"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Fall and Rise of the Neocaths

I proudly admit to being one of those people whom their critics call "Neocaths," short for "neo-Catholics." I am a Neocath because I believe that to be one is to be neither more nor less Catholic than the Pope, and thus to be a mere member of the Church Universal rather than of an entrenched party of malcontents with a anti-Roman program. Catholics of such parties tend to be very anti-Neocath. I shall strive to illustrate what's involved in all the nastiness about Neocaths, especially by defending myself toward the end from a prominent critic of mine.

If only for credibility's sake, most Catholics who care about being Catholic claim some form of loyalty to the See of Peter. That can take some rather funny forms. On the Right, where one finds those Catholics known as "trads" (short for 'traditionalists'), there are many who believe they are more Catholic than the current and recent occupants of that see. A few, the "sedevacantists," even believe that the Pope is not the real pope—a personage who, if he exists at all, perhaps resides in relative obscurity somewhere in the Midwest. Many on the Left, whom I call "progs" (short for 'progressives'), are loyal only to the next pope or maybe the one after that—hardly surprising given that, for decades, they have encountered only popes who reject their agenda. These days most Jesuits, formally vowed to special obedience to the pope, are conspicuous in that respect; as Jesuit Paul Shaughnessy commented several years ago: “Jesuits are all loyal to the papacy, but to the future papacy—that of Pope Chelsea XII, perhaps—and their support for contraception, gay sex, and divorce proceeds from humble obedience to this conveniently protean pontiff.” Thus, while trads resent Rome for spoiling the oldie-goldie days of full pews and sound teaching, the progs resent Rome for failing to commit the Church to the liberal-Protestant agenda that their mythos still peddles as the wave of the future. Both sets of malcontents believe that the Second Vatican Council constituted a decisive break with the Church of the past; the main difference is that the trads, decrying the break, want the Council to become a dead letter while the progs, celebrating it as "the spirit of Vatican II," are impatient for the Church to complete what they take to be the Council's revolutionary work.

I am just old enough to remember the days before Vatican II, and with them the effect the Council had on the Church in the United States. That can best be described in two words: 'liberation' and 'confusion'. Those phenomena fed each other. Many Catholics felt themselves liberated from what they had experienced as the repressive legalism, musty liturgy, and school theology of the past; some of the same folk, and many more who had not been so discontented, no longer felt sure what they had to believe and do in order to accounted Catholic. The general impression was that everything was in principle up for grabs, even if the hierarchy wasn't quite ready to grant the laity the kinds and amounts of sex, power, and license that for many would be dreams come true. I was entering adolesence when all that broke forth; I came of age in New York City when it was in full swing; indeed it all seemed rather adolescent to me. Thus, while I found it congenial in many ways, I also couldn't help believing it was temporary and knew in my bones that it couldn't sustain me. The tipping point for me was having been sexually abused by one of my priestly teachers, right around the time I was reading such dangerous British eccentrics as CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, and GK Chesterton. I didn't make a public ruckus about the abuse, and won't even now, believing that no good could come of that; but I knew and eventually named the spirit that had animated it.

So, in college and after a brief flirtation with Orthodoxy, I became what is now dubbed a 'Neocath' as well as a Thomist. We Neocaths believed that the Council had been a Good Thing, and still do. But we also felt that many things done in the name of its "spirit" were anything but good, and that the trad counterreaction was almost as unhealthy. We were even then what Richard John Neuhaus, in a brilliant article that appears, slightly revised, as a chapter in his new book Catholic Matters, calls "continuants" as opposed to the "discontinuants" of Right and Left. But we were rather thin on the ground back then. I remember the very day, when I was still in high school, that Pope Paul VI, crestfallen over the widespread rejection of Humanae Vitae, lamented that "the smoke of Satan has entered the sanctuary." Judging from the trends in liturgy, catechesis, and higher education, the progs seemed to be taking over the Church. Priests and religious had been bolting in droves. Seminaries were not attracting many candidates—perhaps because, as I soon discovered firsthand, being heterosexual was in many quarters a disadvantage for applicants. I also found it curious that hardly anybody seemed interested, like me, in having the Mass celebrated as it was celebrated in Rome. The progs wanted not only the vernacular, all the time, but often and also a circus; the trads wanted the Mass not only in Latin but also in the Tridentine form that the new Roman Missal, whose editio typica was in Latin, had reformed and superseded. We thought even then that the Catholic Church was undergoing a three-way schism: between those loyal to the forms of yesterday, those loyal to what they took to be the wide vistas of tomorrow, and those loyal to the Rome of today. The "yesterday" crowd, the trads, dismissed us as merely naïve when not actually a part of the problem; the "tomorrow" crowd, the progs, crowed that we were destined for the ash heap of history along with the trads.

Since then, while the papacies of John Paul the Great and his old friend have not exactly crushed the parties of discontinuity, those papacies have substantially increased the numbers and the confidence of us Neocaths. John Paul is the pope whom younger Catholics knew when growing up, and the ones who are serious about being Catholic have been strongly influenced by him for the better. In the latter years of his papacy, vocations worldwide began to slowly increase, as they continue to do; indeed most younger priests are Neocath, much to the chagrin of many of their elders in the clergy. Benedict XVI, while not the media star his predecessor was, has inherited the good will: his Wednesday audiences attract huge crowds, even as he's proven to be gentler and more grandfatherly than the progs feared he would be; yet he maintains the sound teaching for which so many of us are deeply grateful. The progs are still powerful in Catholic institutions, of course; but they are increasingly on the defensive, ripe for replacement by the more conservative younger set because they are not good at reproducing themselves either intellectually or physically. The trads are still waxing, thanks largely to their prolific families and to the continued liturgical poverty in much of the West; but they have nobody of Wojtyla's or Ratzinger's intellectual caliber, and sooner or later will find that most loyal Catholics are never going to join them in trying to restore exactly what was.

Accordingly, while Neocaths openly worry about the Church's many problems and some even do something about them, there's no reason for us to see ourselves as beleaguered across the board. And by and large, we do not. That is why it's amusing to see one of the very few prog priests in the blogosphere and certainly the best-educated, the theologian Joseph O'Leary, announcing that the shrillness of some of his Neocath critics evinces that we're in trouble.

In his post of July 21, entitled The Decline of the Neocaths, O'Leary asserts that "the aggrieved, narcissistic tone" of Neocath responses to his earlier attacks is evidence of said decline. Such an assertion is indeed less aggrieved than those responses, but it is arguably more narcissistic. For one thing, it is based on a selection from the blogosphere, which shares the generally shrill tone of that world; but just like the older forms of Internet discussion groups and lists, the blogosphere is far smaller and more polemical than Neocatholicism as a whole. Indeed, the bloggers' shrillness is only to be expected given how provocative O'Leary enjoys being. Having followed O'Leary's comments at Pertinacious Papist intermittently for the last year, I note that he is deliberately provocative and sometimes quite weird. And that's the best evidence of where the narcissism truly lies. For it is narcissistic of O'Leary to take aggrieved reactions from Neocaths to his weirdness and provocations as evidence that it is they who have the problem. When people react angrily to things that can only be expected to anger them, is it not narcissistic to claim that there's something seriously wrong with them? O'Leary's look should be turned inward.

He has a few choice words for yours truly too, but in reply I shall be provoked only into pointing out the obvious.

He writes:

What are the signs of the decline of neocathism that have emerged over the past year?

First of all is their change of attitude toward Benedict XVI. They did not greet his Encyclical with any real enthusiasm and they have been complaining that he is not “nasty” enough (Michael Liccione), that his pontificate is shaping up as just a lull before the next storm, that he is not following through on the needed abolition of the “Novus Ordo” – the current liturgy of the Church, which many neocaths tend to see as heresy-ridden.

The first obvious fact to point out is that I did not say, or imply, that the Pope isn't "nasty" enough. In April I posted a piece entitled Is B16 Nasty Enough?, which I believe is a question worth raising; but in the end, I had to say that yes, he is nasty enough. Much as some of us Neocaths would like to see him lower the boom on progs and trads, I must concede that Benedict is wiser and holier than most of us, so that I can only give him the benefit of the doubt as he dines with the Küngs, kisses the babies, negotiates with the SSPX, and writes encyclicals about love. As for the so-called Novus Ordo, many of us Neocaths have some criticisms of it, as does the Pope himself; but few of us advocate returning to the Tridentine Rite as the norm. Most of us are willing to live with the papal indult allowing that rite while preferring a "reform of the reform" that would make the currently normative liturgy more organically continuous with the great tradition of the past. The Pope's book The Spirit of the Liturgy advocates nothing different.

O'Leary's second reference to and criticism of me is more substantive if not much more accurate:

The sterility of the neocath mindset is seen in the prodigious labors they devote to showing that official Catholic doctrine has never contradicted itself. See especially: http://mliccione.blogspot.com/. These extraordinary exercises, predicated on the alleged infallibility of “Humanae Vitae”, stand refuted by the clear facts of history, as found for instance in Charles Curran, ed. “Changes in Official Catholic Moral Teachings”, Paulist Press, 2003. Cardinal Dulles, favorite neocath theologian, carries this Parmenideanism so far as to maintain that the Church today, as in 1866, upholds the compatibility of slavery with divine and natural law.

First off, O'Leary has got two facts wrong. I do not claim that "official Catholic doctrine" has never contradicted itself, if by 'contradicted' is meant 'taken back' or 'changed'. On all the specific topics it tackles, my little treatise Development and Negation assumes that changes have occurred, and that some of them entail negation of positions long held by the Church. What I do take great trouble to show is that such changes have not negated any doctrine that has been "infallibly" taught according to the Church's own criteria for infallibility. I derive said criteria not from Humanae Vitae or from any theologian's arguments in defense of it, but from Vatican I, Vatican II, and Ratzinger's CDF responsum ad dubium (1995) on JP2's Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. I maintain that HV's teaching that "direct interruption of the generative process" is intrinsically evil, as distinct from the type of document HV is, meets Vatican II's criteria—as applied by Ratzinger to the women's-ordination issue—for infallible teaching by the ordinary and universal magisterium of the bishops. I also argue that the question which teachings meet such criteria cannot remain, irreducibly, a matter of opinion. Thus, when the Magisterium says that such-and-such a teaching meets such criteria, the matter is closed. Ratzinger's responsum on OS is, historically, one of the few examples of that and certainly the clearest. And I believe the same should be done on behalf of HV.

I don't take O'Leary personally on all this because he tars even Cardinal Avery Dulles with the same brush. But even there, the tar can't quite stick. Dulles' position is not that slavery is perfectly OK, but that the Church even today does not teach that all involuntary servitude is intrinsically wrong. The Church today does condemn slavery, but not, e.g., as a form of punishment for convicts; otherwise, it would be intrinsically wrong for legitimate authority to force inmates pick up trash from the highways or make license plates. Rather, the late pope took for granted that in today's world, involuntary servitude as a social phenomenon is maintained and accompanied by practices that are intrinsically evil and thus cannot escape condemnation itself. He was of course correct. But that entails no contradiction of any teaching that had been propounded infallibly according to the authoritative criteria. Nor does Charles Curran or anybody else show otherwise.

Some of the arguments made by Curran in the book that O'Leary cites are indeed worth rebutting in detail. A few theologians have attempted that in academic journals, and I expect to do so myself when I develop my treatise into a book and publish it. But O'Leary's careless, cavalier way of characterizing his opponents' views does not serve his cause well. That's not uncommon among progs: I've noted as much in the style of Sr. Joan Chittister, in my Christifideles article "Playing the Chit" (see the link in the left sidebar). As much as anything else, that's the sort of thing that signifies the intellectual decline of the progs.

At least the trads suffer not from intellectual decline. As best as I can make out, they have no peak from which to decline.

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