New Sherwood

In defense of Catholic labels

It’s almost cliche amongst certain Catholics – sometimes very good ones – to oppose the use of labels such as “liberal”, “conservative”, “traditionalist”, and “progressive”, with respect to groups or factions within the Church. The terms are said to be divisive. They are said to be polarizing. They are even said to be un-Catholic. And I know what people who say such things are getting at. You’re either Catholic and believe all that the Church teaches, or you’re not. And if a person is a member of the Church in good standing, his or her claim to being Catholic is all you need to know, right?

Unfortunately that’s not all you need to know. Many Catholics in “good standing” are flat our heretics. I call them “liberals” and “progressives” because it just seems a lot nicer than calling them “heretics”, and I try to be a nice guy. I call orthodox Catholics “conservatives” and “traditionalists” because “orthodox” sounds too much like a boast. Would the well-intentioned folks who eschew labels prefer we return to calling heretics heretics? Somehow I don’t think that’s what they’re after.

The problem demands subtlety. A Catholic may be perfectly orthodox in doctrine, and yet be unfriendly to the many small-“t” traditions the Church has given us for the purpose of maintaining and growing in the Faith – hostile to the Latin Mass, for example. What do we call these people? Although the “conservative” label has served this purpose, for lack of anything better, it’s definitely less than ideal because it suggests that orthodoxy is merely a preference. If anyone has a better suggestion, I’m all ears, but you’ll have a hard time convincing me that we don’t need a label for them. Catholics who favor the Latin Mass and who encourage traditional practices also need some kind of label other than “Catholics who favor the Latin Mass and encourage traditional practices”, which is a real mouthful. I propose “traditionalist”, at least until such a time as all Catholics are traditionalists again.

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August 24, 2012 - Posted by | Catholic Faith, Catholicism

8 Comments »

  1. I favor the term “restorationist,” because to me it points out that something — many things — valuable have been lost.

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    Comment by Katherine | August 24, 2012 | Reply

  2. Perhaps the reason so many Catholics dislike labels is because the ones doing the labeling are judging other Catholics when they say things like, “Well, I think you’re a heretic, but I’ll be a nice guy and call you ‘liberal’ instead.” IOW, you are arrogating to yourself the power to read another Catholic’s mind and heart, and then to neatly box him into a category you determine suitable.

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    Comment by Michelle | August 27, 2012 | Reply

  3. “IOW, you are arrogating to yourself the power to read another Catholic’s mind and heart, and then to neatly box him into a category you determine suitable.”

    Hi Michelle. Long time, no see. :-)

    The minds and hearts of liberal Catholics aren’t that hard to read. No special powers required.

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    Comment by Blogmaster | August 28, 2012 | Reply

  4. Sorry, if I was somewhat snarky, Jeff. I was distracted by other irritants and your post got some of the backsplash. ;) And, yes, long time no see. Which is another reason I’m sorry that the first comment in a long time was somewhat abrasive.

    I will say though that I do think the temptation to judgmentalism is one reason I believe that labels for fellow Catholics should be avoided. If we start labeling people, it is all too easy to stop listening to them.

    My two cents, FWIW. :)

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    Comment by Michelle | August 29, 2012 | Reply

  5. No apologies needed, Michelle. It was a snarky post. And in that vein – but in all seriousness – one of the best reasons for labeling some Catholics liberals or progressives is precisely to avoid the trap of listening to them. If we realize that so-and-so is a known liberal, we can save ourselves a lot of grief and confusion by ignoring him.

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    Comment by Blogmaster | August 29, 2012 | Reply

  6. Many Catholics in “good standing” are flat our heretics. I call them “liberals” and “progressives” because it just seems a lot nicer

    ‘Heretics’ sounds good to me, since it’s the only one that states the truth.

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    Comment by William Luse | September 6, 2012 | Reply

  7. “Pious Catholic” seems like a good label for traditional Catholics.

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    Comment by Bruce | February 18, 2013 | Reply

  8. Hello Jeff. For some reason, I thought about this post. How about “orthodox” Catholics and “heterodox” Catholics? It seems to me that these labels get at the truth that I think you’re trying to express here without sounding insulting.

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    Comment by Bruce B. | April 3, 2013 | Reply


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