Letter to a “Conservative” Catholic

Dear “conservative” Catholics,

First, I regret using the word “conservative” to describe you. Up until this point in my life, I have refused to use terms like “conservative” or “liberal” that unfairly place Catholics into boxes and create divisions. But I am now finding it necessary for what I need to say.

Let me admit up front that I am a “liberal” Catholic. You may want to deny the existence of these categories, but you know what I am talking about. I am more likely to visit with the poor and homeless than to attend a pro-life rally (though I definitely am pro-life and have attended pro-life events). On October 11th of last year, my Facebook status was about the 50th anniversary of the convocation of the Second Vatican Council (though I was also genuinely excited about the beginning of the Year of Faith). I am more likely to attend a liturgy in which David Haas hymns are sung by a choir than one where more traditional hymns are chanted over the scent of incense (though I truly appreciate both). I am cringing as I write this because these are rough generalizations with many exceptions.

I am also cringing because it pains me to see so much division within the Church today between Catholics like you and Catholics like me. The mixed responses of my Catholic friends this past Thursday, in person and on social media, to the release of Pope Francis’ beautiful interview “A Big Heart Open to God” made me feel sad and worried. It was almost as if you and I were on two Catholic teams that were fighting against one another. This is not a new phenomenon. It has been going on for many years: Catholics viewing each other as enemies, claiming to be the only true Catholics. What breaks my heart the most is seeing Catholics say that they would like to see a “smaller, purer church.”

Let me confess that I have contributed to this division. I have become upset and angry with you before on many occasions, because I sometimes think you are emphasizing the wrong things and losing the really important stuff. I have stubbornly butted heads with you in ministry meetings, arrogantly scoffed at the “close-minded” questions you have asked in theology classes, and have even made unfair judgments about you based on things as trivial as the way you dress at mass.  Maybe you have felt the same about me. I confess my own sins of anger and pride that have blocked me from being open to what you have to offer to my life. I am truly sorry.

But we are not that different, you and I. If we began talking and actually listening to one another, I know that we would find that we share the same beliefs, but just have different emphases. We both love the same Church, but may care about upholding different aspects of it. I am asking you to see this so that we can engage in real dialogue. My relationship with God would be nowhere close to where it is today if I had not been open to some amazing and life-changing conversations with Catholic friends that are more conservative than I am.

As I have matured in my faith and grown more open to Catholic viewpoints that are different than mine, I have come to believe that God has called us both to focus on different ideas within the same beautiful tradition. More than that, I have come to believe that we truly and desperately need each other. We need each other to find balance and keep each other in balance.

So here are the promises I would like to make to you today:

I promise to balance the emphases of my faith with yours by truly listening to what you have to say.  I promise to never demean the beautiful ways you serve God just because they are different than the ways I choose to serve God. And most of all, I promise that I believe the Church is better with you in it than it would be without you.

Can you make me the same promises? I don’t want a church without you in it, and I hope you don’t want a church without me.

Thank you for challenging me, for inspiring me, and for showing me ways I have been wrong. Thank you for being my brothers and sisters in Christ.


A “liberal” Catholic

Rebecca Sharbaugh is a student in the Master of Divinity Program at Boston College. She graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 2011 with a B.A. in theology, prior to spending a year in campus ministry at Notre Dame.