Your weekend think piece: The roots of those omnipresent Catholic political 'frames'

There was an interesting exchange in our comments pages this week linked to a subject that is frequently discussed here at GetReligion, which is the nasty tendency among journalists to use political labels to frame believers who are involved in debates over doctrine. The hook for this discussion was Dawn's post that ran with the headline, "What is this? Seeing red over RNS piece on 'conservative' cardinals."

I feel rather torn on this issue, because everyone knows that there are doctrinal conservatives (some call this the camp of the orthodox) and there are doctrinal liberals (some prefer the camp of the progressives). What really frosts my oleanders is when journalists use the term "reformer" in discussions of doctrine (as opposed to, let's say, matters of bureaucracy, worship and tradition.

Perhaps readers may recall those dictionary definitions of "reform," as a verb:

1. To improve by alteration, correction of error, or removal of defects; put into a better form or condition.
2. a. To abolish abuse or malpractice in: reform the government. b. To put an end to (a wrong). ...
3. To cause (a person) to give up harmful or immoral practices; persuade to adopt a better way of life.

And then "reform" as a noun?

1. A change for the better; an improvement.
2. Correction of evils, abuses, or errors. ...

See how that works? Thus, when journalists define a debate in terms of "reformers" on one side and "conservatives" on the other, you end up with those defending church doctrine being described as opposing the correction of evils, abuses, errors, defects, etc., etc. See how that framework shapes the debate?

In that context, we have the following two comments, starting with Jay:

I am not sure what sure what a journalist should call someone who wants to reform something other than a "reformer." It also seems weird to me to assume that you think "conservative" means "bad." ... I understand that these labels are shorthand and sometimes the reality is more complicated than labels can communicate.

To which Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz replied:

What I think you are missing, Jay, is that the Church can't be called "conservative" because this is just what the Church is, period. The doctrine on divorce and remarriage did not originate from anyone in the Church but from Christ Himself, so the Church states that she has no authority at all to change that doctrine. ...
The Church's whole raison d'etre is to hand on what was given to her, not to add to it or change it. If that's what the modern world calls "conservative," then so be it. But that's certainly not how the Church would see herself.

What should journalists do to avoid the "reform" label? Why not simply state that some people in the church want to "change" or even "modernize" certain doctrines, while others want to defend them? What content is lost in that approach?

So what is the real journalism issue here, the essence of the these labels and empty frames? 

Part of the problem is that the true religious faith of many journalists is politics. If something is real, then it is essentially political, with truth being determined by displays of popularity and then power. Real life is politics. Religion is something that, in the end, must be political because politics are real.

However, if you look at this historically it is easy to see that people in religious institutions also use these labels in ways that are essentially political. During this week's discussion, a reader sent us a link to a fascinating 2002 piece by the Catholic writer George A. Weigel, who is a Catholic doctrinal conservative, yet one whose political and cultural stands are not identical to those of many other Catholic doctrinal conservatives.

This essay posted by the Ethics & Public Policy Center is must reading, for those interested in the history of the "liberal" vs. "conservative" labels in Catholic life. The start:

No reporter or op-ed columnist ever refers to the Dalai Lama as a “liberal” Buddhist or a “conservative” Buddhist. I suspect that’s because everyone understands that Buddhism is far too complex and subtle a religious tradition to be analyzed in simplistic political categories. What, then, accounts for the near-universal journalistic addiction to parsing every Catholic issue, and every Catholic personality, in these terms?

There are probably lots of explanations, but a considerable amount of the credit, or blame, for this taxonomic convention must go to Father Francis X. Murphy, a Redemptorist priest who wrote a series of reports for the New Yorker on the Second Vatican Council under the pseudonym “Xavier Rynne.” Prior to the Council, virtually no one described the Church or churchmen as “liberal” or “conservative,” despite the fact that there were clear factions, reflecting different theological casts of mind, in pre-Vatican II Catholicism. After the Council, which is to
say after Xavier Rynne’s chatty reports on the Council (which were later compiled in four books), everything in the Church was suddenly “liberal” or “conservative.”

This has caused endless mischief. Doctrine isn’t “liberal” or “conservative.” Doctrine is true, or it’s heresy. Theology isn’t “liberal” or “conservative,” either. Theology is thoughtful or dumb, scholarly or shoddy, well-informed or ill-informed.

Read it all. And make sure that you get to the part where those on the doctrinal left were suddenly, during the life of Saint John Paul II, put into the interesting role of defending their institutions from the work of a pope who, well, was convinced that it was time for "reform."

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