Last week, I went to a planning session of a “Pizza and Politics” group at Boston University, where graduate students and professor talk about religion and politics over lunch. We did the usual introductions thing, and unsurprisingly, most of the other students listed Islam as their primary research interest. When my turn came around, I mentioned that I was interested in studying the Society of St. Pius X and the Catholic church’s response to modernity, particularly liberal democracy. Crickets from the others. I gave a quick and dirty explanation of the SSPX for the perplexed, but once again, it illustrated to me that outside of the Catholic blogosphere, nobody really knows or cares about the SSPX
Recently, I’ve been on a quest to get some hard, fast number on how large the SSPX milieu is (i.e., how many priests, seminarians, sister, lay supporters, etc.). According to this FAQ from the SSPX page, “The Society, as of 2013, has 575 priests in 65 countries, 119 brothers, and 215 seminarians in six international seminaries.”
To put this into context, the Jesuits, the largest Catholic men’s order in the world, has 18,000 members, despite the dramatic drop in membership that occurred post-Vatican II:
Here are some more detailed statistics from another section of the SSPX website:
A trickier question is that of how many lay supporters the SSPX has. Since the SSPX is a priestly organization by definition, it probably doesn’t keep statistics about how many people are attending its masses. A listing of the SSPX’s mass centers is here, but oddly enough, most of them don’t have websites:
While a couple of the centers have masses every day, most have “irregular hours,” with masses occurring several times a week, only on Sundays, twice a month, or once a month. I also noticed that most of the centers are in odd, out of the way places, like funeral parlors, hotels, or schools. If there were as many SSPX supporters as the traditionalist blogosphere would have us believe, presumably they would be able to buy their own churches, however modest. The fact that they don’t suggests that SSPX lay supporters are not particularly numerous.
This thread from 2008 on the “Traditional Catholic” section of the Catholic Answers Forum asks the same question, and the SSPX supporters responding to the OP dance around the question, and like many Internet conversations, quickly devolves into name calling:
The Wikipedia entry mentioned by one of the CAF members indicates that “various sources” put the number of SSPX supporters at about one million worldwide. Those “various sources” are all dead links to other traditionalist sources, like The Remnant and Renew America, both of which have an interest in inflating the number of SSPX supporters. But even if we assume this number is more or less correct, one million people really isn’t that much. For comparison, there are about 2.1 million Mennonites in the world, a number that includes more modern groups like the Mennonite Church USA, as well as separatist groups like the Amish. As much as the Amish try to separate from the world, almost everyone has a rough idea of who they are. The Quakers only have 360,000 members worldwide, but their impact on history and society has been immense, from the founding of Pennsylvania to their involvement in the abolitionist and civil rights movements to the work done by the Friends Service Committee. In comparison, what has the SSPX culture created other than a million tracts about why the “new mass” is evil and why women shouldn’t wear pants? The number of Mennonites and Quakers are both rather small, but both groups have made that work for them. In comparison, it’s hard to take the grandiose statements of the SSPX seriously, given how small and scattered they are.
I suppose many SSPX supporters see themselves as the “faithful remnant” spoken about in the New Testament, which is fine, but in terms of numbers that puts them on the level of the Amish. Because traditionalists still buy into clericalism and push their sons into seriously considering the priesthood, it shouldn’t be surprising that SSPX seminaries are fairly full. However, I think the SSPX has a glut of priests and not too many places to put them, since it doesn’t appear like there are hordes of SSPX supporters to create fully functioning parishes that could offer masses and sacraments seven days a week. It’s telling that the SSPX pages mention chapels and mass centers, rather than parishes, as this indicates that they don’t have enough lay supporters to create permanent churches in most locations. Hopefully, one day I’ll be able to do some formal research to pin down the exact number of SSPX supporters there are out there.