The SSPX and the Women Priests Movement: Two Sides of the Same Coin

In an earlier post, I noted the similar logic used by both the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) and the woman priest movement to justify why their ordinations and masses are valid (see here Upon further thinking about the matter, I realized that the two groups have much more in common, despite being on opposite ends of the ideological and liturgical spectrum.

Both the SSPX and the woman priest movement are protests against the status quo in the Catholic church. For the SSPX and its supporters, they are a “faithful remenent” that is staying true to the traditions of the pre-Vatican II Catholic church (or at least, their particular interpretation of pre-Vatican II Catholicism) in the face of unacceptable excess as a result of the Second Vatican Council. The woman priest movement sees the current status quo as intolerable as well, albeit for opposite reasons. For them, the problem is that Vatican II didn’t go far enough, particularly with regard to the role of women in the church. In response to their displeasure with what they perceive to be the illegitimate authority of the Vatican, both groups have taken it upon themselves to ordain their own priests and establish their own dissident communities. Neither the SSPX nor the women priests are going to wait around for the Vatican to change its mind on this or that issue; they’re going to make the changes themselves.

The response of the conservotrad blogosphere to the SSPX and the woman priests movement is quite revealing. The woman priests– and outspoken Catholic feminists in general — are treated as a joke, and there are a good deal of jokes about “women of a certain age” and sensible shoes, in addition to the jeers about the kind of aesthetics favored by the “Spirit of Vatican II” crowd (e.g., felt banners, the use of glass and clay bowls and chalices, non-traditional vestments). That many of the participants in women priest liturgies seem to skew older is interpreted by conservotrads as a sign that this movement is doomed to failure, especially in comparison to those “orthodox” Catholic communities that have lots of young families.

The SSPX are viewed very differently. The more ultramontane conservotrads have sympathy for the SSPX’s positions, especially on liturgy, but they don’t want to appear “unorthodox” by showing too much sympathy to a group with an irregular position vis a vis Rome. The more trad elements may give token support to the SSPX by buying materials from Angelus Press (the printing arms of the SSPX) or even go to the odd mass or two at an SSPX chapel, but are ultimately too conformist to papal authority to go full-on SSPX. Regardless of where conservotrad Catholics fall in the spectrum of their responses to the SSPX, they give the group a certain legitimacy by their furtive sympathy, perhaps because they think that the dissident group is helping to preserve Catholic tradition, albeit in an imperfect way. It’s like the “Lost Cause” ideology as applied to the Catholic church (convenient, since I’ve noticed a real sympathy with the Confederacy among the FSSP and SSPX crowds, as I’ve noted here: Furthermore, the presence of lots of children and families in SSPX chapels seems to indicate that the future of Catholicism will be conservotrad.

As one of those young people who used to count herself among the conservotrad numbers, I don’t think that the future of the church lies in these conservotrad communities. Based on my own experiences in the conservotrad world, both online and in meatspace, the group dynamics of these so-called communities is very closed and paranoid, especially the further and further right you go (see here for an example: One reason why there was so much drama at St F was because a sizable chunk of the parish thought that everyone else was a heretic and didn’t want to associate with them. St F was also in the middle of an area with a large Hispanic population and I could never figure out why there wasn’t more of an effort to bring them to St F. The reason, I believe, was because many of the parishioners liked being apart from the hoi polloi and didn’t want to run the risk of being “tainted” by contact with ordinary Catholics who might harbor heretical views (although to be fair, St F was pretty racially diverse, a UN of crazy, if you will). For all of their talk about “extra ecclesiam nulla salus,” most conservotrads aren’t interested in bringing other people into “the fullness of Truth,” so to speak.

As to the women priests, I don’t think there’s any mystery as to why it might seem that most of them and their supporters are older. The Boomers, the so-called “Greatest Generation,” and the so-called “Silent Generation” (i.e., those individuals who lived through the Great Depression but were too young to have participated in World War II) are the ones who directly experienced both the pre-Vatican II church and the anticipation that Vatican II was supposed to lead to big changes that never really happened. The possibility of the church that could have been is what motivates the women priest movement. Also, the people of this generation, especially the women, would have had firsthand experience of old school “Mad Men”-style sexism and don’t want to go back to those days. The survival of the all-male priesthood is a glaring reminder of the sexism of the past, present, and the foreseeable future.

I don’t know what the future of the Catholic church holds, but I don’t think it lies in the model offered by either the SSPX or the women priest movement. Despite its outsized Internet presence, the SSPX is pretty small compared vis a vis the mainstream church. I think I read that the total number of priests and lay sympathizers is around 500,000, which is okay for a small sect or denomination, but not if you’re claiming to be the real Holy Apostolic Roman Catholic church. Most people, Catholic or not, don’t even know they exist, except when they show up in the news for rejecting the Holocaust or for proclaiming their disapproval of female referees at boys’ sporting events.

It’s also worth noting that the worldwide trend in Christianity is towards Pentecostalism and Charismatic forms of the faith. I’ve heard trads dismissing Charismatic Catholics as “Charismaniacs” but like it or not, that’s going to be the face of the Catholic liturgy in the twenty-first century, not the Latin Mass. If inculturation hadn’t become a thing after Vatican II, I doubt that Catholicism would be spreading as quickly as it is in sub-Saharan African, for example. That the liturgical reforms of Vatican II happened with relatively little dissent indicates that the vast majority of Catholics really don’t care about the Latin Mass, and the only people seeking it out are people who hang their entire identities and spiritual lives on having access to it. If there appear to be a lot of children and young adults in SSPX communities, that’s because many of them have been raised in what amounts to a trad bubble where leaving isn’t an option. Like Protestant quiverfull adherents, the traditionalists plan to out-breed their enemies rather than convert them.

Similarly, with the rise of “the nones” and an assertive atheist movement, I think many young people who are dissatisfied with the Catholic church simply leave and don’t try to act as “angelic troublemakers” like the women priests do. Millenials don’t see a need to try and change an institution that is so entrenched in multilevel dysfunction. These disaffected young Catholics may still identify as Catholic or Christian in some idiosyncratic way, but they won’t give their money or their time to either the institutional church or a dissident group.

Since the average American Catholic (if we can even speak of such a thing) isn’t flocking to either the SSPX’s chapels or the women priest communities, the future of American Catholicism will probably hew a middle road between these two extremes, perhaps hoping that female ordination will happen some time in the future, but tacitly accepting the all-male priesthood in the present. The average pew sitter is not terribly interested in the theological and historical nuances that get hashed out online, but in more immediate concerns like are the parishioners nice, is the parish near my house, are there good activities for the kids, etc. As long as their local parish fulfills their emotional needs, Vatican politics and pronouncements are irrelevant. So the future of the Catholic church lies in the happiness of “the middle,” rather than in concerns of the fringe.