Liberal and Conservative: Two terms that have no place in Catholic theology

Doug McManaman
Copyright © 2009
Reproduced with Permission

Recently a student of mine sent me a series of questions she plans to ask me during an interview she's conducting as part of an English assignment. In one of her questions, she asks whether my theological views are "liberal, midstream, or conservative".

I was surprised at the question, because my students typically do not think in those terms; most, in fact, are barely familiar with them even in their political meaning. Nevertheless, "liberal" and "conservative" are political terms that we do not find in the history of Catholic theology, or in the writings of the Fathers or the great Doctors of the Church. They were brought into the realm of Catholicism, relatively recently, by some as a way of legitimizing their dissent from Church teaching, especially in the area of morality.

Being a liberal or a conservative in the political realm is perfectly legitimate, because politics is a branch of ethics, and ethics is principally about prudence. The virtue of prudence correctly applies universal principles to particular situations. Hence, prudence requires an understanding of universal principles as well as a host of virtues that arise from a rich experience of concrete situations that contain so many variables, virtues such as circumspection, foresight, shrewdness, memory, docility, and caution.

Political prudence is a virtue that is developed over a long period of time, after a great deal of experience. And because prudential judgments bear upon concrete particulars, they are not always so clear and certain. That is why docility is an integral part of prudence. A person might have more foresight as a result of his experience, or a better memory, or greater circumspection, and thus might notice important details that we might have overlooked. And so it is reasonable to expect people, in the realm of the political, to be more or less right and left leaning.

Some argue quite persuasively that more government intervention is, at certain times, prudent, while others put forth the argument, at times equally convincing, that less government intervention accomplishes more for the civil community as a whole in the long run. Politics is not and never has been a black and white affair.

But try looking for "liberal", "conservative", "left" and "right" in the great variety of theology that we find in the writings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, for example. What we find there are a variety of theologies seeking to understand the same deposit from different and even newer angles, but all of them consistent with the faith of the Church. Had anything been found in their writings that was contrary to the faith of the Church, it was not placed on a spectrum in the space of a window of dissent. It was condemned. "Left" and "right" do not exist as meaningful theological terms in the history of Catholic theology.

The 1960s witnessed all sorts of dissent - from the Church's moral teaching in particular -, and in order to legitimize this dissent in their minds, those unfaithful to the teachings of the Church adopted the labels "liberal" and "conservative", "left" and "right", which gave the appearance that their particular leanings were less unorthodox - not to mention heretical - as they were justifiably "left", like their political counterparts.

And so the 40 year period after Vatican II was increasingly characterized by a kind of cult of ambiguity and moral indeterminacy. The less certain a person sounded, the more mature and sophisticated was he considered to be, and the more clear, certain and determinate a person was on moral issues, the less credibility he enjoyed.

The creation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church as well as the clear and definite pronouncements of two great popes is gradually rendering such political terms as applied to a Catholic theology, as well as the mentality that seeks to hide its infidelity and unorthodoxy behind them, a thing of the past.