Splitting the Catholic labels really fine

It’s one thing to try to drag political labels over into religion coverage. That’s inevitable, I guess, in this highly politicized world in which we live today.

It’s something else to use terms that are so vague that they have no meaning and to use them over and over and over without providing the kind of factual context that allows readers to figure out what the words might mean.

This is something different than the journalistic sin that takes place when reporters and editors give “fundamentalist” — a word that has a perfectly good historical meaning, one even recognized in the Associated Press Stylebook — some kind of vague and inaccurate new meaning. And I’m talking about something different than using “Islamist” all the time without providing a consistent definition.

To be specific, I’m talking about that beloved weasel word “moderate” — a term so vague and, at times, slanted that it even alarmed that New York Times self-study team back in 2005 (click here for the .pdf). Do you remember this timely reminder to the newspaper’s reporters and editors?

Too often we label whole groups from a perspective that uncritically accepts a stereotype or unfairly marginalizes them. As one reporter put it, words like moderate or centrist “inevitably incorporate a judgment about which views are sensible and which are extreme.” We often apply “religious fundamentalists,” another loaded term, to political activists who would describe themselves as Christian conservatives.

I’m waiting for someone to be called a “moderate fundamentalist.” It’s only a matter of time.

This leads us the following strange reference in a Washington Post story about, of course, Georgetown University and its defiant invitation to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to speak during one of its commencement events. The key issue, of course, is the new set of HHS regulations that will require the majority of church-based institutions to include all FDA-approved forms of contraception in the health-insurance plans they offer to employees and even students. This would include, with no out-of-pocket payments, sterilizations and the contraceptives commonly known as “morning-after pills.”

Here is the reference, in context:

… (T)he archdiocese of Washington, led by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, criticized Georgetown President John J. DeGioia for remarks he issued a day earlier — apparently to address the controversy — saying DeGioia had mischaracterized the issue as being about birth control. As the region’s top Catholic official, Wuerl is responsible for making sure Catholic institutions, including Georgetown, follow church teachings.

DeGioia “does not address the real issue for concern — the selection of a featured speaker whose actions as a public official present the most direct challenge to religious liberty in recent history,” reads the statement from the archdiocese, which covers the District and suburban Maryland.

The Catholic bishops have led opposition to the mandate, arguing that it violates religious freedom. Liberal and moderate Catholics and other religious advocates also opposed the mandate when it was announced in January but their opposition died down after the White House shifted the requirement from the employers to insurance companies.

No, we are not going to get into a discussion of the fact that the Post let that final sentence stand as proven fact, without any dissenting voices that are allowed to ask — for example — what happens to the many religious organizations that self-insure.

No, here’s what I want to know: What, precisely, is the difference between a “liberal” Catholic and a “moderate” Catholic in this context?

Most of all, I would like to know the doctrinal differences between these kinds of Catholics, two groups of Catholics whose identities are so established that the Post does not even need to hint at who is who and what is what. Since the story mentions that orthodoxy on “church teachings” plays a role in this drama, we must assume that there are doctrinal — not merely political — issues at stake.

So, what are they? So, GetReligion readers, what are the doctrinal differences between “moderate” and “liberal” Catholics?

Discuss, but be nice and look at this in terms that journalists can use in news reports.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Ben

    I’d guess in this context:
    * Liberal: Firmly wants to see the church reverse prohibition on contraception and possibly abortion as well.
    * Moderate: Knows the church won’t change anytime soon (or ever) and can agree to disagree with the bishops on contraception, along with the majority of US Catholics.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    DOCTRINE, I said. You only named politicized social issues.

    The story mentions doctrines.

    Also, the issue in the HHS case is not contraceptives (if it was, you would not have tons of non-Catholics involved).

  • Julia

    Some years ago a gay friend told me he is a moderate gay because he’s not in your face or marching in parades; politically he self-identifies with the Left.

    One of the problems here is the positioning of words – the noun and modifier can be reversed. Is a moderate Catholic the same kind of person as a Catholic moderate? Is a liberal Catholic the same kind of person as a Catholic liberal? Not always.

    It might be more useful to use a Constitutional review analogy. There are Catholics who think behavior linked to yes and no questions such as abortion, euthanasia, and sex outside marriage should have a “strict scrutiny” standard. These Catholics think social justice issues are not so clear cut and relate more to individuals than governments, except for war which is governed by “just war” theory.

    And there are Catholics who think social justice issues should have a “strict scrutiny” standard. These Catholics think that abortion and the like are not yes and no issues, and should be handled in a non-judgmental, pastoral manner.

    There is some linkage to political stance, but not total.
    And there is very often over-lap between the two kinds of Catholic within the same person.

  • Spencerian

    What are the doctrinal differences between “liberal” and “moderate” Catholics?

    The difference is that neither are recognized by the Catholic Church. This official pontifical doctrinal note from the Vatican summarizes that a Catholic cannot compromise their political views by forsaking the Church’s teachings. Specifically:

    [...]a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals.

    That would suggest that the article has a weakness in that it fails to note that, while not perfect, a practicing Catholic’s view may fall heavily towards the conservative political view since conservatism would support the Catholic Church’s consistent (thus, non-progressive) teachings on the topics touched on in the article.

    As such, the article needs to find Catholics that abide by teachings but also guide themselves by their consciences on political matters to get more accurate nuances of dissent or agreement that the reporter wanted.

  • Don

    I think it is almost defintional that a “liberal” Catholic openly rejects and defies Church teaching on abortion. My sense is that many “liberal” Catholics also openly reject Church teaching on gay marriage. Prominent examples are Nancy Pelosi, Joseph Biden and E.J. Dione.

  • Julia

    Doctrine, specifically.

    I don’t think there’s a difference in doctrine. It’s a matter of how that doctrine is to be lived out.

    Example: Catholics who are politically to the right think that, in general, help to the poor, the sick etc. is mainly a directive to individuals; these folks volunteer in huge numbers and like the word “subsidiarity”. Catholics who are more to the left think that Gospel mandates should be adopted by governments – they like to use the phrase “common good” to promote government initiatives for the citizenry.

    Re: issues like abortion – some think you can be personally against abortion, but learn to live with laws that allow it.
    Others think you need to fight against those laws, as was done with slavery.

    Interesting story out of “Vatican Insider” on who Americans should vote for which gets into these matters, mostly from the “social justice” viewpoint. Since abortion laws in most European countries are a matter for the legislature, the reporter does not seem to understand the importance of the President’s appointments to the Supreme Court in the US.

  • carl

    A liberal possesses a post-modern epistemology.

    A conservative possesses a pre-modern epistemology.

    A moderate is a nominalist, and doesn’t want to fight about such matters as Truth. He holds doctrine lightly because he holds it externally. He wants a nice church with a nice liturgy, and he wants things to be otherwise left basically undisturbed. It is not possible to define a moderate in terms of ‘doctrine.’ A ‘moderate’ doesn’t know from doctrine. That’s why he’s a moderate.


  • Julia


    Bravo!! Describes most of the Catholics I know – who have never read the Church Fathers, anything from V II or John Paul II or Benedict or the newish Catechism. Bring any of it up and they don’t know what you are talking about.

  • Hieronymus

    There is only one kind of Catholics: those who follow the Magisterium as outlined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Everybody else is simply not a Catholic.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com Mattk

    Tmatt, I know you asked about doctrine, but I do not think most reporters care about doctrine. When they say moderate Catholic they mean pro-abort. When they say Liberal Catholic they mean someone with a Catholic grandmother.

  • Martha

    I’ll be very interested to see the labels applied to these lawsuits – one of the entities filing suit is the University of Notre Dame, the same university under the same President, Fr. Jenkins, who back in 2009 hosted President Obama to give the principal speech at the commencement ceremony and receive an honorary degree, for which they received much criticism, including their pressing charges against the pro-life protestors arrested during the visit (which were not dropped until 2011).

    So will they be described as liberal, moderate or conservative Catholics? Former moderates who now lean conservative? As I said, I’ll be very interested to see the coverage on this. Elizabeth Scalia at The Anchoress has a post on this, and a list of those filing suit so far – 43, I think? – is up over at Fr Z’s blog.

  • Don

    I think most “liberal” Catholics have no problem with open defiance of whatever Church teachings they happen to disagree with. It seems they are much more apt than “moderate” Catholics to believe and assert that certain Church teachings are just “wrong” and need to be changed. There seems to be a prevailing attitude among some of them that the Church is “out of date” and needs to “modernize” by changing its teachings. Some of these view themselves as virtuous warriors who are trying to save the Church by openly defying it.

  • Ben

    Terry –

    doctrine. okay. frankly, i think the WaPo is simply talking politically, i.e. Catholics who are political liberals and Catholics who are political moderates.

    But, I think a Catholic who is politically liberal in America is most likely a doctrinal liberal.

    Liberal: Sex can be moral even when a procreative possibility is willfully closed off. How and when and why I imagine would have many flavors of opinion.

    Moderate: Probably encompasses those Julia is talking about… agree with the doctrines, but accept contrary laws for a secular society. And then those who hold a liberal position on sexual doctrine, but have quietly agreed to disagree on these points.

    Why don’t you spell out what the doctrinal differences would be?

  • Martha

    tmatt, do you know if the dead-tree version of that “Washington Post” story had any further details in it? I’m curious to see if they made any reference to the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio which – in response to the mandate on compulsory coverage of contraception and sterilisation provision – has dropped its student health insurance altogether. The university also states that this is because the increase in mandated maximum coverage would double the premiums payable.

    It was mentioned pretty widely in the Catholic blogosphere (or at least the parts I frequent), but there was also some coveage in the mainstream news (as a quick Google will demonstrate). That’s why I was surprised not to see a mention of it in the “Washington Post” story – is it because this was the online version and fuller details are in the print version, because the reporter and/or editor didn’t think it qualified as important or relevant to the story, or the reporter just did not know about it?

    I mean, as an example of the effect the mandate is having on one Catholic university or its reaction to same, in light of Ms. Fluke’s appearance regarding her experience needing health insurance coverage at another Catholic university, I think this is relevant to the story – but I’m not a professional journalist.

  • http://authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    The paper used “liberal” and “moderate” in the political sense, I think, as others have mentioned. What they mean is Catholics who have liberal or moderate political views. This is not really a doctrinal question.

    Technically, there is no such thing as “liberal” Catholic doctrine. Liberalism, theologically speaking, is an attitude, not a doctrinal faction. Liberalism leaves everything up to the individual so pinning down any concrete doctrines is impossible. “Moderate” would therefore also refer to an attitude, by which someone follows Church teaching some issues (decided idiosyncratically) but others he follows his own judgment. The basic attitude at work, however, is still liberal, but there are fewer things the individual has chosen to dissent on; the agreement with the Church is accidental; and the ultimate authority in terms of religious doctrine is the individual.

    In the end,doctrinally speaking, either one accepts the teachings of the Church and strives to live accordingly, or one does not. The latter group are liberal doctrinally and usually politically, too, because there is an affinity in their attitudes.

    There is no such thing as liberal, moderate, or conservative Catholicism. There is only Catholicism, and the words liberal, moderate, or conservative apply to individuals’ approaches to the religion.

  • Ben

    I disagree, Authentic. Other denominations have doctrines that would be considered liberal in this context. Some doctrinal liberals in Catholicism are hoping for similar doctrines to be adopted by the Church — they are not just adopting an attitude of I’ll decide.

  • TeaPot562

    In Alice Through the Looking Glass (by Lewis Carroll, nee the Rev. Charles Lutwig Dodson), Humpty Dumpty says, “When I use a word, it means what I want it to mean.”
    So use by the WaPo or the NYT of a phrase like “Liberal Catholic” or “Moderate Catholic” means what the author of the piece wants it to mean.
    We can learn from 19th Century authors.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Never forget that there were TWO kinds of pro-life demonstrations on that day at Notre Dame.

    One led by outsiders that did not cooperate with police and campus authorities.

    The other, much larger, organized by campus pro-life groups that included faculty, students, priests, the local bishops, etc.

    The media wrote about the Randall Terry set, but not the larger, more symbolic (the bishop!) event.

    In other words, the MSM blew it.

  • Julia

    Here’s a really funny NYT article on how Obama can reach certain types of Catholics and which ones to forget about.


  • Julia

    AuthenticBioethics is correct. There is doctrine and there is people’s attitudes towards it. Not much different than how Americans are arrayed in their attitudes towards the Constitution.

    The differences are in how people interpret it and how they might want it to be changed.

    There are no separate groups with different doctrines any more than there are separate groups with different Constitutions.

  • http://authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    Ben, maybe you’re right, I can see your point, but I would argue that what appears to be a set doctrine is really just a codification or justification of letting the individual decide, or a codification/justification of what a fair number of adherents happen to agree upon. In other words, a church with a doctrine permitting contraception is not really about a teaching on human sexuality and human cooperation with the divine will but more about letting people who want to use it to do so, a kind of abdication of moral authority by the church in question on this issue. So to me, it’s a kind of codification of the superior authority of the individual’s morality over that of the church, more than it is a teaching on anything concrete. But as I say, I could be wrong as I am more of an expert on my own church’s teachings than on other church’s. I just see these churches voting on doctrinal issues and splintering again and again. There may be splits and factions afflicting the Catholic Church, and understanding of dogmas gets refined, but doctrine remains constant.

    At any rate, if there is such a thing as “liberal doctrine” I nonetheless stand by the notion that there is no such thing as liberal (vs moderate) Catholic doctrine. There is only Catholic doctrine and a liberal (or moderate or conservative) approach or attitude toward that doctrine. If liberals want to change the doctrines of the Catholic Church, then there you go: The present teachings have to be abrogated and replaced with something else. That something else is not Catholic doctrine, but by definition, something else.

  • Father Canu

    moderate = lukewarm ?
    “I know your works; I know that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.”

  • really not

    Good job Authentic, I would never have guessed that you were not Catholic. There is only one doctrine, period; the United States has but one constitution, period. How you interpret those documents determines your personal leanings. The conservative Catholic is just as likely to disagree with decisions as the liberal, just add it is for those groups interpreting U.S. law. If you want to have a personal doctrine you’ll have to look for another faith.

  • admaioremdeiglorium

    Many of the definitions above are outstanding. I would offer these observations:

    1) The MSM sees all things as political, the end of which is the acquisition & exercise of power. Consider the President’s meeting with the bishops; he spoke in terms of manipulating their constituency. Expediency is the guiding principle (although calling it a principle seems oxymoronic). Unhindered by any fidelity to principle, Bill Clinton was adept at co-opting successful Republican policies.

    2) Could it hinge on an individual’s concept of the Church? Those who love her & have fully submitted to her authority have a profoundly different perspective than those whose acceptance of Church authority is conditioned upon their agreement on a particular doctrine.

    3) The labels coincide enough to be used as a convention, but only if a certain sloppiness is tolerated. A political liberal would naturally have a strong interest in the social gospel, but might be just as pro-life as a conservative. Similarly, a conservative may be so focused on economic & defense issues he regards the abortion debate as a nuisance. The many persons who thus don’t fit in categories defined politically chafe at being so grouped.

    So the distinction is between Church first or my opinion first. Perhaps primo ecclesia vs. primo ego (if that is the correct Latin)?

  • http://authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    really not: I am Catholic, actually. But if I were any other religion that has established doctrines and believed them to be true, I would feel the same. And yes, parallel remarks can be made regarding the Constitution. People may argue about what it “means” but it really has to come down to what it “says.” What made you think I’m not? Or am I misinterpreting you?

  • really not me

    Authentic – I misinterpreted what you were saying in you’re fourth sentence in post 21. Doesn’t change anything,

  • Mouse

    Agree with you–the term “moderate” there seems to mean nothing in particular. But I will give it my own definition: Catholics who are not raving liberals, but are too afriad of displeasing the world to actually stand up to opposition!!

  • Thinkling

    There are some good attempts given above, especially in regards to how the Post uses the terms.

    I would like to reiterate what many have said, that there really is no liberal or moderate (or conservative) Catholic doctrine — doctrine is simply doctrine. Those labels refer to people’s positions (which means it is the doctrine of Jane Doe, not Catholicism) or of their approaches: Abby Johnson and Mother Theresa, for example, might attract different labels, but I doubt they have incongruent views of doctrine.

    I do have an observation which I have not seen echoed here. If one accepts that the labels apply to people, not doctrine, there is a pattern in Catholics as to the nature of their dissent (when they do).

    One type of dissent is when one’s church deems something must be assented to (is compulsory or forbidden), but one denies this. The other type is when one’s church deems something is permitted, but one believes it is either compulsory or forbidden. Catholic examples include teachings on abortion (first type) and the death penalty (second type). It turns out that nearly all people who dissent in the first way are labeled liberal, and the second way conservative.

    This pattern even extends to matters of discipline. What is usually the label used for a priest who changes the words to the Liturgy? And what is usually the label to those who think people who receive the Eucharist in the hand are apostate?

    I know this pattern is my own empirical observation and not mentioned journalistically anywhere I am aware of. But I would love to know if anyone has seen this mentioned anywhere.

  • brencel

    A Liberal believes the teachings of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council must be obeyed, Moderates say only obey the ones you like.

  • http://facebook.com/offivideo Joe

    Liberal Catholic: “Do unto me as I would do unto myself.”
    Moderate Catholic: “Change what you do unto others based on convenience.”

    Liber – self
    Mod – adjust

    God’s universality is not considered in either status. Our self-importance comes directly from the forbidden “tree of knowledge” where we enjoyed the liberation from God, but paid the price in death. Only through complete surrender and faith in Jesus Christ, God’s begotten son, and our human example, can we do anything good.

  • http://facebook.com/offivideo Joe

    Enjoyed? Thought we would enjoy… that is. OOooops.

  • http://authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    Thinkling, good points you raise. If someone believes the Church is in error for permitting Communion in the hand, it may come off as conservative in many respects. Still, to me, the notion that the Church is somehow in error and therefore “I” get to decide what the correct doctrine is, remains basically a liberal attitude.

    brencel, having studied what the Second Vatican Council actually said, I would say that liberals generally do not believe it’s teachings should be obeyed but rather follow the so-called “spirit” of the Council that suits their own beliefs. Moderates follow the lead of the pastors and bishops, whatever that might be, and keep quiet more or less. Conservatives read the documents and follow the popes that insist on an hermeneutic of continuity with Sacred Tradition in interpreting them.

  • Thinkling


    Your point about liberal attitude makes sense, but I would suggest you will never see the label liberal used that way in a journalistic setting. Could you envision a writer describing (say) Michael Voris or SSPX Bishop Williamson as liberal? Me neither.

    Your mention of hermeneutics relates to this. There are actually two types of rupture hermeneutics today. There is the one you mentioned, the ‘spirit’ type associated with liberal that think V2 has yet to be implemented. But there is also the SSPX type that think it has been implemented, and has been an unmitigated disaster. This type is associated with conservative. You make a good point that the hermeneutic of continuity catholic is usually labeled conservative. But that fails to distinguish them from the second rupture type above. One distinction is usually made, but the other is usually overlooked. This puzzles me.