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.