s remarks:

“Hi there in Chicago, Mel here. The voice crying out from the wilderness of Malibu to lend that voice to your support and encouragement at your rally today for the Coalition for Canceled Priests. It is not hard to believe that there is now such a thing, as personally I’ve known many priests who have been canceled.

But not for the reasons you’d think. It’s not like they did a hit-and-run drive and left the scene of the crime, or embezzled church funds, stole the altar wine, or committed some other heinous crime. No, not at all.

And who’s persecuting them? Well, their own bishops. How’s that?

Yep. Who are they? Well, a pack of men who generally, passively sit by and tolerate any kind of nonsense. But if one of their priests utters something that resembles orthodoxy, well then they spring into action, they reprimand him and they bully him and do their best to cancel him. And succeed, they drum him out of the service. Off he goes.

I’m really sorry about that. That’s a great injustice, and it’s kind of white martyrdom. And it’s nothing new. It really isn’t. It’s nothing new.

And it’s a symptom. It’s a symptom of a very deep sickness that afflicts the Church. It did not happen overnight.

Um, if anyone’s familiar with the missives of Archbishop Vigano, he says that the seeds of erosion of the Church were sown with the reforms of Vatican II. And I agree with him, he suggests even that we scrap the whole thing and go back and do it the way it was before. It was a pastoral council after all.

There was nothing wrong. It didn’t need to be fixed. They were doing pretty well at any rate. And, you know, I’ve had my own run-in with the bishops. I mean who are they—well they’re… I remember when I directed The Passion, I went to the USCCB to get support for the film, and those men couldn’t get away from me fast enough. And all but a few of them turned their back on me, and it was pretty telling about who they were—a pretty insipid bunch. And, uh, it doesn’t look like anything’s changed.

I remember back in the seventies, old priests, good priests, who were bullied and persecuted by their bishops, there was a rash of it back then also. And it was because they wanted to maintain what it was that they were ordained to do. They didn’t want to go along with the new liturgy and the reforms

They didn’t want to go along with the new liturgy and the reforms at Vatican II. And so that they were really heavily leaned on—it was never abrogated, the old Mass, never. Still hasn’t been. You can’t, it’s protected by Quo Primum. But they were bullied and badgered and put in insane asylums.

You know, it was pretty sad to watch. And, uh, this kind of thing is now happening again.

And how are we supposed to know the good guys from the bad guys? Well, we were given a standard by which to judge them: by their fruits. You’ll know them. By their fruits, anybody see any good fruit lately? And look, I’m a pretty sinful guy. I mean, I’m as venal as the next guy, but I know the difference between a shepherd and a hireling.

And I think that the vast majority of these bishops are just a bunch of hirelings.

And my question is, who’s hiring them. I don’t think it’s Jesus. Is it Francis? Who’s hiring Francis? Is it, is it Pachamama? I mean, I think you need to look at the whole institution, and you know, I’ll quote Archbishop Viganò again in saying that he believes that there was a parallel counterfeit church set up to eclipse the real one.

He’s suggesting usurpation or an inside job. Seems that way.

Anyway. Of course we know the gates of hell will not prevail against it. The victory is God’s, not ours, and it will flourish, if we keep it in our hearts. It can flourish in our hearts and keep the faith. And that’s what’s going to happen. That’s what I encourage you to do again. I’m sorry for you, your pain and injustice.

Um I’ll definitely throw something in the hat to add my support, and God keep you and God bless you. Thank You.”

There are a few significant things to note here, but due to space constraints I will only comment on three of them.

The first is the most trivial. Gibson said, “I’ve had my own run-in with the bishops. I mean who are they—well they’re… I remember when I directed The Passion, I went to the USCCB to get support for the film, and those men couldn’t get away from me fast enough. And all but a few of them turned their back on me, and it was pretty telling about who they were—a pretty insipid bunch.”

As many of you know, I was a USCCB employee for seven years, beginning in 2010, and one of the legendary stories that the veteran staffers told was about “the time Mel Gibson was here.” Gibson’s description above wasn’t at all how I heard the story (and I heard it many times from multiple coworkers). After watching this clip I reached out to several of my old colleagues who worked for the conference at the time to ask them what they recalled of the visit. They confirmed what I remember being told.

The consensus version of the story was that the visit was very discreet and very quick. Despite what some may imagine, 90% of the time, there isn’t a single bishop in the building. That was the case when Gibson arrived as well. He was definitely there—the Conference’s longtime receptionist had her picture taken with him and she kept it at the front desk. Several of the administrative and maintenance staff saw him and perhaps briefly said hello. They commented that he was not tall and not well dressed.

Apparently Gibson was very unhappy with the bishops’ Catholic News Service (CNS) review of The Passion. Additionally, the veteran Rome correspondent for CNS, Cindy Wooden, reported that papal secretary Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz denied reports that Pope John Paul II expressed approval of the film, and—contradicting a popular rumor—said the pontiff did not describe its accuracy with the words, “It is as it was.”

Despite a strong and successful marketing campaign with Evangelical churches and other Christian communities, Gibson had not made great inroads with the US Catholic Church in his attempts to promote the film. The seeming endorsement from John Paul, however, very likely gave a boost to the film’s credibility, so to have that rumor denied by the bishops’ news service was likely not well-received.

So—the story goes—he entered the building without fanfare, was spotted by a few employees, met with the general secretary and perhaps a few other officials, and took a few pictures with employees in front of the building before leaving. What they spoke about in the meeting is unknown. But no one I spoke to recalls a single bishop being there at the time. Not only were the bishops an “insipid bunch,” but they were also apparently invisible.

The second matter of interest is Gibson’s theology. His rejection of the Second Vatican Council is not something he recently acquired. His father, the late Hutton Gibson, was a prominent and early sedevacantist—that is, someone who believes that every pope since the death of Pope Pius XII is an antipope. Sedevacantists also believe that Vatican II was heretical and that many of the reformed liturgical rites—including Holy Orders and the Mass­—are invalid.

Hutton Gibson, who died in 2020 at the age of 101, is an interesting character himself (and perhaps I’ll dig more deeply into his life and beliefs in the future). A Harvard graduate and a 5-time Jeopardy champion (during the Art Fleming era), he was also a very outspoken conspiracy theorist: he had alternative theories about 9/11, denied the Holocaust, believed Vatican II was infiltrated by communists, and thought the “Vatican II Church” was a counter-church.

His son Mel, by speaking in solidarity with Archbishop Viganò against the Council, seems to be engaging in an unusual sort of ecumenism with disgruntled traditionalist and conservative Catholics. He’s never been as open about his sedevacantism as his father, but make no mistake, he is an active participant in the sedevacantist community.

Though rejecting Vatican II, Gibson wishes to ensure access to the Sacraments. He built a private church in the Los Angeles suburb of Agoura Hills, California, The Church of the Holy Family. It serves disaffected Catholics who, like Gibson, reject Vatican II. This church is not recognized by the local Roman Catholic Archdiocese.†

As a private chapel tucked into the hills of Southern California behind a locked gate, information on the specific beliefs espoused by the church was difficult to come by. A former parishioner reached out to me last night and confirmed that the theological position of the chapel is sedevacantism, meaning they believe the Catholic Church has been without a pope since 1958 and that Vatican II that priests and bishops ordained according to the reformed rites have invalid orders. He also revealed that the chapel is served by an elderly priest who is flown in from another location every week.‡

One last point on this subject is that Gibson mentions Quo Primum in the video. This is a popular talking point among radical traditionalists who reject the Vatican II liturgy. Quo Primum was the 1570 liturgy document by Pope St. Pius V that standardized the Roman Rite following the Council of Trent. It is very common for sedevacantists to argue that this document prohibited popes from ever reforming the Roman Rite in the future, and the reform of the liturgy is “proof” that the Council and recent popes are false and heretical. (For a straightforward summary and rebuttal of that debate, click here.)

But if Mel Gibson is a sedevacantist, then what’s he doing hanging around with (and even supporting) men he likely considers invalid modernist priests?

That’s the third item of interest and where things get interesting. Fr. Altman and Gibson seem to have struck up a relationship that is both personal and spiritual. But is Altman the only one?

There appears to be more to this story.

Mel Gibson associates with bishops that he considers to be validly ordained—those who were not ordained under the 1968 revised rite of ordination following Vatican II. Gibson was associated with retired Mexican Archbishop Emeritus Carlos Quintero Arce, who was consecrated a bishop prior to Vatican II in 1961.

Archbishop Quintero Arce died in 2016. Gibson has since apparently taken interest in 98-year-old Bishop Rene Gracida, emeritus of Corpus Christi.

Bishop Gracida holds similar views to Gibson’s. Gracida has publicly stated that he believes Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI to be the true pope and not Francis. Such a bold public declaration from a bishop would attract people with the beliefs of Gibson.

Gracida and Gibson’s acquaintance has been public knowledge since at least June of 2020. The pair appeared together at Cavaleri’s Kitchen in Sinton, TX. Word of their meeting made it to local news outlet Kris 6 News Corpus Christi. The European news organization GloriaTV also reported on the Gracida/Gibson meeting.

In February of this year, Gracida added a new page on his blog Abyssum that was entitled I Was Ordained a Bishop Using a Pre-Vatican II Rite of Ordination. (Interestingly the post has since been truncated.) Gracida claims that he knows with “certainty that I was ordained Auxiliary Bishop of Miami on January 25, 1972, with an earlier edition of the Pontificale Romanum that was still in use in the Cathedral of Saint Mary in Miami and not the 1969 Edition of the Bugnini Pontificale.”

Another priest with ties to Gibson is Fr. David Nix of the Archdiocese of Denver, known for his social media presence between catechetical instruction videos and interviews. He posted the following post on his website Padre Peregrino on February 8, 2021: “a Catholic filmmaker invited several of us priests out for a super-charging retreat to his place in California.” Nix provided a photo with the caption, “Mel Gibson, myself and Fr. Jim Altman spent four days in Southern California at Mel’s place with a few other priests in January 2021.”

Nix re-posted the same photo on his Twitter feed on April 24, stating in another tweet on the same day that the photo was from “earlier this year” and published because Nix “only more recently got permission to share” it. After visiting Gibson, Nix also visited with the popular social media influencer Taylor Marshall in Dallas, Texas.

Ideologically, Fr. Nix seems to fit right in with this group. He has praised Bishop Gracida as “a great hero of mine for publicly questioning the valid resignation of Pope Benedict XVI.” And like Fr. Altman, he’s denounced the Covid vaccine and advance conspiracy theories about the pandemic.

It seems odd that clergymen ostensibly in communion with their local bishops and Pope Francis would take part in a “super-charging retreat” at a sedevacantist church with a Hollywood celebrity who presumably believes they aren’t really priests. It’s also unusual for a Catholic bishop to make a public declaration about the specific version of the rite used during his episcopal consecration nearly 50 years ago unless he plans to do something with that information.

How it all adds up is unclear. But there is something strange going on. I imagine we haven’t heard the last of this.

* Update 9/16/21: This was apparently a reference to the revision to the Pontifical yearbook, where the title “Vicar of Christ” (as well as the other historical titles of the the pope) were moved further down the page than they had been the previous year. Pope Francis did not renounce the title. Dave Armstrong and theologian Robert Fastiggi addressed the issue here.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly linked to the website of Holy Family Traditional Catholic Church in Melbourne, Florida. 

‡ CORRECTION AND UPDATE 09-18-21 1:39PM ET: On September 13, I added information from the Traditional Mass directory regarding the priest who, according to the Traditional Catholic Directory, serves the Holy Family Chapel in Agoura Hills. Yesterday, through social media, I became acquainted with a former member of Mel Gibson’s Holy Family Chapel. They confirmed that the Directory was incorrect about the priest who serves the chapel, and also confirmed that the position of the chapel and its members is indeed sedevacantist.

Many readers have challenged the assertion that Mel Gibson is a sedevacantist, based upon a 2008 blog post by Taylor Marshall, who wrote, “I had a conversation with someone who recently met with Gibson to discuss this issue and Gibson seemed to grant that Benedict XVI is the pope but also that he is a faulty or defective pope. This would make him a sedeprivationist of sorts.” In a 2017 article for the Catholic Herald, Dan Hitchens explains that while sedevacantists altogether deny the legitimacy of the pope, sedeprivationists “hold a complex position about modern pontiffs being only ‘potentially’ pope.” Like sedevacantists, they consider the teachings of the post-1958 popes and Vatican II illegitimate, but believe that if a pope at some time in the future was to embrace the “true faith,” he would automatically become the legitimate pope.

Other readers have pointed to a photograph on Twitter of Gibson outside a Lebanese Melkite Catholic church in Ottawa that is in full communion with Pope Francis. Some have mentioned that besides Altman, Nix, and Gracida, Gibson is also known to associate with Catholic figures who are not known to be sedevacantists, including actors Eduardo Verástegui and Jim Caviezel, television host Raymond Arroyo, as well as Jesuit Fr. William Fulco and the now-laicized priest Jonathan Morris, both of whom served as advisors on The Passion of The Christ. My source believes that while Gibson has not publicly stated his beliefs, there is no reason to believe he is anything other than a sedevacantist. For one thing, Gibson has never denied it. Additionally, my source had never even heard the theory of sedeprivationism during their years as a member of the chapel.

For the above reasons, as well as other information that has come to my attention, I think it is reasonable to conclude that Mel Gibson, like his father, is a sedevacantist. Perhaps I will do a writeup in the future with this and the other information.

Image: Mel Gibson by Kim Davies. License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/kjd/2208831058/in/photostream/

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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