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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.