In Search of the Sinister and Elusive Neo-Catholic

Over the past decade, the mysterious epithet “neo-Catholic” has been tossed around now and then. I first encountered it courtesy of Rev. Joseph O’Leary, the famed “Spirit of Vatican II” combox denizen who seems to have endless amounts of time to troll the net on behalf of gay causes and no time to, like, do his priestly duties. Out-of-touch dullard that I am, I missed Mike Liccione’s attempt to treat with Father O’Leary’s use of the term at the time, but did happen to notice some years ago when Father O’Leary declared one Janice Kraus, a minor celebrity in the convert-hating crowd, to be a neo-Catholic. This baffled me at the time, and I have since run into it now and then, but I have never quite figured out what it means.
Here’s my problem: Neo-Catholic appears to be a term that exists in a state of quantum indeterminacy. For Father O’Leary, Kraus (a self-described Traditionalist, cradle Catholic who loathes Evangelical converts) is a neo-Catholic despite the fact that he elsewhere seems to think (like Kraus) that Evangelical converts are a bunch of wet-behind-the-ears know-nothings who have taken it upon themselves to barge into the Church and start telling everybody how to be Really and Truly Catholic™. For Father O’Leary, the problem appears to be that neo-Catholics do not take their cues from guys like Rev. Richard McBrien, and they are opposed to the infinitely malleable “Spirit of Vatican II.” Indeed, their main difficulty (according to Father O’Leary) is that they converted to a pre-conciliar vision of Catholicism and are intractably hostile to the teaching of the Faith as articulated by the Council. Naturally, he regards both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI as neo-Catholic as well, atavists fighting a rearguard action against the ongoing March of Progress. Not surprisingly, having been exposed to this sort of tommyrot before, I yawned and filed away neo-Catholic as one more swear word hurled at Catholics by liberal dissenters loyal to Vatican III and the pontificate of Pope Buffy Summers I.

But recently the term popped up again in other sectors where it was given a rather different definition. Curiosity piqued, when I glanced around on the Web rather more thoroughly than I had when I first encountered it, I discovered the term seems to denote all sorts of things, depending on who is using it.
For instance, the first definition I find (from tells me that “neo-Catholic” means “of or pertaining to those Anglicans who avowedly prefer the doctrines, rituals, etc., of the Roman Catholic Church to those of the Anglican communion” and was coined in the mid-19th century. That doesn’t seem to bear any relation to Father O’Leary’s definition. Nor does the next one I find: a long list of Google search results seeming to suggest that the term has little to do with converts and everything to do with Third Millennium American politics.
Here, for example, is a cluster of Google entries around a somewhat fevered book called The Neo-Catholics: Implementing Christian Nationalism in America, by one Betty Clermont, in which neo-Catholic apparently means “neoconservative Catholic” and has to do not with being a convert particularly, but merely with being an enthusiastic supporter of the neo-con agenda of Bush/Cheney et al. The villains named by Clermont as archetypal neo-Catholics in this reckoning are Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, George Weigel, and Michael Novak, two of whom are cradle Catholics and the third of whom is hardly a convert from Evangelicalism. These particular bogeymen seem to have nothing much to do with theology in Clermont’s mind, but are instead basically seen as liaisons from the GOP, sent to infiltrate the Catholic Church and co-opt it in the service of the “neocon agenda” of creating a right-wing Americanist Church of court prophets docile to the will of Dick Cheney. In this accounting, “neo-Catholic” would seem to have nothing to do with theology except insofar as it can be manipulated to political ends.
That would all be fine and dandy definitionally speaking, if somebody had not also sent me a link from Wikipedia on the term, which only served to darken the mystery for me even further. Because while it sounds the customary notes of “Catholics with a conservative flavor,” the three examples of archetypal neo-Catholics used in this entry make no sense if you are trying to square them up with the Clermont or O’Leary crowds.
They are: Scott Hahn, Jimmy Akin, and Karl Keating, as well as (inexplicably) EWTN. Indeed, coupled with Father O’Leary’s usage, it’s a total muddle. For Father O’Leary, Kraus (loather of all things Hahn/Akin and Keating) is apparently a neo-Cath because of her contempt for Protestants (or perhaps her general conservatism), while Wikipedia tries to pin the label on Hahn, Akin, and Keating for being too Protestantized and papolotrous (if I may coin a term).
Mysteriously, the Wiki piece lumps them all in with neocons, too. But Hahn (who opposed the Iraq war and has little enthusiasm for neoconservative ideology) and Keating and Akin (who reject neocon agitprop about the glories of Hiroshima) hardly fit that bill. And Akin’s mysterious “Protestantized” tendencies have yet to become visible to me, particularly in books dedicated to helping stop liturgical abuses like Mass Confusion — unless what is meant here is that Akin (and Keating and Hahn) attempt to present the Faith in ways intelligible to Protestants so that they will, you know, become Catholic and become docile to Holy Church. I always thought that (at risk of being perceived as a Protestantized Bible thumper) the point of the Church was to “go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19), so I fail to see that problem, either — unless, of course, you just don’t want former Protestants in your Church.

So I found that, the more I pondered the term “neo-Catholic,” the more wonderfully malleable it became. I discovered, for instance, that I’m one — at least now and then. But what that meant, I still didn’t know. I don’t exactly fit the bill in terms of enthusiasm for American Nationalism trumping Catholic Faith, so I don’t know how that works with the Clermont crowd. (And I’m not the only one who rejects the notion that being Catholic means “Shut up and vote GOP.”) So I wonder: If I oppose the war and agree with the pope that it did not square with just war teaching, am I a papolotrous neo-Catholic who believes the pope incapable of the tiniest error? Contrarily, if I regard the Ordinary Form as, you know, the Ordinary Form, and fail to be sufficiently bitter about it and contemptibly content with my parish, am I Protestantized neo-Cath? Hard to tell.
Was it being a convert that makes you a neo-Catholic? Nope. Keating was always a Catholic. Pat Madrid, too. Yet somehow they are neoCaths, as well. Indeed, Catholic Answers is, I am informed by the Wiki piece, a notable neo-Catholic stronghold, as is Madrid’s “glossy neo-Catholic magazine.” So I ask: What the blazes is “neo” about somebody who was always Catholic? This is particularly puzzling when we get to the case of the born-and-bred Italian-Catholic Mother Angelica, whose EWTN is also a brood of swarming neo-Catholics, according to no less a magisterial authority than Some Guy with a Keyboard and Some Other Guy with a Keyboard Who Agrees with Him.
Enmeshed in such baffling confusion, I had almost given up on the attempt to figure out what “neo-Catholic” meant, when some of my readers rode to the rescue and showed me . . . well, not what I was looking for, exactly, but something else illuminating instead.
Of which, more next week.

Mark P. Shea


Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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