Before Vatican II, Catholics were either “practicing Catholics” or “non-practicing Catholics” which meant that either they followed the Church’s teaching as a package or they did not. While many agree that Vatican II started with the best intentions, many others also agree that various people in high places manipulated the proceedings to further an agenda of subjective morality, diffused Catholicism, rampant socialist/Marxist ideas wrapped in social justice jargon (“common good”), and a general degradation of clarity regarding what is and what is not acceptable Catholic practice. These generally unfortunate movements have served to blur Catholic teaching and practice under an increasingly subjective and secular perception of the Catholic faith and its application. The rise of numerous groups and prominent, public figures all calling themselves “Catholic” while espousing many views contrary and contradictory to basic Catholic teaching has only served to further confuse the faithful and diffuse the Faith.
As a result of the above events, we now see the rise of the terms “Conservative” versus “Liberal” Catholics, which generally is understood to signify Catholics who believe and apply their faith more strictly, with less flexibility, less if any compromise and, according to the opposing side and most of the outside world, a more stubborn and judgmental tone. So called “liberal Catholics” on the other hand, are generally described as more flexible, compromising, unifying, progressive, humanitarian, forgiving, open, and unifying. If you feel a negative vibe from the view given conservative Catholicism and a positive vibe surrounding the corresponding view given to liberal Catholicism, then the purveyors of these stereotypes and labels have done their job well, which they have. However, the reason we get these respective negative and positive vibes in the first place rests with the fact that, whether we like or admit it or not, we are immersed in this culture and society which projects and promotes much of the tone ascribed to the liberal Catholic side and demonizes and mocks the tone ascribed to the so-called conservative Catholic side. Consistent with this distinction and stereotype are three myths about conservative Catholicism which I would like to address here.
First, some argue that conservative Catholics unrealistically seek a so-called “perfect” Church on their terms and therefore foreclose any idea or attempt at unity, compromise, and diplomacy as heresy, destructiveness, betrayal, or worse. The fallacy here is two-fold. First, it implies that conservative Catholics actually believe that perfection can be achieved on this very imperfect earth and within this even more imperfect society. In truth, most conservative Catholics that I know realize that perfection cannot be obtained in terms of this earth, but fervently believe that we are called to continually pursue such perfection as best we can while on this rock in space. We understand and accept that perfection will only be found in Heaven, but also feel that we all have a duty to continually strive for it while on earth with the understanding that we will necessarily fall short. The ultimate goal, then, is not perfection but, rather, the continual effort to approach it while chained to an imperfect world and an imperfect body and mind. An implication of this “perfection” myth is, indirectly, that so-called liberal Catholics embrace and accept imperfection while so-called conservative ones denounce, deny, and reject it, which is obviously an inaccurate and oversimplified view. A more accurate characterization here might be that conservative Catholics strive for perfection while recognizing and dealing with imperfection while liberal ones see imperfection as a humanizing good in and of itself and hence do not see striving for perfection as a good at all. Ironically, striving for perfection while accepting imperfection is much more respectful, realistic, and empowering of the human person than accepting imperfection as a badge of honor, which merely rejects our ability to reach beyond ourselves and glorifies self and self limits.
Second, as implied above, many argue that conservative Catholics selfishly and stubbornly sabotage unity in the service of righteous, subjective, and judgmental arrogance. The first implication here is that liberal Catholics are somehow less righteous, more objective, and less judgmental than others, which is not necessarily so. The second implication here, and perhaps one of the most critical, is that unity is invariably a good in and of itself. Is unity for the sake of unity a good thing? Is Christ found in compromise and glorified unity? The answer is a resounding no. The Bible tells us that God practices tough, and not mushy, love. He loves the sinner but not the sin, and will punish or enforce as need to save the sinner. Just as Christ did not seek a diplomatic resolution to the money changers, so too we cannot compromise our faith for unity. We are called to love others and seek unity within the context of our true faith, not despite of it.
Third, and last, we are told the lie that serving unity and compromise, reaching for the “common good” or “common ground” is in and of itself the Christian or truly Catholic thing to do. This view equates war, poverty and environmental concerns, which are general wrongs, with abortion and marriage concerns, which are inherent wrongs. It rejects the notion of gradient moral priorities, as well as ultimate personal responsibility. Like it or not, being a Catholic or even a Christian is not easy in this society, and those who steadfastly hold on to Christ come what may will likewise find themselves on the outside looking in.
We cannot be moral Neville Chamberlains compromising out eternal salvation for earthly comfort. We cannot be rampant purveyors of compromise and frightened addicts of unity at any cost. Likewise, we cannot confuse souls through our actions with inconsistency or irresponsible ambivalence of where we stand on critical, core Catholic and Christian issues, especially if we are Catholic leaders whose example is sought by many souls.
We must speak out against inherent evil, strive to shed light on wrong, and humbly do so with love for the sinner and disgust for the sin. We have a responsibility to put out or lessen the flames of heresy or distortion with the water of Christ’s example and The Almighty’s Word. You cannot be a true Christian, a true Catholic, while running away from the cross toward the safety, consensus, and compromise of the screaming mob. You cannot surrender or sabotage your core beliefs in the interest of unity and common ground. Lastly, you cannot forget that God, and Christ, are very much about profiling, dividing, and distinguishing as needed, as Judgment Day, the money changers, and the Parable of the Sower illustrate. We have Ten Commandments, not Ten Suggestions, and there is no such thing as Heaven for all, Hell for none, and lots of ” we will see what happens” in between. There is a big difference between charity and irresponsible cowardice. Good friends tell it like it is and do not sugar coat things for their own comfort. Let us proudly proclaim ourselves followers of Christ at the courtyard as Our Lord is unfairly judged rather than betray Him yet again with wishy-washy denials of knowing and loving Him above all else.
Good parents sometimes have to reprimand their children. Good teachers sometimes have to grade harshly but fairly. The appeasing, wimpy parent and teacher obtain a very temporary comfort but irresponsibly lose their purpose and mission worrying about the secular perceptions of a very secular world. We can be charitable yet firm, flexible yet steadfast when it matters most, loving yet very clear where we stand. Our Lord promised us that He would help us to do this, and we offend and insult Him when we sell out rather than stand firm because, by doing so, we imply that we do not trust His help and protection. Likewise, charity is not rampant compromise, true love is often tough love and not rampant wishy washy love, and forgiveness asks us to provide new chances rather than accept much less glorify old mistakes.
Replace the phrase “liberal Catholic” with “Cafeteria Catholic” and admit that it is possible to go too far with being a Conservative Catholic, yet never accept that bending is necessarily a universal and eternal good. This is so because you cannot possibly accept, promote, and defend liberal Catholicism without picking and choosing your Faith or bending for the sake of bending. Not if you are still honest with yourself, respectful of your intellectual capacity, and keeping your eyes fixed on God and God alone.
Copyright, 2012 Gabriel Garnica