No more “liberals” or “conservatives”?

Jesuit-run American magazine is getting some attention for the editorial of its youngish new editor, Matt Malone SJ, “The mission of ‘America’ in a 21st-century church.”

WaPo picked up right away on this interesting line in the editorial:

The church in the United States must overcome the problem of factionalism. This begins by re-examining our language. America will no longer use the terms “liberal,” “conservative” or “moderate” when referring to our fellow Catholics in an ecclesiastical context.

Whaddayathink? Should US Catholics avoid the terms “liberal” and “conservative” and “moderate” to refer to each other? Or are the labels helpful? Or necessary at times?

You don’t have to say in your comment whether you’re liberal or conservative, though it would help us all know what box to put you in. Discuss away.






28 responses to “No more “liberals” or “conservatives”?”

  1. Fr. Allan J. McDonald Avatar

    I prefer Catholic first, priest second and all other ideological attributions as divisive. America is on to something. Although I do find orthodox and unorthodox to be helpful. Certainly the Holy Father likes the Pelagian/Gnostic heresy label dichotomy.

    1. Bill deHaas Avatar

      @Fr. Allan J. McDonald – comment #1:
      Which would put your blog out of business.

      You also appear to have missed the point – America pointedly states the US Church/Catholics. You change the subject, again, by inserting what you think Francis may or may not have said.

  2. Michael Skaggs Avatar
    Michael Skaggs

    I think in general the labels will begin to mean less and less, especially as a younger generation grows up. Lots of undergraduate students at my grad institution completely defy them – e.g., some would think liberation theology is wonderful without any exceptions, while also spending time praying outside our local abortion clinic praying the rosary in Latin (plausible examples, mind you, as I don’t spend a lot of time with undergrads). Ditto for liturgy – happy one week at the folk Mass, equally happy the following Sunday with the organ at full swell.

    Do those labels still apply to a lot of people? Of course. But I think the editors know that those words are, more often than not, slung about with vitriol rather than as self – identifiers. Not using them could (or might not, too) help tone down the utterly un-Christian rhetoric coming from both sides.

  3. Jack Rakosky Avatar
    Jack Rakosky

    The Culture Wars are mostly a media fabrication so it is very important for the media to get away from them. The liberal vs. conservative hardly makes sense politically when you examine people’s exact beliefs which turn out to be very similar and actually getting more similar all the time.

    I highly recommend this C-Span presentation by Wayne Baker of Michigan State on his book America’s Crisis of Values: Reality and Perception Apr 12, 2005.

    Actually the presentation is better and easier than his book. In it he debunks the Culture Wars.

    America is a unique combination of traditional and self expressive values. Most countries move from traditional to secular values in the industrial age, and then to self-expressive values in the post industrial age while maintaining most of their secular values.. We never moved far toward secular values in the industrial age, but we have moved toward self expressive values in the post industrial age. Why?

    The author maintains that America is founded upon ideology rather than upon nationality. That ideology includes both traditional values (God, country, and family) as well as self expressive values (personal freedom and happiness). Ideology is important in America because ethnic heritage does not keep us together.

    The conflict of values is not between one group that has traditional values and another group that has self expressive values. Most of us have both so the real conflict is how to maintain both traditional values and self expressive values. Those whose primary concern is the erosion of traditional values need to promote those values without interfering with anyone’s freedom and happiness. Those whose primary concern is about freedom and happiness need to promote those without denigrating people who are highly concerned about traditional values.

    “Gay Marriage” is a good example. What has happened since the sixties has been that we have both intensified and extended our value of monogamy. We first extended it to serial monogamy by making divorce easy, then to premarital, intermarital and postmarital monogamy by accepting cohabitation and now to gay monogamy. So we have taken a very traditional value and found more and more ways of using it to promote people’s freedom and happiness. That really underlies the very fast acceptance of gay marriage.

    1. Bill deHaas Avatar

      @Jack Rakosky – comment #3:
      Jack – thanks for this; fascinating way of explaining all kinds of positions today.

  4. Philip Sandstrom Avatar
    Philip Sandstrom

    This approach taken from AMERICA magazine reminds me of the ‘Chicago style mantra’ which appears in some Catholic writing thanks to Cardinal Berardin and friends: “Common Ground”. One might even add the other ‘mantra’ from the same source: “Seamless Garment”. Enough said!

  5. Todd Flowerday Avatar

    “Although I do find orthodox and unorthodox to be helpful.”

    You may be in the minority. Many people who use or identify others as “orthodox” are just using it as a code word for Republican Catholics.

    I don’t really mind other people calling me a progressive or a liberal in an ecclesiastical context. My problem is when some Catholics, often the ones who identify as “orthodox” who treat a progressive approach to life, faith, and ministry as something leprous.

    Good start for Fr Malone. But more is needed from many Catholics, perhaps including a broader application of CCC 2478.

  6. Peter Rehwaldt Avatar
    Peter Rehwaldt

    Ah, labels . . .

    Sometimes they are used to recognize compatriots, other times they are used to mock opponents, but most of the time they are simply descriptive. America can proclaim they will no longer use them, but they’ll have to come up with other descriptors.

    On the whole, when I use shorthand to describe someone, I tend toward using the identifiers that people choose for themselves. In that respect, I will at least avoid being attacked for trying to mock someone by my choice of descriptor.

  7. Jim McKay Avatar
    Jim McKay

    Benedict XVI undoubtedly was influenced the words of his predecessor, Benedict XV:

    “It is, moreover, Our will that Catholics should abstain from certain appellations which have recently been brought into use to distinguish one group of Catholics from another. They are to be avoided not only as “profane novelties of words,” out of harmony with both truth and justice, but also because they give rise to great trouble and confusion among Catholics. Such is the nature of Catholicism that it does not admit of more or less, but must be held as a whole or as a whole rejected: “This is the Catholic faith, which unless a man believe faithfully and firmly; he cannot be saved” (Athanas. Creed). There is no need of adding any qualifying terms to the profession of Catholicism: it is quite enough for each one to proclaim “Christian is my name and Catholic my surname,” only let him endeavour to be in reality what he calls himself.

  8. Fr. John Whelan Avatar
    Fr. John Whelan

    I don’t think we can really get away from the labels, because they represent real and important underlying differences. It’s just unfortunate that they have been borrowed by analogy from the political world – “liberal” on the left, “conservative” on the right – because the positions and issues in the religious context are so very different. My positions on the EF and fidelity to orthodox moral teachings would classify me as “conservative”, but it’s a strange “conservative” who supports, as I do, redistributive taxation, unions and socialized healthcare.

  9. M. Jackson Osborn Avatar

    Can we really say that ‘Catholic’ says it all, as Mr McKay and Benedict XV would contend? What of those who are conservative liturgically, but who may be liberal on certain ethical or moral issues. What of those who are conservative in this way or that, but are not anywhere near ultramontane. Some go overboard on Vatican II while others would like for it never to have happened. What of those who may be liberal liturgically but very conservative about one or more other aspects of the faith. Some are devout and attend mass every day. Others ‘darken the door’ once or twice a year. ‘Catholic’, in and of itself, is an unsufficient descriptor of all these folk. Labels are adjectives. They are an essential component of meaningful language and communication. Hans Kung and Hans urs von Balthazar are not the same kind of Catholics. Some, even, would question whether one or the other of them really was Catholic. It is unrealistic and to avoid objective reality to hold that these labels are pointless. Just as pointless as to suggest that ‘American’ says it all about every American. This is wishful thinking. It is to erase our personhood.

  10. Barry Hudock Avatar

    I think the words are helpful when used to describe (in shorthand) the legitimate and wide variations in what it means to live, believe, and think as a Catholic. They need not be divisive when used to modify “Catholic,” if they are considered in this light. In other words, using them can say “You think differently than I do on this issue, and Catholics have the freedom to do that in this case,” instead of “You think differently than I do on this issue, and therefore you are not Catholic.”

  11. Sean Keeler Avatar
    Sean Keeler

    At one point in America, a generalization could be made that a Conservative was a stick-in-the-mud who resisted change while a Liberal was a hippie radical who wanted to throw it all out. With the new translation, it seems that the Liberals are the sticks-in-the-mud who hate the new way and the Conservatives the radicals who love it (plus the ones who still want Latin).

    Let “America” (and America & PrayTell etc.) focus on specific issues and find some of that rarest of earth called ‘Common Ground’.

  12. Jordan Zarembo Avatar

    In my view, the clearest division exists between those who insist upon the exaltation of the presence of the body of Christ in the liturgy to the exclusion of all other expressions of individual piety, and those who permit some cohabitation of individualized piety within an assembly. This division often separates along ordinary form and extraordinary form lines largely because the latter liturgy is not entirely beholden to the assembly model of worship.

    Individual reflection and contemplation is not necessarily pietism or in extremis theological Jansenism. Certain persons derive spiritual strength from selectively engaging and disengaging from the liturgical action through a mind informed by the orthodox dogmas and doctrines of the Church. However, for many, the assembly must act in unison throughout the liturgy to manifest a reflection of the body of Christ. Frequently, this requires the deprecation of time for individual contemplation. This is especially seen in the strong dislike of low Mass in some quarters as well as the insistence that all must sing consistently throughout Mass. This ideal cannot hold, as the human mind often requires solitude to process the truths presented in and through liturgy. An understanding of truth cannot solely arise from structured and synchronized participation in liturgy.

    quis sustinebit? Certainly no iniquity exists at any Mass. However, many debates over liturgy, such as altar orientation to name but one, betray a conflict over the level of importance of assembly in an understanding of the Mass. It is here, and not window dressing such as baroque versus gothic vestments, or the style and period of hymnody, where alienation over theories takes place between believers.

    1. Todd Flowerday Avatar

      @Jordan Zarembo – comment #14:
      I see it somewhat differently. And I don’t think the extreme caricatures help your argument. The division is not really so clear to me.

      I can see the need for an openness to the variety of experiences: some people like the homily and some don’t, some are touched by music and others by Scripture, some people attend to a young child or elderly companion and get what they can out of the Mass.

      My sense is that the liturgy invites a community, a people, into an experience of worship. The Mass isn’t about a few hundred individual encounters with the Lord–though that certainly might happen. A believer who consistently and insistently disengages from the whole–this would be a matter of concern both socially and spiritually.

      Believers cultivate individual contemplation in those moments of private prayer, the ones the Lord spoke of in Matthew 6. They do so with the guidance of a spiritual director, a person who can affirm or chide them when they begin to stray off the track. They generally don’t try to cram it all in at Mass, so as to “count” oneself among the deeply prayerful elect. Advanced believers tend to find themselves more and more beset by difficulties in regard to prayer. And it would be unseemly to detract from others so as to have one’s own experience.

      Suppose I’m hosting my daughter’s birthday party. During the singing of the ritual song, I tear up as I notice how she’s grown. My participation in the final “Happy Birthday to youuuuu” is not required in my brief reflection. But my wife might be rightly concerned if, after a few minutes, I’m still blubbering in the corner, indulging in a bit of emotional gluttony. The time for serious reflection is properly later, perhaps at prayer, perhaps at a one-on-one time with my offspring. Meanwhile, I have a public duty of being a good host, even if I’m not in the mood to be the life of the party.

      It wasn’t required that I sing “everything,” only that I engage appropriately in a community event.

      I think we can ask of those who are not directly engaged in the liturgy, “What’s going on?” And invite them, gently, back into the Mass.

      1. Jordan Zarembo Avatar
        Jordan Zarembo

        @Todd Flowerday – comment #15:

        I apologize for the caricatures. Maybe this is more specific.

        For last Sunday’s EF Mass (5th Sunday after Pentecost), the epistle is Romans 6:3-11. St. Paul instructs that we not only die in Christ through baptism, but more specifically “that our old person has been crucified at the same time” [quia vetus homo noster simul crucifixus est].

        How could one not resist the desire to meditate on the convergence of baptism, atonement, and Mass while hearing a Mass which proclaims this truth? Indeed, why would one not want to meditate on this truth from time to time at any Mass? To discuss the epistle outside of Mass with a spiritual advisor or confessor detaches scripture from its necessary context within Mass. Our crucifixion with Christ is necessarily revealed in the sacramental mystery, and not necessarily revealed in a conference room.

        All persons are capable of reflection. Each of us apprehends concepts differently, but no person is entirely incapable of the conception of abstract thought. It is true that any notion of predestined election or of irrestible grace is antithetical to our common baptism into the body of Christ. Still, not one human mind cannot be absolutely disengaged from reflection to create an entirely unitary social body of worship.

        A body of worship which thinks and acts in a uniform fashion might appear as the most charitable option, as no person is intellectually advantaged or disadvantaged. Perhaps my difficulty is a surrender to the charity of assembly, of a concerted mental and physical synchrony when I would rather consider another thought.

      2. Todd Flowerday Avatar

        @Jordan Zarembo – comment #20:
        It’s a powerful reading and a good example.

        But your example, taken strictly, begs a question: why does the Mass necessarily cease to take place when either the individual worshiper leave the church or the liturgy conclude? The Church teaches that liturgy is font for the Christian life. And if so, why wouldn’t one’s armchair or the parish Eucharistic Chapel be a place to continue that reflection?

        It’s not a matter of conference room or church, but really both, plus more. Finding God in all things. Including, perhaps, the Christian community.

      3. Jordan Zarembo Avatar
        Jordan Zarembo

        @Todd Flowerday – comment #22:

        Yes, Todd, you are right. The Christian life does not end after Mass. Yet, all the situations you have cited derive their meaning and strength from the Eucharist. What better time is there to reflect on this mystery than when it is celebrated?

        It is my responsibility to walk the fine line between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Todd, i thank you for your good points.

      4. Charles Culbreth Avatar
        Charles Culbreth

        @Todd Flowerday – comment #15:
        +1 to everything, Todd. Beautiful reflection.

  13. Jack Feehily Avatar
    Jack Feehily

    Jordan, thanks for sharing so clearly your concerns about legitimate variations in how Catholics experience the Eucharistic liturgy. Your presuming, however, that because the form of the Mass that was used for centuries allowed for various levels of attention and participation that it must have been undergirded by sound principles. Some, like Ranjith, speak of the older rite and its oriental cousins as more mystical and glorious. I think one could describe those rites as more mystifying than mysterious. We are not talking, after all, about differing art forms or even theater, but about what Christ told his disciples to do as a perpetual memorial of his saving death and rising. While incorporating ritual actions, the celebration of the paschal mystery is not essentially a ritual but rather a service of words and actions that invite all present to enter more deeply into the reality of Christ’s presence in us and in our midst, our very hope of glory. At a certain point in history a wedge was driven between the ordained and the unordained. The successors of Peter and the apostles, acting more and more like monarchs than servants, presided over the development of rituals only barely comprehended by common clergy and not at all by the rank and file baptized whose presence was commanded at the risk of perdition. This was followed by centuries of attempts to justify this form of Mass as of divine origin. The offering of the sacrifice, once offered on the cross, certainly has a perpetual character, but there was nothing mystifying going on in the upper room or at Emmaus or in the gatherings for the breaking of the bread in Jerusalem. First the word was broken open so that their hearts were burning, thanks was given, and they ate and drank in memory of him. Vatican II’s reform of the liturgy was an effort at restoration so that the ordained and unordained alike could be united in one body, one spirit in Christ. Worshipping together the true and living God, we offer the church’s perfect sacrifice of praise.

  14. Dave Jaronowski Avatar
    Dave Jaronowski

    These labels, as usually used, attempt to insert an American political sensibility into the Church.

    If anything, these labels are not used CORRECTLY.

    Orthodox and unorthodox ARE, I think, helpful.

    For instance, when someone rails on about liberals in the Church, I usually tell them “Liberals, as the Church understands them, are not bad. There are “liberals” operating in high places in the Vatican, and they do not beleive that women should be ordained or that gender neutral language for God should be used. Rather, they put a heavier premium on ecumenism, the preferential option of the poor, etc. They are ORTHODOX, but liberal.

    The American Church has taken to calling the unorthodox “liberals,” which is not a fair label.

    You are either with the Church or against her (in doctrine). If you are with her, then the debatable things can be debated.

    1. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
      Anthony Ruff, OSB

      @Dave Jaronowski – comment #17:
      Well, it’s a bit more complicated, and being “with the Church or against her” isn’t always black and white.

      Those Catholics in the 19th century who favored freedom of conscience, separation of church and state, state toleration of non-Catholic religions, democratically elected governments, freedom of the press, and so on, were superficially “against the Church” because the popes opposed all those things. But there were very much “for the Church” as they sought good reforms and necessary development of doctrine. They were vindicated and now most would say the Holy Spirit was with them, not the pope.

      Cardinal Law called down the wrath of God upon the secular press for attacking the Church’s handling of sex abuse. But without the secular press, authorities like Cardinal Law would never have brought the abuse to light and dealt with it. Many of us think that the Holy Spirit was on the side of the secular press, not the cardinal, though the press was “against” the church.

      It’s not always clear what the orthodox position is, especially on things which are not central (such as in the Nicene Creed, for example) but are secondary or tertiary. Witness the various statements of bishops and cardinals expressing doubts or lack of clarity about ordination of women or recognition of same-sex unions.

      I certainly consider myself “orthodox,” and I’m not necessarily arguing in this post for any particular change or develoment.

      My point is this: be careful about claiming to know what the truth, what the orthdox position is, and what Church teaching will always be, on issues where people of good will, all of whom consider themselves “for” the Church, have various views and convictions and positions.


  15. Jeffrey Tucker Avatar

    The only time I use the term liberal is to describe myself but the term is historically accurate in every way. Otherwise, these words only end up confusing things. I try never to use them except in a self-descriptive way.

  16. John Swencki Avatar
    John Swencki

    “Conservative” and “liberal” are labels that paint with a broad brush and tend to be ‘blanket’ labels and thus misleading.
    The same person might be doctrinally conservative but pastorally/socially liberal, liturgically traditional but morally challenged. [I know a priest who is devoted to the Latin liturgy but whose ethics would put a politician to shame.) A person can appeal to “liturgical correctness” but throw correctness out the window in order to indulge in his own preferences.
    A book, theological statement, liturgical practice (i.e., isolated events) might thus somehow be “labelled”, but persons/groups are too complex (and often too inconsistent) to be truthfully/justly categorized.

  17. Dave Jaronowski Avatar
    Dave Jaronowski

    Well, Fr., where to start …

    True, sometimes it is a bit more complicated, yes. I was speaking more about doctrine as well as discipline within the Church as opposed to the Church’s opinion (or those of leaders within it) on social (secular) issues.

    I’m not sure that we can ever say that the Holy Spirit is with those pushing women’s ordination when several popes have said that such ordination is not possible.

    Re: Cardinal Law and 2002, what a tempest in a teapot. I don’t wish to derail this conversation, but I will say that I do not believe that the media was some force of justice and a force that was pure in heart. They saw $$$ and were going for sensationalism. I bet that the Enemy took great joy in their attacks on the Church for monetary gain.

    True reform was needed, but should have come from within the Church (including from the laity), and I don’t consider the Globe to be part of the laity.

    Here in Cleveland, one of the columnists who had the greatest interest in “helping” to save the Church by purifying it is today a member of a church not in communion with the diocese.

    1. M. Jackson Osborn Avatar

      @Dave Jaronowski – comment #25:
      I share your estimation of the self-serving sensationalism on the part of the media. The media are, in fact, as guilty of hiding or revealing information as are the people on whom they appoint themselves to report. They are often restrained, not by responsible ethics, but only on the sheerest, most pale interpretation of legality – and sometimes, not even that. HOWEVER, I must say that if the media had not made a screaming rage out of this matter it is plain from history that the heinous criminality of abusive priests (and prelates!), and those who played a shell game with them and stonewalled the public and the laity, would still be the order of the day. The Church got exactly what it deserved for an undeservedly misplaced concern for anyone in ‘holy orders’ at the insouciant expense of people who live out their lives in emotional grief, guilt, and ruin. The heirarchy did all it could do to stall, hide, and pervert justice, being concerned almost fully for the scandal of discovered crime than of the grotesque, maccabre, crime itself. If the Church’s house had been in order, there would have been no morsel for the media. The Church has, de facto, aided and abetted some of the most beastly and inhuman ruination of lives of which humans are capable of visiting upon one another. Nor is this a new problem. This has been the norm for centuries; for hundreds upon hundreds of years with countless victims. The media did not create this scandal. It is of the Church’s own making.

      (Furthermore, for purposes of this topical conversation, I consider myself a ‘conservative’, which might be debatable news to ultramontanists and quite a few ‘conservative Catholics’ I know of… or, as well, to some ‘liberals’.)

      1. Jack Rakosky Avatar
        Jack Rakosky

        @M. Jackson Osborn – comment #26:

        “The Church got exactly what it deserved”
        I would say the clergy and hierarchy got exactly what they deserved

        “If the Church’s house had been in order”
        I would say if the clergy and hierarchy had been doing their jobs,

        “The media did not create this scandal. It is of the Church’s own making.”
        I would say It was the clergy and hierarchy’s own making

        I think the media did the Church, i.e. we the people of God, a great service.

        I only wish the legal establishment had done as much and put all the criminal priests and bishops in jail.

        Sometimes I find it very helpful to be precise. For example when I criticize priests and bishops, I am often explicit that it is their managerial skills that I am criticizing. They may not think of themselves as managers but as one who spent a couple of decades in senior management, I know bad management when I see it.

      2. M. Jackson Osborn Avatar

        @Jack Rakosky – comment #27:
        Thanks for your gloss on my remarks. While you place the blame rather directly upon those priests and prelates in authority, I should note that while they are, indeed, the ones responsible ultimately for this calumny, there were and are many laity of a variety of shades of ultramontanism and arch-conservative bent (yes, ‘bent’ IS the right word, isn’t it?) who are and have been in lockstep with with the guilty clergy and heirarchs. These are the folk who don’t want there to be a scandal, but don’t necessarily think that a house cleaning is called for by a ‘long shot’.There are scads of laity who are as appalled at the scandal (but not the sin) as are the priests and heirarchs who would have enjoyed business as usual but for the media, which, as you say, did us all a grand favour. So, this isn’t just the clerical caste’s onus. There is plenty of onus to go ’round to quite a variety of complicit members of the lay caste, who did nothing but blame the awful old media.

        Too, we should stop making excessive to do about the ontological dimension of the priests vocation by virtue of his ordination to holy orders and sacerdotal life. And it is time for the Church to stop shielding criminals because of their shameful besmirching of their vocation which they quite deliberately and willfully undertook. The men are not special: they are criminals – ontologically. I don’t believe that conferance of holy orders is the only instance of ontological dimensions in people’s lives. I am a musican, an artist,a skilled organist and choirmaster and paedagogue with gifts that God gave to me. There are thousands like me; and I have always felt the there was an ontological dimension to our musicianship. also to fatherhood and motherhood, to doctorhood and all our varieties of therapeuts; brotherhood, sisterhood. I think that we could make quite a list of people’s God-given charismae that result in a very real ontological dimension and alteration for the better…

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