Authentic Catholicism: neither progressive nor conservative

Authentic Catholicism: neither progressive nor conservative

Fr Martin Durham

Without a doubt there are major differences in belief and practice these days between what are loosely described as progressive or conservative Catholics.

Moreover, within each of these wide categories there are further shades of belief and practice, ranging from moderate to extreme. Indeed, some progressives can be conservative on some issues, e.g., liturgy, and vice versa. No wonder confusion reigns supreme.

But what needs emphasising is that while there are various shades of progressive and conservative Catholics, there can be only one brand of authentic Catholicism.

What is at issue here is the notion of truth.

Firstly, truth is not the result of a battle to the death between opposing points of view. Rather, there is such a thing as objective truth. For example, in mathematics 2+2=4. It is an impossibility to regard contradictory statements or beliefs as being equally objectively true. That is only common sense: 2+2 cannot equal 3 or 5 as well as, or instead of, 4.

As the late Pope John Paul II often stated, and the present Pope has often repeated, Catholic dogmatic teachings on faith and morals are matters of objective truth, irrespective of whether one is progressive or conservative on other questions.


The authentic Catholic position is based on the solemn and emphatic declaration of the God-man, Jesus Christ: 'I am the way, the truth and the life' (John 14:6).

Being God as well as man, Jesus was neither deceived nor did He want to deceive us. He promised He would be with His Church until the end of time (Matt 28:20) and that He would send another advocate, the Holy Spirit of truth (John 16:13), to guarantee the Church would not fall into error in handing on God's revealed truths.

This twofold guarantee would be exercised by His own arrangement through Peter and the Eleven and their successors, the Pope and the bishops in union with him. This arrangement is called the magisterium (teaching authority) of the Church.

Terms such as progressive or conservative have no meaningful place in this context, at least where the Christian fundamentals are concerned. The Church that Our Lord founded does not consist of a battle between two wings, as in a political party, but in an acceptance that Jesus is the way, truth and life (John 14:6) and that the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit guarantees the truth of Church teachings until the end of time.

A more accurate summary of the present situation in the Church, therefore, would be to acknowledge that while there can be differences between Catholics, the real division is between those who accept the magisterium of the Church and those who don't, be they progressive or conservative on non-fundamentals.

This means there can be only one genuine Catholicism, the one that accepts the teaching authority of the Church. In other words, for example, the solution to any perceived ambiguities in the Vatican II documents is to consult the position of the Magisterium.

Moreover, if one wishes to find out what the Church teaches, just consult the Catechism of the Catholic Church (published 1994).

Here, it is important to understand the difference between doctrine and discipline. Whereas doctrine comprises the Church's teachings on faith and morals, e.g., the Creed, the Sacraments, the Ten Commandments, as set out in the Catechism, discipline represents the laws made by the authority of the Church which are binding, such as the liturgical require- ments governing celebrations of the Mass and other rituals, or the length of the fast prescribed before Holy Communion.

However, while the Church may change her own laws as required, see Matt 16:19, 'Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven', the Church is the appointed guardian of God's revelation (doctrine) and is not at liberty to change it.

We believe the Church's teachings (doctrine); we obey the Church's legislation (discipline).

Fr Martin Durham is a retired Queensland priest.

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