More and more, it is becoming clear that we need to move beyond the categories of liberal and conservative. Simply put, both have shown themselves to be dysfunctional in terms of trying to help lead us beyond the problems that beset us. Both are too narrow and too selective in terms of the morality they espouse, the loyalties they embrace, and the ways within which they dispense their sympathies to be the basis for anything other than what we already have. At the end of the day, neither has the width or depth to merit the label Catholic.

Nowhere is this more evident than in our moral discourse, especially in our attempts at dialogue about private morality, that is, about such areas as abortion, sex, marriage, homosexuality, and the like. The conservative and the liberal, each in his way, invites us to a certain narrowness and intolerance.

The liberal does this by being intolerant of the ideal, of moral principle. Crassly put, liberal ideology tells us that if the majority of people do not, or cannot, keep a commandment, well … then we should change the commandment. What possible sense does it make, it is asked, to have a moral precept that the majority of people do not accept? How can the church claim to be compassionate and in touch with the suffering and needs of people, if it makes them feel guilty for not keeping certain commandments in which they no longer believe? How can the church be so out of touch, so ivory tower, in its morality so as to ignore the sensus fidelium in these crucial moral areas? Ironically, the liberal is pretty reluctant to apply this same kind of reasoning to the social encyclicals.

Conservative intolerance generally puts on a crasser face. To illustrate this with a typical example, allow me to recount an incident: Several years ago, immediately after a talk that I gave, a man who challenged me. He approached me as I left the stage, angry, bitter. He attacked me with words to this effect: “Father, I can’t believe the wishy-washy bunk you’ve just given. That’s not the church’s teaching! Why don’t you put things as you’re supposed to put them: Tell people what the law is … and if they can’t take it, they should walk!” The reasoning here is pretty clear, and simple: The written rules of the church, the commandments and canon law, are the benchmarks. You either measure up or you do not. If you do not measure up, you leave the church or, at very least, assume some kind of penitential or second-class role within it. Ironically, too, like his liberal counterpart, the conservative is not eager to apply that same criterion when it comes to the social teachings of the church. 

Now perhaps these are caricatures, indicative only of the extreme and are not really typical. Few liberals and conservatives would identify with the positions. That may be true, but good caricatures distort in the same way in which art distorts, namely, by highlighting an essential form that ultimately gives shape to the picture but is not always so consciously clear. Hence, what these caricatures do is highlight what is narrow and dangerous in both liberal and conservative ideologies, at least as these pertain to moral discourse. Neither is really tolerant, compassionate, and wide enough to reflect the charity and catholicity of Jesus Christ.

Both the liberal and the conservative, in the end, are fundamentalists because each, albeit in her own way, on the basis of good intention, vastly oversimplifies things. The conservative does it by canonizing the commandments and the law in such a way that they, and they alone, become the criteria of genuine religiosity and sincerity. There is not sufficient allowance made, however, for those who, for whatever reason, find themselves unable to live these precepts. The liberal oversimplifies things in the other direction. For him, the existential ability, or lack of it, to keep certain moral precepts by the majority of the people becomes the criterion for whether or not those precepts should be retained or not. Each is narrow, one in the name of orthodoxy, the other in the name of compassion.

Neither, however, approaches things as Jesus did. Jesus was neither a liberal nor a conservative. His loyalties were less selective and his embrace was much wider. Thus, he refused to bring down an ideal just because the majority of people rejected it. At the same time, however, he refused to condemn those who could not live that ideal. For him, genuine compassion lies in doing both, retaining an ideal and in walking with those who cannot keep it. Thinking this way got him into a lot of trouble … but nobody could ever accuse him of loving too selectively.