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Liberal and Conservative: Christ vs. Church?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 10, 2013

It has not yet ceased to amaze me how much delight some people take in the discomfiture of others when the Pope says something about the Faith which those others are presumed not to like. And it works the other way, too, with people becoming astonishingly angry when the Pope says something that their enemies are presumed to like. This has been very evident in the recent quarrels over Pope Francis’ interviews.

I’ve had emails from both sides. The two points made are: (1) I hate to gloat, but Pope Francis’ emphasis on love for Christ finally puts the “orthodox” in their place; and, (2) I hate to tell you, but Pope Francis’ emphasis on love for Christ plays right into the hands of bad Catholics and enemies of the Church. To read such responses is to laugh, or perhaps to cry. It is almost as if we are present at an unending debate between those who claim to love Christ and those who claim to love the Church!

Why, I wonder, is the insistence on a correct understanding of Catholic faith and morals regarded as a failure to love Our Lord? Why is an emphasis on a “loving attitude” seen as a betrayal of Catholic faith and morals? But I am asking the wrong question. We know why these things are. What we do not know is why they should be.

Simplistic Identifications

Some simplistic identifications have arisen in the long course of a thousand battles for the Faith over the past fifty years, battles between what we may loosely describe as conservatives on the one hand and liberals on the other. The liberal or progressive Catholic emphasizes the affective side of religion, the need for empathy, the importance of caring about people as they are, not as we would like them to be. And because the liberal or progressive Catholic is (typically but not always) largely formed morally by the secular culture in which he lives, he also finds it advantageous to reduce the content of religious faith. What is important is the heart, not the head.

The conservative or traditional Catholic, on the other hand, sees in such a “preferential option for the affective” a direct challenge to the Faith itself, such that love becomes unmoored from meaning, and we are doomed to love in ways which do not, in fact, really seek the other’s good. Consequently he spends the bulk of his “spiritual” time fortifying his own understanding of the content of the Faith and explaining why those who do not accept the whole content are not truly Catholic at all. As this becomes habitual, the conservative gains a reputation for being doctrinaire; he becomes increasingly dismissive of those who resist the full authority of Catholic teaching. His acid test for the Christian life becomes orthodoxy. What is important is the head, not the heart.

Real people are always more complex than their stereotypes, but it is something very like this that has led not only to a polarization in the Church, but to a very consistent delight at one pole whenever those at the other pole are discomfited. There go the bleeding hearts! There go the head cases! And yet both camps remain in the Church, and are determined that the Church should be reformed in their own image. The conservative is convinced that the liberal does not love Christ because the liberal is not careful about forming his conscience according to Church teachings. The liberal is convinced that the conservative does not love Christ because the conservative never seems to get beyond the right ordering of a set of ideas.

Rhetoric Kills the Conservative Side

I do not intend to be completely neutral about this division. I do not believe it is possible to set forth the points necessary for this discussion without recognizing that the larger secular culture disdains Catholicism and places the balance of public opinion on the side of the liberal. Modern culture is generally in rebellion against God, or what it conceives God to be, and the one thing our culture cannot stand is an insistence on traditional faith and morality. The only unforgivable sin is to stand in the way of the unfailing progress by which we are liberated from false assumptions so that we may do whatever we please.

Consequently, it is largely an anti-Catholic rhetorical myth which paints the conservative Catholic as lacking in love. Doctrinally sound Catholics are not lacking in love in preserving their marriages and holding their families together, in seeking to adhere to God’s will however unfashionable it may be, or even in their sacrificial charitable giving (which notoriously outstrips that of liberals, who often prefer to look to taxation and the State). Moreover, they regard it as a most important act of love to help people to think properly about the Good and the True, and in this they are quite correct.

But for all that, the conservative has a marked tendency to overemphasize the intellectual side of the Faith while discounting everything else, and so to construct his complete spiritual program from whatever the liberals leave out. We must also recognize a certain uncongenial frustration in the conservative, for no matter how many times and how many ways the conservative repeats and explains the same things, the dominant cultural influences cause others to dismiss him out of hand, without the slightest effort at a fair hearing, as someone who simply hasn’t the first clue about the Inescapable Progress of the Modern World.

Over time, then, the hapless conservative learns to distrust others as they, based on the predilections of contemporary culture, distrust him. In such an atmosphere of mutual distrust, anything that sounds remotely like it might be welcomed by the other side is written off as a grave danger. Anything that sounds congenial to one’s own party becomes a cause for celebration. Pretty soon nobody even makes the effort to step beyond party loyalties, to get back to the absolute identity between Christ and the Church

Everything that Rises Must Converge

We must all learn to see that a study of Catholic faith and morals ought to strengthen our relationship with Jesus Christ, and a love of Jesus Christ ought to strengthen our commitment to Catholic faith and morals. How can anyone love God without desiring to do His will? How can anyone love another without desiring to know the Good so that the other can be led into greater good? And how can anyone study the teachings of the Catholic Church without being drawn into a greater love of the One who alone is good (Mk 10:18; Lk 18:19), whom these teachings represent? Or a greater love of his neighbor, to whom these teachings constantly point?

I know, of course, that it is very possible for people to feel they love God and so claim to love Him, while taking care to hide from the specificity of His commands, on the mistaken assumption that fine feelings are an adequate gauge of love. And it is very possible for people to learn Catholic doctrine without being inspired to love both God and neighbor. Just as there is no guarantee that “conservative” knowledge will transform our hearts, so also there is no guarantee that “liberal” feelings will illuminate our souls. For these things to happen, we must offer up what we have in prayer, and ask God to make us whole.

But one thing ought to be clear. It is not possible to know Jesus Christ without the Church, whose Divine mission is to conserve and transmit this knowledge. And insofar as we do not know, we cannot love. At the same time, it is of the very essence of love to yearn to know more of the Beloved. Moreover, it is not possible for a finite creature to love God as He deserves unless God gives him the grace to see and the grace to unite his will with God’s. But this exchange also takes place within the Church, through the sacraments and other means of grace Our Lord provides. For these reasons, the liberal and conservative sensibilities converge at the heart of the Church. The desire to love and the desire to know become one and the same desire. It is no surprise that in Scripture the verb used to signify the very intimacy of love is “to know”.

Or perhaps it would be better to speak of the desire to love as we are loved, and to know as we are known. These are the exchanges which Revelation makes possible and the Church actuates through her teaching authority and her dispensation of grace. But this experience grows only through Faith. And when we examine Faith, especially in the writing of St. Paul, we find that it always means a threefold assent to Christ: Belief in his teachings, hope in his promises, and obedience to his commands. All three are essential, tied as they are to the three theological virtues infused into our very souls. All three are known and lived fully only at the heart of the Church. All three converge in the very same place.

This magnificent convergence was described by St. Paul in the letter to the Ephesians, where he identifies Christ with the Church, and the Church with Christ, so that they are not two, but one:

And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love. [Eph 4:11:16]

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: impossible - Oct. 16, 2013 11:12 AM ET USA

    Pope Francis’ comments being taken out of context by the mainstream media, both lay and Catholic, reminds me of how Humanae Vitae was treated and how too many Catholics were mislead to anticipate and hope for doctrinal change. Taking his comments out of context can lead to regarding him as less than Catholic, but he has not and will not change or replace doctrine. Hope, pray and fast that liberal bishops and priests, particularly in the pulpit and the confessional, will not mislead the laity.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Oct. 14, 2013 11:43 PM ET USA

    I find this description of the ancient Pope St. Callistus on his Feast Day fascinating: "While he vigorously opposed heresy, his charitable attitude toward repentant sinners incurred the wrath of contemporary rigorists." I really do not know whether we bore Our Lord or whether we make Him laugh.

  • Posted by: William F. Folger - Oct. 12, 2013 8:27 PM ET USA

    Having lived (as married) in Rochester from 1966 (before good Bishop Sheen chose to depart) thru 2004 we were always confronted by dissenters (clerical & infected-lay) for it was the home town of Fr. Curran who mis-influenced MANY of our priests. Moving from then-orthodox Pgh, I found the most meaningful handle for true Catholics to be: “Magisterium-faithful”. Yet too many intelligent parishioners preferred:”I’m a doctrinal liberal and a ritual conservative”. Successive bishops then let us down

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Oct. 12, 2013 12:17 PM ET USA

    To be quite blunt, we (Catholics) are so often disconnected from the bedrock reality of our faith it borders on the catastrophic. The primary question of the "prescriptionist" method is NOT "What must I do to be saved?" but rather "What must I do to stay out of Hell...?" It is equivalent to the question "What must I do to avoid divorce?" There is NO OTHER "reality" than the Catholic one, but our detachment from same, our "love affair" with this life has caused confusion. May God have mercy!

  • Posted by: [email protected] - Oct. 11, 2013 6:49 PM ET USA

    Enjoyed the article. Agree that the Pope is saying if you truly love and believe in God and Jesus the moral aspects of his teachings will fall in place. Don't like to refer to "conservative" or "liberal" when discussing beliefs. Either you believe the teachings of Christ and His church or you don't. Those who don't are really dissidents who want their own beliefs as those who believe in abortion and call it choice. It is what it is- murder. A grave sin such as the practice of homosexuality.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Oct. 11, 2013 8:27 AM ET USA

    Heard a song, new to me, on an acoustic music radio program that is sung by Mason Jennings. "I love You (Jesus) and Buddha too." It was a great little tune, spoke of Mohammed and others and spread the love quite nicely. It promotes a message that is not new. It's a fun little message and it just makes people feel good. Perhaps this message is prevalent today. My friend is a Buddhist and he's a great guy. Somehow much of church history seems so distant and so hard to relate to.