February 26, 2010


Liberal or conservative?

The secular media, and perhaps most Americans these days, tend to consider the Catholic Church as part of the “far-right.” That perception was strengthened when the U.S. bishops opposed the health care bill unless it prohibited funds going to pay for abortions.

The public knows that the Catholic Church opposes abortion, so-called same-sex marriage, euthanasia and federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research—all issues considered “conservative” in American politics.

But if the Obama administration gets around to trying to reform our immigration laws, as the president has said he intends to do, it will suddenly seem that the Church is part of the “far-left.” The effort to make it easier for immigrants to come into the United States legally is seen as a “liberal” position.

The Catholic Church also opposes the death penalty in nearly all cases, and favors legislation that will help the poor, also considered liberal positions.

So which is it? Is the Catholic Church liberal or conservative?

The answer is that the Church is consistent. The Catholic Church is always in favor of human rights.

American political parties are inconsistent. Why doesn’t the political party that opposes abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage also oppose the death penalty and favor more rights for immigrants in search of better lives, and programs that will help the poor and promote social justice? Or vice versa?

In the future, it seems assured that many will perceive the Catholic Church to be conservative on moral issues and liberal on social justice issues.

In our Jan. 8 issue, our editorial examined where Catholics are in the world. They are quickly becoming more numerous in the southern hemisphere—meaning Africa, Latin America and Asia—while they are becoming less numerous in the north—mainly Europe and Canada. Catholics in the south are more conservative on moral issues and more liberal on social justice issues than are Catholics in the north.

Since there is greater poverty in Africa, Latin America and Asia, the Church in those areas of the world is seen as aligning with the Western left on matters of international economic structures and the proper role of the state in promoting an equal distribution of resources.

John Allen is convinced, and convincing, that the Church will continue to be morally conservative and liberal on social issues. He is the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter as well as a Vatican analyst for CNN and National Public Radio. He is widely respected for his accurate and balanced reporting.

In his most recent book, The Future Church, he examines 10 trends that he believes will be characteristic of the future Church.

One of them is what he calls “evangelical Catholicism.” Ever since the election of Pope John Paul II in 1978, he says, “Catholicism has become steadily more evangelical—uncompromising and unabashedly itself, more interested in evangelizing culture than accommodating it.”

These are the defining features of evangelical Catholicism, according to Allen:

  • “A clear embrace of traditional Catholic thought, speech and practice, the usual word for which is ‘orthodoxy.’
  • “Eagerness to proclaim one’s Catholic identify to the world, emphasizing its implications for culture, society, and politics.
  • “Faith seen as a matter of personal choice rather than cultural inheritance.”

The action of the U.S. bishops in lobbying for changes in the health care bill over the issue of abortion seems to be an example of Allen’s evangelical Catholicism. They weren’t content to just sit back and hope for the best. They were asserting that Catholics’ belief in the sanctity of human life was too important for that. They were evangelizing, which means “spreading the Gospel.”

We expect to see the bishops continue to become involved in political matters when they touch on religious and human rights issues. However, it shouldn’t be only the bishops who are doing so. It’s first and foremost the Catholic laity who should be doing so.

The fact that the future Church is likely to be characterized as evangelical Catholicism doesn’t mean that there won’t continue to be Catholics who describe themselves as liberal politically. We need Catholics who are willing to fight for liberal positions when it comes to justice issues.

Is the Catholic Church politically liberal or conservative? It depends on the issue.

—John F. Fink

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