Not conservative or liberal, but faithful or unfaithful
One of our recent Catholic World News headlines, about a week before Christmas, was Young American priests steadily more conservative. With our usual editor’s note, this headline leads to a December 18th story in the Wall Street Journal. But my first thought—which I’ve expressed several times over the years—is that I do not like the language of “conservative” and “liberal”.
What this news story is really about is the difference between those clergy and laity who accept what Christ teaches through His Church and those who do not. You might refer to this divide as the difference between “orthodoxy and heresy”, but perhaps today the terms “faithful” and “unfaithful” better capture the spiritual dynamic at work. Yes, everybody knows roughly what “conservative” and “liberal” mean in this context, but the words themselves are doggedly imprecise. They are far more appropriate for discussions of temperament or politics than they are for religion. For example, if our society were growing away from paganism into Christianity, we could also describe that trend in terms of conservative and liberal—but spiritually, the “liberals” (open to new ideas, promoting human rights), and even the “radicals” (going to the root of things) would be the good guys.
Today, in the senses that matter most spiritually and religiously, the “liberals” are those who reject the constant teaching of the Catholic Church that comes from God through the Natural Law and Divine Revelation. Spiritually speaking, it is these teachings—this understanding of reality—that the “conservatives” ought to be trying to conserve and extend. But the words conservative and liberal carry a massive weight of political, social and even ideological baggage which often confuses the issues, and makes it far too easy to dismiss one side or the other without thinking things through—and perhaps I should add, without praying things through.
In previous generations in the United States, for example, racial prejudice was apparently far more often a characteristic of “conservatives” than of “liberals”, at least in its overt forms (though the glass ceiling in “liberal” circles was still pretty thick). Today, advocacy for greater attention to the needs of the poor or to environmental problems would be categorized as “liberal”, though the differences between “liberals” and “conservatives” on these issues tend to center less on moral questions and more on things like the roles of government, personal charity, familial and cultural dysfunctionality, and self-reliance.
My point is that Catholics do not need to have any one opinion about the optimum balance between government programs and personal responsibility (and so on). It is never a good thing if our “caring” credentials are measured by support for particular kinds of administrative, legislative and bureaucratic solutions, and in this sense individual Catholics can be prudentially more “conservative” or more “liberal” without breaking into a doctrinal or moral sweat. But the question is quite different when dealing with moral right and wrong rather than policies more or less conducive to the common good. If we haven’t gotten the morality straight, then our policies will serve the wrong ends no matter how well or badly crafted they are from a pragmatic point of view.
Moreover, the most serious problem in society and in the Church today is that good and evil as taught by God (and as known most precisely through the official teachings of the Catholic Church) are being redefined by human beings in order to scratch their own itches. This is as true in the priesthood as in the presidency, in synodality as in the Senate, in local catechetics as in local caucuses. It does absolutely no good to point out the difference between conservatism and liberalism. The only thing that matters is the difference between truth and falsehood—or in Catholic terms, the difference between fidelity and infidelity. I mean the difference between following Christ on the principle that no servant is greater than his master and that His kingdom is not of this world, and aspiring instead to be accepted by the cool kids in the class—the class that dominates the world.
For as St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “We are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in heavenly places” (6:12).
Language is important
As a matter of habit, we ought to banish the terms “conservative” and “liberal” from our vocabulary when we are discussing right and wrong, true and false. I know what the story in the Wall Street Journal means (mostly) when it reports on a study that shows younger priests as increasingly “conservative” and the Catholic laity as increasingly “liberal” over the past generation. But the terminology allows everybody to think of the differences as legitimate options—a liturgical or pastoral confusion, perhaps, within the Church, but not a problem that lies at the very core of spiritual health. Instead, we need to jettison the unfortunate habit of thinking about our relationship with God in terms other than “fidelity” and “infidelity”.
I have written recently that the New Testament understanding of Faith, especially as articulated by St. Paul, includes belief in Christ’s teachings, trust in His promises, and obedience to His commands. In other words, the full notion of Christian Faith includes the interplay of all three theological virtues: Faith, Hope and Love. If we wish to be happy forever in Heaven, we must reject the temptation of redefining these things in accordance with our own preferences, which will most often simply mirror those of the dominant culture in which we too often live and move and have our being—instead of choosing Christ.
Until we as Catholics—including the overwhelming majority of priests and religious from the Pope on down—banish political, social, economic and cultural language and insist on an ultimately religious language, we will never correctly identify the essential battle that is waged throughout the ages. We will constantly be sidetracked by things that obscure the fundamental issue. Instead, we need to focus more effectively on the problem of fidelity and infidelity to Jesus Christ Himself—“the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Rev 22:13).
Even the demons begged Christ “not to command them to depart into the abyss” (Lk 8:31). For our part, we too often use language that puts us on the very edge of the abyss, on the pretense that it is not there. I don’t give a feather or a fig whether either my priests or my fellow Catholics are conservative or liberal in vague temperamental or vaguer political terms. But I do care whether they tell the truth. I do care whether they are faithful to the teachings of Christ and His Church. I do care whether they are steering clear of the abyss.
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Posted by: Randal Mandock -
Dec. 30, 2022 10:16 AM ET USA
This is not the first time this discussion--and this distinction--has come up in this forum. The first time I read your essay years ago on the distinction, I changed my descriptions to "orthodox" and "heterodox" (or "Modernist") to increase precision in language. I much appreciate your continued insistence on proper use of Catholic terminology, as opposed to the political, social, and ideological agendas set by the enemies of the Church. Individual words do reflect agendas that I want no part of
Posted by: CorneliusG -
Dec. 30, 2022 5:34 AM ET USA
Indeed. And that fidelity is to what the Church has constantly taught, not necessarily to whatever comes out of the mouth of any prelate (including the Pope) unless he is re-echoing that constant teaching.