A Potential Insight from a Bad Question

A Potential Insight from a Bad Question October 1, 2012

The question I want to address, pretending for a moment that it’s a question worth taking seriously, is this: Is the Church conservative or liberal?

I find such a question misguided because the Church (magisterially speaking) doesn’t think in these terms, much to its credit.  To answer this question with one of the two options given would be to distort Catholic thinking by forcing it into a political dichotomy that is flawed from the outset.  And so the answer is neither, or both, depending on how the terms are understood.

In current popular parlance, one might reasonably say that the Church is “conservative” on sexual ethics and “liberal” on social ethics.  I suppose that’s partly why a Catholic mindset feels so well-suited to me.  It’s also why I get annoyed by the one-sided claim that the magisterium and/or bishops are exclusively focused on sexual issues – as well as the equally one-sided claim, trotted out when the pope says something about economic justice, that he and/or his predecessors are “to the left of [any/almost every] politician in America.”

On the other hand, as a few of my fellow contributors like to point out, liberalism in the more classical sense has become the platform of the American left and right, in different forms (sexual and economic, respectively).  This clashes with Church teaching in either case, and should thus remind Catholics that we are aliens and sojourners, pilgrims without a political homeland.  If we’re not feeling politically lonely, we’re missing something.

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  • Paul DuBois

    Comparing the Church to our two party system looks like this:

    The Republican (conservative) thinks the focus should be on the individual. What he does and wants is what is important. There are obvious exceptions to this like abortion rights and military service, but in general the Republican thinks if all individuals are allowed to due what is best for themselves then society will be better off.

    The Democrat (liberal) thinks the focus should be on society. What is best for the advancement of society is what is important. There are also obvious exceptions here. If everyone did what was the best for society as a whole then everyone (or at least the vast majority) would be better off.

    The Catholic and Christian thinks the focus should be on God and on salvation. Gaining salvation for the largest number of people is what is important. This is best accomplished through following the teachings of Christ. As I start to look at things more this way (prompted at least in part by the posts and comments on the site) I begin to realize most of the partisan arguments aren’t even talking about the most important things.

    • Julia Smucker

      This is an incisive assessment, although I would nuance it a bit further to say that individualism and collectivism are both temptations that cut across the political spectrum. Right-wing vigilantes think they are protecting society from “invaders” or whatever other dehumanizing term one might use, or for a more mainstream example, torturing individuals gets justified in the name of “homeland security”. And the left, as you correctly imply, is entirely comfortable using individual rights language (too often understood as doing whatever one wants) when it’s convenient to their platforms, as in abortion or sexual permissiveness.

      Catholic Social Teaching’s focus on the common good which includes the universal right to a dignified life, applied both individually and collectively and including a preferential option for all poor and vulnerable populations (read: the unborn, the immigrant, the prisoner, etc.), critiques all of the above.

  • bill bannon

    I distinguish between quintessential Catholicism (the de fide/ infallible core of the geode) and cultural Catholicism (the outer sometimes ugly surface of the geode…liberal or conservative). The Encyclicals can be either core… or surface if infallibility is not used. Catechisms can be either core or surface depending on whether they are citing the de fide/ infallible or the teachings less than infallible. Practice of the living Church can be either core or surface. The Inquisition was not core Catholicism but neither is the current abolitionist approach to the death penalty which even contradicts its already liberal catechism article.
    Core Catholicism is always smaller in size than
    core+cultural Catholicism. The center of the geode is smaller than center plus outer surface of the geode.
    Separated brethern may actualize core Catholicism better than Catholicism does in a time and place in history….e.g. the Amish divorce rate versus the Catholic one in the modern U.S.

  • dominic1955

    It is a flawed question, precisely because it is colored with American provincialism. That left-wing/right-wing Democrat/Republican thing is much more merely representative of the U.S. political landscape. Other than an convenient form of shorthand in that context alone, it is largely meaningless.

    As Julia correctly pointed out, the “left” and “right” in America are largely of the “classical” liberalism that emerged from the “Enlightenment”. Looking at the long lists of papal condemnations of this sort of philosophy since the 18th Century and finding a certain pinnacle in the Syllabus of Errors, it is clear that we find ourselves in a very imperfect political environment in the U.S. which isn’t much different in much of the rest of the world. Specifically, in that our political environments (no matter how divergent they are) are not inspired by a very Catholic world view.

  • Doc Fox

    I think the only way the Church fails to establish its true balance among its many moral/ethical propositions, is that the conversation about abortion and contraception is itself more strident, while the conversation about social justice and common good is somehow more academic = boring … I would suppose that if Romney/Ryan get elected and proceed to try to eliminate social security, medicare, and medicaid, the conversation about social justice and common good will become truly strident, and then people will wonder why the Church is ignoring abortion, or why it’s being so liberal doesn’t extend to abortion.

  • Ronald King

    Julia, Which Church does the question refer to? The Church that God created founded upon God’s infinite Love is the foundation of life and the unity of all of creation. The Church developed by human beings appears to me to be a fragmented construct which expresses the opposing forces of love and fear as they are acted out in relationship to God and all of Creation. The use of liberal or conservative seems to be an expression of those who are attached to the ways of the world and thus inhibits an open discussion and exploration of a deeper undrstanding of the mystery of God’s Love which connects all of us to one another and God. The Church as Christ taught is a sacrificial expression of God’s Love to show us the Way to love out that mystery and connect us more deeply and consciously to that Love for God and all of God’s Creation. Does Catholicism as it is expressed through the hierarchy and its followers project such love or does it project an image which is constructed on fear and results in fragmentation and chaos? I hope this makes sense. Too many thoughts are influencing me at this time.

  • Mark Gordon

    Is the Church liberal or conservative? Yes! Which is to say it is both and neither. (There’s your both/and again, Julia!)

  • Dante Aligheri

    I must agree with you and these commenters. Sometimes, I often feel the entire political experiment of Enlightenment liberalism was a doomed project. Personally, I think communitarianism would be a much better system.

  • Agellius

    “If we’re not feeling politically lonely, we’re missing something.”

    In that case I’m not missing anything. : )

  • Since (as I agree) the Church can be neither consistently conservative, nor consistently liberal, and since it is arguably the case that no viable politician holds nothing but positions that are consistent with Church doctrines and teaching, it would seem to follow that the Church should just stay completely out of politics. Where this leaves the individual Catholic citizen, I don’t know.

  • Trellis Smith

    I’m not sure how you would describe defenders of an authoritarian patriarchal mode of church polity as not being within the ranks of conservative even reactionary forces.
    Benedict himself describes his papacy as defender against relativism which puts the church on the continuum between moral absolutism and relativism.Thus I think we can look at governance as a measure of conservative vs progressive. I think one can delude oneself to say that the church rises above these political tensions though I agree more precise description of the tensions is warranted. The revisionism of the Vatican 2 today is marked by a discussion of continuity and discontinuity which Benedict rightly acknowledges contains both. One of the main breaks is with a strict Thomistic approach as manifested in Dignitates Humanae which has opened the church to a less insular engagement with the world. The description of the Church I often heard was of visible and invisible with the visible church being as one, holy, catholic etc. as the Soviet Union complete with its own politiburo

    • dominic1955

      “All that she must do is to retake, with the help of true workers for the social restoration, the organisms shattered by the Revolution, adapting them in the same Christian spirit that inspired them to the new environment created by the material development of today’s society. For the true friends of the people are neither revolutionaries nor innovators, but traditionalists.”-Pope St. Pius X, Notre Charge Apostolique

      Yep, certainly.

    • Dante Aligheri

      Trellis, I agree with you. The Church is “conservative” in the truest, most original sense of the word – that is, conserving Tradition. The Church transcends liberalism – that is, both classical liberalism of the Republicans and the progressivist liberalism of the Democrats – because the Church represents a political concept older than the Enlightenment from which all modern political systems spring. Republicanism – that is, the American Party and not the system – is only conserving eighteenth century liberalism. Simply, the Church is conservative; the Republican Party (and Democratic Party) are liberal. The closest analogy for the Church’s view from a political thinker might be Burke’s traditionalism (?).

      Oops. After I wrote this, I just realized dominic1955 said the same thing.

  • Dante Aligheri

    Rodak brings up an interesting point. This is why I almost wish Catholics could establish an American Center Party similar to that which we had in Germany during the Weimar Republic. Alas, I do not think our political system is capable of a strong third party option.

    • Kurt


      Well, the Zentrum was the author of socialized medicine, supported unionization of workers in the private and public sectors, was deeply committed to social welfare programs, and helped enact unemployment benefits. At the same time they were willing to work with pro-abortion politicians and parties in order to advance common goals. They supported expansion of democratic rights even if the electorate might oppose the Zentrum’s principles on abortion and other issues.

      And, it was unashamed to expel from the Party its right-wing element led by von Pappen.

      I think it was an admirable organization. However, I have no hope the contemporary American Catholic conservatives nor much of the Episcopacy would ever support such an agenda. I would love to be convinced to the contrary.

      • Dante Aligheri

        I did not know that. Thanks. Well, I’m not sure about working with pro-abortion politicians part, but the rest would be fine by me.

  • There IS a type of “conservatism” in politics that a Catholic could support; however, it was NEVER found in America:


  • Quite true!

    Historically speaking, left-right politics came to fruition after the separation of Church and State, and the advent of modern democracy. Catholics that wanted to restore the aristocracy to power (and thus continue the mission of the Church through state administration) usually leaned towards “the right”, whereas Catholics who had greater concern for the welfare of the poor (and thus continue the mission of the Church through community) chose “the left”.

    We are only conservative insofar as that our views were put into action in the past. There was once a time where Christians were seen as radically progressive.

    I’d say being a true Christian is radical, in and of itself.

  • Rat-biter

    “I find such a question misguided because the Church (magisterially speaking) doesn’t think in these terms, much to its credit.”

    ## Why should the question apply only to the Magisterium ? STM it applies to everything in the culture and sociology of Catholicism.

    “I’d say being a true Christian is radical, in and of itself.”

    ## Not sure what the modifier “true” is intended to mean, but yes. If Catholics were radical, the authorities in the CC would not like it. They don’t like religious impulses they cannot manage and control by laws & whatnot; they never have.

    • Julia Smucker

      I limited that particular observation to the magisterium because the laity (at least in the United States) is polarized, and many do make the mistake of trying to frame the Church’s thought in these terms, despite how out of place they are in the Catholic tradition. This happens politically, as we try to conform Catholic Social Teaching to the Dem/Rep binary (which, as I and others here have said, is really a polarization between left-liberalism and right-liberalism, neither of which is compatible with CST), and ecclesiologically, as we split into the equally polarized factions of those who idolize the magisterium and those who demonize it.