Catholic Vitalism


This article was written on 02 Apr 2016, and is filled under Uncategorized.

The Future of Catholicism Part 4: Neo-Conservative Catholicism

Teaching in a Zombie Catholic high school was, for me, a mixed bag. Mostly, it was hugely dispiriting to face the bored, tired hordes of modern Philistines who were thrown at me relentlessly, class after class, with three short minutes to raise my spirits for the next onslaught. If ever there was someone who felt like they were casting pearls to swine, it was me. Of course, some of them were friendly, likable ‘swine’, but swine they were nonetheless, with few exceptions.

At first, of course, I blamed myself, as teachers are wont to do: it must be me. I must be doing something wrong. Here’s where being in a Zombie Catholic environment can be great: since nobody cared what I was teaching, I had freedom to do what I thought best.

In this depressing, exhausting environment, I discovered the relatively vibrant world of Neo-Conservative Catholicism. After rejecting the intellectual suicide of Liberal Catholicism and experiencing the utter deadness of the Zombie Catholics–at last, it seemed, I found something that seemed to make sense. Against the relentless mockery and derision of Modernity, Neo-Conservative Catholicism staunchly defends many of the traditional doctrinal and moral teachings of the Church. These folks mirror the response of political Conservativism in defense of traditional values such as the importance of the family and traditional sexual mores, belief in God, and a proper respect for law and authority. An oasis of strength and hope, and more than just an intellectual oasis: a real movement with real institutions such as the social-conservative wing of Republican Party. The Zombie-ism of the Catholic school I worked at skewed towards Neo-Conservatism, so there were allies (History dept., disciplinary ‘vibe’, many of the students) John Courtney Murray. First Things. Acton Institute. George Weigel. Opus Dei. Legionaries of Christ.

After the blur that was my first year of teaching, I was assigned to teach Morality, including of course the Social Teaching of the Church. The Liberal Catholic text I was supposed to use represented this teaching as a wholehearted endorsement of Liberalism, with chapters devoted to Sexism, Racism, and Poverty which seemed incompatible with the Faith and superficial. But as I dug deeper, I discovered that the authentic teaching of the Church avoided this glib Liberalism, but was equally incompatible with the economic vision of Neo-Conservatism. The Neo-Conservative solution to the assault of Modernity was a bifurcated one: while rejecting most of the corrosive Liberal moral program, Neo-Cons sought to enthusiastically embrace the political and economic program of the Enlightenment.   Neo-Conservative Catholics saw themselves as doing something similar to what Aquinas did with Aristotle in the 13th century: to assimilate what was genuinely good and helpful while rejecting the elements which couldn’t be reconciled.


If Modernity represents an aggressor in their household, Neo-Conservative Catholics are the children who are initially repulsed by his rudeness and coarse language, but who become convinced that he has a ‘heart of gold’, and will be a great friend of the family, if we engage in dialogue and give him respect. Plus, he looks like he’s got some money.


But can this project work? Are the political and economic tenets of the Enlightenment compatible with Catholicism?

Philosophical Problem. Take the ‘good’ parts of Liberalism, reject the ‘bad’ parts. But despite their apparent vibrancy, Neo-Conservative Catholics have a lethal Achilles’ heel: often without being aware of it, they have completely failed to assimilate the Social Teaching of the Church.

Neo-Conservative Catholicism is guilty of the logical fallacy known as the False Dilemma: in a False Dilemma fallacy, two opposing options are suggested, when there are other possible alternatives. Neo-Cons followed the Cold War logic of proposing that the only economic choices in the modern world were Capitalism (in its various forms) and Communism (in its various forms, including Socialism).

Without getting into a huge discussion of economics here, this Dilemma refuses to recognize the clear, consistent teaching of the Magisterium, as well as the writings of many of the great Catholic sages of modern times: that there is a ‘third way’ which embodies Catholic principles– Distributism.

And once one discovers the incompatibility of Catholicism with Economic Liberalism, it become obvious that the vision expands dramatically from there: marriage and family, environmentalism,

At the core of the Neo-Conservative Catholic program is a darkness, a dark Calvinist mentality that exaggerates the darkness of the human condition… (Cardinal George)

Magisterial Problem:

I hate to say it, but it can’t be done. Liberalism will not brook compromise: it wants the Church DEAD. And it’s not just economic: this compromise infects everything.


“You shall know them by their fruits” This intellectual lack of integrity of Neo-Conservative Catholicism. But there’s an equally troubling dimension: the aesthetic/cultural dimension, “drinking the Kool-Aid”. The most notable Kool-Aid drinker is Jim Jones. Catholics who “drink the Kool-Aid” tend to be a little less “Kool-Aidy” than him, but nonetheless, enduring a conversation with them is pretty unnerving. To the bourgeois Catholics they are “on fire with the faith”, but to anyone who is willing to be a little more real, they seem hypnotized and very much too serene and happy. Since saying things like “God bless” at the end of emails is a little archaic (although if we were living in the time when this was normal it would be lovely), and therefore forced, and therefore weird, and bringing up Jesus as an act of aggression in what could be called civilian situations… In any event the toughest spin on these people, and the right one is that they are taking the Lord’s name in vain as a lifestyle and persona.

Allies of Evangelical Protestantism. The weakness of Neo-Conservative Catholicism can be seen 1) in its shenanigans.

Assessment: It’s hard to criticize folks whose enthusiasm for this tortured form of Catholicism perhaps blinds them to the inappropriate, even buffoonish quality of its expressions. In an episode of the brilliant sit-com “Seinfeld”, Jerry Seinfeld, a Jewish comedian, finds himself in a Catholic confessional discussing with the priest the recent conversion of his non-Jewish dentist to Catholicism, “for the jokes”. The priest asks, “Are you offended as a person of the Jewish faith?” Seinfeld replies, emphatically, “No, I’m offended as a comedian!” The Kool-Aid offends me, but not as a Catholic, but as a human being. I think we can do much, much better, but the vision needs to make more sense for its articulation to regain integrity and coherence.


2) In its treatment of ‘lay employees’. Bishops’ relationship to lay employees: brutal, Calvinistic.

Looking back on my years as a Catholic Neo-Con, I tend towards perhaps an inordinate gratitude for what it gave me. The lyrics of the Simon and Garfunkel song, “The Boxer”, come to mind:

Asking only workman’s wages
I come looking for a job,
But I get no offers,
Just a come-on from the whores
On Seventh Avenue
I do declare,
There were times when I was so lonesome
I took some comfort there.

I do declare, I took some comfort there.

Sociological Analysis:

29% of involved Catholics

The Neo-Conservative Catholic Project projected a grand vision, embodied in Neuhas’ proclamation of ‘The Catholic Moment’. But the subsequent decades have definitively crushed that false opitimism. I think history will mark the landmark Obergefell decision as the definitive end of the Neo-Conservative Catholic Project.

The dream of Neo-Conservative Catholicism turned out to be a false hope. But while the Neo-Cons were busy getting everything wrong, a tiny counter-movement emerged, finding a deeper and less optimistic starting point in many of the very same authors the Neo-Cons were reading (Chesterton, popes)…


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