Decline of the SSPX

By 1980 or so Archbishop Lefebrve, much to his annoyance and despite all his protests to the contrary, had found himself the center of a very large movement. The movement was simply “We don’t want the changes of the 60’s and 70’s and want to return to something recognizably Catholic”.

It consisted of the following:

1. The “Untouchables”. Retired priests (like Frederick Schell), Priests outside diocesan authority (military and hospital chaplains like François Ducaud-Bourget), priests with universal indults (like canon lawyer Gregory Hesse), and others (like Malachi Martin) who did not want the changes and operated as they wished, unable to be disciplined.
2. The Resistance Within. Diocesan priests who read up on their canon law and exploited loopholes to prevent their bishops from forcing the “Novus Ordo” on them. They often operated in support networks and communicated with one another across dioceses to ensure the churches and congregations worked together. One such group in France was the start of what later became The Institute of Christ the King.
3. The Diocese of Campos, Brazil. The one diocese in the whole church where the bishop (Castro Meyer) refused any changes.
4. The SSPX. This acted as the “glue” that tied everyone else together while also providing new priests for the broad movement. Priests ordained at Econe would often be sent into dioceses (often in France with diocesan approval) to help out priests in Groups 1 and 2. Also, having the only truly independent bishop of the entire movement meant that the SSPX was bound to become the focal point of the movement.

It was a very “Big Tent” that covered anyone from sedevacantists to Michael Davies. The movement rarely disobeyed or confronted diocesan authority and more often bent or exploited the rules rather than outright breaking them and Lefebrve had become the spokesman and de facto leader.

To understand the $$PX as it is today, one must understand how the “Big Tent” unraveled.

The first “crack” were the sedevacantist elements that split in the 1980’s (the most notable where the “Nazgul” as I call them: 9 American SSPX priests who left to form the SSPV). However, that was seen by the rest as necessary housecleaning to get rid of the extremists and radicals. The numbers of this group were too insignificant to attract major attention.

The real breaking of the “Big Tent” came at the Econe consecrations in 1988. Some members of Group 2 along with a few members of the SSPX and some laypeople (like Michael Davies) distanced themselves from the SSPX. Groups 1 and 3, however, stood fast with Lefebrve and – after he died – his successors (Group 1 died out when its priests passed on; it practically doesn’t exist anymore).

Whether or not one agrees with Lefebrve’s action in 1988, the message the Cardinals in Rome took is beyond dispute:

1. The Traditionalists will disobey and continue to cause trouble for us if we do not meet their demands.
2. Many among them want to be under normal jurisdiction, if we just give them the opportunity.

Although many new “indults” started up and the FSSP/ICKSS were recognized as a result (the diocese of Campos was even reconciled in the late 90’s under Bishop Rifan), many bishops (like Mahoney and Grahmann) continued to try to force the “renewal” on their unfortunate congregations. Catholics who lived in exceptionally bad dioceses sought refuge in the SSPX to avoid Children’s Masses, sex scandals, badly done or invalid Masses, Gay priests, financial corruption, and a host of other issues. This ensured that the SSPX would remain an ulcer in the side of many bishops, since most were not as smart as Bruskewitz (“I’ll give you as many Latin Masses as you need, but I’ll excommunicate you along with abortionists and Freemasons if you go SSPX in my diocese”)

Meanwhile, within the SSPX, problems were already brewing.  Factions emerged among them.

1. Those who did not trust Rome, but realized the SSPX could only be a temporary solution until an agreement could be reached. Since this comprised most of the leadership (including Fellay), the SSPX “stayed the course”, watching and waiting all throughout the 90’s and 00’s until Ratzinger became pope.
2. A large minority who had begun to see themselves as “belonging to” the SSPX. They began to put Lefebrve on a saintly pedestal and considered themselves as the followers of the dead Archbishop more than they did observant Catholics.   Williamson was the center and leader of his faction.
3. The refugees. These people cared little about the SSPX internal politics, their canonical status, or anything but the sacraments. To them the SSPX was a safe haven where one could escape from a scandal-ridden diocese and not have to worry about the sacraments. However, many of them would leave the $$PX in time.

Here, I will digress and talk about Williamson.

Richard Wiliamson seems to have been picked by Lefebrve in 1988 because the Archbishop wanted a native English-speaker (even though Tissiere de Mallerais speaks very passable English) and he had no other options. By the late 90’s Williamson had become a polarizing figure within the Society. His imprudent statements, his very odd views, and his erratic behavior had both rubbed most within the Society the wrong way and earned him a cult of personality (that he wrote a 1997 article on why ‘The Sound of Music’ is evil and modernist is all you need to know). To add to the mess, Williamson personally handled $$PX vocations in the English speaking countries (as if Catholicism in those countries didn’t have enough problems). He became a pariah with a fanatically devoted cult.

The society had been losing some congregants as radical priests (like the very nasty Fr. Peter Scott, who severely ruined American $$PX until he was sent back to his native Australia) drove them off. The priest attrition rate also rose until it hit the approximate 50% it is today. The FSSP, ICKSS, indults, and even some of the Eastern Catholic Churches were begin to see the exiles trickle in. It was only a trickle, but a steady trickle nonetheless as SSPX infighting forced many alienated laypersons to find a better home.

It wasn’t until Summorum Pontificum that everything changed. After the decree, the number of indults doubled and the Ecclesia Dei groups received more invitations from dioceses. As this occurred, the refugees within the SSPX departed and settled in more “licit” territory.

This, however, gave Williamson and his clique a larger proportional voice in the society. There are many reasons Benedict’s negotiations broke down, but I personally think they would have continued had it not been for the shenanigans and antics of the mad Englishman and his followers.

By this point, the $$PX had dwindled in numbers to where there were only two factions left: the “Fellay-ites” who believed the SSPX is the great voice of tradition and needs to resist modernism while also seeking a reconciliation with Rome, and the “Williamson-ite” schismatics who refused to consider talking with Rome. I have heard complaints from some people I know still within the $$PX that Fellay is “purging” those who oppose talks with “neo-Protestant Rome” and is “acting like a dictator”.

Good for him, I say! It’s a purge that should have happened years ago.

Eventually the “Re$i$tance” or whatever the Williamson-ites call themselves will fade into irrelevancy and go the way of the sedevacantists and the conclavists. Perhaps then, when the remainder of the SSPX can look Rome in the eye and say “We finally got rid of the loonies”, Fellay and whoever is still left will find a place where they can serve God’s church more fully.

I hear the German Church needs some fixing!

Forthcoming: An overall view of the Syrian Rite.

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7 thoughts on “Decline of the SSPX

    • That, like the question of the date of schism with the Byzantine Orthodox, is a tricky question with no easy answer. I would say sometime between 1988 and 2000, with some localities spinning off faster than others. A hint of where the SSPX weak points were is to look at the Re$i$tance and where most of the priests in it are from. Also take note of the nationality of all the Nazgul.

      In France – from what I’ve seen in my limited capacity – the SSPX appears to still hearken back to true tradition in a living and breathing way. In the United States it is simply strutting around the corpse of 1950’s puritanical cartoon American Catholicism (I might need to do an in-depth post on this topic at some point, having grown up in it).

      The easiest way to demonstrate this is with these two videos. They both are of an SSPX Mass around the consecration., but two very different types of Masses are being said here. The latter was my upbringing.

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      • The last video actually reminds me the two times I attended their Masses last year in Madrid. They have an undergraund chapel – whose wooden Altar atrezzo is pretty similar to that shown in the video. They have 5 priests there, but never celebrate High Masses; during the Liturgy the Proper is never sung, and the atmosphere was…

        You say that “In the United States it is simply strutting around the corpse of 1950’s puritanical cartoon American Catholicism”. As far as I know the Spanish situation, it is very similar: more than a true love for long-term-Tradition (what is that? did the blessed Pius IX and XII ever talked of it??), I can see a deep nostalgia for the “golden” 1940s under Franco’s government, with its Low Mass culture, devotionalism, and Cursillos de Cristiandad.

        Can there be a true restoration of the traditional Orthodoxy (both -pistis and -praxis) with these folks?

        K. e.

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      • In other words, Spanish Catholicism is highly devotionalistic? From my experience with Mexican Catholicism, this makes sense.

        The American variety – I think – might be the worst. This nation has no Catholic history or culture to look back on (all jingoistic pretenses to the contrary notwithstanding). At least Spain at some point had the faith. Here, the Catholics have always aped the conservative Protestants (The Banished Heart had an entire chapter devoted to the Pax Americana).

        To summarize, these particular people will continue to live in their little fantasy land repeating the (unapproved) dark prophecies of La Salette in their bunkers, doing the Sacred Heart and Immaculate Heart devotions, and praying (counted) rosaries for the Fatimist conversion of Russia. Their necks will be adorned with fifty scapulars of varying color and various other trinkets. They will dress like they are still in the 1950’s. The Mass is just there for them to receive communion and nothing more.

        They are beyond any human intervention.

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  1. More than devotionalistic. If there was acceptance of all liturgical changes in Spain, it was partly because they did not touch Holy Week and other processions. You are right about the defferences between Spanish and North American background; even so, I would not idealize the former: remember that Sacred Heart devotion spread from here; and our XVI c. Neoscholastic was almost as rationalistic and as papolatrical as XIX Ultramontanism.

    Yes, it is true that they live in an illusion of a future return to the 50s. The Mass is just there for them to receive communion and nothing more. Although this is, from my point of view, absolutely right – and it is more or less the same for FSSP and ICRSS faithful -, it strikes me in why they have not still accepted the NO, since for these groups the Mass (not the Liturgy) is a mere banner, a covering for other purposes.

    And even the first video stroke me the first time I saw it. Since they have lots of servers, and seemengly enough clergy, why don’t celebrating a High Mass?

    K. e.

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    • I think that’s the key difference between French Catholicism (where the traditionalist movement started) and USA/England/Spain. If you told a French Catholic that the Church was doing well in the 1950’s, I’d imagine he would laugh in your face.

      About the first video… In the United States that IS considered a High Mass. A Low Mass here as no choir, two altar servers, no sound except the mumbled prayers of the priest and the two little boys, and the sermon takes almost as much time as the real Mass. Masses with Deacons/Subdeacons are extremely rare.

      Both Mexican and American Catholicism derive their problems from the “old country”. Mexican Catholicism is everything wrong with Spanish but amplified into a cartoon parody with a lot of odd and almost pagan native customs and superstitions thrown in (a friend of mine once remarked, “It is an odd devotionalism when a young girl in a tank top and short shorts is in a church with a full mantilla and walks backwards to never turn her back to the altar”). All that was good in Mexican Catholicism died with the Cristeros.

      American Catholicism derives from the Irish (the inventors of the 25 minute Low Mass). Throw in some American conservative Protestant ideas with Irish praxis and you have American traditionalism in a nutshell.

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      • If you are anywhere near the FSSP seminary, Solemn High Masses (with deacon and subdeacon) are common in their parishes. The ICKSP parishes I’ve ever visted (St. Louis and KCK) seem to have done Solemn HIgh’s at the drop of a hat. That said, I agree in general with the criticism leveled against American “Traditionalism”. Too many Little House on the Prairie skirts and weirdness. I go for the liturgy, I don’t care how the people are or aren’t.

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