This is the second part of an article by a guest blogger and friend, Dr. David Delaney.
The common source is a problem that affects a good number of Catholics, even those who intend to be faithful Catholics. However, most problematically it seems to legitimize dissent from Church teaching. The problem I am talking about is the use of the terms “liberal Catholic” or “conservative Catholic.” Now I understand the desire to know where someone is coming from and the convenience of placing him into an intellectual box. However, I would like to suggest that the importation of the liberal-conservative classification scheme to identify Catholics is problematic. These terms were coined in late 18th century France and at the time meant something specific. One either wanted to conserve the monarchy or to free France from what the liberals saw as its tyrannical rule. Today, the meaning is not so clear in either politics, economics, or sociology, and the meaning is certainly not clear in terms of being a faithful Catholic.
The problem in the use of these terms are similar for both conservatives and liberals, even if the problematic results are usually more grave for the liberal ideology. And this is the root of the problem. Liberalism and conservatism are ideologies that may capture certain truths but neither of them embrace the fullness of the truth. Rather than the Catholic working to purify the ideology, he tends to try to interpret Church teaching, and many times to critique Church teaching, through the lens of his particular ideology.
For example, many Catholics who espouse social liberalism seem to conflate Catholic social doctrine with liberal social policies when there is very often only a superficial correspondence and more often a deeper contradiction between the two. On the other hand some Catholics who consider themselves to be conservative can often appear to dismiss out of hand consistent and repeated magisterial statements which appear to conflict with their conservative ideology. This is especially the case when these statements are a prudential application of Church teaching such as is the case with the death penalty (of course this is of a different character than dissent from the teachings themselves but that does not justify a casual dismissal of magisterial statements).
I believe that this terminology is destructive for another reason. There is an increasing group of Catholics who consider themselves liberal and who are trying to grapple with fidelity to Church teaching. They are not being helped by faithful Catholics who mistakenly tell them that they need to be conservative Catholics in order to be faithful Catholics. What the conservative means or what the liberal understands by the term conservative is anyone’s guess. Regardless, I would like to remind us that Jesus commanded His disciples to abide by His commandments, not to be liberal or conservative. Neither do we find either term in the Catechism.
Please check back tomorrow for the conclusion!
David Delaney is Professor of Systematic Theology at the Mexican American Catholic College in San Antonio, Texas. He previously wrote for the now defunct Cosmos-Liturgy-Sex blog.