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One of the more significant contemporary errors in religious discourse is the tendency to use political terms like "liberal" and "conservative." These words have legitimate meaning for politics and government, but emphatically not for the One True Faith. A person is not a liberal or conservative Catholic, but is rather a faithful or unfaithful one. This is the only distinction that matters.
The press is often guilty of this lingual imprecision. Case in point — a few weeks ago, The Wall Street Journal published an article titled "U.S. Catholic Priests Are Increasingly Conservative as Faithful Grow More Liberal." Its contention is that with each decade since the 1980s, clerics have become more deferent to the Church's essential teachings — which they vow to accept and uphold — while the lion's share of Catholic laymen persist in dissent against the Fifth and Sixth Commandments, those dealing with sexuality and human life. The underlying presumption is that these two camps, "liberal" and "conservative" Catholics, display legitimate ways of being Catholic. Nothing can be further from the truth.
The dichotomy isn't really between "conservative" and "liberal," as the article claims; instead, it's between faithful and unfaithful, orthodox and heterodox, Catholic and anti-Catholic. Since being Catholic means confessing that the Church's doctrines and authority hail from God, one must conclude that to reject them is objectively to reject Christ. And using political or ideological terms to hide from this iniquity is not just disingenuous, it's dangerous.
Using political jargon in religious discourse is like calling Eve a "liberal" for defying God in Eden. And although the term "conservative Catholic" today is applied to those that assent to the Church's moral doctrines, this term is also potentially problematic. Early Christians, for example, who insisted that every new believer follow the Jewish laws on diet and circumcision would have been considered conservative (Acts 15:1, 20).
"Liberal" and "conservative" are in themselves relative terms — value judgments of each depend on what you're being liberal with and what you are willing to conserve.
For example, going back to the dawn of the Enlightenment, "liberal" has connoted a rejection of authority — particularly that which upholds the ideas and tenets of Western civilization. And since Christian heritage undergirds the Western world, liberalism is, in a sense, an indirect rejection of Christ, in favor of man being his own ultimate authority.
This is what prompted 19th-century Spanish priest Fr. Félix Sardà y Salvany to contend that "liberalism is a sin." He proclaimed, "[Liberalism] asserts the sovereignty of the individual ... and enthrones rationalism in the seat of authority. It knows no dogma except the dogma of self-assertion. Hence, it is heresy, fundamental and radical, the rebellion of the human intellect against God."
Leo XIII treated the same theme with disdain:
These followers of liberalism deny the existence of any divine authority to which obedience is due, and proclaim that every man is the law to himself; from which arises that ethical system which they style independent morality, and which, under the guise of liberty, exonerates man from any obedience to the commands of God, and substitutes a boundless license (Libertas, §15).
On the other hand, behind the Iron Curtain during the fall of Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc nations in the 1980s and 1990s, "liberal" meant rejecting atheism and embracing the Christian heritage of the West (Randall Collins, "Liberals and Conservatives, Religious and Political: A Conjuncture of Modern History," Sociology of Religion 54, No. 2 : 127). "Conservative," on the other hand, meant the opposite — conserving the status quo, which was communism (ibid.).
While Catholic laymen may have a private political bent, the Church in Her essence is not political. Even so, there has always been room for different spiritualities, particularly as they correspond to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Religious orders reflect this diversity: Some focus on teaching the Faith, others feed the poor, and still others heal the sick and pray for the world. However, none of these dimensions of Christ and His mission are at odds with each other. In fact, they're all born of complementary charisms that St. Paul recognized 2,000 years ago (see Romans 12:4–8; 1 Corinthians 12:12–21).
While spiritualities and charisms fortify the Church, political factions within the institutional body are a corrupting force. They're a competition rather than a complementarity, seeking dominance and the demise of the other. This unfortunate conflation of politics and religion at the popular level is a relatively new phenomenon, at least in the United States, and it pollutes the life and vitality of the Church.
In 1960, American Catholics were overjoyed to see the nation's first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, elected to office. Through his example, however, Catholic immigrants, old and new, quickly learned the way to obtain a slice of the American pie was to compromise their faith. The secular onslaught of the 20th century was soon to follow, which was met with a shameful lack of resistance and clarity from clerics and in classrooms. It led to a tragic loss of faith for many.
"Liberal" Catholicism began somewhat innocuously; at the outset, it meant being a supporter of civil rights and equal pay in society. But when the women's movement joined forces with the sexual revolution, "liberal" Catholics took a decidedly anti-Catholic ideology into the Barque of Peter (see Sue Ellen Browder, Subverted: How I Helped the Sexual Revolution Hijack the Women's Movement [San Francisco: Ignatius, 2015], 64–74). The aim of the so-called progressive movement became to progress past doctrine and even past God, to fully embrace the sexual revolution and its perversions. The Devil knows the only stumbling block to his miserable plan is the Catholic Church.
On the other side of the coin, the media label "conservative Catholic" for the past few decades has usually meant one who submits to the Magisterium and accepts the Church's teachings on morality. In other words, a "conservative" Catholic is just a Catholic.
Faith, morals and worship are the three essential components of religion; that is, what to believe, how to live, and how to unite with God (Peter Kreeft, Catholic Christianity [Ignatius Press, 2001, San Francisco] 16). Unlike premodern times when bishops hashed out the Faith (e.g., the tenets of the Creed) in one Church council after another, the primary ideological battle lines today lie within morals and worship.
But the effort and energy have been wasted because there's no wiggle room for dissent on matters of faith or morals. Nevertheless, when the cultural tsunami hit, two converging forces within the Church would see both laymen and clerics mimic Eve in challenging the authority of God. These were the so-called "spirit of Vatican II" and the rebellion that erupted in the wake of Humanae Vitae.
With the Devil's assistance, these forces drove a wedge between spouses by attacking the natural order of authority and love.
And call it "feminism of the mystical body" if you will, but the bride of Christ rejecting the doctrine of non-contraception and the authority behind it was a sin of cosmic proportions. It impeded the divine life of grace in Eucharistic intercourse with Christ, Her Groom, and significantly weakened the Church's efforts to evangelize and resist the perils of the modern world.
This is a sin that seeks equality with God. It's no surprise that "liberal Catholics" now see the body of Christ as a democracy and speak of it in those terms. This is a most fundamental error: The Church is in the world, not of the world; and it's a kingdom, not a democracy (John 18:36). Our language should reflect that.
While sexual morality has taken center stage in the attempt to change the Church from within, a battle for worship has also been brewing. While "the spirit of Vatican II" was disfiguring sacred liturgy in various "creative" ways, it caused an inevitable backlash. Unfortunately, some of those with legitimate grievances went too far, a prime example being Abp. Marcel Lefebvre, who founded the schismatic Society of Pope Pius X. After illicitly ordaining bishops to carry on the Tridentine Mass, he and his bishops were excommunicated.
While modernists were seeking to change the Church from within, these radical traditionalists were willing to divorce themselves from the Church to protest from without. And that's what happens when you divorce yourself from Church authority, you become protest-ant. To that end, we've been forced to add another term to our lexicon indicating more polarization in the Church: "Rad Trads." And, as if that weren't enough, "Rad Trads" felt the need to update the term "modernists" to "Novus Ordo Catholics," referring to those who attend the postconciliar form of the Mass. None of these terms are befitting, and they asperse the dignity of Catholicism.
So this is the setup. Generally speaking, in morals and worship modernism seeks to change what is essentially unchangeable, and radical traditionalism insists on keeping unchanged what is by its nature changeable. Both challenge the authority and unity of the Church; and in that sense, neither movement is truly Catholic.
Peter and the Apostles were given Christ's authority and the guidance of His Spirit to steer the Church and keep Her united until She meets Her heavenly Bridegroom on the Last Day. While making one's voice heard with regard to injustices is the prerogative of each of the faithful, resistance to the authority of Christ is where religion turns into politics. And this becomes inevitable after political terminology becomes an accepted way of communicating on factions within the Church.
As Catholics, we know Christ established a Magisterium through which He binds in Heaven what is bound on earth (Matthew 16:19). And we can admit that the Church is liberal in Her offer of grace and truth to the world and that She conserves all that is good for the salvation of souls. But with regard to political or ideological movements that try to change the Church or rule Her from within, Catholicism is neither "liberal" nor "conservative."