The SSPX – when a church goes COVID cult

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UPDATE 12 June 2020 here [part 2].

As a clinical virologist involved in the fight against SARS coronavirus 2 in South Africa, I advised two Catholic groups in Cape Town on how to manage groups of people (at Mass and otherwise) during the local epidemic.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Cape Town shut down 12 days before the country shut down, and went online with video streams of congregation-less Masses.

Some in the Society of St Pius X (SSPX) congregation then advertised their chapel as the only Catholic church that was open, then crammed “very close to 100 people” into a chapel that seats 70-80 at most, and then, after being warned about the dangers of this action, the priest made plans to continue underground Mass throughout lock-down, recklessly disregarding the safety of the community.

SSPX chapel quarantine notice, 25 March 2020
SSPX chapel quarantine notice, 25 March 2020

I was disgusted.

The police intervened and issued a warning, and placed the chapel under police quarantine and police observation. It caused a stir in various Facebook discussions. Neighbours still suspect the priest is breaking the law and thereby putting lives at risk, but, as I write, there is no firm evidence. They’re watching.

The Easter Mass schedule certainly looks to me like it was designed for free time at most of the important times so that the various services could be held at various homes around Cape Town. Link here. [Internet Archive link here]

Email from the police to the priest, after speaking to the priest in person:

From: Pinelands SAPS
To: SSPX Chapel
Subject: Disaster Management Act, 2002, Regulations issued in terms of Section 27(2) of the Act, 18 March 2020
Date: Wed 25 Mar 2020 09:51:43 SAST

Good day,

Kindly take note that proceeding with Church Services, including Mass, would amount to a gathering in terms of the Disaster Managements Regulations issued on 18 March 2020. Any person who convenes such gatherings is guilty of an offence and is liable to a fine or to imprisonment not exceeding six (6) months. Should you provide proceed with convening these Church Services or Masses, you will be in contravention of these Regulations.

How unfortunate it may sound, the South African Police Service will not hesitate to disperse persons attending the Service or the Mass and to proceed to arrest and charge you as a person convening a gathering which is prohibited in terms of the above-mentioned Regulations.

Regards, …

Source: Announcements: 27-29 March 2020 [Internet Archive link here]

Good for the police. Thank you for acting in our interests. This seemed to be nicely nipped in the bud before actual damage could be done. Let’s hope and pray that they are kept under control through this crisis. It will be difficult. There are indications to the contrary …

But the intent … the intent …

My relationship with this chapel:

For some years, I attended Mass at this SSPX chapel, not because I shared all their views (they are a diverse group themselves), but because of my desire for the traditional Latin Mass. I consider myself to be on the conservative part of the Catholic spectrum. The SSPX followers have a strong faith, and some strange ideas. My sister, with a PhD in molecular biology, sat through a sermon on why women shouldn’t be educated (as did a couple I know who are both doctors). We can both laugh things like that off. Pope Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum thrilled me.

Saint Thomas
Saint Thomas

My choice to attend the SSPX chapel, knowing they were irregular and their Masses illicit (and confessions and marriages invalid as they lacked faculties from the local archbishop, although later supplied by Pope Francis for confession, and marriages if the local bishop provides faculties or a priest as witness), was because it was hard for me to get to Mass (I’m moderately agoraphobic) and their chapel was next door to where I live (it still is there).

My desire for the traditional Latin Mass stemmed partly from studying Latin at school, and partly from exposure to Eastern liturgies. I discovered the Syriac Maronite Church of Antioch in 2000 and went to their Easter liturgies that year instead of my own Church’s liturgies, and in 2001 the congregation at the local semi-rural Catholic church consisted mostly of members of various St Thomas Christian Churches, with no priests from their own Churches. On St Thomas Sunday (the first Sunday after Easter) one of their Catholicoi visited and celebrated a Holy Qurbana in the small church. It was as much a culture shock as it was beautiful. I wanted to experience my own Church’s liturgical heritage.

The people at the SSPX chapel were friendly, and they seemed like nice, harmless people as most Catholics are. A few strange ideas, a lot of antagonism towards developments in the Church peri- and post-Vatican II. I shared some of their sentiments – especially about what some have termed the “Low Mass culture” that even I, born post-Vatican II, have noticed grow between 35 years ago and now. The beauty of the Roman Rite of the Mass was more pronounced in the Extraordinary form of the Mass.

But then came COVID-19.

Most Catholics were concerned with preventing the spread of the new SARS coronavirus 2. Churches were closed, Masses never stopped but went on without congregations. There were a few who had no understanding of the epidemic, like the well-known Msgr Charles Pope, who mistakenly thought going to Mass and risking infection was a form of martyrdom. But the two groups I gave advice to did understand.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Cape Town understood the implications of the epidemic, and what continued group activity could do. In the interest of protecting human life, they shut down 12 days before the country went on lock-down, and went online with video streams of congregation-less Masses.

Some in the SSPX congregation then advertised their chapel as the only Catholic church that was open in Cape Town, in order to increase their numbers. I emailed the priest and explained the COVID-19 situation very clearly.

The SSPX therefore also understood the implications of the epidemic, and what continued group activity could do. In the interest of themselves, in complete disregard for the safety of the community, they subsequently crammed “very close to 100 people” into a chapel that seats 70-80 at most, and then made plans to continue underground Mass throughout lock-down in contravention of the law.

Under religious persecution, one can accept breaking the law in order to worship God, and people who get caught are legitimate martyrs.

This COVID-19 crisis is not a situation where religion is being persecuted by authorities, but rather a situation where the lives of those in the community are at risk due to the spread of disease. Specifically, group meetings enhance the spread of disease. Even more specifically, religious group meetings do a very good job at this.

Mass doesn’t need a congregation. Priests around the world are still saying Mass. The Mass is as effective a prayer and sacrifice whether the congregation size is 0, 10, “very close to 100“, or infinity divided by pi. Now, under lock-down, the congregation is not there, and disease is not spread. They watch and pray along with the priest via audio or video streaming. That is a sacrifice they make to protect the lives of those around them.

My opinions and decisions regarding this disregard for human life:

When a religious group deliberately breaks a legitimate life-saving law and is willing to spread a dangerous virus into the surrounding community, and potentially become martyrs to their ideology, they stop being a church congregation and become a cult. When the leader of such a group knows what the consequences are, and continues to lead the group into a situation dangerous to themselves as well as the entire community, placing the community at risk of disease and death, that person becomes the leader of a cult.

The SSPX cleric and congregation may have chosen the risk of infection, but they did not have the moral right to make that choice at odds with society around them, because the choice impacted on many more than their group. It had (and maybe still has) the potential to spread damage beyond their cult group. If a cult poisons themselves it’s one thing, but if they spread the poison to the innocent people around them, that is an even greater evil.

These people have apparently put their wants first, and the lives of the community last; their own perceived need for piety above the lives of the community. The Pharisees did that, and wanted to kill Jesus for condemning it. That is not Christian. That is not Catholic. For me, this is now a cult to which I will not return.

Kool-Aid logo
Kool-Aid logo

A man that places the lives of other South Africans at risk is not a spiritual father. He does not deserve my trust or respect.

A man that acts to risk the death of others is morally reprehensible. A congregation that does the same is equally bad.

A man that deliberately plots to disobey the laws in place currently to protect life and prevent death is a spiritual and physical danger to us all.

Such a man is the leader of a cult, not a servant of God. Such a group is a cult.

Malevolence, deliberate or deluded, whatever the intent, is still malevolence.

That is now my view of this local sect. I therefore will no longer support or participate in this group. They acted in disobedience to the local archbishop. They acted contrary to the guidelines from their fraternity elsewhere. They acted selfishly, knowing the risk they posed (and may continue to pose) to the community. To the maximum extent possible, I publicly renounce my association with this cult and withdraw my communion with it. I remain a Catholic in full communion with His Holiness Pope Francis, true and holy non-heretical successor of St Peter.

This has been an eye-opener for me. I see this group very differently now. During crises, normal people sometimes change into something else. During crises, some religious groups become dangerous to those around them. There are werewolves amongst us, and they look like sheep.

Priest giving Communion to werewolves
Priest giving Communion to werewolves

Further reading:

SSPX and COVID series:
Part 1 – The SSPX – when a church goes COVID cult
Part 2 – Update on SSPX sect’s evasion of lockdown
Part 3 – Is the SSPX in schism from the Catholic Church?
Part 4 – SSPX – the Dangers of a Cult Mentality
Part 5 – The SSPX – COVID and religious quackery

Martyr complex: 18 signs of a martyr complex are listed here. I count a possible 9/18 for this situation; many of the criteria are not applicable to groups as a whole.

What is a Martyr Complex? 18 Signs to Look Out For in Others … by Aletheia Luna

Instructions and advice regarding Masses during the COVID-19 pandemic:

Archdiocese of Cape Town: Coronavirus Directives Archdiocese of Cape Town

Society of St Pius X, USA: Letter from Fr. Wegner Regarding US District and COVID-19 Coronavirus

Obedience Is a Virtue: Follow Your Bishop’s Rules! … Fr Matthew Schneider

A good act that results in harmful consequences is a good act performed in an evil way:

“Another example might be a stay-at-home mom who prays the Divine Office daily, with the intention of growing closer to God. These are a good act with a good, even holy, intention. However, if the mother neglects her duties towards her family as a result of her praying, this would actually be a bad action (“evil”) because of the circumstances.”
Question: Moral Evils, Scandal, and Burning Witches … Quidquid Est, Est! blog

Virus spread by church gatherings:

Coronavirus outbreak in southern Italy linked to Neocatechumenate retreat … Crux

Why is Public Mass Suspended? 4 Case Studies Show Why … Fr Matthew Schneider
Summary of the four cases:
– 60% of Cases in South Korea from One Church
– A French Prayer Meeting Spreads COVID-19 Across the Country
– A Washington State Choir Practice Kills Two
– 43 With Symptoms from a Chicagoland Evangelical Churchamongst

Some churches unrepentant on flouting social distancing … Daily Maverick

Louisiana church holds services, defying coronavirus stay-at-home order … Daily Maverick

‘A phantom plague’: America’s Bible Belt played down the pandemic and even cashed in. Now dozens of pastors are dead … The Independent

Further SSPX commentary:

Lent Without the Liturgy … SSPX News
“Although it is uncommon for Catholics to be deprived of the Eucharist during Lent, history testifies to periods where this was the norm. It can certainly be a great trial for Catholics to find themselves cutoff from Communion, particularly in the unexpected and jarring manner they are experiencing today. In God’s good time, this trial will pass; the churches will be reopened; and Catholics all over the world can once again join in liturgical prayer to Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

General:

We’ve Done This Before – Cancelling Mass for Outbreaks, A History … Under Thy Roof

What’s the truth about the SSPX? – Fr John Zuhlsdorf

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