Are You a Conservative Catholic, or a Liberal Catholic?
By Guillermo Moreno
March 15, 2020
At the root of this question is the meaning of the word Catholic. What is Catholic? The word comes from the Greek katholikos, meaning “universal.” Catholic is the faith proclaimed by the Catholic Church, founded in 33 A.D. by Jesus of Nazareth, who left a share of his authority with his Apostles, Peter as the head. The successors of the Apostles, being the Magisterium, are the authority of the Catholic Church. A Catholic is someone who follows the teachings of the Catholic Church.
In light of this, the proper meaning of the terms conservative and liberal sheds light on the convictions of the said followers of the Catholic Church. Conservative would hold fast to what was actually handed on by Jesus to his Apostles, to their successors, and to believers throughout the ages. Liberal, on the other hand, seeks to change it somehow.
Here is an analogy. Imagine the Good News of Jesus Christ as a hand-written letter by Christ Himself and handed on in an envelope throughout time by his believers. Logically, to be conservative would mean to hand on the message of the letter as is, whereas to be liberal would mean to change what the letter actually says, presumably according to the preferences of the liberal party, whatever those preferences may be. But the Good News of Jesus Christ is what the Church says.
Therein lies the question of change, for “conservative Catholics” want to conserve what the Church says, while “liberal Catholics” want to change what the Church says. The Church has inarguably gone through changes since its beginning. For example, the Mass has experienced changes in language. That’s change, right? The Church needs to change according to the people, right? Referring back to the letter analogy, the message could be translated into Spanish, Vietnamese, and Swahili. The language of the message could be translated into any language. It’s the message itself that cannot change. If it does, then it says something other than what the author, in this analogous case, Jesus, intended. The same is true with what the Church says. To attempt to change what the Church says is, in the actual case, to attempt to change what Jesus intended. Some change is non-essential, such as language in terms of translation. But other changes, such as content, is essential.
Here is where the liberal logic grows more disturbing. Catholics believe that Jesus is God, right? Therefore, to attempt to change what God intended is to make one guilty of the same kind of sin as Adam and Eve, which is attempting to become like God without God (Gen 1:26-27, 2-3) (Catechism of the Catholic Church 398); in other words, making oneself God, or oneself one’s own god, and refusing to worship the true God. This is precisely the temptation that the enemy attacked our first parents and all their descendants with ever since.
In order to put things more in perspective, the terms conservative and liberal have political connotations which address what changes in the temporal affairs of a governing society. “My kingdom is not of this world,” Christ answered Pilate in John 18:36. In light of this, I mention that I don’t use the terms conservative Catholics and liberal Catholics. Instead, I use the terms faithful Catholics and dissenting Catholics. The Good News of Jesus Christ cannot be changed and will not be changed in and of itself. The former group of Catholics are faithful to the teachings of Christ, while the latter logically are not.
Now, what is typically meant by what the Church will change concerns social-political issues, such as gay marriage (not many believers argue amongst themselves about the hypostatic union or the Immaculate Conception, for example). In this case, we know that the Church says that marriage is between one man and one woman. Faithful Catholics are faithful to what the Church says, and they defend marriage as the union between one man and one woman. Dissenting Catholics, on the other hand, break from the Catholic Church this way, meanwhile associating themselves with the word “Catholic.” Since faith means fidelity, faithful Catholics are clearly consistent with what the Church says.
The question of, “what is faith?” calls for another article. To touch on it briefly, though, when we hear the phrase “the Church says,” we must acknowledge that it’s Christ’s voice Himself speaking to us. He is speaking the truth of our salvation in Him, for the Church is the Body of Christ (1 Cor 12:12-31), with Christ as the Head (Eph 4), from which the Word speaks. Faith is Christ calling us to trust Him. If we believe in Jesus, then why don’t we believe Jesus?
I conclude with two points. First, a dissenting Catholic is someone who bears the title Catholic but who has his or her mind made to dissent on some issues (other appropriate terms for these individuals are nominal Catholics and cafeteria Catholics). This is radically different from those individuals who do not understand or are unfamiliar with Church teaching, and who are on the fence on any dissenting issues but who have the intellectual honesty and the faith to ask themselves, “what if the Church is right?” This recalls the formulas used by St. Anselm of Canterbury: Credo ut intelligam, “I believe so that I may understand,” and Fides quaerens intellectum, “Faith seeking to understand.” These individual Catholics do believe in God and they believe that the Church is right, and they genuinely want to understand the reasons behind the Church’s teachings. I was among these Catholics once upon a time. I needed some level of convincing on issues such as contraception, homosexuality, and even abortion. But I honestly and prayerfully sought answers (cf. Matt 7:7-8). By following the Catholic Church through faith, patience, the effort to learn and to grow, and through spiritual nourishment, I, as well as countless others, have come to fully embrace the Catholic faith, and I have never been happier.
Dissenting Catholics, who refuse to believe what the Church says, are unhappy. They either quietly wait for the Church to “get with the times,” or they actively proclaim false doctrine. They not only strive to be like God without Him, but lead others to do so as well. These are false prophets, wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matt 7:15), in whom the enemy works through to lead God’s creatures and children away from their Creator and heavenly Father. They do so precisely by bearing the title of “Catholic.” For the sake of intellectual honesty, it would make more sense for these individuals to abandon the title because they lack the faith (they lack the adherence to the content of the faith), and to either join another religion that holds their beliefs, or to start their own religions. They can look up to Martin Luther, who started his own church in the sixteenth century. Millions of others have followed suit.
Before anyone decides to leave the Catholic Church, however, a brief but urgent call, from your brother in Christ, to heed Christ’s words: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6); “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:14) (emphasis mine); “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matt 7:7-8). If anyone believes in issues such as women’s ordination, in-vitro fertilization, and divorce, I humbly implore them to reflect and ask themselves, “But what if the Church is right?” and go from there.
Secondly, the assent of faith, while necessary, is not sufficient by itself. Faith without works is dead (James 2:14-26). Faithful Catholics must thrive with life according to the Spirit (cf. Rom 8). We must strive for it. Briefly, this means love of God and love of neighbor; love of God in fidelity as His children, and love of neighbor as each other’s siblings in Christ and fellow man. My dad told me years ago, “Mi hijo, you could know the Bible from cover to cover, but if you don’t have Jesus in your heart, then all of your knowledge means nothing.” That is true (cf. 1 Cor 13), and failure to be Christ-like puts our salvation in jeopardy.
Furthermore, faithful Catholics acknowledge the authority of the Church as such, who teaches, governs, and sanctifies according to the Good News of Jesus Christ. In other words, failure to accept the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, no matter how many Judas Iscariots there may be in it, will undoubtedly lead to dissent. Acknowledging the authority as such calls for another article. Overall, to the faithful Catholics, those who do go to Church and believe what the Church says, let us continuously repent, and believe in the Gospel (cf. Mark 1:14). Let us always continue to be transformed (cf. Rom 12:2) and to get informed in our Catholic faith (cf. 1 Peter 3:15).
 Catholic Answers -
 Michael Schmaus, Dogma 5: The Church as Sacrament (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc., 1975), pgs. 273-274.
 John Laux, Church History (Rockford, IL: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1989), pg. 373.
 Alan Schreck, The Compact History of the Catholic Church. Rev. ed. (Cincinnati, OH: Servant Books, 2009), pgs. 72-74.
The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder