I just finished reading a well known Catholic author who despite his substantial education continued throughout his time to fall into a very common trap laid for the unsuspecting in the thickets of the ecclesiastical underbrush. The trap is this: that Conservative and Progressive Catholicism exist and further that these should be regarded and considered for the better understanding of the Christian faith and its history. Permit me to share why I believe this notion to be not only incorrect, but ultimately damaging and potentially dangerous.
The Catholic Church, like the Body of Christ which we proclaim her to be, is not an “either/or” proposition. The Church is not either Republican or Democrat. Male or Female. Rich or Poor. Traditional or Modern (Galatians 3:28). While these may represent the inclinations of individual Christians, they are all false dichotomies when made in reference to the Catholic Church herself. And it doesn’t matter when in the history of the Church one is attempting to apply the observation. It’s never been the case. Not during the “dark ages” or during the “enlightenment.” Not in “ancient” times or in “modern” times. To use these definitions is facile. Frankly, it’s lazy. These labels belie a fundamental understanding at what (or Who) is actually being observed. And further they attempt to collapse the universality, history, beauty and profundity of the religion that God himself founded into vacuum-packed-for-easy-consumption-but-nevertheless-vastly-imperfect monikers. Using these terms is akin to looking out at the entire universe through a tiny North American keyhole only to find an abstraction of ourselves reflected everywhere. In the end, this approach, which in my mind is likely only a stratagem introduced with glee by the enemy of our souls to drive further the wedge of confusion and division, is simply false.
Catholicism is a “both/and” proposition. In all things. The Catholic Church and the Deposit of Faith are principally about harmonics. What does this mean? It means that we should not take one word, phrase, action, event, or idea, lift it up and absolutize it in order to understand what the Church is saying or thinking.
Let me demonstrate:
Is baptism an actual regeneration brought about by washing us clean from all sin and causing us to be reborn, or is it a symbolic rite entered into and performed to announce to the local assembly the entrance of a person into a saving relationship with God? Both. Is the Eucharist the real living body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ, or a memorial meal to recall the teaching, life, death and resurrection of our Lord? Both. Are the scriptures the inerrant and inspired Word of God, or are they a collection of historical, poetic and parabolic texts written by many different authors and assembled over centuries by a faith community in order to share a common tradition? Both. Does the ordination of a man actually and really change his soul and configure it in a special way to Christ, or is it a ceremonial means to set aside a person to be a leader and spiritual father to a particular congregation? Both. Is the Pope the supreme authority of the Christian faith on earth and to be afforded obedience and religious assent by all believers, or is he lowest of the low, the last, the servant of the servants of God? Both. Is direct abortion, consciously and willfully sought, always a grievous mortal sin to be combated at all costs, or is it the tragic outcome of a complex and often devastating series of circumstances in a woman’s life that need to be pastorally considered? Both. Is the death penalty different not in degree, but in kind from the sins of abortion and euthanasia, or is it an affront to the human person which in today’s modern age should never be employed? Both. Did Pope St. John XXIII in convening the Second Vatican Council want to breathe a new spirit into the pastoral practice of the Church or did he want to highlight, enforce and promulgate the timeless traditional teaching of the Church? Both. Did the Second Vatican Council introduce new discipline and pastoral perspective by observing the “signs of the times,” or did it reaffirm all previous teachings and pronouncements of the Church “by the light of the Gospel”? Both. Should we ‘meet people where they are‘ in their faith journey and lovingly embrace them, or should we always speak the truth about the grandeur of our human dignity and guide people to the fullness of the plan that God has for them? Both.
We are a Church of harmony. Because God is a God of harmony (1 Cor 14:33). That is the insight. It is the third way. The both/and. We don’t look ‘left’ or ‘right,’ we look up. That is Catholicism. That is our true theology. That is what differentiates us from every other corner of the Christian world – Catholicism harmonizes ideas, doctrines, precepts, laws, and disciplines by considering the “whole” of something; in fact the word Catholic, which most people understand to principally mean “universal” actually has a better definition, the Greek word Katholikos means “according to the whole” – and this is the meaning we don’t often regard, but one which perfectly sums up the majesty of the Church: our world-view, faith and practice as Catholics is shaped and formed not by proof texts, headlines, or individual interpretations but according to the whole of Sacred scripture, according to the whole of Sacred Tradition, according to the whole of History, according to the whole of the teaching authority of the Church.
To suggest the contrary not only threatens to lead us astray, but robs us of the genius of God in the Church and steals from us the understanding that we are not dealing only with a physical church characterized by her institutions, doctrines and disciplines but also by a supernatural reality present among us to steward us to our heavenly home like the loving and Holy Mother she is.