by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
In almost any group of Catholics today, one hears the question frequently asked, “Are you a conservative or liberal Catholic?” Or perhaps it is posed, “Are you charismatic?” Then again the speaker may interrogate his audience about his familiarity with renewals, retreats, liberation theology, centering prayers, Cursillo or any other currently popular movement or practice within the Church. Oftentimes people feel that the answer to such a question involves deep philosophical pondering. Semantics aside, there can be only one answer to these questions. But before that reply is supplied, and its rationale, one need examine the rather bizarre practice of describing our faith in social and political terms and the implications of such nomenclature.
Considering one’s self to be or, conversely, labelling others conservative or liberal in matters of faith is of relatively recent vintage. While these terms have a history of application within the political spheres, probably not until the aftermath of Vatican Council II did they become affixed to attitudes and beliefs among members of the Catholic Church. Prior to that time, the People of God were known either as practicing Catholics or fallen away Catholics. The implication was that the former were on a path of continually honing themselves toward perfection; the latter had somehow slipped through the cracks, but hope remained that they could yet see the Way, the Truth, and the Light. This dichotomous assessment was easily identifiable by others as well as by one’s self. One either totally accepted Catholic dogma and tradition as a package deal or not at all. So it could not easily be said that before recent ecclesiastical developments any political mindset in religious matters even existed.
Subsequent to Vatican II, many Catholics seemed to become increasingly more vocal. Pope Paul VI’s emphasis on human interest, in itself just, was soon to be denuded of any vestige of Christian transcendence and replaced by a materialistic and humanistic interpretation. The aggiornamento or updating desired by John XXIII was designed to aid the Church to “open its windows.” The gentle breeze he foresaw entering the Church quickly became a violent storm of juxtaposed philosophies. Ecumenism, once considered the hope for reunification among separated Christian brethren, came to mean a homogenization of beliefs, bland and innocuously nonspecific, so they could be readily acceptable to any denomination. Concern for the poor amplified itself, festered, and oozed out as Liberation Theology, which, in essence, can be seen as nothing less than Marxist ideology replete with an acceptance of violence and guerrilla war overtones thinly disguised by a veneer of social justice. Despite these perversions, or perhaps even because of them, many Catholics felt the need to align themselves with either one viewpoint or the other of what was increasingly appearing as a major rift between opposing factions. As this division became more obvious, each side waxed more strident in its declarations and more extreme in the outward manifestations of its beliefs. This gave rise to the variety of practices easily observable today.
The left of Rome, liberal Catholic manifests his faith in several unique public expressions. Often he is associated with causes such as gay rights, feminism, euthanasia, and a plethora of others. His religion is an umbrella which encompasses saving whales, recycling inorganic materials, worrying about CIA involvement in Latin American governments, humanizing bureaucratic organizations, and awaiting a cosmic Christ. The unity he envisions in the new world order has little if any linkage to the one bread, one body in which the religion he supposedly espouses was based. In his alleged concern for all rights, he supports many wrongs. Endorsed by him would be a church in which a non-gender-specific liturgical “service” is led by a female priest, assisted by altar girls for a congregation which consisted of those who hold disparate beliefs all of which were democratically allowed under the guise of freedom from the patriarchal system whose leadership, outdated and outmoded, was yet based in Rome.
At the opposite end of the belief spectrum is the conservative Catholic whose actions and opinions are always right (of center, that is). Archbishop Marcel Lefebre epitomizes for him the essence of strict adherence to the true faith. Just as his hands will not be sullied in an exchange of peace nor receive the Eucharist from a priest or (heaven forbid) an extraordinary minister, so too will his mind remain untouched by any of the allowable innovations inaugurated by the Second Vatican Council. As if the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass offered in the language of the laity instead of Latin were not bad enough, what could be said of the scandal of speaking in tongues and other manifestations of the charismatic Catholic? In practice, much like strict interpreter of the Constitution, this believer professes only that which is explicitly expressed in the Ten Commandments or in Canon Law; all that which is tacitly implicit is not a viable worship option.
Extremist beliefs of any sort are always dangerous and often fatal to the institution with which they are associated. The either/or fallacy is always just that—a meretricious assignment of validity to one point of view with the attendant obliteration of any counter system. This blindness lends itself to a bigotry quite often found in social and political systems, but no such taint should ever be allowed to mar our religious and ethical behaviors.
A question similar to those which began this essay was posed to a Catholic priest just recently. In response to the query, “Father, are you a conservative or liberal Catholic,” he replied, “I’m a Roman Catholic. I follow the guidelines of the Vatican.” The holder of the Petrine Office is the direct descendant of Peter to whom were handed the keys of the kingdom. His mandate is clear; our duty as Roman Catholics is to adhere to both the letter and the Spirit as the Holy Father delineates them for us, not pick and choose those aspects of Catholicism more to our liking. As 2 John 9 reminds us, anyone who “does not remain rooted in the teaching of Christ does not possess God, while anyone who remains rooted in the teaching possesses both Father and the Son.”