Is Catholic doctrine conservative? Liberal? Socialist?
The Church’s social doctrine is not a “third way” between liberal capitalism and Marxist collectivism, nor even a possible alternative to other solutions less radically opposed to one another: rather, it constitutes a category of its own. Nor is it an ideology, but rather the accurate formulation of the results of a careful reflection on the complex realities of human existence, in society and in the international order, in the light of faith and of the Church’s tradition. Its main aim is to interpret these realities, determining their conformity with or divergence from the lines of the Gospel teaching on man and his vocation, a vocation which is at once earthly and transcendent; its aim is thus to guide Christian behavior. It therefore belongs to the field, not of ideology, but of theology and particularly of moral theology.
(John Paul II, Sollicitudo rei socialis 41)
How many times do we hear statements or questions that go something like this: “Is that bishop orthodox?” or “the USCCB is aligned with the liberal agenda of this country” or “so-and-so Catholic has socialist ideals.”
Orthodox vs. Conservative vs. Liberal
In my experience, it seems that in recent times, some Catholics in this country understand orthodoxy as a synonym for conservative ideals. However, these ideals are not necessarily concerned with the traditional moral values that many cultures still refer to. For instance, when I was growing up, my mom would always talk about how I had to uphold the conservative values she taught me: dress modestly, save myself for marriage, respect your elders, etc. These are not the ones I am referring to on this post. In contrast, the conservative ideals I am referring to seem to extend to the political and social spheres that are based on the principles of the Republican party. The problem is that when you go outside of the U.S., you will not find such marked differences between one party and another, so to evaluate orthodoxy in terms of one country’s political ideologies is not universally applicable, other than just being completely erroneous.
Orthodoxy means “right belief” and because as Christians we believe that belief is not isolated from actions, orthodoxy is always coupled with orthopraxis or “right action.” Some Catholics seem to use the term orthodoxy quite loosely even forgetting that one cannot judge someone else’s belief without looking at how their actions correspond to that belief. As a result, just because I prefer Gregorian chant to be sung in the liturgy and I enjoy the Tridentine Mass over the Novus Ordo, does not make me an orthodox Catholic if I ignore the homeless mother waiting outside of the church asking for help.
A typical example of how political ideologies are applied to Catholic doctrine is how some Catholics view Dorothy Day. I once asked in a Catholic bookstore if they had a book by her and they looked at me horrified as if I were a heretic and directed me to some irrelevant books on “social” doctrine. I have read Dorothy Day quite a bit now and I do not see anything written by her that shows deviation from Catholic doctrine. I may not agree with her on a couple of points, but that does not mean that her insistence on the need for a new social order makes her non-orthodox or a bit liberal because these are not what some would consider traditional political ideals. Her alignment with Catholic social doctrine is quite solid and just because some may not know (or choose not to) this doctrinal corpus does not mean that she is a heretic. It is also unfair to judge her as a liberal when this woman was going to Daily Mass and visited the Blessed Sacrament very often.
On the other side of the spectrum, some idea or a person who is deemed as “liberal” is sometimes associated with heterodoxy or deviation from Catholic doctrine. This term, just as with orthodoxy, is not applied only to the subject of morality, but also to the field of politics and to the social order. Thus, even if a member of the Curia or the pope himself makes a statement that is not necessarily aligned with the “conservative” party’s principles, he becomes “anti-American,” even though he may be speaking in alignment with the entire corpus of doctrine.
What to do?
The truth of the matter is that, sadly, there will always be some Catholics who will not be completely in line with what the Church teaches even though they call themselves “orthodox” or “papists.” This becomes a bigger problem when they are members of the clergy, pastors, or lay Catholics in charge of catechesis or advanced education. What to do then? Let us be concerned first with the truths necessary for salvation and ask ourselves whether this particular person is compromising any of those truths. In such instances, that is when we should be truly worried and perhaps do something about it. When I worked at a parish, I contradicted a few of my fellow parish staff members, because they did not agree with how the pastor celebrated Mass. They wanted to introduce new elements: lay homilists, slide shows during Scripture readings, new music, and so on. On the other hand, they wanted to water-down the Gospel message and Catholic doctrine to our young people and, as a youth minister, I understood it as my responsibility to fight these two battles and so I did, because I considered that the integrity of the liturgy and the Gospel were being compromised. I went through many hardships, but I do not regret it. I think that is the key: picking our battles based on the consequences of the issues at hand.
The Challenge of Catholic Social Doctrine
Catholic teaching is simply true. It is not conservative, nor liberal, nor socialist. Let us not reduce true Christian teaching to mere political ideals. Rather, let us see the problems we face in society in light of Catholic teaching, because if we take our political ideologies as our starting point, we will ignore the fullness of truth contained in the entire corpus of Catholic doctrine. Consider a Catholic who is a Republican, because of the party’s support of the pro-life movement, but this same Catholic considers Democrats as the “party of death” and, therefore, anything that comes from it will be rejected by him/her. What happens is that when we talk about Catholic Social Doctrine, for instance, we find that it has elements that can be found blended within the conservative and liberal party. As a result, if this same Catholic rejects all the policies that the latter party proposes, he/she may be rejecting his/her responsibility to support laws that are aligned with the truths of Christianity from which the Social doctrine of the Church stems. Catholic Social Doctrine is tricky, because it deals with the political, economic, and social fields, so many Catholics are suspicious of it and a bit uncomfortable with it, whereas doctrines regarding worship and devotion, are outside of the sphere of the State and do not conflict with public policies or political ideologies, so no major controversies arise from them.
An example of this is global warming. American Papist suggests that global warming is the new “secular religion” and many of his readers think that the craze behind it is all part of a master plan coming from the Left. In stark contrast, the Papal Nuncio to the U.N. has recently made a statement regarding global warming and the need to address it. If we forget political agendas for a moment and just stick to what we all believe in, we would understand this challenge posed by the Holy See that comes from the teaching of God himself as shown in Scriptures. At the end, we are here to do the work of God and not the work of a political party.
You can see now how it can become a problem when we view Catholic doctrine in a political framework, because the teachings of the Church are going to be found partially in many parties, that is why we cannot say that, as Christians, we are members of one party and one party only. Our role should be to reconcile these opposed political ideologies and work for the common good. Just because a certain policy may be suggested by the “other” party, we should not downright reject it, because it was not first suggested by our party of preference. With the guidance of the Church and our moral values, we have the responsibility and the advantage to evaluate a number of policies brought forth from different parties and select the one that is more aligned with Christian truth. In the case of global warming, for instance, we should rejoice that there is a group of lawmakers who are concerned about this issue and see this as an opportunity to reach the Democratic Party and ensure fair policies are passed, rather than as a chance to condemn their efforts. Instead of labeling first certain policies as “liberal” or “conservative,” let us go back to what the Church teaches and either say “yes” or “no” based on those truths we hold.