Liberal? Progressive? Heretic?

My aunt, a Benedictine nun, drove me back to the airport yesterday, and one of the things she mentioned on the way back was that the terms “liberal” and “conservative” are problematic in the Catholic context, but perhaps unavoidable. Liberal and conservative are fine terms when the issue is one of a discipline or non-religious norm: someone thinking that more modern art or music is needed in church is most accurately termed a liberal; someone wanting to conserve the aesthetic treasures is properly a conservative. But on issues of Faith, this is euphemistic: those wanting to change the Faith aren’t progressives or liberals, they’re heretics. Those who cling to the Faith aren’t (necessarily) conservatives, they’re orthodox Catholics. Someone like Fr. Cantalamessa, preacher to the Papal Household, can fully embrace what he believes to be the new movements of the Holy Spirit within the Church (the gift of tongues and the like), while clinging to Catholic orthodoxy in its entirety. He’s orthodox and (on at least some issues) liberal. The late father Feeney, who denied that non-Catholics could be saved, was conservative (in some sense), but not orthodox, and was (for a time) excommunicated.

I don’t currently choose my words very carefully on this issue. But after this conversation, I wonder if I shouldn’t perhaps be a bit more cautious on the issue. The distinction is pretty vital. Someone can be a Catholic in good standing and hold to more liberal or more conservative views. Someone can be dead-set that priestly celibacy ought to go and still be thoroughly and completely Catholic. In contrast, someone holding to heresy is either mistaken, misguided, or evil, and should instructed, corrected, or opposed. So calling a pro-choice Catholic a “liberal Catholic” rather than a “Catholic who fights Catholicism” or “a heretic” suggests that pro-choice Catholicism is (a) a real thing, and (b) on par with pro-life Catholicism, a.k.a., Catholicism.

Nevertheless, I’m a bit concerned about switching to the more blunt terminology. My fear is pretty simple: the views held by a number of people are heretical, while the people themselves may or may not be heretics. Lots of people hold to heresies entirely out of confusion and ignorance, usually unwittingly. Someone hears “outside the Church there is no salvation,” assumes that they know what it means to be “outside the Church” and goes their merry way trying to hold to what the Church believes. Someone else is raised in a liberal Catholic parish and hears that supporting the death penalty is always and everywhere sinful and takes that view as his own. I don’t want to call those people heretics, because the charge is unfair. So what to do about those who agitate for views contrary to the Church’s? Is there a term which captures both that what they’re pushing for is fundamentally wrong, and not a matter of opinion, while still acknowledging that the people themselves may be well-intentioned and not knowingly espousing heresy?

1 Comment

  1. Reminds me a lot of the Screwtape Letters, where it is repeatedly stated that our language has been twisted to mean we-know-not-what.

    The best approach (though it only works in conversation and not in blog format) is to ask the person to define what they mean by something when they state it. I’ve found that, very often, someone can say something that sounds heretical, but after asking them to elaborate on what they meant, we don’t really disagree. They simply couldn’t think of another way to state their position, though their actual statement is far from what they meant.

    The other benefit of this approach is that it forces the individual to think about what they are actually trying to say, instead of repeating a tag line thrown out by someone else. If it is an area that is in error, it helps you to quickly isolate that problem and attempt to correct it. On the other hand, if it is a difference of opinion, then it is a chance for each side to listen closely to what the other has to say.

    I think it is wonderful that people are more prepared to defend the faith, but we must not forget to speak in charity. Assume that they are mis/un-informed until you are forced to concede that they are willing to abandon the faith rather than part with their heresy. As my dad puts it, there is always time to get angry later, if you have to.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *