The Ideological War Begins
Benedict XVI couldn’t make it out of the Vatican door before America’s leading neo-Catholic intellectual, George Weigel, was shilling his latest book on the First Things web-log. As Weigel is wont to do, he presents his views (and the views of the larger neocath establishment) as the via media between the Church’s radical Left (c.f., Hans Kung) and the reactionary Right (c.f., Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre/Society of St. Pius X). It’s a more localized application of the “logic” of post-1989 neo-liberalism: Because it is neither socialist/communist nor fascist, it must be correct. “Third-way ideology,” at the intellectual level at least, has been discredited, though that hardly means it lacks political purchase. It is little surprise, then, that “third-way Catholicism” still breathes despite what seemed like a series of mortal blows delivered to that ideological construct during the closing days of the Bush II Administration. Fr. Richard J. Neuhaus passed on, and in going he managed to pen American Babylon, a half-hearted and incohate (though not insignificant) retraction of his support for the Unholy Alliance struck between Catholicism and neoconservatism in the post-9/11 period. Weigel, being a neocath of the strict observance, has not yet apostatized. During his time as persona non grata at the Vatican following the death of John Paul II he seems to have been playing the waiting game. Weigel is no doubt eager for regime change in Rome. It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that he made a laughing stock out of himself when he attempted to interpret B16’s social encyclical, Caritas et Veritate, as a capitalist manifesto.
I have no doubt that Weigel knows he is arguing uphill right now and that his friends in the larger Catholic Church are few. While Weigel has made a career out of panning the post-Vatican II Catholic Left, it is telling that he has directed an increasing number of polemical potshots toward the Society of St. Pius X and, arguably, traditionalist Catholics writ large. Conflating neocaths and traditionalists is a common analytical mistake made by many Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Several of my Eastern Orthodox acquaintances for instance believe there is little distinction to be made between the SSPX and Opus Dei despite the latter group’s rather strange refusal to celebrate the Tridentine Mass (to say nothing of the meatier doctrinal disagreements which exist between the Society and Opus Dei). Weigel knows better. He knows that the neocath posture has lost chicness in recent years and that there has been a steady trickle of American Catholics toward the traditionalist camp. The recent talks between the Vatican and the Society, despite failing to resolve the SSPX’s canonical status, opened the door generally to a more sympathetic hearing of their case. Most traditionalist publications (and a surprising number of liberal-to-conservative commentaries on the Society) no longer drop the s-bomb (“Schismatics!”) on the Society. Even those who find some of the SSPX’s positions personally distasteful are forced to concede that the Society has only continued to grow over the decades while sheepishly observing that their vocations are on the rise. In short, the Society is a threat—and not just a European one. Pitched more broadly, traditional Catholicism is a threat to the neocath way of speaking the “markets and morality” rhetoric while casually blurring the lines between various Christian (and even non-Christian) confessions as long as they pass certain secular tests for ideological purity. Traditionalism spoils the party insofar as its adherents are still willing to make distinctions between the one true religion (Catholicism) and the umpteen thousands of false religions and sects that pervade the American spiritual landscape. Moreover, traditionalism takes seriously the classic social doctrine of the Catholic Church—one which has little time for supply-side ideology. By rejecting the earthly paradise of iPods, rhythmic sex, and 3 SUVs by having the temerity to take seriously the Social Kingship of Christ and the duty to be in the world but not of it, traditionalism is tantamount to poison; Weigelian neo-Catholicism is the “antidote.”