Robin Williams made the term “Catholic lite” semi-famous in the 1990s in his comedy routines when he would describe Episcopalianism as Catholic light—he called it “all the religion but with half the guilt!”
I’m not sure which is the more interesting factoid: that the Christianese term Catholic light (or Catholic lite) can refer to either the Episcopal church, the Anglican church, or the Lutheran church—or that Robin Williams is an Episcopalian (see 2008 citation) and used to crack wise about “Catholic light” in his stand-up routines. (Note that the 1997 citation in sense 1 below is from a eulogy Williams delivered at Herb Caen’s funeral.)
In a nutshell, the expression Catholic light means “similar to Catholicism without embracing all of Catholicism’s doctrines.” When it comes to liturgical ceremonies and church rituals, there are several Protestant denominations that rival Catholicism: we’re talking about robes, candles, formal processions, and a strict order of worship. You know, the whole “smells and bells” thing. Some people describe these formal churches services as “high church” as compared with more casual and easy-going church services such as you find in “low church” denominations such as the Baptists, Evangelicals, and nondenominationalists.
See the full definition below, along with some interesting citations that give examples of each of the three meanings.
Catholic light n. Also Catholic lite. [Light (or lite) ‘inferior; imitative’ from being similar to Roman Catholic liturgical practices without actually being Catholic] See various senses.
1. The Episcopal church.
R. Williams, in his eulogy for Herb Caen, as quoted in San Francisco Chronicle
(8 Feb.) : This is an Episcopal church right? Very good. Episcopal—that’s Catholic lite: same religion, half the guilt. 2001
Reed How to Survive Being a Presbyterian
179 : Episcopalians are Catholics Lite, who have one-third less guilt, and call themselves “Whiskeypalians” because they say that when four of them get together there’s always a fifth. 2003
Bremer Blessed with Tourists: The Borderlands of Religion and Tourism in San Antonio
125 : Anna Martinez-Amos, who served as site advocate at Mission Espada, also brought a Catholic background to her work, although she says that now she’s “Catholic-light,” by which she means Episcopalian. 2008 The Episcopal Handbook
(Morehouse Publishing) 79 : Comedian Robin Williams (an Episcopalian) popularized this term in an interview when, referring to a beer commercial, he described Catholic Lite as “same rituals, half the guilt.” Like all jokes, there’s a nugget of truth in there, and one we’re rather proud of.
2. The Anglican church.
• 2010 Cutié Dilemma: A Priest’s Struggle with Faith and Love 186 : Anglicans are not, as I’ve heard some say, “Catholic lite” or “Catholics without a pope.”
3. The Lutheran church.
• 2010 Kennedy Make ’Em Laugh and Take Their Money 75 : I was raised Lutheran, which is basically Catholic without confession. Basically, a bunch of Catholics got pissed off about something, left and started their own thing, kind of Catholic-Lite.