In our politicized times, Catholics throw around the words “liberal” and “conservative” too loosely. We end up confusing things that are quite different. This happens especially with Pope Francis: to say he is “liberal” is to say both too much and nothing at all.
Perhaps the same thing is more clear in the case of St. John Paul II. Was he liberal? Conservative? The categories don’t fit, whether we’re talking about secular politics or Church policy. Liberal and conservative just aren’t helpful words. The same is an important point about Benedict.
Liberal and conservative say something, more or less, about our relation to things new and old. Jesus doesn’t tell us to prefer one thing or the other, but says, “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matt 13:52). We should be both liberal and conservative—at the service of the kingdom.
At the heart of questions about new things and old in our time is the Second Vatican Council.
I was just perusing John Paul II’s introduction to the “new” Code of Canon Law. He explains that when St. John XXIII called Vatican II, he said that the Code of Canon Law would have to be revised as well, to reflect the thinking of the Council. Canon Law is inside baseball, but perhaps nothing John XXIII said so fundamentally expresses the opening he gave for the Council to bring forth things old and new: the whole law, all our procedures, would be adjusted.
John Paul II refers in this context to the phrase from Matthew’s gospel about “what is new and what is old”: “the Second Vatican Council has drawn both new and old from the treasury of tradition,” he says, and enumerates what he thinks is “new” in Vatican II (my paragraphing and boldface):
“Among the elements which characterize the true and genuine image of the Church we should emphasize especially the following:
-the doctrine in which the Church is presented as the people of God (cf. dogmatic constitution Lumen gentium, chapter 2)
-and hierarchical authority as service (cf. ibid., chapter 3);
-the doctrine in which the Church is seen as a communion
-and which therefore determines the relations which are to exist between the particular churches and the universal Church, and between collegiality and the primacy [of the pope];
-likewise the doctrine according to which all the members of the people of God, in the way suited to each of them, participate in the threefold priestly, prophetic and kingly office of Christ,
-to which doctrine is also linked that which concerns the duties and rights of the faithful and particularly of the laity;
-and finally, the Church’s commitment to ecumenism.”
In all these things he refers to “fidelity in newness and newness in fidelity.”
That’s a hefty list of ideas, and I’m not going to try to spell them all out here; if you are so inclined, you can meditate on them yourself, or ask me questions. But I offer them on two levels:
On the most general level, they are just modern examples, enumerated by John Paul II, of the Church’s “fidelity in newness and newness in fidelity”—or even “liberalism and conservatism in the service of the kingdom,” or “fidelity beyond liberalism and conservatism.” The Church is not liberal or conservative, she is the Church of Jesus Christ, and these are examples of what that means.
On a more particular level, they offer John Paul II’s insight into the principles of reform in our time. Might I suggest that, if you look behind all the idiotic stuff in the press—including, I’m sorry to say, a lot of idiocy in the Catholic press—this is a pretty good list of the real “newness” Pope Francis is working out in the Church.
It’s not about abandoning the Church’s teaching on marriage or communion or whatever, whatever the New York Times may tell you. It’s about those elements of “newness in fidelity and fidelity in newness” that St. John Paul II identifies with Vatican II.