Abandoning Ideology: The True Breadth and Depth of Catholicism

My reversion back to Catholicism took place back in 2009 after a few years of wandering, confusion, and self-worship. I was living in Washington, DC for an internship at The Heritage Foundation. I had decided to try my hand at conservative politics. I didn’t know it then, but God was beginning a radical change within me that would transform the way I see the world, including politics. I had left behind an unhealthy relationship (for both of us) in which I had cohabited with a man for a couple of years. I was broken and battling the Catholicism which had always been a part of my identity, even if I had wanted it on my own terms. Instead, God reached me in that brokenness through the beauty of the Liturgy and He showed me the vibrancy, beauty, paradox, and joy of Christianity.

While I was in DC, my roommate suggested that I try to go to Mass at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. It was just 10 minutes down on the red line from our Capitol Hill apartment. I was unsure. I had been attending various Protestant Bible studies and groups and my search was proving frustrating. The first Mass I attended at the Basilica, I did not even make it through and I left early. I thought I was done being a Catholic. At the time I didn’t want to fully admit to my need for the healing salve offered by Christ through His Church, but the Holy Spirit would not be deterred. Thanks be to God! For reasons I don’t remember, I ended up attending the Sacred Triduum at the Basilica that year and it forever changed my life.

My experience of Catholicism in my childhood and early Twenties can only be likened to what Bishop Barron has written about in many of his books: beige. The Liturgy, while the Blessed Sacrament was present, was not transcendent and transformative. I didn’t know about the presence of the angels and Communion of Saints in the Liturgy until I was in my mid-Twenties. That understanding also changed my view of the Mass forever. The year in which I attended the Sacred Triduum at the Basilica solidified this understanding as I could sense with the eyes of faith that the Mass was truly Heaven on earth. From the reverence of the priests, to the sacred music, to the lofty ceilings, mosaics, and stained glass, I knew with every fiber of my being that Jesus is Lord. Shortly afterwards I realized that politics was not for me and I left DC for good after 4.5 years of living there off-and-on.

Soon after I met my husband, I was finally Confirmed, and entered into the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. We were married in a very traditional parish and two weeks later moved to our current Diocese, one which is similar to the one in which I grew up. As time went on, I started to see how even though we are of a more traditional bent, the fights between espoused “conservatives” and “liberals” is destructive. Both sides have something wrong and both can be blinded by ideology. This became even clearer to me when I began my graduate theological studies and the first thing my professor told us is there is no “conservative” or “liberal” within the Church. Those are terms borrowed from political philosophy and they form divisions. True, there are nuances and differences in theological thought, but they are not understood through the lens of political ideology.

So why are these terms unhelpful and even divisive within the Church?

They paint the Faith through the lens of largely American/Western politics.

The Catholic Church is not an either/or body, she is a both/and organism. Yes, there are moral laws to follow, laws, norms, and rules, but as surprising as it may be, she says “yes” far more often than she says “no”. The problem with the conservative/liberal narrative is that both sides reduce the Church to either/or. The Church teaches on sin, moral law, and a reverent Liturgy versus the Church is about helping people, the Liturgy is people oriented, my conscience has primacy, and we are called to be good people. If we look at these comparisons, we realize that both have something wrong. Yes, the Church teaches that we are sinful and in need of the grace provided through the Paschal Mystery and the Sacraments. There are absolutely moral precepts we must follow as Catholics because we love God and desire Heaven. These are all correct, but they can fall into a form of piety without the bodily movement towards helping others which “liberals” decry. The Liturgy is about right praise of God, not us. It is not about our personal desire. It is about our proper ordering to God at the ontological level, that is at the very level of our being. It is also where we are nourished and sent out into the world to live the mission of bringing the world into communion with the Blessed Trinity. We must help the poor, we are called to be holy (not some bland good), and the Liturgy is experienced by us, but does not revolve around us. We are called to live the spiritual and corporal works of mercy in a tangible way, not only talk about them on either “side” of the argument.

Being Catholic comes with the Cross. Being Catholic also supersedes and transcends all political ideology.

When we reduce the Church to our political ideology or leanings and attach those things to the Liturgy, corporal/spiritual works of mercy, magisterial understanding, morality, etc. then we miss out on the breadth and depth of our faith. Catholics are both liberals and conservatives at the same time. Catholicism transcends and transforms all elements of our human nature. It purifies and perfects things like philosophy, science, humanism, and culture. It takes the good and true to incorporate it into the life of the Church, precisely because all of creation is from God. As Bishop Robert Barron points out in his book, Bridging the Great Divide: Musings of a Post-Liberal, Post-Conservative Evangelical Catholic:

We are not tied into a political framework dictated to us by the culture and thus we can range around creatively, provocatively, unpredictably borrowing now from Aristotle, now from Einstein, now from Chesterton, now from Cicero.

We do a great disservice to ourselves and tradition when we jettison the great works of humanity in favor of things because they are new, while at the same time we cannot sit still and hold on nostalgically to a past that may or may not have existed. Instead, we must learn to embrace the both/and reality of the Church. We help the poor and create beautiful Churches, works of art, and reverent Liturgies. We support just war when needed and radical nonviolence. We are for fruitful families (the size is up to God) and celibacy. The paradoxes of our faith are endless.

Division greatly impedes the New Evangelization.

Have you ever been a new employee or a new member of a group and walked into your first meeting and everyone is fighting? There are clearly rivalries, anger, and fights going on of which you have no part or knowledge.  That is what happens when new people come to our parishes, websites, or blogs and see nothing but battles. Do you remember how you felt? Did you want to be there? You probably wanted to leave as quickly as possible. We need to keep that in mind if we want to evangelize our culture.

As hard as it is for people who have either always been Catholic, reverted, or converted to remember, it is usually not moral teaching that brings people into the Church. No. It is an encounter with the Risen Lord who is present by the Holy Spirit in the Church. This may occur through the Liturgy, study, prayer, or clarity in morality, but first and foremost it is an encounter with Jesus Christ. The Apostles didn’t spread the Gospels by yelling out: “Hey, I have a great moral law for you to follow!” Instead they preached Christ crucified and risen. It is not within sinful human nature to undergo conversion without this encounter. It is an encounter that is solidified and sealed in Baptism. We need to bring Jesus Christ to the world and the rest will follow. True conversion to the Faith will eventually include the moral law.

We evangelize by our lives.

If we want to evangelize our culture, then we must put aside our ideologies and begin to live our lives with holiness in mind. If we are striving for holiness through the virtues, then others will see our joy. Holiness is contagious. The joy that radiates from a saint opens up a hunger within each human heart with a desire to be satiated. This does not mean we stop standing up for the unborn, the poor, and morality, but what it means is we lead our charge with Christ Risen, rather than through anger and division. This is why 40 Days for Life is so successful. Its focus is on radical non-violence in the face of unspeakable violence. We pray fervently for every person who enters that abortion clinic and the souls of the murdered babies. Who is a scared unplanned mother more likely to seek help from: The person shouting at her and calling her a murderer or the quiet man or woman praying the Rosary or holding a sign offering help? We have to remember that conversion requires grace and the will of the individual. If we go at people from an offensive position, we will automatically put people on the defensive. I know, I have struggled finding this balance myself after my reversion. What I do know is that evangelization will only take place when we decide to take on the radical call of Christianity to be holy, to be saints.

Catholicism is a way of living, it is a lens in which we see the worlds of the material and the immaterial (spiritual). It is not “liberal” or “conservative” because it is a both/and organism whose life comes from the Holy Spirit. If we are serious about the New Evangelization then it is time to tap into this breadth and depth and show the world how, as Bishop Barron puts it in his book: ‘The lion does lie down with the lamb.’ It is time to take off our ideological glasses and embrace all that is good, beautiful, and true in our Faith.

Therefore, let us leave liberal-conservative behind us. And let us leave behind us too that Catholicism which had allowed its distinctive colors to bleed into beige. And let us embrace the spicy, troublesome, fascinating, and culture-transforming person of Jesus Christ. And let the Church of Christ thereby shape the world.

Bishop Robert Barron, Bridging the Great Divide, 21

I am grateful to God for how He brought about my reversion through the transformative and transcendent beauty of the Liturgy and into the vibrant world of Catholicism devoid of ideology. I too am a post-liberal, post-conservative evangelical Catholic. On another note, no matter what happens during an election year, Christ is still Risen and uniting the world to Himself. We must keep our eyes firmly fixed on Him. Deo Gratias!

By

Constance T. Hull is a wife, mother, homeschooler, and a graduate student theologian with an emphasis in philosophy.  Her desire is to live the wonder so passionately preached in the works of G.K. Chesterton and to share that with her daughter and others. While you can frequently find her head inside of a great work of theology or philosophy, she considers her husband and daughter to be her greatest teachers. She is passionate about beauty, working towards holiness, the Sacraments, and all things Catholic. She is also published at The Federalist, Public Discourse, and blogs frequently at Swimming the Depths (www.swimmingthedepths.com).

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  • BXVI

    Constance –
    Perhaps beauty can save the world, but can it save the Church from the very deep divisions within it that go to the heart of “what Catholicism is”? Conservative and Liberal are just labels, and perhaps very imperfect ones. You could use any terms you want: use Guelphs and Ghibellines, or Cats and Dogs, if you want. The point is, there are very real, very deep divisions in the Church and they are not going away just because we stop labeling them and enjoy beautiful liturgy.
    And it has always been so.

  • Constance

    I am well aware of Church history which is precisely why I discourage ideologues from limiting the Faith to the detriment of others. I always find it interesting how folks use B16 in support of their ideas. I have studied much of his theology, in fact he is one of my theological heroes, and he is anything but an ideologue.

  • BXVI

    I completely agree that Pope Benedict was not an ideologue. I am not so sure about Pope Francis.

    My point is simply that we cannot wish these deep divisions away. It is not being a “fundamentalist” or a “rigorist” or a “Pharisee” (to use some “labels” that the Holy Father has taken to throwing at fellow Catholics) to defend what Pope St. John Paul the Great and Pope Benedict taught practically yesterday (in Church time).

    Reality matters – no matter what labels we use for it. the Church is deeply, deeply divided. Honestly, some things simply must be resisted. What if St. Athanasius had made a play for “unity” instead of defending the Truth?

  • Constance

    Wishing away, no. I am proposing something far more radical: The abandonment of ideology and a focus on holiness and the expansiveness of Catholicism as opposed to boxes of our own making.

    Most of us are not St. Athanasius, we neither possess the intellect, authority, ability, or personal holiness at this point to compare ourselves to such a saint. This isn’t Nicea. Far too many in this day-in-age of social media fancy themselves to be more than they are, but instead are often blinded by pride. The divisions in the Church often occur because we are too busy looking at the speck in someone else’s eye while ignoring the plank in our own. The answer is to become a saint and embrace the fullness of the Church. It’s unfortunate that so many believe division is somehow a good thing when it typically points to sin.

    Also Pope Francis bashing is not tolerated at CE and is grounds for being banned from commenting. Prudence is recommended. Perhaps less time focusing on Pope Francis’ every word and more time on the mission God has given you in your own sphere of influence? It causes a lot less anger, worry, and division. Unless you have the a position in which you can do good at a higher level, God is calling most of us to bring our communities into conformation with Him. Squabbling and yelling all over social media isn’t the same thing. If people knew how to engage in reasoned discourse that would be one thing, but that is in short supply these days. Pax.

  • Constance

    I appreciate you reading the piece. I don’t get involved in the Pope Francis battles. Pax Christi.

  • BXVI

    Peace to you too, Constance.

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