Survey Says...

September 18, 2013 | 17 comments

Some people balk at the use of liberal and conservative in a religious context. They argue that these are political terms only, and that questions of religious belief and practice are too varied, too nuanced, to capture with broad-stroke labels.

I’m not one of those people. Words can have different senses in different contexts, so there should be no problem re-purposing them from one to the next. And, sure, I agree that beliefs can be complex and so labels are necessarily imperfect. But they’re also useful: They help us, on a big-picture level, to categorize, to distinguish, to analyze group phenomena.

And so we speak of religious liberalism and religious conservatism as comprising certain characteristics:

Liberalism: Places limited importance on regular worship-observance and on strict adherence to doctrine and morals. Stresses God’s immanence and temporal religious goods (kindness toward others, stewardship of creation). Open to change in belief and practice as the times may require.

Conservatism: Sees regular worship-observance and assent to theological and moral dogmas as essential. Stresses God’s transcendence and eternal religious goods (sanctity, salvation). Resistant to change in belief and practice, preferring to “conserve” what it has.

According to this scheme, Catholicism is a conservative religion. Its principal aim is eternal, its doctrines immutable, its founding duty to hold fast to what it received. This analysis says nothing about Catholic politics, about the spiritual styles of individual Catholics, or about legitimate ways in which Catholicism also speaks of God’s immanence, preaches temporal works, and undergoes change over time. But it’s a handy way of making fundamental—and important—distinctions. It also reveals a natural affinity between Catholicism and other religious-conservative groups: the Orthodox churches, many Evangelical Protestants, Conservative and Orthodox Judaism, Mormonism, and Islam.

Well, a recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) suggests we’re all going the way of the dodo. In our place will rise religious “progressives” (the survey’s somewhat loaded term for liberals), their numbers young and waxing—“a more significant group than is usually assumed.”

The Millennial generation is especially rife with these young “progressives,” who say that religion is mostly about “doing the right thing,” deny that God is necessary to be moral, tend to favor legal abortion and same-sex marriage, and hold an “adaptive” view towards religious tradition. (Disturbingly, the single largest sub-group of progressives—29 percent—self-identify as Catholics.)

So, what conclusion do we draw? Is the demographic writing on the wall? Should the last one out of Mass turn off the lights?

Not so fast.

In fact, even though my natural level of pessimism generally rivals that of Eeyore the donkey, I think there are at least three reasons to believe that, contra the bone-rolling prognostication of the PRRI, religious conservatism has a bright future:

1. Younger generations are always more liberal, but not everyone stays that way.

Yes, younger people are more religiously liberal today than in ages past. They’re less likely to be raised in their parents’ faith; they’re more likely to profess atheism or moral therapeutic deism. But it would be a mistake to conclude that they’re all religious liberals for life. Aging has a way of leading us to God. Sin dulls our pride; suffering seeks comfort; marriage and children deepen our perspective; creeping mortality makes us yearn for permanent things. Eventually we all get mugged by metaphysical reality. So at least some, and I think no small number, of today’s unchurched twentysomethings will be part of the next generation of older religious conservatives that future polls will assure us are a dying breed.

2. Religious liberalism makes few converts.

It was Peter Kreeft, I think, who once observed that “Jesus the warm fuzzy doesn’t have quite the appeal of Jesus the eternal Logos.” There’s a reason why mainline Protestantism, eviscerated of its doctrinal and moral content, is replete with empty, echoing churches (and it’s not, as the Episcopal Church’s top lady, Jefferts Schori, has offered—because God is “pruning” its members to make them more individually fruitful). There’s a reason why liberal religious orders are de facto retirement homes. And it’s the same reason that the children of liberal believers grow up to prefer their own homemade spirituality: religious liberalism does not inspire. It does not challenge. It offers nothing but lost Sunday morning sleep.

3. Religious conservatives make babies.

It turns out that religious liberals aren’t replacing themselves in the ordinary way, either. We already know that they’re more likely to have no problem with contraception, abortion, or homosexuality, which creates a predictable demographic result. They don’t even view it as a bad thing. Schori again: Episcopalians are just too smart and eco-conscious to make more resource-hogging, ozone-depleting little rug rats. It makes sense, of course—if your approach to religious traditions in favor of large families is “adaptive,” and if your faith-focus is maximizing temporal happiness.

In contrast, religious conservatives are breeding up a storm—with Evangelicals, Mormons, and conservative Catholics outpacing their more secular counterparts in the U.S. by as much as two to one. Again, it makes perfect sense: Religious conservatives are more likely to believe in binding divine commandments, and to value above temporal goods the creation of new little persons to love God. My own scientific analysis of the back seats of my minivan confirms the theory.

So, predictions of a religious-progressive future may be a touch premature. I foresee a not-too-distant time when only religious conservatism and pure secularism remain, with a long-term advantage to the religious folk. Will we then become a great witness to the secular powers, or will we, like the fertile Israelites in ancient Egypt (Ex. 1:9-14), be made their slaves?



Todd Aglialoro is the director of publishing for Catholic Answers Press. He studied theology at Franciscan University, the University of Fribourg, and the International Theological Institute. A New York native, Todd now lives in the San Diego area with his wife, seven children, and one small bird.

Comments by Members

#1  Bryan Metcalf - Napa, California

Todd, my observations (and personal testimony) fully support your thesis. Look at the way our own Catholic Church is setup. We have strong youth ministries in almost every parish, but then we go off to college.

In spite of great Catholic schools and strong Newman Centers throughout the US, the temptation to turn away in college is great. I fell away for a time. Universities exist to promote the free exchange of ideas, and regardless of how someone was brought up he or she is going to be vulnerable. Those who remain faithful and don't fall into the "liberal religious" trap tend to be those who have a stronger personal relationship with Christ.

But even those who fall away as I did in my early 20s come back by our 30s where we have more say in the day-to-day business of our parishes. We can be more involved now because we have the resources we felt we lacked during college. Because we can be more involved, many invest more time in our faith.

September 18, 2013 at 1:56 pm PST
#2  Billy the Kid - Staunton, Virginia

Personally, I prefer the term orthodox over conservative, because people tend to group conservatism with things such as unregulated capitalism (about which Pope Benedict XVI said "the prevalence of a selfish and individualistic mindset which also finds expression in an unregulated capitalism") and neglection of the poor. Certainly, however, I despise the liberal agenda and even so-called "liberal theology."

September 18, 2013 at 5:17 pm PST
#3  Todd Aglialoro - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

When speaking of Catholicism only, I agree that "orthodox" can be a better choice, if only because it avoids mental contamination with political "conservatism." When speaking of religion generally, though, it's not as much use -- first because "orthodox/Orthodox" has a double meaning that can confuse people, and secondly because when it refers to a particular religion it's a subjective calculation. What's "orthodox" Unitarianism? You see the problem.

September 18, 2013 at 7:25 pm PST
#4  Billy the Kid - Staunton, Virginia

Oh certainly. Just in terms of like describing my own theology to other people, I describe myself (and hope it holds true) as an "orthodox Catholic". I prefer this simply because, as I said, people tend to associate certain political idealogies with the word "conservative" for example I could call myself a "conservative Catholic" and many people would take that to mean I'm a probably a registered Republican who is Catholic and my "conservatism" is intertwined in my theology and political or economical views.

I understand the use of the word when speaking about religion in general, however (one must find some adjective to describe themselves as objecting to the modern "liberal" idealogies).

September 18, 2013 at 7:41 pm PST
#5  Peter Laffin - Boulder, Colorado

While the Pope, my Blessed Pope, continues to unite the Church, Catholic media continues to divide.

Take a tip from your leader. You're not doing any of us any favors.

September 19, 2013 at 12:06 pm PST
#6  Peter Laffin - Boulder, Colorado

“The proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives.”

- Pope Francis

September 19, 2013 at 12:09 pm PST
#7  Peter Laffin - Boulder, Colorado

From the NYTimes interview:

The 12,000-word interview ranges widely, and may confirm what many Catholics already suspected: that the chameleon-like Francis bears little resemblance to those on the church’s theological or political right wing. He said some people had assumed he was an “ultraconservative” because of his reputation when he served as the superior of his Jesuit province in Argentina. He pointed out that he was made superior at the “crazy” young age of 36, and that his leadership style was too authoritarian.

“But I have never been a right-winger,” he said. “It was my authoritarian way of making decisions that created problems.”

September 19, 2013 at 12:47 pm PST
#8  Peter Laffin - Boulder, Colorado

“A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality,” he told Father Spadaro. “I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person.”

I love my Pope. So much.

September 19, 2013 at 12:48 pm PST
#9  Peter Laffin - Boulder, Colorado

The pope said he has found it “amazing” to see complaints about “lack of orthodoxy” flowing into the Vatican offices in Rome from conservative Catholics around the world.

September 19, 2013 at 12:50 pm PST
#10  Michael Newell - Toronto, Ontario

I am a Catholic "liberal" who fits some of your description but not a lot of it. For example, I attend Mass regularly, even during the week. I light candles and other rather orthodox activities. My only comment on your opinion is that I hope to offer my children much more humility than I hear in this article. Remember that the Catholic Church as great and wonderful as it is, has made horrendous mistakes in the pursuit of orthodoxy. Sometimes orthodoxy is a way to pursue hatred. We are able to write these letters and receive different views in response because of liberalism. And over time, the Church has changed and evolved in its understanding and treatment of many different subjects. I will continue to attend my local Mass and I will try every day to let go of my will and my hatred and to open myself to the guidance I receive. I hope I can offer my children a humble (not smug) appreciation of our world and the differences that we have with others.

September 19, 2013 at 2:59 pm PST
#11  Todd Aglialoro - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Michael, I'm curious: in what way are you a liberal according to the criteria I laid down if you don't fit a lot of the description? If you consider yourself a liberal according to some other way of using the term—and there are countless ways of slicing it; I even mentioned a few—then I really wasn't talking about your kind of "liberalism," was I?

There are surely many wonderful interpretations of "liberalism." If liberalism is what allows us to comment on blogs, as you suggest, then that's one of them. But very modest and limited scope of my post only addresses one of them: a sociological category describing one type or school of religious belief.

September 19, 2013 at 4:21 pm PST
#12  Peter Laffin - Boulder, Colorado

I see the message in this blog post, and then I imagine the way Jesus would give this message, without the sarcasm, without the smug certainty...

Todd, how do you feel about what the Pope has had to say in his now famous interview? Pick any of the above excerpts I posted and respond, please.

September 20, 2013 at 1:36 pm PST
#13  Todd Aglialoro - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Peter: I'm wondering why it's "smug" and "certain" to analyze two distinct kinds of religious belief mentioned in a sociological study, which is what I did in my blog post, but not smug and certain to claim personal knowledge of what Jesus would have done or said, as you did in your latest reply?

As for the pope's interview, there's much that's praiseworthy, little that's novel, and nothing that's truly objectionable. I do think it's unfortunate how some of his words have been cut, pasted, and spun to mean what they do not.

September 20, 2013 at 3:31 pm PST
#14  Peter Laffin - Boulder, Colorado

Todd: You remind me of a Pharisee, dubiously enforcing a holiness code, while there is a prince in our midst extolling God's infinite compassion.

But what really strikes me upon re-reading the message in your article is how very small it is beside the message of my beloved Pope. This comforts me, as it will do little harm in grand scheme.

September 21, 2013 at 4:17 am PST
#15  Mark Kok - Kitchener, Ontario

Hello Todd. Thank you for writing this article; I think it is well written and I don't really understand the comments accusing you of smugness and arrogance. As Catholics we do believe in a "holiness code", it is the Holy Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. There may well be room to be "liberal" or "conservative" Catholics, but only within the grey areas that our faith allows us to decide certain issues according to our own conscience. If we are being frank, as Catholics we believe our faith and the dictates thereof to be objectively true and valuable. Consequently, we believe that those who do not share our faith are objectively wrong on one or more important issues. On the other side, and very importantly, there are a great many people outside of our faith that believe that we Catholics are very wrong and these people are often brutal in expressing that belief. Without questions, our stance as Catholics must relentlessly be one of compassion, humility, forgiveness, and about all else, faith and love. That being said, there are many wolves at our door and I believe that ridiculing Christianity and, in particular, Catholicism is very socially acceptable. The Bible, from Genesis to Revelation is one long story of the mass of people running away from God. The prophets that spoke out against the masses always did so in a very direct and often withering manner. I found your article to be encouraging words in very interesting times and I thank you for that.

September 21, 2013 at 6:08 am PST
#16  Todd Aglialoro - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Thanks for your comment, Mark. I DO think there is room for "liberal" and "conservative" expressions of Catholicism, within the bounds of orthodoxy. But in that context those terms would have a different meaning. I tried to make it clear I wasn't talking about that kind of thing, or about politics, or even about orthodox vs dissenting Catholics, but I'm sorry I didn't make it clearer still!

And you're right: salvation history gives us examples of prophetic bluntness and religious exclusiveness far beyond what even the most "Pharisaical" Catholic today might express.

September 21, 2013 at 10:51 am PST
#17  Alexander Lichon - Appleton, Wisconsin

I've recently started dating a young woman at Marquette University in Milwaukee. She had her faith revitalized when she started attending the university through an on campus group called CRU. CRU is a "inter-denominational" campus group. She really loves it and says that it was CRU which returned her to God. I agree with that fact; however, I don't think the group is helpful to her full growth in Catholicism. The group values "welcoming" everyone and not "forcing" others beliefs onto others. I believe respect is a nice and healthy thing, but I believe that saying the Truth to other religions (especially our Christian brothers & sisters) out weighs "welcoming" others and being all warm and fuzzy.
She is Roman Catholic and is a practicing Catholic (does the minimum for sure and a little more), but not engaged with the fullness of Catholicism. She is a great advocate for those with mental health and has a loving heart for those afflicted with mental disorders. She is obviously a gentle and kind person, but God willing I would just love to see her become fully attached to Catholicism and not to the feelings of ecstasy that CRU, fuzzy worship groups, communal cozzy "Masses" that Marquette offers o' to often.
I tend to be more traditional (occasionally attending TLM) and have a conservative view of Catholicism as how you explained it.
This situation is difficult for me since I like this young woman very much and would like to see her flourish in the fullness of Catholicism. How would I go about teaching her these conservative views as you described without pushing her away from me and making her feeling accused of being judged by me.

October 4, 2013 at 9:47 am PST

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