A Reader Joins the Conversation

A reader responds with a critical but honest reaction:

“There are terms used in the blog that I find out of place for my experience.  In the article about “liberal” Catholics and contraception, it frequently uses the term “liberal” in a pejorative manner.  I find the word “liberal” does not fit.  At one point, it states, “liberal Catholic elites” and then names two Catholics.  Do you use terms like “conservative” or “conservative elites”? Even if you did, it would not add balance to it; rather, it would polarize it further.  It would further adopt the elected-political terms into the life of the Church where I find they incite rather than bring understanding.”

His response continues:

“I try to refrain from using the elected-political terms, insights, or dare I say “agendas” of that system that I don’t think fit in the Church.  Here is an example.  Dorothy Day – was she conservative, liberal, or what? She was strongly against abortion, war, and any form of violence used by Catholics.  Thus, what does that make her? To me, it makes her a Catholic – neither liberal nor conservative.  I find both sides – liberal and conservative Catholics –use these terms to “categorize” or “box in” the others or the opponents – which I don’t find helpful.  Rather, it carries with it to me, a sense of triumphalism that those using the terms are the “faithful” Catholics and the others are not as faithful as we are.

In general, I find the blog helpful in wrestling with some issues.  Yet, do the people whom the blog calls “liberal” refer to themselves in this manner?”


These are great comments and questions, and deserve a response.  Below are my initial thoughts:

I use the term “liberal Catholic” in part because we have data from national surveys that use this term (alongside moderate Catholic and traditional Catholic).  In academic articles like this one, I have explored, through in-depth interviews, exactly what people mean when they self-identify as “liberal Catholics” and where these identities come from—some prefer the term “progressive” in open-ended questions but when asked to respond to the closed-ended question they are still willing to identify as liberal Catholics.  “Traditional Catholic” was preferred over “conservative” by more of my interviewees, but several used the two interchangeably.  In my research articles, I have used traditional because, again, that is what the national data included as a category and it fit with my in-depth interviews.  One of the reasons that I undertook my in-depth interviews was to explore the validity of these terms, and as a result of my interviews, I argue that they are valid self-identifications for many Catholics.

While I have some issues with these categorizations, much as the reader does, I was certainly not intending to be pejorative in using the term.   I think Dorothy Day would find the current divisions of traditional and liberal Catholics problematic—which is part of the point of examining them—but most of the Catholic Worker types I interviewed identified as liberal (though some did not).

Finally, these identities or self-identifications are not set in stone and I certainly do not want to completely reify them, but as a sociologist I’m most interested in understanding what the actual lived realities of Catholics are, and Catholics in the U.S. are self-identifying as traditional, moderate, and liberal Catholics.  So, I wouldn’t feel comfortable excising these terms from the Catholic conversation.

Interestingly, while some Catholics used these terms negatively in depicting others, I found that many spoke positively of these different identities and talked about how they complemented each other—suggesting that traditional Catholics root Catholics in our faith and liberal Catholics force the Church to grapple with the larger world.

Still, I appreciate the chance to nuance these terms and to recognize the diversity of self-identifications available.  As I mentioned in another post, we, as Church, may want to “transcend” such identity divisions, but that does not necessarily require eliminating them.

Maybe putting it this way would help–The Catholic Conversation can and should include traditional, moderate, and liberal Catholic voices—otherwise it wouldn’t be very catholic would it?

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