Musings of an Accidental Conservative

29 Jan

liberal and conservativeI have long disliked the label “conservative.” I mean, there’s nothing wrong with it per se, but I’m not a political ideologue. I am a Catholic who believes what the Church teaches, and for that reason alone I’m often called a “conservative” these days.

After reading Bishop Finn’s recent post in which he courageously affirms that the National Catholic Reporter, long considered a leading voice of “liberal Catholicism,” should not be considered a “Catholic publication,” I figured the time was ripe to give my top ten list of reasons why “liberal” and “conservative” are not useful terms when it comes to Catholic beliefs. These are in no particular order:

(1) Term Limits

“Conservative” and “liberal” are already entrenched as political terms with their own specific meaning. The terms are necessarily adversarial and divisive when used in the context of the Church, since they imply a struggle for supremacy between two more/less equally legitimate camps. With St. Paul we might ask, “Is Christ divided?” (1 Cor. 1:13). When we try to use two emotionally charged terms from one context and apply them in a completely different context, of course there will be misunderstanding exacerbated by strong emotional responses.

(2) Not in Catholic Lexicon

Okay, when we hear the terms “conservative” and “liberal” we think of political terms. But let’s go further: they are not Catholic terms in a strict sense. I’ve been though all 2,865 paragraphs of the Catechism of the Catholic Church many times, and I don’t recall ever seeing those terms used. Instead, the Catholic Church has its own vocabulary to describe one′s relationship to the Church. Shouldn’t we use that instead? The problem of course is that many consider themselves Americans first, and Christians or Catholics second, so they let American culture define the rules of engagement even within the Church. Perhaps during this Year of Faith we can strive to recover a more fully Catholic worldview.

(3) Radio, Radio (second Elvis Costello allusion this month, but accidents happen)

We tend to think of “liberal” and conservative” as two extremes on a continuum, sort of like a radio dial. The stations at the left side of the AM dial (in the 500s or 600s, say) would be “liberal” and the stations at the far right (1500s and 1600s) would be “conservative.” Both have a place on the radio dial, though people might gravitate toward the numbers in the middle away from the two extremes, where most of the more popular stations tend to be located.

Similarly, we often hear of Catholics who are 100% with the Church described as “conservative” or even “ultraconservative,” while those who dissent from the Church on hot-button moral issues are called “moderate.” Maybe a Catholic who is truly a Catholic is considered a “conservative” by political pundits, but all Catholics must be “conservative” when it comes to upholding Christian moral teaching in the public square. What are we saying, that being “too Catholic” or “too religious” is one extreme, and being hostile to God, religion, and all public morals is the other extreme, such that the desirable middle ground is to be “sorta Catholic” or “mildly dissident”? Yet I’ve personally run into that sort of thinking many times in the Church.

(4) Conversion

Nobody should go around calling people heretics or apostates. Yet we go way too far in the other direction. We’re not willing to speak hard truths with charity. We’re not willing to say that any position that conflicts with established Catholic teaching on faith and morals is heresy. Instead, we call it “liberal,” which is then taken as a legitimate, perhaps even chic, way of being in the Church. While most people don’t want to consider themselves heretics, many consider the “liberal” tag a badge of honor. My point here is that those who part ways with the Church should be called back into full communion. We’re less inclined to do so when we regularly use euphemisms to conceal the need for repentance and conversion. Let’s face it: When we tolerate dissent and heresy rather than call to conversion, we are not truly loving our brothers and sisters in Christ.

(5) Good Liberal vs. Bad Liberal

Of course part of the problem is that the terms themselves are vague and ambiguous, especially given the frequent blending of their political and ecclesial ramifications. “Liberalism” in the sense of favoring the social legitimization of evils such as abortion, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage is an abomination for Catholics. “Liberalism” in the sense of favoring big government programs may be problematic for Catholics at times, such as when the principle of subsidiarity is violated, but it’s not quite as cut and dried (but close). And then there’s “liberalism” in the sense of the Church’s staunch defense of human dignity and social justice, which generally speaking is a very good thing (when the concept isn’t hijacked). But in the Church, “liberal” typically equates with “dissident” or ”heterodox,” which is clearly not a good thing, yet is given cover because of its legitimacy in some political contexts.

(6) Good Conservative vs. Bad Conservative

The Church has been entrusted the “deposit of faith” (cf. 1 Tim. 6:20), which she protects and “conserves.” She holds fast to Tradition (cf. 2 Thess. 2:15), and she’ll prevail against the ”powers of death” (cf. Mt. 16:18). So while the Church is a living organism that grows and adapts to new situations, there is no doubt a pervasive “conservative” dimension to her essential constitution. Since being a faithful, practicing, “normative” Catholic is also considered being “conservative” in a political sense, we must resist the temptation to “default” our way into uncritically accepting all aspects of political conservativism, even as we generally embrace the conservatives’ approach to many issues, especially what are generally called “social issues.”

(7) This Ain’t a Democracy

It should go without saying that the Church is not a democracy. Yet the more we politicize the Church, the more weight we give to the assumption on the part of many that, in the words of the dissident “Voice of the Faithful” organization from a decade ago, we can “keep the faith, change the Church.” If we get enough people to show up at a town hall meeting or to sign some petition, would the Church change her fundamental structure or reverse her moral teachings? Of course not! So why use political terms that suggest with proper maneuvering we might be able to elect a new Pope or push through an agenda that’s fundamentally at odds with the Catholic faith?

(8) Divine Element

Because of the political, democratic connotations of “liberal” and “conservative,” we tend to downplay the fact that Christianity is about following Christ. It’s His Church, and it’s one (and holy, Catholic, and apostolic). In politics, we’re trying to get others to side with us, or at least to vote for our candidate or issue. In the Church, it’s the other way around. It’s about God’s grace changing us, persuading us to follow Him more completely and unreservedly.

(9) Stop Thinking

Obviously in the political realm we sometimes have to speak on a macro level, and so blocs of people who tend to vote a particular way are labeled as such. Yet I think we should resist labeling and resist being labeled as much as possible in the Church. It’s an excuse to stop thinking, or even to write off somebody without really knowing them. When someone is identified as a “liberal” Catholic by a “conservative” Catholic, or vice versa, then we’re institutionalizing division and dissent within the Church, and wounding her witness to the world.

(10) Communion, not Class Struggle

The key term in understanding the Catholic Church is “communion,” as through God’s grace centuries of strife and division are overcome in the person of Christ, in whom we truly become brothers and sisters. In our largely secular society, many people consider themselves “Catholic” but really don’t fully identify with or participate in the life of the Church. Then there are others who stay in the Church to reform her in their own image. Rather than see in all this chaos some sort of class struggle between the so-called “liberals” and “conservatives,” we should perceive a call to foster both the visible and invisible bonds of unity within the Church (see Catechism, no. 815; there is also a wonderful discussion in Pope John Paul II”s encyclical letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia, nos. 35 and following).

In other words, we must be better Catholics and build better Catholics. Without the conviction of faith, then it’s only about tactics.

19 Responses to “Musings of an Accidental Conservative”

  1. William January 29, 2013 at 6:45 pm #

    Great Post! Thanks!

  2. Melissa January 29, 2013 at 7:23 pm #

    Truly enjoyed this. Thank you!

  3. James Likoudis January 29, 2013 at 7:56 pm #

    An excellent post- but there remain 2 puzzling situations:
    1) Heretical dissent is a reality in the Church, and the fear by authorities to identify those responsible for it has only served to justify such dissenters as just being another brand of Catholic.
    2) Who is not in [some kind of ] communion with the Church?
    Comments in a further column?

  4. Doc W January 29, 2013 at 10:17 pm #

    Your aim is true, Leon.
    “The whole modern world has divided itself into conservatives and progressives. The business of progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.” (G.K. Chesterton)

  5. Leon Suprenant January 29, 2013 at 10:32 pm #

    @Doc W–Glad to see my Elvis Costello references didn’t go over everybody’s head! @JimL–Point 1 is well taken. We’ll see what effects Bishop Finn’s actions have on the NCR, the Catholic Press Association, and the wider Church. As for Point 2, that’s really the question isn’t it? The goal is that we would all enjoy fellowship with God, to be in communion with God. The second chapter of Lumen Gentium (Vatican II) lays out the relation of various groups of people to the Church, from practicing Catholics to people who don’t even believe in God. There are varying degrees of “communion,” but the goal is “full communion,” as spelled out in CCC 815 and the section from JPII’s last encyclical, which includes visible communion (i.e., accepting Christ, His teaching, His Church, etc) and even more invisible communion (charity, persevering in a state of sanctifying grace, etc.).

    • Ross Warnell January 30, 2013 at 2:30 am #

      Leon – just one question.

      You capitalized “catholic” in the excerpt from the creed (in which it is always lowercase). This brings me to the question of where does this leave the Orthodox, the Oriental churches, and those of us who have problems with the “Roman” part.

      • Jacob S February 4, 2013 at 8:40 am #

        “Almost full communion”. We think you’re wrong about the Pope, of course, and perhaps a few other things (as you do about us), but tend to think that you’re more or less not too far off (which hopefully you would say about us).

        From the CCC (with some more general information in the preceding paragraphs):

        838 “The Church knows that she is joined in many ways to the baptized who are honored by the name of Christian, but do not profess the Catholic faith in its entirety or have not preserved unity or communion under the successor of Peter.”322 Those “who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in a certain, although imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church.”323 With the Orthodox Churches, this communion is so profound “that it lacks little to attain the fullness that would permit a common celebration of the Lord’s Eucharist.”324

      • Leon Suprenant February 8, 2013 at 4:16 pm #

        I tend to be more generous in my use of capital letters for pronouns and adjectives that pertain to God or the Church than some editors. Btw, note that all the marks of the Church are capitalized in CCC 832. No offense intended. Some Eastern Churches are in full communion with the successor of Peter and are fully “catholic” (see CCC 834 and the Vatican II document Orientalium Ecclesiarum). They are sometimes called Uniate Churches or Eastern Catholic Churches. The same is not true with respect to the Orthodox Churches since the schism of 1054.

  6. Michael F. February 1, 2013 at 1:14 am #

    Excellent piece, Leon. The errors of modernity continue to plague us – moral relativism being front and center. I fear that the people of today are developing a language that has imbedded within it much deeper, presuppositional errors that will be difficult to eradicate. Thank God (quite literally!) for the Church and the Truth – Who is a Person.

  7. Roger Filips February 2, 2013 at 12:10 am #

    A conservative is one who conserves the good from their heritage, whether guns, liberty, property rights, or liturgy. A liberal (progressive) is a utopian who thinks that since there is no heaven, we had better get busy perfecting the earth with new laws, regulations and updating the Catholic church.

  8. Matthew Ogden February 2, 2013 at 12:29 am #

    Heretic is the exact thing that you call these people. If you don’t chastize people for their evil, they will not realize the severity of their evil. If they do not realize the severity, they see no incentive to change. The Church needs not only to call these unfortunate people heretics and apostates, but remind them that obstinacy in heresy and apostasy will send them to hell. This is why so many people in the Church need to be excommunicated. Christ had no reservations whatsoever about telling people they will be thrown into the outer darkness; and neither should the Church. Hell is real, and they need to know that. Tell them. Tell them until they either stop polluting Holy Mother Church, or until they preferably repent.

  9. Faithful Sheep February 2, 2013 at 3:10 am #

    A well written article on a very important subject. It is encouraging to be able to read/hear an Orthodox voice among all of the noise. Keep up the good work!

  10. Dennis Neylon February 2, 2013 at 11:53 am #

    As I continue my walk in faith after returning to the Church two years ago, I realize more and more how useless the terms liberal and conservative are in conversation and in faith. Labels get us in trouble when their meanings are not clear. We know what a Catholic a Protestant or an Evangelical is, and what they stand for. We are hard pressed to define what exactly a liberal, a conservative, a Republican or a Democrat stands for, nor is there any standard of belief we can depend on; they change from election to election, issue to issue. Better we should stand tall as Catholics who are believers in Christ and followers of His teachings as taught and understood in the Roman Catholic Church.

  11. Patrick Coffin February 2, 2013 at 4:46 pm #

    Leon, two thoughts: have you thought about getting into Catholic communications and stuff? I see a real gift budding there. Thought Two: I finally figured out the success of Elvis Costello among the cabal known as music critics is that he looks like….a music critic.

    As a recovering liberal, I loved this post, man. Go orthodoxy!

  12. tpdcath February 2, 2013 at 10:51 pm #

    Rather than “conservative” and “liberal,” the more appropriate terminology is orthodox and heterodox.

  13. TeaPot562 February 3, 2013 at 12:22 am #

    The promulgation by HEW Secretary Sebelius of health care regulations requiring most organizations to cover contraceptives and abortions is a reality check for those who thought that “the spirit of Vatican II” justified all sorts of repeal of teachings on sex.
    If most US Catholics had accepted Humanae Vitae (by Pope Paul VI), and followed the teachings therein, we would be much closer to the truth.
    “Cafeteria Catholics” is a term sometimes used for those who believe they can pick and choose which Church teachings they want to follow. The use of “heretic” to describe them does not seem loving, but as you point out, may be. Many of our clergy, even bishops, got carried away by “the Spirit of V-II”, and many laity will also pay a price for this.


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