Brief Note on SSPX Troubles
There has been a noticeable amount of dissent breaking out at the margins of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) over the past year. Originally triggered by outlandish fears that the Society’s Superior General, Bishop Bernard Fellay, was on the verge of making a “pact with the devil” by selling out the SSPX to “modernist Rome, the naysaying has escalated since the ouster from the Society of Bishop Richard Williamson and the shifting of priests between the Society’s various churches. This latter concern — assuming it is a genuine one — rings strange to me given that the SSPX is, in a strong sense, a missionary venture. While I don’t have access to any firm statistics, it is my understanding that only a handful of SSPX parishes are large enough to house a full-time priest and that most priests in the Society (at least in the United States) minister to more than one parish and/or perform some other function in the SSPX in addition to typical priestly work. Even outside of the Society, moreover, priests are transferred to different parishes all of the time (albeit sometimes for frivolous, even scandalous, reasons). But there are also sound, pragmatic reasons for doing some. Sometimes certain priests don’t “gel” with their parishes. Others develop talents which lend themselves to a more fruitful ministry in other contexts. And perhaps, above all of these reasons, there is a concern that particularly talented or charismatic priests will form, intentionally or not, “cults of personality” that may tempt them to lose sight of who their superiors are within the Church structure. This temptation may be particularly acute in the context of a relatively small group such as the SSPX. There is already, for better or worse, a “standoffish” mentality within the SSPX — one that can quickly get out of hand as various sub-groups within the organization come to believe they are holding to a “purer” or “more traditional” iteration of the Catholic Faith than others. Not every well-intentioned, talented priest has the capacity to mitigate these risks and some, sadly, fall prey to them. One of the surest ways to keep mini-cults from forming is making sure no one priest is given so stable a home that he could, under the wrong circumstances, establish a “counter-church” or “counter-society” that rises and falls by his word rather than the concrete teachings of the Catholic Church.
Anyone who bothers to peer beyond the walls of the Catholic Church will surely have noticed this unfortunate phenomenon take root in other Christian confessions. The Orthodox Church — again, in the United States — has been plagued with these difficulties for decades. Without naming names, there are more than a handful of rather notorious parishes and priests who have established pet churches that function more as extensions of their will and (mis)understanding rather than as authentic outposts of the Orthodox Faith. The problem increases by an order of magnitude within the fractured realm of Protestantism. Charisma and individualism have always carried heft among them. One example that comes to mind from personal experience is the cult of Rob Bell, founder of Mars Hill Bible Church in my native city of Grand Rapids, MI and author of some rather — how shall I say — “questionable” books. The dangerousness of Bell’s centrality among the Mars Hill faithful was apparent to me the moment I walked through the door. The fact that he has leveraged his celebrity status into purporting to redefine (or discard) core tenets of the Christian Faith — ones generally shared by all of the various confessions — is confirmation of this dismal fact. Who does Bell answer to? And for that matter, who do the priests (and bishop) separated from the SSPX answer to? They have shed their ordained role as ministers of the Faith for the mantle of prophets.