Thursday, July 24, 2014

Is the Bear a Nasty Neocon?

Neocon already has a meaning, so the Bear is bemused by its adoption by Traditionalists.

To be a neocon means to be a foreign policy conservative whose views are perceived to be aligned with Jewish interests. Real conservatives are suspicious of them because they are tainted with the original sin of liberalism.

In a Catholic context, the Bear is not sure what it is supposed to mean, other than Catholics who are neither Traditionalists nor unfaithful to Church teachings. Traditionalists are a subset of Catholics, as are those who are unfaithful to Church teaching, i.e. "liberals" (a distinction that does make sense because they are not normative). Of course, the Traditionalist minority are praiseworthy; the liberals are not.

All Traditionalists are Catholics; not all Catholics are Traditionalists.

What's left doesn't need a name, because they're just Catholics. When you have a steak, you can take a "bite," but there isn't a special word for the steak that's still there on your plate. It's just "steak." (Unless it's Friday. Then it's "fish.")

So why borrow a political term to describe Catholics who do not identify with the small, but significant Traditionalist minority?

Since Traditionalists have a "name," perhaps they feel it is necessary to give "the other side," a "name," too. Catholic would hardly work, so they use neocon. It has a vaguely sinister connotation that carries over from the political vocabulary. Assist at the Mass the Church prescribes on Sundays? You're nothing but a neocon.

That non-traditionalist blogger you don't care for?  A neocon. The Bear would call that blogger Mark Shea. The Bear happens not to agree with Mark Shea sometimes (only when the Bear reads him), yet does not feel the need to call him anything but Mark Shea. Is he part of an identifiable minority or faction within the Church, like Traditionalists? Not to the Bear's knowledge.

Jimmy Aiken. Maybe not as bad as Mark Shea, but still a Catholic Answers neocon.

What are synonyms for neocon? Tool? Quisling? Weak sister? Probably not quite modernist. Neocons may not exactly be heretics, but there's something not quite right, you know. They're just not one of us.

If you detect that the Bear does not care for the term, you're right. It is imprecise, has a bad connotation, is needlessly divisive, and just plain needless. Traditionalists are what they are, and God bless them. That doesn't make everyone else some faction.

The Bear is more than happy to lend his combox to an explanation of just what a neocon is and why we need to identify them. He suspects the definition starts with, "not liberal, but..." In other words, someone who is in the way? A well-meaning boob? A Catholic who would be a Traditionalist if only... what? Are there good neocons? Are Bears neocons?

Seriously. The Bear would really like to know what it means, and why we need it.


  1. Although people do use that term, it is usually in error. The term they mean is Neo-Catholic. A good description of that term ans its origins is found here:

    1. That was rather polemical, but could be expected from the source. Not that I don't enjoy a Christopher Ferrara or Michael Matt article. I don't recognize those kinds of persons in my experience, other than what I might run into on Patheos. I certainly hold no animus against the Latin Mass, or embrace ecumenism, or want to "fully implement Vatican II." Yikes! I wouldn't call those kinds of people anything but "liberal Catholics." The Bear certainly isn't one of those. "Neo-Catholics" sound more like the professional Catholic chattering class than anyone you are likely to run into in non-liberal circles within the average parish. We tolerate frequent mentions of ecumenism in our parish because Father is really into it, but he's the only one. They don't even hold hands during the Our Father anymore. ("They" because the Bear never did.)

  2. In my experience, "neo-Catholic" is used more often than "neocon", though I believe they're more or less fungible in a Catholic context.

    After a certain amount of definitional churn over the years, the secular meaning of "neocon" seems to have settled into describing most of mainstream conservatism: those who accept the fundamental premises of liberalism (the absolute autonomy of the individual and the primacy of self-determination) but who prefer non-governmental solutions to societal issues and are friendly to Burke's "little platoons" of voluntary associations that stand between the individual and the state. Major neocon outlets include National Review, the Wall Street Journal, the Breitbart empire, Fox News, the Blaze, Hot Air, and so on.

    The trouble with neocons is that, having accepted the premises of liberalism, they have no philosophical weapons with which to oppose the progressivist ratchet, and so they continually find themselves shifting to the left to remain within the boundaries of acceptable public discourse. As a result, they are continually seeking to conserve the leftist gains of 10 years ago. For this reason, I prefer to call them "right-liberals", since there is nothing really conservative about them.

    Likewise in the Catholic sphere, "neo-Catholic" refers to most mainstream orthodox Catholics: those who not only accept the validity of Vatican II (as all orthodox Catholics do), but additionally regard it as a great aggiornamento of the Church--though one that has, through an unexplained sequence of events, repeatedly been obfuscated, twisted, and hijacked by malicious people. Along the same lines, neo-Catholics adopt a kind of soft ultramontanism when it comes to the most recent 5 or 6 popes, usually showing great reluctance to acknowledge even minor prudential errors on their part.

    The trouble with neo-Catholics is that, like their secular neocon counterparts, they have adopted a basically positive view of modern innovations, and are thus almost entirely powerless against the encroachments of the liberal state. The neo-Catholic (or USCCB) response to the HHS Mandate is a great example of this tendency: they can only conceive of objections framed in the liberal notion of "religious freedom", and thus are playing on their opponents' turf. Just as neocons are fundamentally liberal, neo-Catholics are essentially Americanist in outlook.

    Finally, when push comes to shove, both varieties of neos are more than willing to throw actual conservatives and traditionalists under the bus in order to remain consistent with their fundamental philosophy. We have seen this tendency develop very strongly under Francis, to the point where it often seems to be open season on "rad-trads" or "radical Catholic reactionaries", though the war to date seems to be more against suspicious tendencies or attitudes, rather than actual individuals. I believe that neo-Catholics prefer insinuations of traditionalist heterodoxy or heresy because there simply isn't any hard evidence to be found.

    All that said, I'm not fond of the divisiveness incurred by the use of "neo-Catholic", especially since they don't use the term to describe themselves.

    1. Thank you for the careful discussion. The Bear is gratified to learn that he doesn't appear to be one of them, since he does not at all approve of the trends in the Church since Vatican II. If he had to pick a word to describe himself, it might be "pragmatist," a member of the "little platoons" of francs-tireur who get their sacraments as the Church gives them, pushes conservatism when they can, and have a devotional life that might differ little from that of Traditionalists.

    2. I am likewise a pragmatist, having some years ago been baptized into a pretty solid Novus Ordo parish, along with my wife and children. Like you (and fortified by your posts on the matter), I have decided to nail my foot to the floor in front of my favorite pew, despite my routine tooth-grinding at some of the trappings of our Mass, the music chief among them. Your description of the Novus Ordo as a "gray martyrdom" is both dead-on and tremendously helpful.

      But pragmatism notwithstanding, Pope Francis--along with his "neoCath" hallelujah chorus--has brought out my (previously quiescent) traditionalist sympathies, and I am no longer able to read our mainstream Catholic gatekeeping brethren with the same enjoyment as before.

    3. Wow, thanks for the kind words. Good to know maybe some good comes from this little blog. But that's why we have to nail our foot to the floor, to keep us there when everything in us is screaming "I can't take it anymore!"

  3. It is a troubling subject the Bear raises. Catholics ought to shun sectarian labels. Notwithstanding, there is a real phenomenon that exists, which it would be less than truthful to ignore. The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, at Georgetown University in 1997, said that "the manner in which we exist has become ontologically different". A grave state of affairs if true about Orthodox and Catholics as Black Bart meant, or, mutatis mutandis (that's Latin) about intramural Catholic disagreements. Lex orandi, and all that. One can no longer take for granted that other Catholics believe the Faith as presented in authoritative documents. This goes for the ordained as well as the laity.

    It would be just silly to call Mark Shea a neocon. "Neocon" is a political category, well defined by the word's history and usage. Besides, Shea is pointedly hostile to neoconnery (as am I). So leave the word to the political world. "AmChurch", implying a willful self-distancing from Rome and the authority seated there, applies to liberals openly disdainful of both trads and tradition (of all sorts, Sacred and simply venerable). Shea takes a gratuitous interest in adverting to his utter lack of interest in the X-Form of the liturgy, but his faith appears to be orthodox, so Amchurch would be unjustly applied to him, much less other mainstream Catholics formed after Vatican II who never give the X-Form a thought. Of course, "Amchurch" will hardly do as a category for rebellious Canadians, Europeans, et al.

    Ultimately, I think "Catholic" is the only label we should use, even if it's a label that no longer conveys reliable information. I know what it should convey, and what I have a right on insisting that it convey. This doesn't do away with the problem of fraudulent labeling -- so caveat emptor.

    Sorry that such a lengthy post should be so unhelpful. Mea culpa.

    1. Thank you, a good contribution, as always, Romulus. Yes, the post is a little provocative, but it was meant to stir discussion. I agree that Catholic is the best name, and if people wish to make a finer distinction themselves -- such as Traditionalists do for good reason -- then that's fine. Ultimately, there seem to be clueless Catholics, blatantly rebellious Catholics, and those that "get it," whether they be vanilla Catholic or Traditionalist. In my youth I was involved in the Charismatic Movement (I was a kid, everyone else was doing it, fell in with the wrong crowd, etc.). It got to where I was no longer "Catholic," but "Charismatic Catholic," as if I was in a separate religion entirely.

      Black Bart -- I LOL'ed. He's what the Orthodox want to be the Pope to be: a symbolic head of a bunch of different synods, but that's for another post.

      Pretty sure I have seen neocon used in a Catholic context, though. Could be wrong. Anyway, everyone seems to know what we're talking about.

    2. No, you're correct that neocon is used occasionally, but it seems to be wholly interchangeable with neo-Catholic. Perhaps some people prefer to use a secular political term in order to avoid the appearance of sectarianism?

      We certainly want to avoid the sectarianism Paul describes in 1 Cor 1:10-13, but how then to describe what is, in reality, a distinct ideological movement that dominates intra-Catholic discussion and is to a large extent (through EWTN, Catholic Answers, Patheos, etc.) the public face of Catholicism for non-believers?

  4. Catholic taxonomy is a tricky business besides identifying what I call "dissenters". These people are often whom I call "materialists" who are Catholics who really don't buy into the supernatural meaning of say the consecrated bread to vestments and declarations of excommunication.

    I echo other folks who'd more commonly use "neo-Catholic". For Shea despises the "neo-con" political positions.

    Good discussion....

    1. "Dissenters" is a good choice, Pete, for those people who really are dissenters. As for others, as long as they don't step over the charmed circle of Catholicism, I'll put up with them dancing annoyingly close to the edge.

  5. I think we can all agree that there not everyone who calls themselves Catholic would be considered so by us in any meaningful sense. (I'm feeling the need for a Venn diagram.) I might not agree some people, they may even push against the boundary, but as long as they behave and don't agitate, I don't think it's my business to say they're anything other than Catholics.

    The tone of, say, Patheos, rubs me the wrong way, as does the cheery Catholicism of some (not all of EWTN) stuff. It is hard to point your finger at any actual departure from doctrine. It seems to be more a matter of unwise commentary. A lot of the sort of thing that irritates me with Shea is style and political views masquerading as Church teaching. I don't know that I would say he's not a good Catholic, although granted I don't read much of his stuff.

    1. I came in on reading Shea and Welborn, now obscured, in the early 2000s in the wake of the priestly abuse. I read a couple of Shea's and other converts' books on apologetics, which I've found helpful as I returned and determined that I must be in all the way or not, once and for all.

      Shea changed or I did, or both. I've continued to explore the roots and fundamentals of Catholic faith. I think Shea became disillusioned with the GOP and its fealty to say the pro-life cause among other things. He's pretty bitter and seems to think that he knows what "true conservativism" is and how it's lost its way. I know of no expertise on his part for that topic. He seems to think that he is an authority now. If you're not his kind of Catholic, you're not the right kind. HE doesn't seem to read below headlines and does lots of left-right moral equivalence. He claims to be harrassed by the traditionalists and seems bitter about that as well. I guess all the status has gone to his head. I do not know about what subject matter he has expertise.

    2. I just assume at the outset that pretty much all prominent neo-Catholics are better Catholics than I am, so as to remove the question from the table. If only they would extend the same courtesy to traditionalists, instead of jeering about Pharisees, Elder Brothers, or Reactionaries. (As an actual, honest-to-God reactionary in the throne-and-altar sense, I get irritated by people who use it as a mindless bad-word insult.)

      It's not so much that neo-Catholics are heterodox (though to the extent that they are Americanists, this would be true) as that they tend to read 1,900 years of Church teaching through Vatican II, as if the Council finally provided us with the correct interpretive lens for all those old teachings. So, for instance, if Dignitatis Humanae appears to be in tension with prior magisterial teachings, then the neo-Catholic will go to great lengths to argue a) That there is no actual tension, and b) That the apparent tension means we should read the older teachings as products of a particular time and place, meant to address specific societal situations that no longer obtain.

      Sorry, I write very long comments. And I'm not done!

      (As an aside, this is why I'm not comforted when I hear that the Holy Father has endorsed the Hermeneutic of Continuity with respect to Vatican II. In the first place, the Roman Pontiff could hardly do otherwise, but more importantly, I have a strong intuition that this Pope has a very different understanding from his predecessors of what "continuity" means, exactly.)

      On more concrete grounds, I'm irritated by the neo-Catholic eagerness to accept even the flimsiest rationales or conjectures regarding Pope Francis's words and actions, their refusal to connect the dots even as they accuse others of failure to appreciate context, and their accusations of bad faith or schismatic tendencies against those who raise questions.

  6. I admit that I don't go in much for too many other blogs, other than my four or five favorites, and I'm not likely to run into much Neo-Catholic rhetoric. Frankly, I'm surprised to hear of criticism toward Traditionalists. I think they do a good service to the Church. (I don't think they are the salvation of the Church, but don't rule it out, either.) I have been surprised to be lumped in with Neo-Catholics (or Neocons by Traditionalists, and I'm still not sure what I did to warrant that, except just not being a Traditionalist myself. Do I wish all the Traddies were salting the ordinary parishes in the country? Maybe. They certainly need them. But I understand that's not what Traditionalism is about.

    The tension is unavoidable because Vatican II did change whole swathes of Catholic understanding, particularly about the Church itself. There, I said it. We're all dealing with a serious case of cognitive dissonance because the infallible Church of today now has a different take on the infallible Church of 100 years ago. None of us want to state the obvious. It is hard to know how we COULD state the obvious and remain Catholics. Some resolve it by blurring the history and emphasizing the new. Some want to replace the history entirely with the new. Still others want to go beyond even what Vatican II said (which, we should remember, is always more modest in fact than certain enthusiasts would have us believe).

    1. Oh. I didn't realize that someone had called you a neocon. I thought you were just curious about how the term was wielded in another venue.

      One of the most laudable things about traditionalists is their lively sense of the precariousness of salvation and of the urgency of bringing souls to Christ. Neo-Catholics, by contrast, tend towards universalism in their willingness to downplay the risks of remaining outside the Church. But the traditionalist zeal can become a kind of uncharitable rigorism towards those Catholics who are even somewhat less fervent than they are. This (pretty common) attitude is the cause of much of their bad press, neo-Catholic polemicizing aside.

      To take a wild example, say you're a Catholic who chooses to continue to attend your Novus Ordo parish, even as you acknowledge the objective superiority of the Extraordinary Form and the dangerous ambiguities of Vatican II in general. In the eyes of some trads, this is almost worse than being regular Joe Pewsitter who's never given any thought to the question, since you know better, but (in their eyes) are simply too milquetoast to live up to your convictions. Perhaps you came up against something like this?

  7. There are arguments and potential accusations at hand to either side. God forbid those who share the Faith should fight one another. We are both of us -- conservatives and Traditionalists -- beset by the same enemy, and that is Modernism.


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