Musings of an Accidental Conservative

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 called a “conservative.”

After reading articles this morning on the voting patterns of Catholics and whether the Catholic faith and the “Tea Party” movement are a good mix, 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: [more]

(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

When we hear the terms “conservative” and “liberal” we think of political terms. They”re not also 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 lexicon to describe one’2012-04-24 18:33:52′s relationship vis a vis the Church. Perhaps we should use them 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.

(3) Radio, Radio (second Elvis Costello allusion this month, but who”s counting)

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 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” politically, 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”s conflicts with Catholic teaching on faith and morals is heresy. Instead, we call it “liberal,” which is then taken as a legitimate 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. 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 frequently 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, 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, 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 to renounce the faith? 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 Church? 

(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 labelled as such. Yet I think we should resist labelling and resist being labelled 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.      

5 Responses to “Musings of an Accidental Conservative”

  1. petebrown says:

    interesting comments, Leon. a few random thoughts of my own

    1. it would be good to see you post on the issue of Catholics supporting govt. redistribution programs

    2. I find it is very easy to identify a "conservative" Catholic. two telltale signs–the use the word "orthodox" alot in speech and mean by it what everyone else means by "conservative." What it bespeaks is a discomfort with dissent but more broadly with theological diversity

    3. the tenor of your post suggests that the basic function of the Church is an inherently "conservative" one in the sense of holding fast to what has been delivered to her. You do make some concession to the need to of Church to adapt to new situations but the idea is the same. I used to agree with this but now I think it is only partly true. The two central figures of the NT–Jesus and Paul would fit more neatly under the "liberal" banner than the "conservative" one–were we absolutely forced to use those terms.

    In Romans 14 Paul”s whole discourse on the strong and the weak gives a clear preference to the "strong"–who are identified with the more liberal minded Christians such as Paul himself who take a more permissive attitude to dietary laws and social effects of Torah. The strong need to take care in their dealings with the weak so as not to cause undue offense or to cause the weak to stumble; however, Paul is by no means neutral as to the fact that the "conservatives" who are uncomfortable with the abolition of the old fleshly distinctions are in the wrong.

    Similarly Our Lord”s own critique of the religious establishment touches on both practice (disproportion in keeping torah) and doctrine (with regard to permitting divorce in the beginning it was not so).

    Of course Jesus and Paul are both careful to frame their criticisms in light of earlier stages of revelation, so it”s not like they”re making things up. I would not call them "dissidents." But a would be "conservative" wraps himself in their mantle at his peril.

    Rather than the "liberal" and "conservative" factions, I guess what I think is that the Church has always needed both a "priestly" wing (holding fast to tradition) and the "prophetic" wing (making sure that the priestly wing does its job effectively and pointing out when they don”t).


  2. leon says:

    Hi Pete,

    I think you”re reading too much into my "musings." I”m not exploring the sometimes disputed boundaries between Church teaching and theological opinion or championing one side of the aisle ("orthodoxy") to the detriment of the other ("legitimate diversity"). In fact, your second point reflects the sort of stereotyping that I don”t think is helpful, especially when it”s tinged with political connotations.

    Yes, the Church is "conservative" in some sense, and "liberal" in other senses, but these distinctions are not helpful. I suppose that if the pressing issue of our time were racism and not abortion and homosexuality, I”d be considered a "liberal" for championing the fundamental rights of African Americans, beginning with my own African-American sons.

    But let”s get away from this theological diversity stuff. What I”m talking about here is the distinction between what Russell Shaw has called normative Catholics–in other words, those who strive to accept Church teaching and authority ("orthodoxy") and strive to live it ("orthopraxy")–and those whose faith and moral principles are far removed from the Catholic Church. I”m talking about, among other things, gay marriage advocates, abortionists and abortion-rights advocates, among other things.

    Many simply refer to the normative Catholics as "conservative Catholics" and the second group as "liberal Catholics." I”d suggest here going back a couple chapters in your 1 Corinthians analogy, where St. Paul tells people that those who are living in open, grave sin and who (after a "Matthew 18" pastoral approach failed) persist in it, need to be treated as Gentiles or tax collectors (Mt. 18:17; 1 Cor. 5:13).

    In other words, some of what may be called "liberal Catholics" shouldn”t be treated as Catholics at all until they become, well, Catholic. When that”s suggested, "liberal" is translated as "Democrat" and people get up in arms about the Church overstepping her boundaries in the political arena.

    Further, when a normative Catholic gently points this out, he is written off as narrow, rigid, preconciliar, and, yes, "conservative"–as one who is uncomfortable with dissent (I guess it”s my problem, not the dissenter”s!) and opposed to the rich diversity of the Church. The "liberal Catholics" are then seen as the counter to the "conservative Catholics," with the goal being somewhere in the middle: a bastion of toleration and political correctness. We hear what God thinks of that approach in Rev. 3:15 and following.

    Gotta run for now. Next time I”ll tell you what I really think!

  3. petebrown says:

    right Leon

    …I agree with everything you said here. If the only issues in question were things like abortion, birth control or homosexuality–about which the Church has clear teaching, then it would surely be wrong to call those Catholics who support and assent to those teachings "conservative" while legitimizing those who challenge them as being "liberal" and part of the rich diversity of the Church. Where it comes to those issues there”s only one truly Catholic position.

    My point is partly that it is not only "liberals" who are using labels as a means to delegitimize or relativize positions that they disagree with. "Conservatives" for lack of a better term also have a bad habit of defining "orthodoxy" as being more or less what was affirmed as a certainty by neo-scholastic theology—a habit which actually undermines their legitimate complaints about dissent on abortion and birth control. In my own field, I run across people all the time who claim this or that view of the Bible is not “orthodox” when it turns out that their beef is along the lines that someone is airing an objection, say, to the pre-conciliar view of the unlimited human knowledge of Jesus, or to a traditional view of authorship of a biblical book or is advocating some (relatively) new source theory or a belief that the historical event behind the text might actually be different than what the text describes. I think in a non-trivial number of cases “conservatives” for lack of a better term, have an understanding of Church teaching or what fidelity to the Church requires that is inexact—which hurts their credibility when they are on firmer ground as in the case of teachings on sexual morality.

    I agree with you that it would be a very good thing if “liberals” swallowed hard and simply accepted—despite their reservations—that Church teachings on birth control and homosexuality are what they are, have been clearly annunciated and are not going to change—the shifting consensus of our culture notwithstanding. But it would be easier for them to do this if “conservatives” swallowed hard and accepted the legitimacy of critical scholarship—there are a significant number who I believe still have not—which is one big reason why Catholic universities are much more “liberal” than the Church as a whole. And by “critical scholarship” I do not mean a model of scholarship that is simply about research into history and primary sources in the original languages. Neither do I mean a model of scholarship that is oriented simply around defending what the Church has already proclaimed or of buttressing points in the CCC. Theology in the service of apologetics and catechesis has a place of course. But here I mean scholarship is which no subject is off limits and in which the results of the research are not predetermined. The researcher should consider the analogy of faith of course when pondering his results, but this is different than saying that the results of the research are predetermined by the truths of the faith.

    I think PB 16 struck the right balance when he once argued that the Tradition (capital T) was unassailable. By which he meant two things: first that it would be wrong and impious to assail Tradition; second that it any assault against Tradition will fail in the end, since Tradition will in fact be vindicated not by cleverly crafted apologetic arguments but by critical scholarship itself—if one is patient enough to wait for the results. Benedict I think has always had a certain confidence that the truths affirmed by the Church will all be vindicated even in a neutral forum. I don’t sense that same kind of confidence in most “conservatives” I talk to; I sense the unease that says unless the Magisterium intervenes at every turn and whips theologians into shape, the whole edifice of the Church will collapse, having been hollowed out from within by dissident termites who munch away at the foundations while hidden in the shadows. And I sense, for this reason, a deep discomfort with any kind of theology that is not oriented around apologetics or catechesis.

    So better than the “conservative” /”liberal” divide, I think it might be better to think of “pre-critics” and “critics”. I think there need to be a give and take between 1) the folks who—whether they realize it or not– are still yearning for a pre-critical age or model of the Church that is probably gone forever and 2) critics who haven’t bothered to explain ro justify their work very well to ordinary Catholics or to fit their work into the mission of the Church. I think actually our current pontiff (trained in critical German universities but beloved by “conservatives”) best exemplifies this needed post-critical synthesis…hey…maybe there’s an article in here somewhere.



  4. leon says:

    Hi Pete,

    I”m glad you agreed with what I wrote. I”ll have to leave aside for another day the critic vs. pre-critic distinction, which may be very useful in your work. I”d suggest that once those terms are defined by some authoritative source, then there wouldn”t be confusion, as those terms don”t carry a lot of baggage from other usages.

    There have been many different theological schools through the centuries that differ sharply on matters of theological opinion, with the Magisterium refereeing only when necessary to safeguard the faith and provide orthodox parameters for discussion.

    Conservative and liberal, though, have significant political overtones and are used with an utter lack of precision. I”m not sure what one of your "critical" theological buddies would call me, but surely a secular media journalist would identify me as a "conservative" based solely on my (i.e., the Church”s) stands on abortion and homosexuality. Dissenting Catholics who tilt the other way would be called "liberal" for that reason. Then we take these terms "home" with us into the Church, where for various reasons we tolerate gravely sinful activity and agendas rather than provide a clear, edifying witness to the world.

  5. petebrown says:

    (laughing) my "critical buddies" call me conservative too FWIW!

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