The SSPX is often referred to in the secular media as an “ultra-traditionalist” or “extremist” body. This risks exhausting the adjectives needed to describe the many groups who self-identify as Catholic. For one thing, the SSPX has itself been divided. Some members have decided that submission to Rome is a sine qua non, and formed societies that preserve traditional liturgy while reconciling with the Vatican. Others have left the SSPX, feeling that it has compromised too far with modernity.
The most recent case is the “SSPX Resistance”, which broke away when a Vatican deal seemed near under Benedict XVI. It is led by Bishop Richard Williamson, whose views on the Holocaust led him to be convicted of “incitement to hatred” by a German court. Bishop Williamson has consecrated two new bishops, confirming the Resistance’s separation from the SSPX.
The story of SSPX breakaway groups is, for critics of the SSPX, a cautionary tale about what happens when you separate from Rome. Not only have the new bodies themselves divided – the Society of St Pius V, for instance, had an internal schism a few years after leaving the SSPX – they have often ventured down the path of sedevacantism. For some ultra-traditionalists, there have been no genuine popes since Pius XII, since the rest, by teaching error, forfeited their office. Others, called sedeprivationists, hold a complex position about modern pontiffs being only “potentially” pope.
The blogger Fr John Hunwicke argues that these positions are overreactions to another error – the belief that whatever a pope says, even in interviews and letters, must be correct. While one group appears to think, “The pope always speaks with total authority – therefore, we must always agree with him about everything,” the other group thinks, “The pope always speaks with total authority – therefore, since he has been wrong, he can’t be pope.” Both errors, Fr Hunwicke writes, are “equally dangerous to souls”.
Sedevacantism’s best-known advocate is probably Hutton Gibson, though mostly because of his film-maker son. Mel Gibson’s own views are not clear – some have described him as a sedeprivationist – but he finances the Church of the Most Holy Family in California, where various ultra-traditionalists, some of them sedevacantists, worship.
What makes people adopt ultra-traditionalist positions? A frequent reason is a fear that the doctrine of “no salvation outside the Church” has been abandoned. One website, for instance, claims that the SSPX is heretical because its leader, Bishop Bernard Fellay, has supposedly said that “a Hindu in Tibet who has no knowledge of the Catholic Church” could, under some circumstances, go to heaven.
It’s often said that the internet enables extreme voices, and this is as true in the Church as anywhere. Rumours, speculation about private revelations and confident polemics can gain a large audience.
The site Novus Ordo Watch, whose Twitter account has more than 4,000 followers, specialises in invective – “So basically Bishop Fellay is thinking about jumping on the Titanic two hours after it hit the iceberg because the ticket is now free?” – and denouncing various prelates whose positions in the Church are, it thinks, invalid anyway. Looking too long at such websites gives an acute sense of claustrophobia.
At the furthest reaches of ultra-traditionalism is David Bawden, who calls himself “Pope Michael” and reigns from Kansas. He was elected by a conclave of six, including his parents.
A close observer of traditionalist movements says: “I’ve seen people go down a dangerous route when they become preoccupied with everything that’s wrong in the Church. Often they feel the crazier websites are the only ones identifying the problems. The remedy is not to get obsessed with the negative, but to look at what’s beautiful in tradition, the old devotions and the writings of the saints.”
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