Saturday, November 12, 2011

First, define your terms

Since people seemed interested in it, here below is some more of that discussion with my friend on Catholic taxonomy. (Who, by the way can probably be classified himself as a conservative, trending Trad, as I explained to him. It is much easier to understand these things from the point of view of someone who is not on the scale at all, that is, from the Traditionalist point of view. You can't see the Matrix while you're in it.)

My friend is new to the world of the Catholic culture wars but has dived in with both feet as only an enthusiastic American can do, firmly convinced of his Constitutional rights to pronounce on any subject and eager to get things done.

He had used the term "neo-Catholic" to mean what we normally describe as a "liberal" Catholic, interchangeably. The latter of these, however, are more accurately described as Modernists, and formal heretics.

This is, of course, an area I don't know enough about to pronounce upon in any but the most casual, journalistic way. I don't have any theological training and I stand ready to be corrected by those of my friends and readers who do. (I hate disclaimers, don't you? They're such beady-eyed, rabbity things, but just this once...)

I would like to add that to define a Modernist properly, I would have to do a lot of lookings-up and asking of experts. I hope it is understood that I am always writing as an interested layman with a layman's understanding. But my understanding is a baptised one and so I can at least know that there is such a thing, know where to go to look it up, and by applying this basic catechism-level knowledge to my own observations, I can know in broad terms how and where this pernicious heresy has flourished and choked out the Faith. Don't ever let anyone tell you that you are not qualified to defend the Faith because you don't have a degree.

Moreover as a journalist and a blogger, I have more than a passing understanding where the divisions lie for the purposes of writing about the Catholic debate and the Culture Wars, on the internet. Of course, I also want to add that these divisions, these taxonomic classifications are themselves far from fixed separations. If you have studied the history of biological taxonomy, you will find that it is a science, or a study adjunct to science, that is not exactly err... exact. Over time, lots of species have been shifted around the taxonomic key as more things are discovered about them.

But the basic premise is perfectly sound and does not change. Real things, things that exist in nature, have characteristics, observable accidents that can be quantified to help us decide what sort of things they are, and what sort of other things they are related to.

Of course, people don't like to be quantified in this way, and it is especially unfashionable now that political correctness has entered the fray. I can't tell you how many times I have heard the indignant cry, "I'm not a ____, I'm just a Catholic." Well, may I suggest that in the modern Church, if that is true, then you are, most likely, simply a lazy Catholic who has never bothered to learn anything about the Faith, to discover its depths and surprises and has never had an opportunity to find out what your reactions to those surprises will be. The Church is in crisis and is fragmented from top to bottom. If you are trying to claim that you are "just a Catholic" I suggest that you are attempting to wish these realities into the cornfield, a power you do not have. Grow up and get into the fight.

I sold the other post to a friend who runs a small but famously irascible Catholic newspaper in the US, so I won't be putting it back up. But the gist, for those who missed it, was my attempt to help my friend clarify the distinctions between the various tribes of the Faith and to dispel some of his misconceptions.

To summarise, here are my main points:
"neo-Catholics," as the term is used by Traditionalist writers describing a certain strain of modern Catholicism...

- are often American converts from evangelical protestantism,

- adhere generally to and defend the sexual moral teachings of the Church but are either ignorant of or opposed to the Church's teachings, as defined by the 19th and early 20th century popes, on the proper construction of the social order, ie: the Social Reign of Christ the King

- are generally satisfied with the direction taken by the modern Church with regards to "freedom of religion" and other beliefs, but believes that a return to the traditional sexual moral teachings is essential in both the Church and society

- indulge in a selective enthusiasm for the 20th century popes, with the usual exeption of Pius X. They normally believe that John Paul II was "Great" and should be canonised

- usually know very little about the Church's struggle in Europe and the US, through the 18th and 19th century with secularists and anti-clericals

- are convinced that the principles behind the US constitution (liberte, egalite, fraternite, freedom of speech, separation of Church and state) are entirely compatible with the Catholic Faith and are usually totally unaware of the writings of the popes

- often oppose what they believe to be "the Vatican's" objections to US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and will argue vociferously that this does not constitute opposition to the Pope

- believe that the liturgical reforms following Vatican II are mostly either innocuous or acceptable, and the ones that aren't were not direct products of the Council but unapproved aberrations

- oppose "gay marriage" but believe that marriage should be an "equal partnership" between the man and the woman, don't see any problem with "natural family planning" and think feminism was generally founded on good ideas but went astray and can be "Christianised"

- usually want to be seen as a supporter of "womens' rights" and like to say, often and loudly, that "women are just as much victims of abortion as their dead children"

- are strongly clericalist, particularly when it comes to Bishops and believe it is always wrong to criticise bishops

- believe in the "reform of the reform" for the liturgy and (recently) that the two "forms" can and should exist side by side and "enrich" each other

- believe that the Second Vatican Council itself was either innocuous or a good thing, but that it was hijacked by 'liberals' and its documents distorted and misapplied

- generally hate and fear Trads, but lately have learned to be polite to them, at least while Teacher is looking.

Here is some of the rest of my correspondence with my friend (Part I):

Hi Hilary,

good to hear from you.

Saw your email [the one I posted and then sold, hjw].. hmmmm ....

I guess I was using the term in a larger sense when equating with liberal .. meaning exactly what you described .. someone opposed to the more traditional aspects of the faith. But i guess i could sub-divide the "liberal" crowd even further.

When I talk about liberals in the Church .. i mean what you have described.

When i talk about Modernists in the Church, I mean the really bad guys.

Just like with bishops, there are the Traditionalists (Burke et al), the liberals (Dolan, Chaput et al) and the Modernists (Bernardin et al).

Both of the last two are bad, just in different degrees. But which ones do the most damage - ah, now there is a question. Those with actual evil intent, or those so self-deluded, that they are being destructive while actually believing they are helping.

OK, I begin to see where your error lies and have to say that you absolutely must stop making definitions up on your own. All the terms you are using already have clear definitions and cannot be used randomly according to your own lights. Words mean things.

Of course, as a Trad, my opinion is that a neo-Catholic, that is a "conservative" Catholic, is merely a liberal who's been mugged by reality. But he's a conservative. He has, by this mugging, changed from the position of liberal to that of conservative. He is no longer a liberal. OK? Neo-Catholic does not mean liberal, it means Neo-Catholic. The two things are not the same.

Words mean things and you can't just use them any which way and not cause confusion. It is extremely important that you do not simply start using these terms in whatever way suits your personal little fancy.

The terms modernist, liberal, conservative, neo-Catholic and Traditionalist all have definitions, meanings, (though "liberal" and "conservative" less than the other ones). Each means something different and cannot be used interchangeably.

A neo-Catholic is not a liberal in the sense that the latter term is currently understood in the Western Catholic Culture Wars. In the same way, a Traditionalist is not a conservative. (If you were to go to a party full of Trads and start to call them conservatives, you would be thought a clod and not invited back. Conservatives have ruthlessly persecuted Trads and have only recently begun to be even remotely polite to us.)

The term "Neo-Catholic" and "conservative" are almost interchangeable, but not quite, but most important is that a Neo-Catholic conservative is not a liberal. Please get this clear. A Neo-Catholic is not a liberal. At least, not subjectively according to him, and not in the current usage in the world of Catholic-talk on the internet. (Whether he is objectively, is a separate question and shall be dealt with hereafter.) The term is not used that way.

The terms "liberal" and "conservative" are the least accurate, most slippery, vaguely-defined and least useful. Unfortunately, these terms are also the ones most people are used to, and when you start using the term 'liberal' to describe people that are normally thought of as 'conservative' you will not be helping the cause of clarity. They started to be applied a long time ago, and though more suited to political discussion, have been tacked on, with varying success, to the Catholic world.

In the interests of accuracy, however, and with respect to the effort to communicate clearly, the term neo-Catholic is a great deal more descriptive, precise and accurate in what it describes than the nearly infinitely malleable "conservative". "Conservative" has become such a slippery expression as to be nearly useless, whereas "neo-Catholic" has quite a specific definition, and a clear provenance. It was first coined by the Traditionalist writers Christopher Ferrara and Thomas E. Woods Jr. in their book The Great Facade, one which I strongly recommend you buy and read. I can give you the email address of Chris, if you would like to have him help you further clarify the meaning of the term.

The term "liberal" to mean the evil Modernists who have taken over the running of the show since the 60s, is also quite slippery of course, but I would be very cautious about using it as interchangeable with "Modernist". Modernism is a clearly defined heresy, and I expect that not every one we think of when we use the term liberal (Card. Mahoney, Bishop Gumbleton, Sr. Joan Chittister, etc) is a modernist, as the term is correctly applied. But they are "liberals" in the broader sense. I suppose that you can be a liberal without being, strictly speaking, a modernist. (Whether you can be a modernist without being a liberal is a different question. I don't know enough about Modernism as it was defined in the late 19th and early 20th century to tell you.)

You are, as far as I can tell from following your podcasts over the last couple of years, moving from the position of "conservative" to that of "Traditionalist" without fully understanding what is happening, and are therefore suffering from category confusion. This is probably why you think Cardinal Burke is a Traditionalist. I'm sure he would never say so. (I think you need to understand right off the bat that there are no Traditionalist bishops alive today who hold a see or position in the Church. None. Not one. Burke is just a very very conservative conservative, who happens, like many conservatives, to be sympathetic to the Traditionalists' positions and complaints. There is a small number of Traddie priests and a larger community of laity. but there are no episcopal Trads.)

You may be suffering from the common misunderstanding that a Trad is merely an ultra-conservative. Just a conservative only moreso. But, as I see you are starting to understand, "liberal" and "conservative" are merely arbitrary labels that can be applied according to where you yourself are standing on the scale. Whether one is regarded as a conservative or a liberal depends entirely upon whom you are standing next to. Whereas "Traditionalist" is an absolute term for which there is no scale. You can't be "more Traditionalist" than someone else. It's an all or nothing proposal and a Trad can be clearly defined. You either are one or you are not. Traditionalist is not an adjective, in other words, and cannot be used as one in the way that "liberal" and "conservative" can.


Mark S. Abeln said...

Modernist yet ‘Traditionalist’. They exist.

There is a heresy, formally called ‘Traditionalism’ which does not exactly mean what we mean by the word traditional. This theory states that tradition is the only means of finding the truth, and denies the value of reason. While we may dislike the trend of contemporary reasoning, that is no reason to reject reason altogether.

But how this works out in practice is thus:

Catholics, according to the theory, ought to practice their religion as traditionally understood. But, every nation and culture ought to be equally traditional with regards to its own religion and culture. Therefore, Scots ought to be Presbyterians, Africans ought to be animists. Iraqis ought to be Muslims and Chinese, Confucians. Americans ought to be strict Constitutionalists and Protestants.

This kind of Academic Traditionalism is actually fairly widespread in the upper tiers of society and is often implicit elsewhere. This kind of bad Traditionalism would oppose the preaching of the Gospel to all nations — for that goes against the traditions of the nations. To a lesser degree, this kind of traditionalism would encourage Americans remain traditionally Protestant Constitutionalists, even if Catholic.

Academic Traditionalism is based on the theory of impersonal, random evolution, and so is Modernist. It can lead to an excessive desire for enculturation and false ecumenism. This is a kind of cultural relativism, and denies that which is true. Eventually the theory breaks down when some group claims that revolution is a part of “their” tradition, and so academic traditionalism is ultimately vacuous.

Anonymous said...

I think this should be called Pereniallism or maybe Guenonian Traditionalism to distinguish it from the other kind. Many Western Islam-boosters are Pereniallists, like the Prince of Wales. - Karen

BillyHW said...

- oppose "gay marriage" but believe that marriage should be an "equal partnership" between the man and the woman, don't see any problem with "natural family planning" and think feminism was generally founded on good ideas but went astray and can be "Christianised"

- usually want to be seen as a supporter of "womens' rights" and like to say, often and loudly, that "women are just as much victims of abortion as their dead children"

Yes, this is a strange contradiction. They want to believe that women are responsible enough to vote, but then not be responsible for their actions in abortion. I don't think they should be able to have it both ways.

Anonymous said...

It's not a contradiction. They don't think that voting is that important, they understand that universal franchise leads to secret technocratic leadership and they are ok with this. Women are just as irresponsible as everyone else! - Karen

Felix said...

First, a quick attempt at defining Modernism as the view that truth is basically subjective.

The point can be nicely illustrated by what is meant by being pastoral. Before The Council, being pastoral meant helping people to be good; now it means helping people feel good.

And conservative Catholics are crypto-modernists when they apply a subjective test for religious truth, referring solely to the Pope's will (in contrast to other modernists who see it as depending on their own will).

By contrast, the trad sees Catholic truth as being found in the corpus of Catholic teaching reaching back to Christ and His apostles (and before that, in the Old Testament).

To give a personal example, I became a full-fledged Trad when JPII announced his changes to the Rosary. It was an incredible act of devotional vandalism and contrary to generations of Papal teaching about the Rosary. But my conservative friends closed their eyes to all this: il Papa had spoken and his pronunciamento was authoritative (until the next Pope says something different).

Anonymous said...

I've never liked the term "neo-catholic". It insults a great many good people who often are smarter than those well-intentioned people who coined the term. I was bewildered by some of the directions of B16 after he became Pope, but then I realized Pius XII didn't excommunicate the evolver, Teilhard de Chardin, either. Evidently excommunications are a matter of papal prudential decision.

For more on all that if any care:

Anonymous said...

PS As an aside, the last I heard Thomas Woods had a fallout with the co-author of the Great Facade:

Woods told the Intelligence Report in late 2005 that he had cut his ties to Ferrara and had "spent the past 18 months trying to mend fences with people we attacked in The Great Facade." Woods, who is now the associate editor of the more mainstream magazine, The Latin Mass, declined further comment last September on the theological views he espoused in The Great Facade. But in earlier correspondence with the Report, Woods said he had "no interest in being involved in a 'traditionalist movement' that permits no disagreement even on matters not strictly of faith," adding that he would not "work toward the establishment of a Catholic monarchy in the U.S."

So there we have it. Few are comfortable with giving a carte blanche blessing to the disciples of Fr. Nicholas Gruner, and prefer the more sober traditionalists who reason responsibly and do not agitate to simply condemn others who are largely sympathetic. Ferrara's book on EWTN was another hatchet job because too often his criticisms were unjust or cynically interpreted (not to say EWTN is beyond criticism, Clearly there are problems, but it is better to woo those generally traditional than bludgeon them whether they come around or not. Being systematically devisive does little positive good. Having said that The Remnant paper has ***in general*** turned more positive and become more charitable since the election of Benedict XVI without forfeiting its edge of constructive criticism. At least that was so the last time I looked at it carefully a couple of years ago.

Tom Ryan said...

It's refreshing to see Chaput categorized as a liberal. His jumpstarting of Christopher West's gnosticism is enough but he also seems to embrace Americanism, at times.
But, can we really call Burke a trad? Or is he just trad friendly? He has been enlisted by the likes of Fr. Apostoli against the "Fatimites" and his association with the AHC is troubling

hjw said...


I'd never heard this one. It's quite interesting. Totally nuts, of course, but interesting. I suppose it must be called a variation on syncretism,

Anonymous said...

Yes you have, Miss White, it's what the Aristasians believe. Also many Western Islam-boosters; Western Sufi orders are mostly this. - Karen

Anonymous said...

You can get a taste of this at