The Pope recently echoed St. Paul in a recent general audience saying the following:
Accept each other; accept that there is a tremendous variety “and that we can think in different ways”. “But, in the same faith you can think so ! Or do we tend to standardize everything? But, uniformity kills life. The life of the Church is variety, and when we want to cover everything with this uniformity, we kill the gifts of the Holy Spirit! We pray that the Holy Spirit , the author of this unity in variety, this harmony, makes us ever more ‘ Catholic ‘ , that is, in this Church that is catholic and universal.
Of course this calls to mind St. Paul’s First letter to the Corinthians Ch 12. There is something in our tumultuous time to learn from this. Some of the disunity in the Church stems from different people being drawn to different kinds of things, having different areas of interest, or perhaps different personalities. These differences are potential strengths if channeled correctly, but they can become a source of conflict because they tend to overlap and superficially harmonize with the political dichotomy of liberal versus conservative that dominates our thinking. Politics is tending to dominate our thinking because we live in a nation with a large out of control federal government that intrudes in every area of life. This is a violation of the Catholic principle of subsidiarity. The evil effects of violating this principle are multiple but one of them is it tends to make politics a winner take all blood sport because too much is at stake. Few people get excited about who is the “local register of wills” even though this is a political office, because for the most part the responsibilities of this office are known and are limited, but millions are spent on the Congressional, Senatorial and the Presidential races, because the federal government now dictates who gets health care, how they get it, whether we bomb countries, kill people with drones, who gets 1/3 of their income confiscated and who gets the redistributed proceeds of that confiscation. The Feds decide what kind of things your kids learn in school about not just math and science but about sex and morals.The government can confiscate your property and give it to someone they think would use it better ( After The Supreme Court Kelo decision) The Feds decide even what kind of light bulb you are allowed to buy, and are weighing in on what the nick name for a professional football team should be. Naturally this kind of unrestrained political power, unknown to the most despotic Roman emperor ( since it is not restrained by a lack of technology) will make some people take politics really seriously, I know I do. As such political categories will bleed over into every aspect of life, including religious life. This is not good.
There is of course some degree of overlap, between political ideologies and religious outlook, but only up to a point. It will be useful if we can begin to view the problems inside the Church from a perspective that sees them more clearly by not viewing them primarily through this political lens, even if we recognize areas of overlap. Our recent series of Posts on Our Lady is our first attempt to transcend this divide. Today I would like to begin a few posts that look at the divide within the Church from different angles.
This is a complex topic and I would like to divide it into a few parts:
What does it mean to be a “liberal” versus a “conservative” Catholic?
Is it possible for someone to be a “good Catholic” and what is a “good Catholic”? Can you be one and be either liberal or conservative politically, or must one choose?
Some practical suggestions on where we need to go from here.
To be fair and in order to put all the cards on the table, I come at this from a perspective that would be colloquially called “conservative”, however I think that term applies better to politics than one’s theology. Even when using the term conservative and liberal in a political sense the terms often carry no clear meaning. We could spend a lot of band width discussing whether the Republican Party in the United States is a “conservative” political party and whether George Bush was a “conservative”, (The answer to the first question is “the Republican party as a whole is only conservative relative to the extreme leftism represented by the Democrats” and the answer to the second is “No” by the way.) We frequently hear this kind of thing debated, and people argue over what these terms mean. The terms are much less useful when discussing a religion that purports to be revealed by God and be… what’s that word again….. oh, yes infallible. Obviously then to say one is a Conservative or Liberal Catholic is a bit like saying one is a Conservative or Liberal mathematician. In a sense it is a category mistake. One can approach prudential political questions using a particular philosophical framework that can be usefully categorized as “conservative or liberal”, and this framework can be applied to prudential matters in which conclusions are relatively tentative. Catholicism is more like math. Catholics hold certain things are true, you either say “yes, they are true” or “no” they are not. So you would then either be a Catholic or not a Catholic, a heretic or not a heretic and so forth. To be fair we have used the liberal /conservative dichotomy ourselves as it is a useful short hand as to a type, and have in fact called Pope Francis a “liberal” and as far as it goes this conveys some useful information. Still one salutary effect of this Papacy might be to get us to think carefully about how unhelpful these terms really are. A case can be made that when one really is seeking to move forward these terms become a barrier to understanding rather than a help.
Some folks out there may recall they were taught a picture of Atoms ( the building blocks of matter) that was sort of like the solar system where you have a nucleus with protons and neutrons in the center, being “orbited” by electrons, sort of like the Sun is orbited by the planets, and it looks a little like this.. Kind of calls to mind the solar system doesn’t it?
See the solar system looks like
They are similar don’t you think?
The point is though that this analogy is very limited because those of you who have studied a little chemistry or physics at more advanced levels know that electrons being unimaginably small do not really “orbit” the nucleus in the way planets “orbit” the sun, and at some level if you really want to further your understanding of atoms you need to go beyond the solar system analogy, even though sometimes chemists and physicists still use terms like orbit and orbital they are used very loosely.
See the real atom looks more like:
The electrons exist not exactly like little planets orbiting the sun like nucleus at all, but are sort of smeared out it space and can not really be localized…. Ok thus ends the Physics lesson, the point being using simplified terms borrowed from some place else can have utility, but can also really simplify the picture to the point of making it false.
Using terms like conservative and liberal to describe the approach to Catholicism is also potentially confusing, so we would like to get at what the real differences are, and what can be a strength and what kind of differences are out of bounds.
Now to be sure, we are not inclined defend a “let’s all be friends. Can’t we all just get along; “it’s all good” kind of Church. It should be self-evident, and as we have previously pointed out, that there are individuals traditionally described by terms like “liberal Catholic” that have done great damage to the Church. In reality these folks are really best described not as “liberals” but as heretics. That is a heretic as described by St Thomas and elaborated on in the old Catholic encyclopedia:
Thus we see as an earlier post mentioned, on some level the heretics on the “left” really have the exact same philosophical stance in terms of the way they see the Church as the heretics on the “right”. You can see one of our earlier posts on that here .
Now it so happens that many of the folks who do this happen to be political liberals, but one can be a political liberal on some matters (for example on the role of government spending) without being a heretic, but on the other hand being a liberal on other issues makes you a heretic. If you are a social liberal and think abortion is a good thing, than you are a heretic as Vatican II and the prior 2000 years of Church history define abortion as “unspeakable crime”
A fair amount of damage is being done by individuals conflating these categories in their minds. Sometime this is done inadvertently. I have seen individuals object to sermons about helping the poor because they do not like all the “social justice talk” but of course helping the poor is an obvious gospel mandate. On the other hand and as we have mentioned previously.. helping the poor is an obligation but this does not equate to advocating “liberal” political policies involving redistribution of income. It may or may not entail such policies. The former is an indisputable command from the Gospel, the latter is a debatable policy preference settled by resort to evidence. If one denies the duty to somehow help the poor you are a heretic, if you think that liberal economic policies are a useful way to do that, you are not a heretic (You are merely a fool.. Well at least in my humble opinion. but that’s a topic for another day).
We will make some progress if we can achieve a couple of goals:
Unite about what is true. As I have said multiple times the Pope will not, as Pope deny the truth, no Pope ever has.
Agree that some people will differ in their temperaments in terms of what issues God calls them to address. We are all called to bring souls to God and further the common good, how this works out in each life can differ based on personal abilities, preferences, and opportunities. I think few issues are more important than the right to life, and as a physician I have some opportunity to speak about the “life issues” and advocate for the right to life. On the other hand someone who is focused on some other problem (like helping poor people) is doing useful work. We get into trouble when in the realm of practical politics there is a false dilemma. There should not be, and unity will occur when we begin to understand why such a dichotomy exists and work to get rid of it. To the extent that we adhere to what the Church actually teaches, there can be unity, even if some of us are focused on helping the St Vincent De Paul society and others are on the pro-life committee. We get into trouble when these groups are in some fashion pitted against each other.
Finally we need to agree that in terms of style of religious observance within the norms that the Church allows there can be diversity and it’s OK. I really detest some modern hymns (Eagles wings..) not so much because I hate the tune, maybe at a folk rock festival the tune would be OK, its more that it just does not help me to pray, it does not call my mind to the transcendent, in the context of mass it gets in my way. Others may somehow get closer to God singing that hymn. I can not for the life of me see how, but that does not mean such differences should be a litmus test of orthodoxy, and in some situations there is probably room for a variety of tastes in prayer and devotion within the limits defined by the Church. There are limits however, consecrated wine served in paper cups while sitting cross legged on the floor is over the line, but the Church says this is over the line, the problem is that it does not enforce its own rules.
The plan will be to flesh all this out a bit…
More in the next few posts.