It is not surprising to anyone if I point out that there are conservatives in government as well as liberals. This right/left paradigm is old hat. It is not even anything new if one were to extend this breakdown to the Church. Yes, we have conservatives who want to conserve the tradition and liberals who want to explore what modern implications there are for future developments of the tradition.
It goes without saying that both wings of the Church are trying to live as faithful Catholics, but understand their priorities in different ways. In fact, there is interdependence between the conservatives and the liberals of the Church. In both camps, there are those who feel that the other group should just disappear and let just themselves be the Church. What need have we of liberals, say the conservatives, and vice versa.
Truly, we need both wings. A helpful analogy is that of a sailboat. The sail catches the wind and propels the boat forward. The rudder steers the energies unleashed by the wind to a rational purpose and direction. The sails are the liberals and the rudders are the conservatives of the Church. Without liberals, the boat would just sit on the water and go nowhere. Without conservatives, every wind would mindlessly move the boat in different directions.
Even if one of the wings should disappear, the remaining wing would probably split into rival factions, one emphasizing continuity (conservatives) and the other calling for more change (liberals).
Where this schema does not work is when we get into the moral world. In morality, we try to live our lives in accordance with God’s will. It is the perennial quest of spirituality to discover what the will of God is and ask God for the power to accomplish it. But, the will of God does not fit easily into the conservative/ liberal framework that we have just described. God cannot contradict Himself and say one thing to one person and another to someone else. While seeking out the will of God, there may be different methods, some liberal and others conservative. But there must only be one end result.
There are those who follow the way of skepticism and question the very nature of truth. Like Pontius Pilate they ask, “What is Truth?” This question comes from a certain pessimism about whether there is any Truth, rather only small truths that often contradict one another. But we believe that there is ‘objective truth’ and that what is true is true for all people and in every circumstance. Nowhere is that more important than in the moral sphere. To kill is a moral evil if it meets certain criteria. Unjustifiable killing is always wrong. But we kill animals to feed people. Killing a human person is only justifiable in self-defense (as in a just war) or to protect a community when no other way is dependable (capital punishment).
If, therefore, truth is always one and unique, absolute and not relative, then it is very important to make sure we are on the right side. For, it is entirely possible that we can be in error and still think that we are right in our opinion. How can we be sure?
This is where the service provided by authority becomes so important. In the United States, we have a negative view of authority. Our country was born in rebellion against the authority of the King of England. But a consistent and tested and believed-in voice that helps us find and stay on the right road is an indispensable help for us. In our Catholic faith, this is provided by the Magisterium of the Church as interpreted and expounded by the Pope and the Bishops over the centuries. This communal and ‘timeless’ understanding is a guide for our theological questioning and our moral choices.
Every time we have to choose morally, we do not have to start from scratch. The Bible is at our service, as are 2000 years of interpretation. If that is all too much, the Church has distilled all this accumulated wisdom in the “Catechism of the Catholic Church”, which is clear, simple and easily readable.
The Truth is there and it is available to us in all our plans and decisions. And if we are confused, we have the Bible and the Magisterium of the Church to help guide us. So we are not alone! But we must trust that we don’t have all the answers personally. We must be humble and docile and truly open. Then, Jesus can lead us to the Truth. For He is the Way, the Truth and the Life!