The Paradox of the Neo-Catholic Traditionalist

Last week, I chronicled something of the bafflement that ensued as I was confronted with the weirdly malleable term “neo-Catholic”. Judging from the combox discussion that followed, many readers share the tremendous confusion surrounding the term. Did it denote converts or those who loathe converts? Was it code for “neocon” or for non-neo-con? Was it meant to denote a political or theological group? Was it a floor cleaner or a dessert topping? So many questions! In response to my bafflement over the meaning of the term, one of my readers finally replied:

In the past, when this semantic squabbling has arisen on your blog, I have proposed the following as the most concise, least polemical definition of "neo-Catholic":

A Catholic whose enthusiasms and opinions are mostly defined by John Paul II's papacy.

I've given this definition many times, and I don't think you've ever given an opinion of it.

Now, there's no accounting for O'Leary, who seems to think he invented the term himself and uses it in a way peculiar to himself, but among traditionalists (like myself), everyone knows what a neo-Catholic is, and it's pretty well summarized by the definition I just gave. Indeed, I call on any and every traditionalist who reads this post to disagree with it if he thinks it inaccurate or insufficient; I doubt any will.

Now, I'm not going to pretend that it isn't a term used unflatteringly much of the time, but I certainly find it a useful term to describe a set of opinions and enthusiasms held by many Catholics. If you want specifics, a "neo-Catholic" would likely agree with all or most of the following statements, all of which can be considered characteristic of John Paul II's papacy. A traditionalist would disagree with all or most of them:

  1. The Second Vatican Council was a positively good thing. Its documents are "marching orders for the new millennium". The pastoral strategy given by Gaudium et Spes is authoritative and, more importantly, correct. The problems in the Church following the council are not the fault of the conciliar documents themselves, but can be blamed on misinterpretation, misimplementation, or ignorance of them.
  2. The Bugninine liturgical reform was a positively good thing. The problems following the promulgation of the new Mass are not the fault of the content, form or circumstances of origin of the new Mass itself, but can be blamed on liturgical abuse at the diocesan and parochial level. When celebrated reverently, there is "nothing illegitimate or doctrinally inexact" about the reformed liturgy.
  3. The ecclesiastical tradition of the Church has no permanent objective content. All "little T" traditions can and should be modified according to perceived pastoral or evangelical expediency.
  4. The pope can and should positivistically innovate in matters of liturgy and devotion.
  5. Ecumenism is a positively good thing and a "solemn and binding duty" on all believers.
  6. Modern philosophical (e.g. phenomenology), artistic, and cultural (e.g. World Youth Day) forms can and should be used as vehicles for the Gospel, and there is nothing intrinsically and qualitatively superior about the forms used by the Church in the past (e.g. Thomism, Gothic architecture).
  7. The 1992 Catechism is a "sure guide" to the faith, and can be considered a final authority on any matter it addresses.
  8. Disagreement with the above statements puts a Catholic in danger of "private judgment", "being more Catholic than the pope" or "Protestant mentality".

I don't think that any part of that is inaccurate of unfair, and apologize if it is.

And, as usual, I ask that anyone who objects to the term "neo-Catholic" suggest a different name for the set of opinions and enthusiasms I have just described. (Refusing to call it anything other than "Catholic" winds up just being an integrist game of its own, as that suggests that "Catholicism" is coterminous with that set of opinions and enthusiasms.)

This definition seems to me to stick out from the cloud of quantum indeterminacy as having, at least for my reader and for a large number of like-minded members of his particular subculture, a definite shape rather than the “everything but the kitchen sink” quality I noted last week, and I like that. As to the definition, let me first address the specific supposed characteristics of a “neo-Catholic” and then take a look at the surprising paradox that emerges from this definition:

  1. I find it odd that the odor of guilt is attached to thinking a Council of Holy Church to be a good thing. That guilt and even contemptible guilt is indeed being attached is, I think, beyond question, as, for instance, the chatter in this hothouse of divine charity attests. Or as a reader at Inside Catholic summed it up:

Neo Catholic is a term of convenience. It came about because Traditionalists did not know what to call Catholics who accept communion in the hand, communion while standing, altar girls, girls and women in the sanctuary, women not covering their heads, Catholics making lame excuses for Koran kissing and taking part in prayers with demon worshipers at Assisi. It is tempting to call them "liberals", but that term already means "heretics" who support gay priests, married priests, divorce, contraception, etc...

So we came up with the term Neo-Catholic. They are the "new" Catholics that have sprung up after the disaster of Vatican II and the novus ordo. They are new in that if they were transferred back in time and presented their "new" beliefs to Pope St. Pius X (or any Pope, for that matter) they would be condemned as heretics.

What are “neo-Catholics” in this reckoning? Heretics-lite. Perverters of the Faith. Members of a “new” Church brought into being by the Second Vatican Council and sustained by Pope John Paul II the Overrated and Heretical.

Now, as a convert from Evangelicalism, I pretty much had had enough of do-it-yourself Magisteria and when I became Catholic I took it as axiomatic that I was agreeing to the proposition that the Magisterium of the Church was given us by Christ to preserve, develop and apply the Tradition as the Church navigates the waters of history. I have never understood or believed either the Progressive Dissent nor the Reactionary Dissent notion that, at Vatican II, the Church split into the pre- and post-conciliar Churches. So I have never felt obliged in the slightest to pick between the Progressive Dissent narrative ("Before the Council all was darkness and void till John XXIII threw open the windows and behold! There was light!") or the Reactionary Dissent narrative ("Vatican II was a disaster and we need to just forget about it and get back to 1956 Cleveland when everything was perfect"). I feel zero obligation to choose between the two Churches because I believe the Church is one and indefectible.

  1. I was raised completely outside the Christian tradition, having darkened the door of a church perhaps a dozen times in my formative years and only becoming Christian in the context of a small non-denom sect in college. I came from a “tradition” whose liturgy consisted of three fast songs, three medium songs, three slow songs, a time of praise and worship typically involving tongues and prophecy, an hour long homily/Favorite Bible passages melange, a time of prayer and personal ministry, and the sacrament of coffee and donuts. It was a real, albeit deeply impoverished liturgy (“liturgical” in that it was a ritual that never varied from week to week).

When I became Catholic, I did so knowing that I came from a world that was radically impoverished liturgically and so I did not take it upon myself to waltz into the Church and start holding forth on How She Could Improve the Mass to Suit Me. What did I know? Some wet-behind-the-ears convert from a non-denom storefront church presuming to hold forth on the Divine Mysteries? Who needs it? Best for me to keep my trap shut and say “Thanks” for the Awesome Gift. I've held to that policy ever since. I don't know from nothing about the fine details of liturgy, but I do know it's my business to be grateful for the Mass, not bitter and hyper-critical about it. I have this weird notion that “Eucharist” means I should be thankful. And this policy was only reinforced by the spectacle of watching not a few converts of the Matatics variety sashay into the Church, look around, find it's not perfect enough for them, and proceed to walk out the opposite door because She doesn't suit their discriminating tastes or theological theories.

Me: I'll take any Mass Mother Church gives me and be grateful for it. Ordinary Form, Extraordinary Form, I don't care. And I don't care if enthusiasts for either look down on me for my indiscriminate gratitude for the Mass. They are not my judges nor even my bishop. They are just some Catholic I don’t know and who don’t know me who have deluded themselves into thinking somebody died and made them the arbiters of what constitutes Truly True Catholic Faith. And they exist at the Progressive Dissent and Reactionary Dissent poles of the Church, looking down with revulsion on Catholics who gape and grin and thank God for whatever Mass He sends our way. For related reasons, I therefore welcome as “Catholic” any theology the Church has not condemned, even though it may not be my cup of tea, because it’s the Church's business, not mine, to decide who is and isn't "really" Catholic. I apply this even to Progressives and Reactionaries who sling the label “neo-Catholic” at those who commit the grave sin of being grateful for the Council, the papacy of JPII and the Ordinary Form.

Are there problems with the liturgy? Sure. I'm from Seattle, Land of Liturgical Abuse. I could tell you about some lulus I’ve seen. But when the liturgy is not abused—and indeed, even when it is—I try to focus on gratitude to the God Who overcomes our human idiocies through the Great Gift.

  1. If my reader means "In essential things, monolithic uniformity; in doubtful things, scruples and guilt; in all things, merciless adherence to the letter of the law" then yeah, I suppose I do think small t traditions are, when push comes to shove, less important than actual human beings and can be treated flexibly. But I see no reason why that means they need be scrapped, nor do I know any alleged neo-Catholic who thinks this. So, for instance, though I think the Rosary a fine thing, I might well not recommend it for somebody with obsessive-compulsive disorder who was liable to get trapped in scruples about saying the prayers just so or losing count or some other irrelevancy. Such matters can easily become a snare to scrupulous newbies who are trying to find their feet in the Church.
  2. Given the above, all I know is that it's not up to me or some angry cyber-commentariat to legislate such things and I trust Holy Church to take care of it without the help of self-appointed liturgical fussbudgets with no standing to legislate in the Church who take their complaints, not to the Church, but to comboxes where their opinions and authority, plus five bucks, will get me a cup of Starbucks.
  3. Like many other Catholics, I have this funny notion that when the Church teaches something in Council, my task as a Catholic is to listen and obey, not repeat it in the same tone of voice as I would use when saying, "You left your soiled underwear on my coffee table." I dislike Reactionary Dissent as much as Progressive Dissent, not least because, despite the contempt for the Decree on Ecumenism with which the Reactionary Dissent crowd is redolent, the fact remains that Vatican II's demand that Catholics engage, rather than avoid and heap contempt upon, Protestants is in no small part one of the reasons I could eventually become Catholic. The post-Vatican II Church’s attempt to live out ecumenism, despite some of its loonier excesses, also produced a crop of Catholics who took the time to actually explain the Faith to Protestants like me in terms we could understand. I'm oddly grateful about having a crack at eternal life and the fullness of the Faith, so I'm grateful to the Church's teaching on Ecumenism at the Council.
  4. Why the either/or caricature? I thought Catholics were all about the great Both/And. Certainly that caricature is not descriptive of anybody I know and it certainly not descriptive of those sinister archetypes of “neo-catholic” thought and culture called EWTN, Scott Hahn, Jimmy Akin and Karl Keating.
  5. In weighing the merits of the Catechism as a "sure guide" I do, in fact, figure that the Pope is better qualified than some guy with a keyboard to say that the Catechism of the Catholic Church is "a 'valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion' and as a 'sure norm for teaching the faith,' as well as a 'sure and authentic reference text'". I don’t think this means “The Catechism is therefore a final authority on any matter it addresses" since the Catechism largely deals in broad strokes, not in prescribing micromanaging solutions for all the problems of life. It is no more the Big Book of Everything than the Bible is.

That said, when somebody proposes something directly counter to the obvious and plain sense of the Catechism—(Progressive Dissenter version: "Gay sex is okay so long as the gay person is authentically expressing the inner truth of who he/she is and is not engaging in it out of a false desire to conform to some external pressure."/Conservative Dissenter version: "Torture is really fine because Fr. Brian Harrison said you just might be able to do it under conditions that only exist in the movies.")—my assumption is that the person is a sophist and the plain sense of the Catechism text should be trusted.

  1. Pretty much, since essentially what is being claimed is that the Church is defectible and fidelity to the Magisterium after the Council constitutes heresy or something that is awfully like heresy.

Three final points. First: what's with "neo" as a prefix? If it designated converts only, there would be some sense to it since converts are generally “new”. But by the definition given above, people (like Karl Keating and Pat Madrid) who have been Catholic all their lives (lives that extend back before the Council) are somehow rendered "neo" by the crime of being insufficiently bitter about and contemptuous of the Council and the papacy of JPII and, worst of all, regarding them as a good thing and the work of God. In short, it is a descriptor of anybody, convert or not, who does not buy the Reactionary Dissent version of the Two Church theory. That is, it is an attempt to claim that any Catholic docile to the Magisterium of the post-conciliar Church is a heretic or something indistinguishable from a heretic. That’s bloody odd, since in the old days, somebody who was trying to be faithful to the Magisterium was known simply as a “Catholic”.

Second, what’s with the claim that refusal to accept having “neo-Catholic” stamped on your forehead “winds up just being an integrist game of its own, as that suggests that ‘Catholicism’ is coterminous with that set of opinions and enthusiasms”?

Sorry, but no deal. "Neo-Catholic" remains a swear word designed to impute the odor of heresy to faithful Catholics who are docile to the Church, to Vatican II, and who are as loyal to post-conciliar papacies as to pre-conciliar one. To say that such people are not truly Catholic (as the term clearly intends to do) is a smear. And to say that calling them "Catholic" means that people with Traditionalist sensibilities are ipso facto not Catholic is a lie.

The basic difference between a so-called "neo-Catholic" and a self-described Traditionalist who labels others "neo-Catholic" is this: A "neo-Catholic" calls himself and the Traditionalist "Catholic" while the Traditionalist calls himself "Traditionalist" and his brother Catholic "Neo-Catholic". It's a term designed by factionalists to marginalize Catholics whose only crime is docility to the teaching of Holy Church. A Catholic will, if the Traditionalist insists, refer to the Traditionalist as a Traditionalist. But that, again, is only due to a) the Traditionalist's aggressive insistence on the factional label and b) the Catholic’s desire to be accommodating. In short, Catholics are disposed to welcome Traditionalists as brother Catholics in good standing with the Church, while the Traditionalist who insists on the label "neo-Catholic" does so in order to insinuate that brother Catholics docile to the post-conciliar Magisterium are not really up to snuff and, indeed, may well be enemies of the Faith. It is only when docile Catholics are on the receiving end of this aggressive contempt that we will sometimes use the term "Rad Trad" to describe the aggressor. But we do not mean that to refer to all self-described Traditionalists. We only mean it to refer to those Traditionalists who attempt to reduce the Faith to their hothouse subculture and to exclude those outside it from the dignity of being hailed as fellow Catholics in full obedience to Holy Church. We do not apply it to those who happen to have Traditionalist sensibilities, but who do not suggest, insinuate or say that Catholics docile to the Magisterium are second-class "neo-Catholics". We recognize that the Church is the home of many kinds of piety and many schools of opinion—Traditionalists among them.

Finally, there is the exquisite irony of the definition of “Neo-Catholic” as:

A Catholic whose enthusiasms and opinions are mostly defined by John Paul II's papacy.

Yes, I understand the general intention here: so-called “Neo-Catholics” have a shallow grasp of history, can’t see back past the time of the Beatles, are enamored of a sort of cult of personality centering on JPII, and just can’t be really truly fully Catholic or they’d be attending the Extraordinary Form exclusively. Duly noted.

And yet… who has had their enthusiasms and opinions more profoundly defined by the papacy of John Paul II than the Reactionary Dissenter who dedicates huge amounts of time and infinitudes of electrons to complaining about the Council, arraigning as suspect those brother Catholics who honor and obey the Council and the post-conciliar Popes, griping about JPII’s papacy, and dividing the Church into those who celebrate the True Mass and that lesser breed without the law who celebrate the Ordinary Form. If a Neo-Catholic is “a Catholic whose enthusiasms and opinions are mostly defined by John Paul II's papacy” then I submit that nobody on planet Earth is more neo-Catholic than the Reactionary Dissenter. Whose days, more than his, have been full, for the past quarter century, of loud and continual complaints about "John Paul the Overrated"? Who has spent more time obsessing over the (in their view) disproportionate influence of John Paul on the present generation? That is the great paradox of the so-called Traditionalist position: namely that it is purely a product of the past 40 years and is, in that sense, every bit as “neo” as the thing it protests. The notion of a large subculture of lay Catholics who feel themselves endowed by God Most High with the authority to sit around and pontificate about the fine points of the liturgy, condemn the Pope as the author of heresy and issue dimestore bulls of excommunication against those who lack “purity” because they celebrate a liturgy approved by Holy Church is something that is a purely post-modern and largely Internet-enabled phenomenon.

Which bring us back to the essential meaninglessness of the term “neo-Catholic”. Any term that encompasses “19th Century Anglo-Catholic”, “neo-con”, “non-neo-con”, “Evangelical convert”, “cradle Catholic”, “ordinary post-Vatican II Catholic” and “anti-Vatican II Traditionalist” is a term so formless that it means nothing.

In place of it, and of such defensive terms as “Rad Trad” (mea culpa) it might be best to dip into the Tradition and give a pre-conciliar pope the last word:

There is no need of adding any qualifying terms to the profession of Catholicism: it is quite enough for each one to proclaim "Christian is my name and Catholic my surname," only let him endeavour to be in reality what he calls himself." - Pope Benedict XV: Encyclical Letter Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum 24, 1 November, 1914.

Amen and amen.

Copyright 2010 - Mark P. Shea