Creative tension: ‘Purpose Driven,’ vs. ‘Retro’ Catholics

I avoid writing about “liberal” and “conservative” Catholics. These terms are too easily politicized as Democrats v. Republicans. Moreover, the … Continued

I avoid writing about “liberal” and “conservative” Catholics. These terms are too easily politicized as Democrats v. Republicans. Moreover, the meanings of these terms have varied so much in the course of history that yesterday’s liberals are often today’s conservatives and vice-versa. Let me introduce here the label “Purpose Driven Catholic” with due thanks to Pastor Rick Warren.

The Purpose Driven Catholic differs from the Retro Catholic because the guiding principle seeks an immediate impact of the faith on society. While the Retro Catholic emphasizes tradition as a guide and seeks to remedy conflict by a return to practices that previously insured normalcy, the Purpose Driven Catholic is more willing to engage the contemporary and blaze new paths through the maze of social issues in a pluralistic world.

Retro and Purpose Driven Catholics do not differ on doctrine and one is not less Catholic than the other. They are more like the opposites of Felix and Oscar in the Odd Couple than good-guys v. bad-guys in a mobster movie. Think of Retro and Purpose Driven as the Ying and Yang of Catholic America. The Church needs both, even if there is a “creative tension” between them.

To test this “creative tension,” consider the issue of abortion. Every Catholic considers elective abortion to sinfully kill a human life. Retro Catholics address abortion by advocating a return to the time when it was illegal. This means either: 1) a constitutional amendment; or 2) having five Supreme Court justices overturn Roe v. Wade.

The Purpose Driven Catholic looks instead to social circumstances like poverty and lack of adoption services that underlie the abortion choice. Reducing the number of abortions rather than eliminating all of them is the goal. While Retro Catholics may find fault with this pragmatism, the Purpose Driven rely on the argument that “half a loaf is better than no loaf at all.” In fact, they sometimes argue that the Retro strategy has failed to ban abortions for more than 35 years and needs to be replaced.

Same-sex marriage is another public issue for this Ying-Yang tension in Catholic America. Retro Catholics see the legalization of same-sex marriage as a drastic step away from established traditions of normalcy, irreparably weakening the institution of marriage and its sacramental meaning for Catholicism. Purpose Driven Catholics view gay and lesbian commitments within stable relationships to actually, if awkwardly, uphold the value of marriage as an institution. Since civil marriages never constitute a Catholic sacrament, what other people do or say does not affect Church doctrine. Much like Catholics can live with public laws allowing divorce, so too can the Purpose Driven survive in a pluralistic society that affords gays and lesbians equal rights.

The most common tension is not about the content of Catholic doctrine, but about implementation. Both sides can dig into an ideological position of “no-cooperation with evil” and both can prioritize political results, subordinating the bad to the greater good. I think that the past two years have refocused an important aspect of Catholic freedom of action, especially for the laity. Discernment demonstrates a maturing faith. Consider the change in the notion of “Cafeteria Catholic” which refers to picking and choosing among church doctrines, much as might someone in a cafeteria line select preferred dishes. Until recently, this label was used by Retros as if they were the only Catholics 100% loyal to church teaching. However, George Weigel, an influential Retro Catholic, fully embraced Cafeteria Catholicism for the Retro side by suggesting that the papal encyclical of Benedict XVI should be underlined with two pens, one “golden” for ideas pleasing to Mr. Weigel, and the others “red” that need not be heeded.

Contrary to those who make Catholic differences into a weakness, I see varying opinions and approaches as Catholic freedom in a complex world. It has always been thus, as early as the controversy between Saints Peter and Paul (Acts 15). The formula for Catholic creative tension is often quoted: “Unity in necessary things; liberty in doubtful things; charity in all things.” It is easier to cite this formula than to live it: but living the faith despite a creative tension demands no less of Catholic America.


Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo is Professor Emeritus of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at Brooklyn College and Distinguished Scholar of the City University of New York.
  • ThomasBaum

    Doesn’t it seem that quite a few, no matter what “label” is either self-applied or applied by someone else, put “dogma” ahead of God.Sometimes we get so caught up in “dogma” that we miss the simplicity of what God-Incarnate, Jesus, spoke of and did.”Proclaim the GOOD NEWS” isn’t this what Jesus asked of us.Seems as if plenty of Catholics believe, or say they believe, that Jesus took ALL of the sins of ALL of humanity upon Himself and yet think that God’s Plan is only for some to be in God’s Kingdom.If God’s Plan is not, ultimately, for everyone to be in God’s Kingdom then it is not GOOD NEWS but horrific news.We are taught in one of the creeds that Jesus went to hell, don’t we believe it?Don’t we realize that, in a matter of speaking, that God took dominion over hell and death.Maybe the simplicity and awesomeness of what God did, just goes over some people’s heads.Jesus, God-Incarnate, experienced hell, spiritual death and physical death that is how He “won” the keys to them.Remember when Jesus said, “Simon, thou art Peter and upon this rock, I will build MY CHURCH and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it”?That is the whole mission of Jesus and His Church.Take care, be ready.Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.

  • usapdx

    How many RCs fully agree with all the teachings of the RCC with no ands , ifs or buts? To thoes that do, I say to them, know your RCC true history and ask questions. Over the years, has the RCC administrations been after the total control of it’s membership? Who has done more damage to the RCC by silanceing the truth to protect the image? It is time for a new pope and then Vatican III to make the RCC real Christ like.

  • areyousaying

    And which category still looks the other way as the pope, cardinals and bishops still hide from civil prosecution predator “ebephile” priests who have been raping little boys while bashing gays from their bully pulpits?a. purpose driven Catholics

  • areyousaying

    Meanwhile, in the UK, The Pope expresses sorrow again and again and cries crocodile tears for priest abuse victims while continuing to hide the perverts from civil prosecution.Until he hands over all the information he has about abusing priests wherever they are in the world, with no more protection, he, his church and Catholics complicit by looking the other way remain

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