This is something that’s been on my mind for awhile. I first wrote about it on my old blog in November, but it still holds true, and, in light of Rachel Held Evans’ Rally to Restore Unity I’ve decided to reprint it here. This piece is specifically aimed toward my fellow Catholics on both sides of the political divide, but since similar rifts exist between conservatives and liberals in every Protestant denomination, this piece has some relevance to our “separated brethren” as well:
Some Catholics call themselves Conservative Catholics as a way of setting themselves apart; a way of claiming to be the “more faithful Catholics.” Others call themselves Liberal or Progressive Catholics as a way of setting themselves apart; a way of claiming to be the “more open minded Catholics.” These terms are used as epithets too, with each side hurling adjectives at the other: the Conservative Catholics are “narrow-minded bigots” while the Liberal and Progressive Catholics are “Cafeteria Catholics.”
I reject all those labels. Just call me Catholic. No adjectives, no modifiers.
The name Catholic (meaning universal) was first applied to the Church early in the second century to contrast the true faith, which offered salvation to all, with Gnostic sects, which offered salvation to a select few. To be Catholic is to take anyone—no matter how low their station in life, no matter how numerous their sins—and offer them the chance of a new life in Christ. During his earthly ministry, Jesus turned no one away; the Church should turn no one away either.
When Catholics qualify their Catholicism, specifying that they are conservative or liberal, traditional or modern or post-modern, they diminish their Catholicism. They imply that the Gospel that we are called to witness to the world can be contained in a human philosophy. The Gospel we witness to is the Good News of the Word of God, incarnate in our flesh, crucified for our sins, and risen to the right hand of God. This news is the biggest news, the only real news, since the creation of the universe. How can something so large, so universal—something bigger than the universe itself—be qualified without being diminished.
I’ve seen diminished Catholicism first hand, through the Anglican tradition I was raised in. From almost the moment of its break with Rome, Anglicanism has been divided into parties. First it was the Prayer Book Anglicans vs. the Puritans, then the High (and Dry) Church vs. the Latitudinarians, and finally a three-way split between the Anglo-Catholics, the Evangelicals, and the Broad Church Liberals.
I was an Anglo-Catholic, and within my party I heard people speak of the “Catholic Tradition within Anglicanism,” as if the whole of Catholic Tradition could be contained within a subset of a denomination.
Suppose I try to capture the ocean in a bottle. The contents of my bottle—sea water—will hold much in common with the ocean. It will be wet, salty, and filled with little creatures. If I use a large tank instead, I might catch a school of fish, or an octopus, or even a whale. But unless my tank is the size of the world, I won’t capture the whole ocean.
In the same way, Anglicanism has tried to capture Catholicism in its Anglo-Catholic bottle. It got the bishops, and the sacraments, and the smells and bells among other things, but the bottle isn’t big enough to hold the Catholic faith.
Likewise the bottles of conservatism, or traditionalism, or liberalism, or modernism aren’t large enough to hold the Catholic faith. No political party, no man-made philosophy, no country, no culture is big enough.
So please call me Catholic. no adjectives, no modifiers.