I 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.
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.