Why it’s OK to be a Liberal Catholic or Conservative Catholic

It is not unusual to hear Catholic political commentators say that the Church is above politics, that its teachings transcend the labels and descriptions that define our politics.  In articles, commentaries and discussions, a person will inevitably encounter this caveat. Whether on torture, the HHS mandate or immigration, these figures contend they are merely applying the timeless and apolitical teachings of the Church to the social and political matters that the Church and her members must engage.

This is an unhelpful and trivial observation. While it is indisputable that the Church and Her teachings exist outside of, and independent from, our current political and social circumstances, we, as persons do not. The positions that we take, even those that are rooted in Church teachings, are embedded in our unique circumstances. We are political beings. These are political issues and positions that we are taking.   Even if the Church transcends politics, we necessarily must operate within a concrete historical context.

If we as Catholics are to accept that, then we should recognize that most articulations of the Church’s teachings can be categorized using the language found in contemporary American political debates.  The application of Church teaching cannot entirely transcend the concrete and historical, and it is problematic to behave as though it does.

Catholics of many viewpoints and in various positions within the Church (lay, religious or clerical) take positions on topical debates that cannot be separated or distinguished from the political context in which these debates occur. The political circumstances frame and guide their application of Church teaching. For a politically engaged Catholic to embrace the label of “liberal” or “conservative” is to not to turn away from Church teaching, but to be realistic and practical.

The political landscape in which American Catholics operate needs to be defined in a way that is both accurate and comprehensible.  Catholics should not fear or denounce this supposed “politicization” of the faith. The faith is not somehow being corrupted by its relegation to the mundane, messy world of contemporary politics. We lack the power that God has as an omniscient being to know all truth in its complete and unadulterated form.   We are left to find our way in the world by examining our surroundings and learning from others, both Catholic and non-Catholic.  This inevitably shapes our views, including our political perspectives.

The reality is that the positions we take are recognizable by other people in this country and can be easily classified within the discursive space which fills our political world. It is clear that some Catholics are textbook liberals, while others are typical conservatives.  For those who break from these paradigms—the Catholic Bishops for instance—we can still define certain positions they take as “liberal” while others can accurately be described as “conservative.”

To employ the vocabulary used in contemporary American politics and to link these descriptions to the positions we take in applying Church teachings is a way to help us understand our world and operate in it. So don’t feel embarrassed embracing the “conservative,” “liberal,” or other adjective you attach to your Catholicism. Let’s not mistake the Church’s transcendence for our own.