Catholics, Liberal and Conservative

I definitely do agree with most of what Emily says in her post–“Two Words Catholics Need to Stop Using . . . Like Now.”  And I definitely do not want to get into a game of “bait the redhead.”  Nevertheless, I am hesitant to swear off all use of the words “conservative” and “liberal” as descriptors of different kinds of Catholics.  Despite all the real dangers they involve, they seem useful in some ways.

Emily is right-on in saying that the terms sow confusion when they are used in relation to the essentials of the Catholic faith.  As she rightly notes, liberalism and conservatism are dispositions toward change, and the essentials of the faith don’t change.  A Catholic who supports, say, same-sex marriage or abortion is not a liberal Catholic but a dissenting Catholic or a confused Catholic, or something like that.

Nevertheless, there are areas of life that are subject to change, that are not as crucial as the faith itself, but are nevertheless important and command our attention.  And a person can be a very faithful Catholic, and, on top of that, hold opinions on these questions that seem liberal or conservative by some common understanding.  This possibility arises 1) in relation to matters that are mostly beyond the scope of the faith, 2) in relation to matters where the faith interacts with political questions without determining them, and 3) even in relation to the life of the Church (although not the deposit of the faith).


First, there are some things on which the Church has no teaching, but that nevertheless have to be decided.  One example might be health care.  A person might be in favor of a single payer health care system, where the government is the single-payer–basically, socialized medicine.  Another person might instead believe in a free market in health care, with only the most minimal governmental regulations.  And both of these people could be perfectly faithful Catholics, since the Church has very little to say about health care, and most of what it does have to say concerns ends on which everybody agrees, and not much the (disputable) means to those ends.  But it would be very tempting to call a devout Catholic who supports socialized medicine a “liberal Catholic,” and to call a devout Catholic who supports a free market in health care a “conservative Catholic.”

If we are careful with the context, these terms seem reasonable.  They are drawn from different realms, faith and politics, and then combined, which is just the source of the confusion about which Emily complains.  On the other hand, the combination of them is not pointless, since they are being used to describe a person who is both a Catholic and a citizen–a person who has to attend to both realms and who has an identity in relation to both realms.  Again, if we use them with proper care–which I admit is not often the case with the mainstream, non-Catholic media–they might be useful.

Second, there are issues where Catholic teaching touches more directly on politics, although in such a way as to still leave some room for disagreement.  For example, it is standard, longstanding Catholic teaching that homosexual acts are immoral.  It used to be the case that such acts were prohibited and punished by the civil law.  A person could be a faithful Catholic, accepting the Church’s teaching that such acts are immoral, and nevertheless think that such laws are too punitive or too intrusive, and therefore be in favor of repealing them.  On the other hand, one could also agree with the Church’s teaching on the immorality of homosexual acts, and think that laws prohibiting them should be maintained as a way of educating the culture about the true nature of human sexuality.  But, here again, it would be tempting to call the first person a “liberal Catholic” and the second one a “conservative Catholic.”  And in this case the terms are even more suited to the occasion, because the first position is in favor of a certain loosening of discipline while the second is in favor of maintaining what had traditionally existed–and both positions are possible for a Catholic.

Third and finally, there are some matters that do not pertain to the deposit of faith, but that do have to do with the life of the Church, and that are subject to change–and in relation to which one could be a liberal or conservative.  Take the matter of Church discipline with regard to abstinence from meat.  The Church used to require the faithful to abstain from meat on every Friday.  Now it requires it only during Fridays in Lent.  A faithful Catholic could think that the requirement should be lifted entirely, and that each individual should be allowed to decide when to abstain from meat.  Another faithful Catholic might think the Church would be better served if we went back to the old discipline.  As long as they accept the Church’s authority to decide the question, these people are perfectly free to hold these opposite opinions.  But, again, it would be hard not to describe the first as a liberal–seeking to liberate from restraints, but within the bounds set by the Church’s teaching–and the second a conservative–seeking to preserve an old discipline, but one that the Church admittedly has a right to change.

So I’m a little conflicted.  Emily is right that the terms often cause confusion, but it looks to me that there is a certain usefulness in them that would be lost if we gave them up altogether.





Categories:Culture Politics

  • Todd Flowerday

    It’s also possible to just apply labels to oneself, be they liberal, conservative, or confused, and address other people in the way they wish to be addressed. Then there’s no cause for complaint.

  • Jack Mason

    It’s interesting how we, as humans, seem to want to make things black and white. When we create a “label” we always seem to want to create a “label” that represents what we view as its opposite. We then also want to fit each other into one of those “labels.” This concept works well with inanimate objects: a rock is solid and water is liquid. Even then however, we know that a rock can be made into a liquid and water can be made into a solid. As I mentioned previously, Emily is not a Catholic. She is also not a conservative or a liberal. She is Emily. She has the ability, which she uses rather well, in my opinion, to form her own complex values and definitions. It’s impossible to categorize her for she’s a complex person, just as we all are. A better question perhaps, is why do we want to categorize anyone? What do we get out of doing so? Are we trying to simplify things so decisions are easier? In any case, grouping complex individuals into groups is an easy way to diminish a person’s uniqueness and individuality. It’s important to recognize this so we can 1) avoid falling into this trap and 2) so we can call others to task when they are doing so. The process of using “labels” to group people can be used in very negative ways. Look how the Nazis used this process against the Jews. I suggest that all be very careful when using “labels.” When referring to an individual, use their name, not some label.

  • Emily Stimpson

    I see your point, Carson. Of course, “conservative” and “liberal” have some value, but I still don’t think it’s as the sole modifier to “Catholic.” If you want to say someone is a politically conservative Catholic, say that, not simply “conservative Catholic.” If you want to say someone is a liturgically liberal Catholic, again, say that, not just “liberal Catholic.” It’s all about specificity and context. Just slapping a “conservative” or ‘liberal” onto “Catholic” without making your meaning clear still strikes me as feeding all sorts of wrong habits of thinking about the Church and belief itself. Now, I’m going to try not to resent you for making me log into the blog when I’m supposed to be on vacation, and go back to watching The Walking Dead. :-)

  • Magi

    “Can. 1250 The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent….Can. 1253 The conference of bishops can determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence as well as substitute other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety, in whole or in part, for abstinence and fast.”
    In the US, if memory serves me, the bishops have allowed the faithful the ‘option’ of Friday abstinence or performing an alternate penitential act.
    Unfortunately, much like the ‘option’ to bow instead of kneeling after the Agnus Dei, the faithful have taken the ‘option’ to be a free pass to do nothing.

  • Slats

    Carson, I got a chuckle out of your first example (the healthcare one) because I’m aware of a great many people holding each of the two positions you presented who would be very quick indeed to denounce those who hold the other position as non-Catholic/heretical/what-have-you. This applies to many other questions of Catholic social teaching and its political and economic applications as well. “Liberals” are as guilty of this as “conservatives,” and both sides are being pharisaical when they do it.

  • John Vogel

    The confusion could be resolved by switching the order, e.g., I am a Catholic conservative.

    • Jack Mason

      I prefer to say that you’re John Vogel, who views himself as Catholic and conservative. By saying it this way, for me, upholds you as an individual who has free will and who makes personal choices.



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