Catholicism and the Convenience of Empty Labels

When the language of American politics is used to define Catholic belief and practice, the result is confusion, discord, and ideological obfuscation

 “Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, a leading conservative in the Roman Catholic hierarchy, defended himself Tuesday against perceptions that he is hostile to the more liberal inclusiveness of Pope Francis.” — “Chaput to Catholics: Don’t use Francis to ‘further own agendas’” by David O’Reilly (; Nov. 13, 2013)

Incredulity is the neglect of revealed truth or the willful refusal to assent to it. ‘Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.’” — Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), 2089 (quoting from Code of Canon Law, 751)

“…” — Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) on the terms “liberal” and “conservative”

I have a dream. In it, a man dressed in strange clothing stands in front of the courthouse in downtown Eugene, Oregon, just a ten-minute drive from my home. He begins to preach. He speaks of Jesus Christ, of God, of the Church, of the need for salvation. At one point he quotes another author, saying, “Anyone who does not pray to the Lord prays to the devil. When we do not profess Jesus Christ, we profess the worldliness of the devil, a demonic worldliness.” He speaks of the Cross. The small crowd gathered before him snicker; there is some hissing.

Then the man calmly states, “ Every unborn child, condemned unjustly to being aborted, has the face of the Lord, who before being born, and then when he was just born, experienced the rejection of the world.” Someone shouts, “You’re a fanatic, old man! Go home!” The man smiles, unswayed. He concludes by remarking on the power of baptism: “The Church teaches us to confess our sins with humility, because only in forgiveness, received and given, do our restless hearts find peace and joy.” A woman sneers, “Take your talk of sin somewhere else, you fundamentalist!” Someone else mutters, “Yeah, that’s what the world needs—more conservative Christian ideology.”

Yes, it’s just a dream. But if you know anything about Eugene, Oregon—or other university towns with the same hip, enlightened, progressive, educated citizenry—you know it’s not far from reality.

The strange thing is that when this man gets up in front of crowds of tens of thousands in St. Peter’s Square and says the same things, he is described by many as “liberal”. In fact, arguments and debate over whether or not Francis is a “liberal” have been both common and heated in recent months. Many in the American media, however, have already made up their minds: yes, the new pope is “liberal”, and that supposed fact is a big problem for those “conservative” bishops who keep harping about fringe issues such as the killing of the unborn, sexual immorality, the familial foundations of society, and the need to evangelize.

Fabricated Conflicts, Lacking Contexts

The quote above, about Francis and Abp. Chaput, is a good example. Chaput, readers are informed, is “a leading conservative in the Roman Catholic hierarchy” who is, in some form or fashion, in conflict with “the more liberal inclusiveness of Pope Francis.” Is it because Pope Francis is for abortion, “same-sex marriage,” co-habitation, and contraceptives? Is it because Chaput is against higher taxes, is for building more fences on the U.S.-Mexican border, and thinks the term “social justice” should be banished from use in the Catholic Church? Is it because the two have been sending out tweets blasting the other as “extremist”, “right-wing”, and “leftist”? To state what should be obvious: No, No, and No.

The author of the article is apparently confused by an interview given by Chaput in July to John Allen, Jr., of National Catholic Reporter, in which the archbishop made some reasonable (and very accurate, I think) observations about the reactions of some Catholics—not himself—to Pope Francis. Months later, this is now construed as being “hostile.” It’s an obvious case of a journalist either wishing to create conflict ex nihilo or to cram the round peg of Catholic doctrine and practice into the square hole of the “conservative-liberal” meta-narrative that shapes, informs, guides, molds, sculpts, directs, and otherwise dominates discourse in the United States about nearly everything.

Another recent, high-profile example involves former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who told reporter Jake Tapper, in a recent CNN interview, that some of the pope’s statements “sound kind of liberal, has taken me aback, has kind of surprised me.” However, to her credit, Palin (who is a non-Catholic Christian) acknowledged the need to “dig deep into what his messaging is, and do my own homework, I’m not going to just trust what I hear in the media.” Spoken like someone who has had her own words worked over a time or two by the media message massage machine.

The storyline in major newspapers in recent weeks has been that “conservative” Catholics—including many bishops—are having to adjust to the “dramatic” changes presented by Pope Francis. David Gibson, whose career has been largely built on a foundation of hyperbole and over-the-top “reporting”—constantly reinforced by a mantra-like repetition of the “conservative-liberal” template—made certain to find political conflict and ideological tension as he covered the recent bishops’ meeting:

As the U.S. Catholic bishops began their annual fall meeting on Monday (Nov. 11), they were directly challenged by Pope Francis’ personal representative to be pastors and not ideologues — the first step of what could be a laborious process of reshaping the hierarchy to meet the pope’s dramatic shift in priorities. …

Almost since his election in March, Francis has signaled that he wants the church to strike a “new balance” by focusing on the poor and on social justice concerns and not overemphasizing opposition to hot-button topics like abortion and contraception and gay marriage — the signature issues of the U.S. bishops lately.

Why, after all, would the bishops be concerned about issues that no one else in this country is discussing, emphasizing, or obsessing about? Put another way, are you aware of anyone in the Obama administration pushing abortion, contraception, or “gay marriage” during the past five years? Of course, in Gibson’s world, ideology only flows one way:

 The U.S. bishops have been so focused on social conservatism in recent years that they issued no collective statements on the economy — once a hallmark issue — during the recession.

 Yet the Church has never viewed the sacredness of life, the protection of innocent life, the defense and support of marriage, and the upholding of sexual purity as hallmarks of “social conservatism” but as issues and principles foundational to the Church moral theology. It’s one thing for a self-described conservative to base his moral beliefs on, say, the writings of St. Paul or St. Thomas Aquinas or Pope Leo XIII, but quite another to say that those men were American right-wingers promoting “social conservatism”. In addition, there are a lot of dubious assumptions made by Gibson and others about what actually constitutes “liberalism” and “conservatism”, a problem so vast and tangled (and involving constantly shifting targets) it would require a lengthy article of its own.

Suffice to say, the die has been cast for many journalists, and thus for their readers, when it comes to framing stories about the good Pope Francis and the evil “right-wingers” who oppose him. It’s not that some writers go to elaborate and sophisticated lengths to make dubious connections and render outrageous assertions; rather, they often demonstrate an intellectual laziness that is alarming and a crude simplicity that is exasperating, at best.

Perhaps the most egregious example is the furor caused by this statement from the Holy Father’s interview, published in America, in which he said the following:

 My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being ultraconservative. I lived a time of great interior crisis when I was in Cordova. To be sure, I have never been like Blessed Imelda [a goody-goody], but I have never been a right-winger. It was my authoritarian way of making decisions that created problems.

 Isn’t it obvious (ahem!) that Francis, in talking rather informally about being a Jesuit provincial in Argentina in the 1970s, was clearly making an authoritative judgment about Tea Party conservatives in the United States? If you say, “Yes,” then you are not alone, but you should consider letting logic, and not ideology, be your guide. I asked Samuel Gregg, the author of Tea Party Catholic (a book, he noted in a recent CWR interview, that “has very little to say about today’s Tea Party movement”), about the pope’s use of “ultraconservative” and “right-winger”. Gregg, who has written a book on the modern papacy and has spent time studying and traveling in Latin America, expounded on what I suspected: that the term “right-winger” means something rather different in Argentina than it does in the United States. It is, Gregg told me, “crucial to understand just how extreme politics became in Latin America in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s.” During those decades, the “left” in Latin America “ was chest-deep in Marxism” as evidenced by “dictators like Fidel Castro and murderers like Che Guevara.” Gregg said:

But it was also true of figures such as Salvador Allende who, to be frank, was well on the way to ushering in a Marxist regime in Chile before his overthrow and suicide in 1973. Many on the left were also more-than-ready to resort to armed insurgencies to try and get their way. On the other side, some people on the right had highly-authoritarian instincts, were often inclined to defend highly-unjust social and economic status quos, and were fond of invoking national security to justify “extra- legal” actions, such as military coup d’états and the use of death-squads against anyone they regarded as a threat, on a domestic level.

In this light, it’s hardly surprising that you ended up with situations like the Montoneros (left-wing Peronists) guerrillas and other even more leftist groups such as the Marxist People’s Revolutionary Army trying to destabilize the fragile Argentine democracy of the early 1970s through bombing campaigns and assassinations of government officials and conservative politicians. They killed and maimed a great many people. The response of the right was to unleash the military and the police who, as we now know, committed all sorts of atrocities against thousands of real and imagined opponents of the regime, and then went on to maintain a highly repressive regime.

In this light, I think it’s clear that when Pope Francis said he was “never a right-winger,” he may at least partly have in mind some very specific circumstances at a particular time that aren’t at all applicable to, for instance, domestic politics in the United States and Europe today.

 I quote Gregg at length because this isn’t something easily handled in a single sentence or a simple soundbite. Also, it shows how certain terms, especially in the political realm, can have so many meanings, depending on various contexts (country, era, issue, etc.), that they are essentially empty until filled up like recycling bins with whatever this or that person deems necessary for the job at hand.

(And, as a quick aside, this also substantiates some of the measured criticisms I made of the pope’s two interviews in my last editorial, as when I noted that in such interviews “…Francis has shown a tendency to use language that is muddled and unclear, even undisciplined.There are also those moments when he seems to have a particular audience or group of people in mind, and yet never makes it evident who they might be, creating an ambiguity that, far from being ‘challenging’, is simply confusing.”)

It’s not that the terms “liberal” and “conservative” are bad or cannot be used helpfully in certain contexts. I use the terms fairly often myself. But I’ve sought, in recent years, to use them as little as possible when speaking or writing about Catholicism—especially regarding faith, morals, and even practices—saving them instead for conversation about American politics. (But even that is fraught with dangers, since the range of “liberalisms” and “conservativisms” in this country is more broad than the casual observer knows.) To put it as simply as possible, here’s the problem: when the language of American politics is used to define and direct the reality of Catholic belief and practice, the result is confusion, discord, and obfuscation.

The Challenge of “Ideology”

Which brings me to “ideology.” There is a widespread assumption, especially in the media and within large swaths of the political class, that the main source of ideology today is religious fundamentalism, specifically, orthodox Christianity. Ideology, in this perspective, is linked to dogma and doctrine. Opposed to that is a more “pastoral” mentality, which is (so the implication goes) not concerned with doctrinal specifics, but with relationships and community.

However, the true Christian and the rigid ideologue both hold to dogma and doctrine. The difference is that the ideologue believes he possesses the truth completely and therefore wields it like a weapon, while the true Christian recognizes that he is entrusted with truth and is to be possessed by truth, and thus understands doctrine to be a gift to be offered to others. In the words of Bl. John Paul II, in Centesimus Annus:

 Nor does the Church close her eyes to the danger of fanaticism or fundamentalism among those who, in the name of an ideology which purports to be scientific or religious, claim the right to impose on others their own concept of what is true and good. Christian truth is not of this kind. Since it is not an ideology, the Christian faith does not presume to imprison changing socio-political realities in a rigid schema, and it recognizes that human life is realized in history in conditions that are diverse and imperfect. Furthermore, in constantly reaffirming the transcendent dignity of the person, the Church’s method is always that of respect for freedom.

But freedom attains its full development only by accepting the truth. In a world without truth, freedom loses its foundation and man is exposed to the violence of passion and to manipulation, both open and hidden. The Christian upholds freedom and serves it, constantly offering to others the truth which he has known (cf. Jn 8:31-32), in accordance with the missionary nature of his vocation. While paying heed to every fragment of truth which he encounters in the life experience and in the culture of individuals and of nations, he will not fail to affirm in dialogue with others all that his faith and the correct use of reason have enabled him to understand. (par 46)

The Polish Dominican, Maciej Zieba, in a brilliant 1994 essay, “The Temple In The Polis: Faith Is Not Ideology”, wrote that John Paul II noted three key features of ideology:

 (1) it contains a conception of truth and goodness; (2) its followers believe that they are free to impose their conception upon others; (3) it expresses the whole of reality in a simple and rigid scheme. The Pope maintains that Christian truth does not fulfill the second and third conditions, and so Catholicism is not an ideology.

Truth, in Catholic belief, cannot be possessed. “For Christian truth,” wrote Zieba, “by its very essence has a complex, not to say a dialectical, character. It is absolute and revealed to the Church, but at the same time the Church is not its ‘possessor.’ The truth surpasses the Church immersed in history — for it is above man, above reason, above philosophy, above theology.” That is because, simply, God—who is Truth and the ground of all Truth—cannot be possessed or owned or enslaved.

As Zieba explained (again, writing nearly twenty years ago), this same observation was made by Joseph Ratzinger in his essay, “Theology and Church Politics,” first published in 1980 and published in English in the collection, Church, Ecumenism, and Politics: New Endeavors in Ecclesiology (Ignatius Press, 2008). Ratzinger wrote that “the difference between the structure of an ideologically constituted party and the Church lies precisely in the question of truth.” To put it as simply as possible, the ideologue believes that he creates truth out of “irrational matter”, and so he is the author and arbiter of truth.

“This means,” wrote Ratzinger, “that truth is completely absorbed by the construct of the party and depends entirely upon it. In contrast, the fundamental conviction of the Christian faith is that in the beginning was Reason and, thus, Truth: it brings forth man and human reason in the first place as beings capable of the truth. Man’s relationship to the truth is at first essentially receptive and not productive.” There is much more here, but the key point for my purposes is this: the Church and the true Christian is not oriented toward power, but toward Truth. Conversely, modern politics is, almost without exception, about both power and the creation of “truth.” The Church, then, must always seek to carry out her mission of proclamation and witness without being sucked into the vortex of ideological darkness. As Benedict XVI wrote in Deus Caritas Est, the Church’s “charitable activity must be independent of parties and ideologies. It is not a means of changing the world ideologically, and it is not at the service of worldly stratagems, but it is a way of making present here and now the love which man always needs” (par 31).

That statement could just as well be made by Pope Francis. In a homily given on October 17th, he said:

And ideology does not beckon [people]. In ideologies there is not Jesus: in his tenderness, his love, his meekness. And ideologies are rigid, always. Of every sign: rigid. And when a Christian becomes a disciple of the ideology, he has lost the faith: he is no longer a disciple of Jesus, he is a disciple of this attitude of thought… For this reason Jesus said to them: ‘You have taken away the key of knowledge.’ The knowledge of Jesus is transformed into an ideological and also moralistic knowledge, because these close the door with many requirements.

Both “right” and “left” can harbor and foster ideologies; both “conservatives” and “liberals” can take up a rigid and moralistic judgmentalism that is self-congratulatory. Every man is tempted to make himself the creator of truth, rather than a creature made by Truth and for Truth. All Catholics need to work at peeling off the convenient labels and facing this inconvenient but necessary, saving, and liberating truth.

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About Carl E. Olson 1233 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.