October 9, 2002
volume 13, no. 112

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The Justice of the term 'neo-Catholic'

by Christopher A. Ferrara, Esq.

    Reprinted with permission of Michael Matt of The REMNANT. See Editor's Notes below.

      "The neo-Catholic phenomenon in the Church, therefore, parallels the political mobilism of secular society, in which the term “conservative” no longer means what it did forty years ago. A Democrat of the 1950s would view today’s “conservative” Republican as a liberal savage. In like manner, today’s “neo-conservative Catholics” (as Johnston himself admits) are progressives who embrace novelties that Saint Pius X could not have imagined in his worst nightmare. Not only do they embrace these novelties, they attack the paleoconservative traditionalists as “schismatics” for declining to follow suit."

   My good friend Michael Davies agrees with Tom Woods and me that “conservative” Catholics “do not make an effective defense of the faith in these troubled times, as they close their eyes to the disastrous legacy of the Second Vatican Council, the New Mass, and the decisions of the conciliar popes…” Not only does Michael agree with us, but he has been a pioneer in staking out that very claim.

   I write to address Michael’s concern (See September 30, 2002 issue of The Remnant) about use of the term neo-Catholic instead of “conservative” to describe this constituency in the Church, whose very existence has made the postconciliar revolution possible. As Michael sees it, the term neo-Catholic is “very unfortunate” because

    The prefix “neo” is usually affixed to an attempt to revive something which has fallen into disuse. The Cathars were described as “neo-Manichees.” The architectural phenomenon of the 19th century, of which Pugin was the most notable exponent, was known as neo-gothic. The resurgence of the Modernist heresy before, during, and after Vatican II is known as neo-modernism. The correct meaning of neo-Catholic might be understood as indicating one who has revived a form of Catholicism that has fallen into disuse, and it could well be applied to traditional Catholics.
Granted, that is one sense in which the prefix “neo” can be used, but it is not the only sense, and certainly not the sense Tom Woods and I intend. Tom and I are writing from an American perspective, and since Michael has humbly admitted that he knows nothing about American history (surely no great defect of learning), he perhaps does not appreciate the American connotation of the prefix “neo.”

   In our use of the term neo-Catholic, Tom and I are making an analogy to American politics. American political thinking did, after all, exert a great deal of influence on the Council, especially in its adoption of Dignitatis Humane, which (as Michael’s own scholarship has demonstrated) is nothing other than the view of the United States Constitution on Church-State relations enshrined in a conciliar document that was principally drafted by the American Jesuit, John Courtney Murray. (I note in passing my perplexity at Michael’s continuing exception to my rather timid objections to the ambiguity of Dominus Iesus when he himself, quite rightly, maintains that Dignitatis Humanae, a document promulgated by no less than an ecumenical council, apparently contradicts the solemn teaching of a whole line of preconciliar popes. I recommend Michael’s excellent article on this subject, which appeared recently in The Latin Mass.)

   In America, the term “neo-conservative” does not mean a revival of traditional political conservatism, American-style. It denotes, rather, a new and more liberalized version of what is now disparaged as the old “paleoconservativism” of people like Pat Buchanan. The American Heritage dictionary defines “paleoconservative” as “extremely or stubbornly conservative in political matters.” The neo-conservative, on the other hand, considers himself a more enlightened conservative, one who understands the “necessity” of coming to terms with certain liberalizing trends in American society. Indeed, the neo-conservative movement arose through the influence of liberal Jewish intellectuals who became conservatives after a fashion. As one neo-conservative commentator puts it:

    In fact, Neoconservative ideology represents mainstream thought among the center-right coalition, and has for a number of years. It's certainly not “fringe” Neoconservatism or the “New Conservatism” (to be differentiated from old-fashioned Paleoconservatism)… The Neoconservative movement had its inception with a small group of Jewish intellectuals (Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz and a few others)… (Carol Devine-Molin, “The Smearing Of Neoconservatives,”, March 25, 2002).

   The analogy between neo-conservatives in the political sphere and neo-Catholics in the ecclesial sphere is quite serviceable in describing the current state of the Church. We traditionalists are the paeloconservatives, who are portrayed as “extremely or stubbornly conservative” by those we call neo-Catholics, who fill the role of the “enlightened” neo-conservatives of the postconciliar period. As Tom and I point out in the introduction to The Great Façade, neo-Catholic luminary George Sim Johnston makes much the same observation in an article entitled “Sensibly Center-Right,” a review of a book of essays by neo-Catholic thinkers:

    The featured players [James Hitchcock, Helen Hull Hitchcock, George Weigel and James Sullivan, formerly of Catholics United for the Faith] do not locate themselves on the theological “right.” They embrace Vatican II, don’t pine for the Tridentine liturgy, and support the historically radical ecumenism of John Paul II…. By any historical measure, the “conservatives” in this volume are progressive Catholics. Until recently, their views on the role of the laity would not have played well with the Roman curia. Nor would their choice of philosophical mentors: von Balthasar, de Lubac, Congar, Danielou—not to mention John Courtney Murray…. Unlike the Sadducees on the Catholic left and the Pharisees on the truly Catholic right, the “conservatives” in this volume understand the pontificate of John Paul II because they understand the Second Vatican Council. They understand that Christ founded a teaching Church whose doctrines are not subject to whim and manipulation. But they also realize that the Church, being human and organic, has to change. Vatican II was the antidote to the triumphalism, legalism, clericalism, and, yes, Jansenism, that plagued the Church forty years ago. [1] 1. Crisis, May 1996, page 6).

   Johnston goes on to state that “neo-conservative Catholics… are not looking for a ‘nostalgia-driven restoration in which modernity is rejected root and branch’ [quoting neo-Catholic commentator George Weigel]. Rather, they would like to see the deepest dynamics of Vatican II finally come into play”—whatever that means.

   Thus, Johnston invokes the very analogy Tom and I have drawn in our book. Those we call neo-Catholics Johnston describes approvingly with the American political term neo-conservative, not because they seek “to revive something which has fallen into disuse,” as Michael suggests, but because they disdain the revival of something which has fallen into disuse. As Johnston says, they don’t “pine for the Tridentine liturgy” and “are not looking for a ‘nostalgia-driven restoration’” of the Church. They consider themselves a more enlightened breed of Catholic—“sensibly center-right”—for the very reason that they embrace the obviously disastrous liberalizing trends of the postconciliar “renewal,” including the “historically radical ecumenism of John Paul II” and “the deepest dynamics of Vatican II.” On the other hand, Johnston disparages traditionalists as the Pharisaical paleoconservatives of the Catholic Right, those “extremely or stubbornly conservative” Catholics who (like Pat Buchanan in the political realm) have resisted change and want to “go back” to the way things were.

   The neo-Catholic phenomenon in the Church, therefore, parallels the political mobilism of secular society, in which the term “conservative” no longer means what it did forty years ago. A Democrat of the 1950s would view today’s “conservative” Republican as a liberal savage. In like manner, today’s “neo-conservative Catholics” (as Johnston himself admits) are progressives who embrace novelties that Saint Pius X could not have imagined in his worst nightmare. Not only do they embrace these novelties, they attack the paleoconservative traditionalists as “schismatics” for declining to follow suit.

   Here too the political analogy serves well. In the political realm, neo-conservatives view Pat Buchanan as a vile extremist, a kind of schismatic Republican. As Tom Woods notes, the neo-conservative establishment denounces Buchanan with unrestrained viciousness, while observing the rules of polite discourse in its dealings with the most noxious of liberals. Likewise, in the Catholic Church the neo-Catholics depict traditionalists as vile extremists, and even “schismatics,” and the neo-Catholic establishment denounces them with a ferocity that has to be seen to be believed. Yet the same establishment is comparatively quite restrained in its approach to the Church’s true enemies, both within and without her.

   Consider the recent case of Robert Sungenis, the renowned Catholic apologist and author of numerous books. Sungenis was a darling of the neo-Catholic establishment until he decided that he could no longer defend the ruinous postconciliar regime of novelty. When his website published articles protesting Assisi 2002 and critiquing the liturgical “reform” of Paul VI, Sungenis was immediately cast into outer darkness by his former neo-Catholic friends. EWTN, which had featured a television series by Sungenis, has expunged all references to him from its archives. The neo-Catholic establishment has literally declared Sungenis a non-person, just as it did with Gerry Matatics.

   Even worse, when Sungenis published a web article discussing the evils of the Talmud, the neo-Catholic establishment promptly denounced him as an anti-Semite—for quoting Popes, Church Fathers and eminent Catholic theologians to demonstrate that these Christophobic writings of the post-Crucifixion Pharisees stand condemned by the Church. Certain neo-Catholic enforcers of postconciliar correctness (including Mark Shea and James Scott) have even defended the Talmud against Sungenis, with the aid of a Talmud revisionist website operated by a liberal Jewish apologist. Another neo-Catholic enforcer (one John Betts) is organizing an international boycott of Sungenis’ apostolate, while yet another—Pete (“the griller”) Vere of fame—has contacted Sungenis’ publisher to suggest that it cease publishing Sungenis’ books because he is an “anti-Semite.” “I’m a canon lawyer!” declared Vere, in an effort to lend weight to his suggestion.

   Incidentally, this is the same Peter Vere who introduced Father John M. Huels to readers of The Wanderer as a canonical “expert” in support of Vere’s (and The Wanderer’s) laughable contention that the 1500-year-old traditional rite of Mass in the Roman Church was never an immemorial custom and therefore could be abrogated without specific mention by Paul VI. Two months ago Huels left his positions as vice dean and professor of canon law at St. Paul University in Ottawa and announced that he would seek laicization after being accused of sexual abuse by Michael J. Bland, a former Servite priest and a member of the U.S. bishops' National Review Board for sexual abuse cases. Huels freely admitted to his bishop, Archbishop Gervais of Canada, “that he had been guilty of inappropriate behavior with minors [how many is anyone’s guess] decades earlier” and claims to be “repentant and contrite.” (CNS report, August 8, 2002)

   A liberal Jewish apologist, a homosexual molester of boys and (in the case of Fatima) the neo-modernist Jesuit Eduoard Dhanis — these are the sorts of “experts” neo-Catholics have recently enlisted as allies in their attack on the traditionalist position. What happened to Robert Sungenis is only typical of how the neo-Catholic establishment will use any means to destroy “traitors” who have done nothing more than remind people of the traditional teaching of the Church and ask how it can be reconciled with novelties that were unheard-of before the Sixties. The Sungenis case is neo-Catholicism at its most malign. These people, without even realizing it, have developed a deep aversion to certain aspects of their own religion. They have come to detest these elements of the preconciliar teaching of the Church more than any heresy against the faith, and the defenders of these forgotten teachings more than any true enemy of the Church. In this case, they are incited into a frenzy of activity in defense of the Talmud and against one of their own brethren. There is real pathology at work here.

   And through it all, the neo-Catholic establishment continues to maintain the pretense that it occupies the moral high-ground simply and only because it is willing to indulge in a display of blind loyalty to the person who currently occupies the Chair of Peter. As the human element of the Church collapses everywhere in scandal and liturgical and doctrinal degradation, the neo-Catholics do nothing but complain bitterly about local abuses, while waving a banner containing the slogan that has overcome reason itself in the neo-Catholic mind: John Paul II, we love you. But this isn’t love we are seeing. It is a form of idolization that in fact does the Pope and the Church a terrible disservice.

   When in 1331 Pope John XXII preached from the pulpit a series of sermons denying the immediacy of the particular judgment after death (positing instead a state of suspension until the Last Day), he was not greeted with cheers of “John Twenty-Two, we love you!” Rather, certain French theologians denounced his theological error, and Cardinal Orsini called for a council to pronounce him a heretic. This public resistance to his novelties led the Pope to convene a theological commission which informed him that he was in error, and he retracted that error on his death bed. The succeeding Pope then defined the immediacy of the particular judgment as an article of faith. Likewise, when in 680-81 Pope Honorius endorsed the Monothelite heresy (a variation of Monophysitism that claimed that Christ possessed only one will), Catholics did not assemble in great crowds to chant “Honorius is glorious!” Rather, Honorius was posthumously condemned as an aider and abettor of heresy by the Third Council of Constantinople, whose decree was confirmed by Pope Leo II. As Pope Leo explained: “Honorius…did not, as became the Apostolic authority, extinguish the flame of heretical teaching in its first beginning, but fostered it by his negligence.” The Catholic Encyclopedia rightly informs us that: “It is clear that no Catholic has the right to defend Pope Honorius.

   This is not to suggest that any Catholic has the right to pronounce theological judgments on the person of the current Pope. But these historical examples (and many others) demonstrate that a mindless defense of every papal word and deed is not the way to show true loyalty to the Vicar of Christ. Suppose members of the faithful had not objected to the theological error of John XXII, but instead had praised it (in the manner of neo-Catholics today) as a wonderful "development" of Catholic teaching? How much harm would the Church have suffered from those papal sermons which, although they were not imposed upon the Church, would have caused great confusion among the faithful had they not been retracted? What would have been the fate of John XXII had he gone to the grave with his error uncorrected? As history shows us, blind loyalty to the Pope is not only lacking in true charity for Christ’s vicar, it is simply not the Catholic way.

   Nevertheless, it needs to be said once again that Tom and I have never claimed that those who could be called neo-Catholic in their misguided approach to the crisis are not “real” Catholics. Unlike our accusers, we do not feel ourselves entitled to write fellow Catholics out of the Church. Rather, as the quotation from Johnston illustrates perfectly, we are dealing with liberalized Catholics who have been induced to accept newly emergent attitudes and practices that undermine the very faith they think they are defending. This is why it simply will not do to call these people conservatives. For what, in fact, have they conserved beyond that which the postconciliar revolutionaries have allowed them to keep? And now, mark my words, they’re preparing to defend “obedience” to the insane dictate that it is illicit to kneel for Holy Communion (about which the Vatican will do absolutely nothing beyond a timid recommendation that “sensibilities” be respected). They will, as they have for the past 40 years, continue their slide down the sliding scale of conservatism in the postconciliar Church. Who knows what they will be defending twenty years from now, should God permit this travesty to go on that much longer.

   In short, these Catholics are the neo-conservatives of the Catholic Church, where it is just and proper to call them, accordingly, neo-Catholics. As we can see, the term has definitely hit home. The neo-Catholic commentators who delight in deriding us as “ultra-traditionalists,” “extreme traditionalists,” “Pharisees” and so forth now have a label of their own to contend with. The term neo-Catholic incenses them because it captures their position and leaves it “formulated, sprawling on a pin,” to borrow a phrase from T.S. Eliot.

   He who controls the terminology controls the debate. It is long past time for traditionalists to take control of the terminology in this debate. Does the term neo-Catholic anger our adversaries, who have been calling us names for decades? Too bad—the shoe fits. Now let them wear it.

EDITOR'S NOTES: We have received the gracious permission of Michael Matt, editor of the The REMNANT to reprint various articles he has published. This article by Christopher Ferrara, co-author with Dr. Thomas Woods on The Great Facade, was submitted for the most recent issue of The REMNANT.

October 9, 2002