While surfing the internet a while back I found out about a religious society that calls itself “The Society of Catholic Priests.” (SCP) According to Wikipedia this group was formed in England in 1994. A North American province was formed in 2004. What lead to their formation was the conservative position taken by other priestly societies such as the Society of the Holy Cross (SSC) on the ordination of women. In addition to having women clergy the group also appears to have a number of married and unmarried openly homosexual clergy. The group has a similar Rule of Life as the SSC, and similar aims: the support and encouragement of people in Holy Orders in their life and ministry. The SCP raises some interesting questions on the nature of catholic faith and practice.
A look at the SCP website and at some of the websites of churches pastored by members of SCP seems to indicate that one of the goals of this society is to bring traditional catholic ceremonial and ritual actions back to the life of the larger church. Thus, there are pictures of incense-filled sanctuaries and gorgeous vestments, as well as essays that laud things like eastward celebration, going to confession, and having a spiritual director. All of this is a step in the right direction. In my opinion, any return to catholic tradition in this day and age can only be a good thing.
But one has to wonder if the SCP thinks this is all there is to catholic faith and tradition. The reality is that traditional catholic ceremonial and ritual do not in themselves make one catholic, as there are in fact many different groups - christian and not - that do those things but are not catholic. Many Lutherans, for example, practice confession, use incense, wear vestments, and the like. But they are not catholic. So while those things are an expression of catholic tradition, they are not the faith in itself, and making use of them does not necessarily make one a catholic.
Ultimately the catholic faith arises from and is built on a more fundamental theological framework. This foundation is a specific understanding of nature, God, and man. The catholic view of man is that he is made in the image and likeness of God as male and female. He has a spiritual and physical aspect that together make him who and what he is, and inform how he is to live his life. This means that the material aspect of our being is as much a part of who we are as are our spirits and souls. We can’t therefore toss aside our created physicality, and all that it entails, as though it is nothing because to do so is to suggest that our flesh, and matter in general, is inconsequential, or even worse, that it is evil. This is the position that gnosticism has always taken. And this is precisely the position of the SCP inasmuch as they embrace the ordination of women (and presumably transsexuals), and homosexualism. So I would say that they have committed themselves to an anthropology that is not only not catholic, but decidedly gnostic. All of this is bad news for a society of “catholic” priests. For if matter is of little or no consequence then what becomes of the incarnation? And furthermore, what happens to the sacraments, which are extensions of the incarnation?
While it is good and refreshing to see clergy try to recover certain aspects of the catholic spiritual and liturgical tradition one can only hope that by reflecting on that tradition over time groups like the SCP and those who sympathize with them will come to discover the fullness of the catholic and apostolic faith, which faith the Episcopal Church, Anglican Church of Canada, and Church of England once held, but began to dismantle in the tumult of the 1960’s and 70’s.