Liberals, Conservatives, and the New Orthodoxy

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 The retirement of Benedict XVI and speculation about his potential successors have brought back the old categories for Catholic clergy and laity – liberal, progressive, and conservative – in the secular media. But the media have missed a critical point: while there are certainly various viewpoints within the Church (which has always been the case, and is a good and healthy condition so long as these viewpoints are faithful), these labels, as they have been used for decades, no longer fit the current state of the Church.

“Liberal” or “progressive” were terms applied in the years after the Second Vatican Council to describe Catholics who wanted the Barque of Peter to sail with the winds of secular modernity. Liberals essentially wanted two things: power – a weakened papacy and a more democratic, lay-directed Church – and sex: birth control and women priests, as well as the abolition of clerical celibacy. “Conservatives,” by contrast, were those who defended the traditional teachings of the Church in the face of vociferous demands for change.

After thirty-five years of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the liberal project has exhausted itself in failure. Not one of its political goals has been realized. There are certainly still liberals, and their influence is still palpable in chanceries, choirs, schools, and religious education programs throughout the country. But our Lord taught that we can know a tree by its fruit, and the fruit of liberal Catholicism is scant indeed: empty seminaries, empty pews, and closed schools. Moreover, the shrill bitterness that flames from some liberal periodicals is not the recipe for inspiring holiness and humility.

Most ecclesial liberals are now advanced in years, and there are precious few young people stepping forward to assume their mantle. Liberal standard-bearer Hans Küng, now 84 years old, is still forcing the same tired demands. In his mania, he has failed to notice that the Church has passed him by.

In the reigns of John Paul and Benedict, “conservative” Catholics, both lay and cleric, have emerged into a more prominent role within the Church, but not according to the old definition nor to the old stereotypes of power struggles. To use the old political label one last time, distinctions exist within what was once referred to by the umbrella label of conservative Catholicism.

In the current ecclesial landscape, there are Catholics who loyally and fiercely support the Church against the immoral demands of the secular West: they are outspoken opponents of abortion, same-sex marriage, and government encroachments on religious freedom. They adhere to the true teachings of Vatican II as expressed by the Council fathers, not the liberal “spirit” as falsely advanced by what Benedict recently called the Council of the media. Their theological standard is the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and they are employing it to foster the New Evangelization.

Let us call this perspective the “new orthodoxy,” the position of not a few Catholics in their late forties and fifties, and of a growing number of American bishops, as well as many cardinal electors in the coming conclave. To be orthodox is to hold as true the teachings of the faith, and this group does so with conviction.

Yet the “new orthodox” typically lack something. “Orthodoxy” means “right worship,” but right worship according to Vatican II – a solemn liturgy in which the priest and faithful glorify God together – is not a major concern of the Catholics in this group. Instead, they prefer the people-centered orientation that is the principal feature of the Novus Ordo. At the same time, they remain uninterested in or even hostile to both liturgical beauty as modeled by Benedict and the traditional Latin Mass.

The second group inside the conservative camp, generally of a slightly younger age, shares the same goals as the “new orthodox,” but for them reverently celebrated liturgy is the ultimate standard of orthodoxy. They believe wholeheartedly in the maxim lex orandi, lex credendi – how and what we pray directly influences how and what we believe. For these Catholics, the liturgically minded pontificate of Benedict XVI has brought a great deal of hope and energy to the Church. Let us call this second group the “Benedictines.”

It is reasonable to hope that new orthodox and Benedictines will work together for the good of the Church. But as is often the case with the People of God – who, after all, are still a community of sinners trying to become saints – the two sides can be at odds over intra-ecclesial matters, especially the liturgy. And it is precisely this tension that may be the central point of contention in the conclave to elect Benedict’s successor. Those who assume the many cardinals created by Benedict share his mind on the liturgy have not been paying attention.

Labels are merely tools that help us understand the world through broad categories and associations. A new moment has gained ascendency within the Church while an old one is dying away. It is time to update our terminology to reflect this reality. For it is from the ranks of the new orthodox and the Benedictines the next pope will be chosen.

David G. Bonagura Jr. an adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary and is the 2023-2024 Cardinal Newman Society Fellow for Eucharistic Education. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church, and the translator of Jerome’s Tears: Letters to Friends in Mourning.