Two Words That Catholics Need To Stop Using…Like Now

If you’re ever looking to play a rousing game of Bait the Redhead, may I suggest tacking one of two little adjectives onto the word “Catholic?”

Those adjectives? Conservative and liberal.

This is a long-standing pet peeve of mine (circa 2002), but all the brouhaha this past year over Pope Francis (“He’s sticking it to conservative Catholics!” “Another victory for the liberal Catholic camp!”) has dialed up the annoyance factor for me a hundred fold.

Why, you ask?

Well, to start with, it’s confusing.

When you say someone is a liberal Catholic, what do you mean? That they voted for Barack Obama? That they think women should be priests? That they like liturgical dance?


Likewise, when you say someone is a conservative Catholic, are you saying they voted for Rick Santorum?  That they read Thomas Aquinas? That they only go to the Extraordinary Form Mass?


What about people who voted for Rick Santorum and like liturgical dance? What are they? Conservative or liberal?

And how about those folks who voted for Barack Obama, go to daily Mass, and love them some Thomas Aquinas? Conservative? Liberal? Schizophrenic?

Or, to get more specific, what about me? I’m a pro-life, pro-traditional marriage, Obamacare-hating, free(ish) market-supporting, Gregorian Chant-loving, daily Mass-going girl. I must be a conservative Catholic. Right?

But wait. There’s more.

I’m also an anti-torture, anti-death penalty, anti-drone, pro-amnesty, preferential option for the poor-believing, organically grown and sustainably farmed-eating, alternative medicine-using, NPR-listening, Dr. Who-watching, Novus Ordo-going kind of girl. So, mightn’t I also be considered a liberal Catholic?

Confusing, isn’t it? That’s why it’s my first reason for so despising the pairing of “liberal” and “conservative” with “Catholic.” Those adjectives possess a plethora of meanings, and unless a host of qualifying statements accompany them, they come up short in their overall usefulness. Simply put, they don’t illuminate; they obscure.

My second problem is that using those adjectives feeds some people’s bad habit of conflating Church doctrine and party dogmas, encouraging them to think that being Catholic and Republican or Catholic and Democrat are one and the same thing.

No matter what the politicians say, no one political party is the standard bearer for the Catholic Faith. Both, in some way, are at odds with Church teaching. Forgetting that is a shortcut to cafeteria Catholicism. It encourages people to think they can disregard some of the Church’s doctrines simply because their preferred political party says they can.

And they can’t. That’s not how it works. Shocking though this may be, the DNC and RNC are not divinely appointed arbiters of the moral universe. If we’re Catholic, we’re supposed to believe that job has long been taken by the Church. So, it’s her voice, not MSNBC’s or Fox News’, to which we should be listening.

Last but not least (really, most of all), attaching words like “liberal” and “conservative” to the Catholic Faith skews people’s understanding of the nature of the Faith itself.

Let’s take a trip to the dictionary. For all its various meanings, the word “liberal” fundamentally means “one who liberalizes.” And one who liberalizes is one who seeks to “reform something and make it less strict.” Likewise, the word “conservative” denotes “one who conserves.” And one who conserves is one who “keeps something from harm, loss, or decay.”

In other words, attaching the terms “liberal” and “conservative” to “Catholic,” implies that Catholic doctrine has the potential to decay or be reformed. It also reinforces the notion that the essentials of Church teaching are as debatable as the details of Paul Ryan’s budget. Which they’re not.

Yes, of course, there’s development in Church teaching. As the years pass and man applies his mind to the Deposit of Faith, our understanding of Revelation can deepen. It can become more nuanced.

But it can’t change. The fundamentals remain, always and everywhere, the same.

The Church, as the saying goes, is not a democracy. It’s not a body politic, and ascribing political terms to various stripes of Catholics feeds the wrong-headed notion that one day the Church is going to say, “Aw shucks, post-modern world, you’re so right: women priests, gay marriage, and free contraception for all is totally the way to go. What were we thinking?

So, back to me. What am I? Conservative or liberal?

Neither. I’m not a conservative Catholic. I’m not a liberal Catholic. I’m just Catholic. If the Church teaches it, I believe it. If she says to do something, I do it.

And Pope Francis? What is he? Again, he’s a Catholic, a son of the Church, a 100 percent, dyed-in-the-wool mackerel snapper. Try to slap some other label on the man, and you’re just setting yourself up for a massive case of confusion.

All that being said, there are still some adjectives that pair quite nicely with “Catholic.”

There are, for example, dissenting Catholics—Catholics who disagree with one or more of the Church’s teachings. Then, there are lapsed Catholics—Catholics who’ve fallen away from the Church. There are lackadaisical Catholics—Catholics who’ve grown lazy or apathetic in the practice of their faith. And there are apostate Catholics—Catholics who’ve formally separated themselves from the Church.

There also are badly catechized Catholics—Catholics who think they’re living their faith, but haven’t been given all the tools to do so. There are unevangelized Catholics—the baptized and confirmed who go through the motions of the Faith, but don’t have the slightest clue why. And there are struggling Catholics—faithful men and women having a hard time understanding or living some aspect of the Faith.

Oh, and lest we forget, there also are faithful Catholics, devout Catholics, and holy Catholics.

Really, the list could go on. There is a whole wide world of wonderful, colorful, perfectly apt adjectives at our disposal that, when paired with the word “Catholic,” illuminate and elucidate. Best of all, they do that without dividing Catholics up into two diametrically opposed, arbitrarily constructed camps

So, next time you’re tempted to pair “liberal” and “conservative” with “Catholic,” for the sake of both clarity and my sanity, please pop open the dictionary or thesaurus first and see what else you can find.

Unless, of course, that rousing game of Bait the Redhead is what you were after. Then, by all means, “liberal” and “conservative” it is.

  • Slats

    No labels needed – one either embraces the Deposit of the Faith, or not. On the other hand, labels can be helpful to knowing where Bp. X., Fr. Y., or Catholic Blogger Z is coming from. If not labels, then by more-eloquent descriptors.

    • Peter K

      “No labels needed” – right, and I think that was the point of this post. Descriptive adjectives might help in certain cases (such as the ones Miss Stimpson offers) but the liberal/conservative way of looking at things is very unhelpful, both in politics and even more so in religion. “One either embraces the Deposit of Faith, or not” – well and good, but surely it’s not enough simply to intellectually embrace a set of propositions…one must also live the gospel.

      • Slats

        One doesn’t have a chance to live the Gospel if one is mistaken about (or stubbornly opposed to) what it is! The Church is full of many people who know and embrace the faith, but don’t have the willpower or strength to live it out. I personally believe our Lord has a lot more mercy on those who do their best with grace to do what is right and still stumble with the surrender from time to time than He does on those who just give themselves a rest-of-life pass because “that behavior isn’t wrong/sin,” even if it’s something that is denounced by Scripture, the natural law, and hundreds of years of Tradition. That’s a personal opinion, and it is the Lord, not Slats, who will judge, but I think that my opinion is soundly supported by Genesis 3 regarding the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s interpretation of it.

  • SM2504

    Good post, Emily.

  • Robert McAnder

    Emily seems confused.

  • Janet O’Connor

    I agree that we need to stop with all the labels there are NO liberal or conservative Catholics which is more appropriate for politics. There are only Catholic Christians . Ditto for the words used like Reactionary Neo Catholic and of course the word Modernist.

  • R.C.

    One thing I don’t understand, here: Why would “preferential option for the poor” risk having you labeled as a “liberal” Catholic, of all things?

    Every conservative Catholic I know embraces “preferential option for the poor”; it’s one of the reasons they vote against Democrats: Their policies are so horrifyingly destructive for poor people.

    In the U.S. “progressives” give HALF as much to church and charity as “conservatives” do. That’s true at every income level, in absolute dollars and as a percentage of income. Those are the stats. “Conservatives” also volunteer more, give blood more, serve in dangerous low-paying community-serving jobs more. In short: Care more.

    I would not support “progressivism” in the culture for various reasons. But perhaps chief among them is: I would not wish to stab my poor and needy neighbors in the back that way.

  • Pat

    I am a Believing Catholic … after that … call me what you want … but either you Believe ‘everything’ the Church Teaching as to Faith in CHRIST … or … you pick and choose.

    I do NOT believe that we can be Catholic if we pick and choose what to Believe … this being an oxymoron.

    GOD Bless us all.



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