Liberal? Conservative? Keep 'Em Guessing

We were brought up in an evangelical, Bible-believing church. Of the five of us children, the three boys are now all Catholics.

When my older brother Ron started his RCIA course, he sent me an e-mail asking, “Do Catholics believe in hell?”

I assured him it was an article of faith. “Why do you ask?”

“It's just that Sister Janet, my catechist, says, ‘After Vatican II we don't have to believe in all that stuff.’”

“Oh no!” I exclaimed. “What's your priest like?”

“What should I do?” my brother asked. “Go to the next-door parish that is more conservative?”

“No. Stick with Sister Janet. She's your catechist. For better or for worse, she's part of the Catholic Church, too, and you'll have to get used to that. But do this: Go to your next class with a copy of your big black Bible under one arm and a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church under the other arm. I'll bet you already know more of the Bible than Sister Janet, and when she sees you, you'll scare the wimple off her.”

“She doesn't wear a wimple.” “Of course. I forgot.”

The RCIA course went ahead, and my brother Ron not only joined the Catholic Church, but he also learned to appreciate Sister Janet. He didn't always agree with her. In fact, they had some pretty sharp arguments, but in the end they both learned from each other and grew a little.

One of the most maddening and delightful things about being a Catholic is that you have to learn to get along with people who are different from you. For those of us who were used to sectarian Protestantism, this is difficult. Because the Protestant mentality encourages church shopping, most Protestants end up in a church they like with people they like. In other words, they end up in a church with people just like them.

In the Catholic Church, that doesn't work.

I often say the Catholic Church is more like a bus stop than a club. Like a bus stop, there are lots of very different people gathered together for the same purpose, not just because they have the same hobby. Like a huge extended family, there are loads of people in the Catholic Church you didn't choose to be in a family with, and you all have to learn to get on. This means that to be a Catholic you have to be both conservative and liberal.

The conservative is suspicious of things that are different and those who want to change things. The liberal, on the other hand, wants to be open to all that is new. The liberal is truly open-minded, tolerant and ready to learn.

If you want to be a Catholic, you have to hold both of these human tendencies in balance. First, you have to appreciate the other side.

To appreciate the conservatives you have to realize there is a lot from the past that is worth conserving. You have to see that conservative tendency as a good thing. If you tend to be conservative you have to see that it's actually a good thing to be open, accepting and tolerant. Then to really turn things on their head the conservative — while accepting the liberal — has to challenge him, and the liberal, for his part, has to challenge the conservative, and the challenges need to be firm, even if that means there are some fireworks.

This is difficult because we want to challenge the other side before we accept them. That's not allowed. It's the wrong way around. We have to accept and love them first, then challenge later. And if we challenge them we have to be open enough to be challenged back.

This is actually a much more demanding way to live the Christian life. It's far better than to take refuge in a club, a clique, a sect or a secure ideological ghetto. It's more demanding. It's more exciting, but it's also much more fun. In every way and on every front the conservative-liberal Catholic is constantly keeping ‘em guessing.

The conservative-liberal mentality is summed up in a favorite saying of mine by the English writer F.D. Maurice. He wrote, “A person is most often right in what he affirms and wrong in what he denies.” This tricky little saying carries more weight than it first seems. If we are right in what we affirm, then we should affirm everything we can. If we're wrong in what we deny, then we should deny as little as possible. This means we will be liberally minded in the right sense in that we will be seeking to affirm all that is good, true and beautiful wherever it appears and however it appears.

To do this we must learn to value all things according to their worth. And if we value all things for what they are worth, we must especially value all people for what they are worth, and each person is of eternal worth.

We cannot afford to put other people into neat categories in order to dispose of them. We have to accept each person exactly as he is. Each person, with his own messy mix of ego, ideas, ideologies, dreams and desires, is God's own tiny, unfinished icon. None of us has it all right, but none of us has it all wrong, either.

The mystery of loving one another and learning from one another is how God completes the image of Christ in us. This is what we are here for: to learn the difficult lessons of love. If we blank out others, we're blanking out the very ones who might be our best teachers.

Dwight Longenecker's book, Adventures in Orthodoxy, is a creative consideration of the Apostle's Creed. It is available through