Note from John’s wife, Mary: He drafted this on October 9, and since I think it has enough substance as is, I thought I’d post it.
As I’ve said many times, I’ve never been comfortable with people saying, “I’m neither a conservative nor a liberal; just a Catholic.”
I can see saying that about being “Republican” or “Democrat,” “Right wing” or “Left wing,” or if one’s definitions of “conservative” and “liberal” are relative to culture and situation.
However, as approaches to human nature, the nature of government, the nature of culture, and the nature of law, that’s a different matter. First, the statement implies there is no room for prudential judgement in Catholic Social Teaching, or in interpretation of the Church’s teachings. There are four Gospels. There are many Fathers and many Doctors. There are many spiritual traditions in the Church. There are 6 liturgical traditions, 24 autocephalic/sui iuris particular churches (not the ones outside full communion), etc.
Russell Kirk defines conservatism as an approach to human nature; government, law and culture that focuses on original sin; strict interpretation of law; preservation of tradition and common norms in culture; the principle main purposes of government as promoting order in society and promoting natural law; and Aristotelian limits on government to prevent corruption.
Conversely, a liberal approach focuses on Christ’s restoration of original innocence; loose interpretation of law; and allowing cultural adaptation. Those two approaches should be as balanced as possible in a healthy society, a healthy Church and even a healthy individual.
In theory, at least, it is possible to be a “liberal Catholic,” someone who focuses on the restoration of Original Innocence, loose interpretation of the law and cultural flexibility, yet remain orthodox. Though in the usual sense, it is impossible, as Kirk and von Hildebrand both argued, for a Catholic to be “progressive,” since that implies the past was bad and it is possible to make things better by human effort, one could even support the kind of “progressivism” described by Chesterton and Lewis. Lewis distinguished between “change for its own sake” and “progressivism” as the quest for a goal, which requires a map.
Where things get sticky, though, is the issue of government itself. We argue about subsidiarity and solidarity, but missing in most debates over Catholic Social Teaching and in most recent documents on the subject is a healthy dose of Lord Acton: “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” If we properly understand subsidiarity–that the family is the primordial social structure, the original social unit intended by God “from the beginning,” and that society should be structured around the family unit–then there is no real conflict between subsidiarity and solidarity. Government comes to be seen as an institution which exists to protect the family from threats, whether physical, moral, physiological, psychological, spiritual or economic–threats that should include government itself.
The problem, though, is the problem that Clement XII foresaw back in 1738, that Pius IX condemned in the Syllabus, and that Benedict XVI revisited in Caritas et Veritate: ultimately, there can be neither Truth nor Charity in government without Jesus Christ and without explicit governance by Natural Law principles. “Separation of Church and State” is incompatible with a truly just polity. While the Natural Law should not require a specific religious system to be explained or enforced, and while the individual must have a certain freedom of choice regarding matters of religion to develop a full relationship with Christ, and while, as history has shown, the State must sometimes hold the Church in check, ultimately, the State itself cannot be free from the voice of the Church to explain and enforce the principles of Natural Law.
In that sense, then, it is not a question of one can be a “conservative Catholic” or a “liberal Catholic,” but rather can one be an “American” and a “Catholic”?
In American politics, there is a conflict between Catholics who want to focus on Constitutional limitation and on Natural Law in favor of de Tocqueville’s understanding of freedom, who themselves would have been considered “liberal” 200 years ago, and those who have embraced a loose interpretation approach to the point of rejecting even a Natural Law standard, much less a traditional understanding of the relationship between Church and State. In that sense, the terms *are* relative. As a Facebook friend of mine once said, it’s rather pathetic that we’ve reached a point where we call a priest or bishop “conservative” or “orthodox” if he just promotes the most basic tenets of Natural Law that should be obvious to anyone who believes in God.
There also seem to be three senses at which the terms are used: 1) “How, as a Catholic, do I understand the role of secular government/secular order?” 2) “How, as a Catholic, do I apply my faith in the secular order?” (these are similar but slightly different questions which may have a “conservative” or “liberal” approach) and 3) “How, as a Catholic, do I interpret the Church’s teachings?”