The other day I was interviewed by a journalist working on an article on “labels” in Catholic life, i.e. “liberal,” “conservative,” “orthodox,” “progressive,” and so on. I’ll freely confess that I am not a great interview. I speak in long, meandering sentences with large numbers of dependent clauses.
After several minutes of talking to each other, two things became clear: 1) neither one of us liked the current labels very much; and 2) no one has come up with anything better.
Do we need the labels? It’s tempting to say, “of course not, we’re all Catholics, that’s the important thing.” To a certain extent that’s true. Yet the comity we gain by such a move comes at a cost of analytic precision. There are divisions in the Church—as there have been since the beginning—and pretending they are not there does not seem a promising strategy for helping us overcome them.
One of the problems, though, is that we tend to define certain tendencies in the Church as a collection of positions on certain issues, as when this journalist asked me “Well don’t you think the average person on the street would define a ‘liberal Catholic’ as someone who believed in the ordination of women or was deeply committed to social justice?” She’s probably right that this is what the average person thinks (although whether that is what “liberal Catholics” think can be questioned). But there is a danger in reducing a tendency to a particular set of positions without probing what philosophical worldview holds those positions together.
If there is a single question that underlies what we might term the “liberal” tendency within the Church, it would be “Is the Gospel being heard?” Are we surrounding the message of Jesus with so many human traditions and prohibitions that it is no longer intelligible in the culture in which we live? It was this question, arguably, that animated the great liturgical movement of the 20th century, which asked whether the Sacred Liturgy had become so burdened by the accretions of centuries that the drama and beauty of the liturgy were no longer intelligible to most Catholics.
If there is a single question that underlies what we might term the “conservative” tendency within the Church, it would be “Is the Gospel being heard?” Is the faith that is being preached the faith of the Apostles? It was this question that animated the great Christian apologists of the 2nd century, like Ireneaus and Tertullian. They saw movements—like Valentinian Gnosticism—that claimed to follow Jesus, and yet the Jesus they followed was so estranged from his original Jewish matrix as to be almost unrecognizable.
Now as this second example suggests, these two tendencies have been with us since the beginning. It was these two questions that were at the core of the conflict between James and Paul (with Peter vacillating between them). Paul believed that the Jewish law should be dispensed with in cases where it had become a stumbling block to following Christ. James believed that he had no warrant from Christ to abandon the law.
So while I can imagine a day when we will cease using the terms “liberal” and “conservative” to describe these two tendencies, I think the tendencies themselves are a permanent—and necessary—part of ecclesial life. As both a community and as individuals, we need to be skilled in asking both questions. Those whose instincts lead them to intone “Fidelity! Fidelty! Fidelty!” need to ask Paul’s question about whether certain beliefs and practices are as inextricably linked to the Gospel as they believe. Those sympathetic to the “Pauline” question might do well to ask whether they are presenting the fullness of Christ or a pallid imitation that merely reflects culture rather than challenging it.
It may also be true that we will find ourselves in historical periods where we need to emphasize one question more than another. In the early and mid-20th centuries, it was very appropriate to be raising the first question. Neo-scholastic theology had become an “exhausted project,” and the Church’s relationship to modernity was clearly due for a reappraisal. At the same time, I would argue that as we enter the 21st century, it is not unreasonable to ask the second question more often than we have in the last 40 years.
But make no mistake, the winds of history and culture do not move uniformly in one direction. As skilled sailors on the Barque of Peter, we need to be able to adjust rigging and sail to keep on course. Whether a course correction is needed at this historical moment is a subject for debate. Whether there will be a need for future course corrections is not.