Liberal Church? Conservative Church? Why Catholicism is Not a ‘Denomination,’ and What That Means

Since the time of the Second Vatican Council, an almost obsessive focus on the Catholic Church as institution has preoccupied many Catholics in North America and western Europe. That obsession with the institutional dimension of the Church helps to explain why so much of the contemporary Catholic debate is framed in terms borrowed from politics: as a debate between “liberals” and “conservatives.” Shortly after the council, virtually everything in Catholicism began to be described this way. There were liberal and conservative bishops, priests, nuns, parishes, religious orders, seminaries, theologians, newspapers, magazines, and organizations. There were liberal and conservative positions on every question imaginable, from the structure of worship to the fine points of doctrine and morality.

To be sure, there was something to all this. Some Catholics eagerly welcomed the revision of the Church’s worship; others were offended, appalled, or heart-stricken by “the changes.” Some Catholics were entirely comfortable in the dialogue with modern culture; others thought that opening the Church’s windows to the modern world was a grave mistake; still others welcomed the new conversation but thought the Church should challenge the modern world to open its windows, too. The liberal/conservative grid was moderately useful for sorting out some of the players and a few of the issues during and immediately after Vatican II.

But the use of the liberal/conservative filter as a one-size-fits-all template for thinking about an ancient, complex religious institution was, in the final analysis, implausible and distorting. An example from another world religion illustrates why. No one ever asks whether the Dalai Lama is a liberal or conservative Buddhist. Why? Because we instinctively understand that these are the wrong categories through which to grasp the nature and purpose of a venerable, subtle, and richly textured religious tradition. Shouldn’t the same self-discipline be applied to thinking about the Catholic Church?

In the United States, the liberal/conservative filter has also reinforced the temptation to think of Catholicism as one among many “denominations?’ American religion, it is often said, is preeminently denominational religion. What much of American Christianity means by “denomination?’ though, is not what Catholicism means by “Church.”

There is little that is given or secure in a denomination; the denomination is constantly being remade by its members. Christianity as denomination has no distinctive, fixed form given to it by Christ; it adapts its form, its institutional structures, to the patterns of the age. (To take a current example, if the basic institutional form of the wider society is the bureaucracy, the Church becomes identified with its bureaucracy.) In much of American denominational Christianity today, institutional process is more important than binding doctrinal reference points; anything can change. The denominational community’s boundaries are ill-defined, even porous, because being non-judgmental is essential to group maintenance. Religious leadership is equated with bureaucratic managership; bishops and other formally constituted religious leaders are discussion moderators, whose job is to keep all opinions in play, rather than authoritative teachers.

A denomination is something we help create by joining it; according to Vatican II, however, the Church is a divinely instituted community into which we are incorporated by the sacraments of initiation (baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist). Denominations have members like voluntary associations or clubs; the Church has members as a human body has arms and legs, fingers and toes. A denomination has moving boundaries, doctrinally and morally; the Church, according to Vatican II, is nourished by creeds and moral convictions that clearly establish its boundaries. The structures of a denomination are something we can alter at will; the Church, according to Vatican II, has a form, or structure, given to it by Christ. Catholicism has bishops and a ministerial priesthood, and Peter’s successor, the bishop of Rome, presides over the whole Church in charity, not because Catholics today think these are good ways to do things but because Christ wills these for His Church.

None of this distinctively Catholic way of thinking about the Church makes much sense if parsed in liberal/conservative terms. Better categories, rooted in a richer concept of the Church than the Church as institution, have to be found.

The Church as a ‘Communion’

What do we mean by “Church”? The bishops of Vatican II, having searched extensively through the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, proposed a host of biblical metaphors to describe the essence of the Church and its mission. The council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church describes the Church of Christ in these agrarian images: “This Church is…a sheepfold, the sole and necessary gateway to which is Christ (cf. John 10:1-10). It is also the flock, of which God foretold that he himself would be the shepherd (cf. Isaiah 40:11; Ezekiel 34:11ff.), and whose sheep, although watched over by human shepherds, are nevertheless at all times led and brought to pasture by Christ himself, the Good Shepherd and prince of shepherds (cf. John 10:11; 1 Peter 5:4), who gave his life for his sheep (cf. John 10:11-15).”

The Second Vatican Council also cited biblical images drawn from architecture to describe the Church. Thus the Church is the “building of God” (1 Corinthians 3:9) whose cornerstone is Christ (Matthew 21:42). Built by the apostles on the one “foundation,” which is Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:11), the Church is the “household of God in the Spirit (cf. Ephesians 2:19-22), the dwelling place of God among men (Revelation 21:3), and, especially, the holy temple…. As living stones, we here on earth are built into it (cf. 1 Peter 2:5).” The Church is also proposed as the “holy city,” and the holy city is variously described as “the Jerusalem which is above” (Galatians 4:26) and the “spotless spouse of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:7), whom Christ “loved and for whom he delivered himself that he might sanctify her” (Ephesians 5:25-26).

The council adopted this rich biblical imagery in an effort to get Catholics to think of themselves in something more than institutional terms. The biblical pyrotechnics in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church are meant to help us imagine the Church and all its functions including its necessary institutional functions — as a dynamic evangelical movement in history. That is what the Church is for, Pope John Paul II has insisted. The Church does not exist for her own sake. The Church exists to tell the world that “in the fullness of time, [God] sent his Son, born of a woman, for the salvation of the world.” That means that “the history of salvation has entered the history of the world,” and time has been incorporated into eternity. The story of salvation — the story of the Church, and the story of Israel that made the Church’s story possible — is the world’s story, rightly understood.

The primary mission of the Church is most certainly not institutional maintenance. The first mission of the Church is to tell the world the truth about itself, by means of what the pope calls a “dialogue of salvation.” The Church exists to propose to the world: “You are far, far greater than you imagine.”’

If that is what the Church is for, that should tell us something about what the Church is. Because the Church, as Vatican II puts it, is “the kingdom of God now present in mystery,” the Church cannot think of itself as one religious organization in a supermarket of religious options. The Church, writes John Paul II, has a “unique importance for the human family.” for the Church is where the human family learns the truth about its origins, dignity, and destiny.

The Church is also where we experience a foretaste of that destiny, which is eternal life within the light and love of the Holy Trinity. That is why the council, the pope, and prominent Catholic theologians all suggest that the Church is best described as a communion — a communion of believers with the living God, with one another, and with the saints who have gone before us. Because the Church has a certain structure, the Church does certain things. So we can speak of the Church as institution, herald, servant, and so forth. At the bottom of the bottom line, however, the Church is a communion. Those who participate in that communion — husbands and wives, parents and children, friends and colleagues, employers and employees — have a relationship to one another in that communion that is like none other in their lives. In all those other relationships, we are “part” of one another in different ways. Those in the communion of the Church are “part” of one another as parts of the body of Christ.

The communion that is the Church extends over time and beyond time. In the Catholic view of things, the reality of the Church embraces far more than those we see around us in the world. It also, as John Paul puts it, “embraces those who now see God as he is, and those who have died and are being purified.” Put yet another way, the distinctive quality of the communion of the Church is that it is a “communion of saints”: those who are already saints (that is, those who “see God as he is”) and those who must become saints in order to fulfill their Christian and human destiny (that is, all the rest of us).

To think of the Church as a communion of saints means that we have to think differently about the meaning of vocation.

Called and Sent

Ask most Catholics what a vocation is and they’re likely to respond, “Becoming a priest?’ or “Becoming a nun.” Those are surely vocations within the communion of the Church. Still, limiting the notion of vocation to those who are religious professionals is a mistake, according to the Second Vatican Council and Pope John Paul II.

If the Church is the continuation in time of Christ’s mission and the mission of the Holy Spirit, then the Church’s first task is evangelization — the sharing of the good news that God loves the world, gave His Son for the salvation of the world, and invites all humankind to a life of eternal happiness. That astonishingly good news demands to be shared. The Church, by its very nature, is missionary, and every baptized Christian has a responsibility — a vocation to be an evangelist. The council described this by saying that all the baptized share in Christ’s vocation as prophet: Every Christian shares in the prophetic mission of Christ by speaking the truth, by proposing to the world the truth about its story.

The Church’s evangelization must be nurtured in prayer, especially community prayer. There is an intimate link between the Christian vocation to evangelize and the Christian vocation to worship. In worshiping the Father, through the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit, the Church deepens its understanding of the truth about itself and is equipped for its mission in the world. All the baptized, according to Vatican II, share in Christ’s vocation as priest: Every Christian shares in the priestly mission to worship in truth, to give the Father what is His due, and to receive in return the gift of holy communion, in and with God’s Son.

The Church’s evangelization must be lived in service. Sometimes the gospel message is best conveyed by deeds rather than by words. It is one thing, and an important thing, to preach that God loves the world and calls us to communion with Him. That message is sometimes most effectively communicated by action, by lives of service poured out for others in imitation of Christ and in obedience to Christ. All the baptized share in Christ’s vocation as king: Every Christian is called to a royal life, which is essentially a life of service and self-giving.

To be baptized, the Church teaches, is to be “baptized into Christ,” to “put on Christ.” That means that every Christian has a baptismal vocation to holiness. Sanctity, in Catholicism, is not just for the sanctuary. Sanctity is for everyone, for we must all become saints (whether or not we are publicly recognized as such after our deaths) in order to enjoy eternal life with God. Each of us, Catholicism teaches, has a vocation, a unique way in which we are to grow into holiness. Our vocation is the way in which we each live our distinctive Christian witness, and thus are fitted to become the kind of people who can live with God forever.

Formed in the Image of Mary

Another primary and common characteristic of all those who are embraced by the communion of the Church is that they are all disciples. In the Catholic view of things, that means that everyone in the Church is formed in the image of a woman: Mary, mother of Jesus, the first of disciples and thus the “Mother of the Church.”

Every year the pope meets with the senior members of the Roman curia, the Church’s central bureaucracy, for an exchange of Christmas greetings. It’s a formal occasion, rather far removed from the typical office Christmas party. Popes traditionally use the opportunity to review the year just past and suggest directions for the year ahead. On December 22, 1987, Pope John Paul II made this the occasion to drop something of a theological bombshell.

For some years, Catholic theologians had speculated about different “profiles,” or “images,” of the Church, drawn from prominent New Testament personalities. The missionary Church, the Church of proclamation, is formed in the image of the apostle Paul, the great preacher to the Gentiles. The Church of contemplation is formed in the image of the apostle John, who rested his head on Christ’s breast at the Last Supper. The Church of office and jurisdiction is formed in the image of Peter, the apostle to whom Christ gave the keys to the kingdom of heaven. All of these images are in play in the Church all the time. Yet, in a Church accustomed for centuries to thinking of itself primarily in institutional terms, the Church formed in the image of Peter’s authority and office has long seemed to take priority over all the rest.

Not so, suggested John Paul II, to what we can only assume were some rather startled senior churchmen. Mary was the first disciple, because Mary’s “yes” to the angel’s message had made possible the incarnation of the Son of God. The Church is the extension of Christ and His mission in history; in the image made famous by Pope Pius XII, the Church is the “mystical body of Christ.” Mary’s assumption into heaven was a preview of what awaits all those whom Christ will save. For all these reasons, John Paul proposed, Mary provides a defining profile of what the Church is, of how the men and women of the Church should live, and of what the eternal destiny of disciples will be.

This understanding of Mary and the Church challenges the institutional way in which many churchmen (and many Catholic laity) are used to thinking about themselves and their community. The “Marian profile,” John Paul said, is even “more…fundamental” in Catholicism than the “Petrine profile.” Though the two cannot be divided, the “Marian Church,” the Church formed in the image of a woman and her discipleship, precedes, makes possible, and indeed makes sense of the “Petrine Church,” the Church of office and authority formed in the image of Peter. That Petrine Church, the pope continued, has no other purpose “except to form the Church in line with the ideal of sanctity already programmed and prefigured in Mary.” John Paul argued that these two profiles were complementary, not in tension. He also insisted that the “Marian profile is…preeminent” and carried within it a richer meaning for every Christian’s vocation.

It was a striking message: Discipleship comes before authority in the Church because authority is to serve sanctity. In a Church of disciples, formed in the image of Mary, the first disciple, what is fundamental is the universal call to holiness. Everything else in the Church — including the work of those with authority in the Church — exists to foster the disciples’ answer to that call.

This is not a liberal view of the Church and its mission. This is not a conservative view of the Catholic reality. This is a vision far beyond those categories.

Archeology Teaches a Lesson

The Marian Church is the fundamental reality of the Church as a communion of disciples. Still, the Office of Peter is a crucial part of the Catholic Church. Getting at the core of its meaning requires analytic tools other than the usual political categories. The liberal/conservative debate about the papacy in recent decades has not shed very much light on the evangelical essence of Peter’s mission, which continues in the popes. Perhaps archeology helps.

Deep beneath St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican are the scavi, a series of archeological digs begun by Pope Pius XII during the Second World War in an attempt to find the tomb of the prince of the apostles, which ancient tradition had associated with that site. Archaeological digs don’t yield irrefutable answers, like algebraic equations. Still, the best scholarly opinion is that we can say with a reasonable degree of certainty that the apostle’s tomb has been found, almost directly under Bernini’s bronze baldachino, whose wreathed columns frame the papal high altar beneath the great dome emblazoned with Christ’s words: “Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam et tibi dabo claves regni caelorum” (You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church and I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven [Matthew 16:18-19]).

In the course of their explorations under St. Peter’s, archeologists found an enormous cemetery, a Christian necropolis dating back to the decades immediately following the life of Christ – the decades of the first evangelization of the Mediterranean would and its imperial capital, Rome. Pious Christians who died quietly at home, as well as those who died horrible death by torture during Roman persecutions, wanted to be buried near Peter. And so a small city of the dead arose on the Vatican hill, a half-hour’s walk from the Coliseum and the Roman Forum.

To get to the scavi you pass through St. Peter’s Square with its distinctive obelisk, a granite monolith brought to Rome in A.D. 37 by the mad emperor Caligula. His nephew, Nero, made the obelisk one of the centerpiece of his circus. It was improbable that Peter was martyred in the circus, and it could well be that the last thing he saw on this earth was that obelisk.

In the scavi, the tourist or pilgrim is about as close as it’s possible to get to the apostolic origins of the Church. That experience poses the question of Peter, and his meaning for us, in a very sharp way.

The great challenge to christian faith is the incarnation of the Son of God and his death for us upon the cross: “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles,” as St. Paul put it (I Corinthians 1:23). As if to compound the challenge, Christ left the continuation of his ministry and mission in the hands of weak, mortal human beings; he made the weakest, most impetuous of the bunch the first among them (Matthew 16:18-19); and then he told Peter that the essence of his leadership was the service of his brethren, which would, in due course, cost him his life (Luke 22:32; John 21:18-19).

The scavi make us confront, face-to-face, this bold claim: that at a certain time and place, a real human being named Simon, son of a man named John, a fisherman form Capernaum in Galilee, became a person friend of Jesus of Nazareth. In that friendship, Simon encountered the son of God and was transformed – not into a superhero but into Peter, an apostle, a man equipped by the Holy spirit for a mission of witness “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 13:47). To go through the scavi is to be confronted with the unavoidable and almost shocking particularity of the Catholic faith: these were real people. They made read decisions. They had real fears, real passions, real loves, and real enemies.

The Church is not founded on a pious myth. The Church is build on the foundation of the apostles: the first witnesses to the resurrection and the first to tell the world the good news of God’s decisive, redemptive intervention in human history.

Simon, the fisherman form Galilee, whose life and death can be touched down in the scavi, was a weak man; like every other Christian, Peter, who bore the office of the keys, was a man reborn and remade by the power of the Holy Spirit; His was not a transformation into worldly glory. The risen Christ had warned him, “When you are old, you will stretch out your hands and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go” (John 21:18). That journey led to his own cross and, in the world’s terms, to the burial ground that visitors now know as the scavi. By emptying himself of himself, by making himself the instrument of the Holy Spirit, Peter became “the rock.” For 2,000 years, the gates of hell have not prevailed against the Church he was to lead. It really is an extraordinary proposal. Down in the scavi, one confronts the undeniable reality of the Church. That demands a decision.

Liberating Doctrine

The Office of Peter is primarily an evangelical office; the pope is a pastor and evangelist first and an ecclesiastical executive later. Part of the function of the papacy as an evangelical office is to safeguard the integrity of the Church’s doctrine. This is often thought of as a disciplinary role, the pope cuffing wayward theologians and ordering them into line. If we think of the Church as a communion of disciples, however, it is easier to understand as paradox what at first glance seems to be contradiction. Doctrine, those defined truths that mark the boundaries of Catholicism, is in fact liberating.

Doctrine can seem changeless and dull, an inhibition to creativity. To think of doctrine in these terms, though, is to miss the relationship between tradition and innovation, the static and the dynamic, in the life of the Church. What can seem static in Christian doctrine in fact reflects the Church’s internal dynamism and creates the impetus for the unfolding of new elements in Christian life. What can seem dead tradition is in fact the engine of development and innovation.

Take three examples. The first is Scripture. The canon of Scripture is fixed; there will be no books added to the Old or New Testament. The fact that the Church does not add new books to the canon of Scripture does not make Scripture a dead letter, though. The canon ensures that what is truly the Word of God can be received freshly and in its integrity by every generation of believers, inviting them to a deeper faith through the mediation of the Bible.

Then there is the Church’s sacramental system. The sacraments — baptism and the Eucharist, for example — are not simply traditional rituals, performed because previous generations did so before us. The sacraments enable each new generation of Christians to experience the great mysteries of faith — the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ — anew. Every day, the sacraments remind every generation of Christians that just on the far side of the ordinary — water, salt, and oil; bread and wine; marital love and fidelity — lies the extraordinary reality of a God who so loved the world He created that He entered that world, in His Son, to redirect the world’s history back toward its true destiny, eternal life within the light and love of the Trinity.

Finally, there is the matter of authority. The Church’s structures of pastoral authority are not intended to impede human creativity. Authority in the Church exists to ensure that Christians do not settle for mediocrity. Authority in the Church is meant to help all Catholics hold themselves accountable to the one supreme “rule of faith,” the living Christ. This, for example, is the great service that pastoral authority does for theology: It keeps theology from getting too pleased with its own cleverness and calls it to a love of truth.

One of the great tasks of the Church in the 21st century will be to retrieve and renew the concept of tradition. In the distinctively Catholic understanding of the term, “tradition” (which from its Latin root, traditio, means “handing on”) begins inside the very life of God the Holy Trinity. That handing on — that radical giving that mysteriously enhances both giver and receiver — took flesh in the life of Christ and continues in the Church through the gift of the Holy Spirit. A venerable formula distinguishes between tradition, the living faith of the dead, and traditionalism, the dead faith of the living. Pope John Paul II’s teaching on the Marian Church of disciples that makes possible (and makes sense of) the Petrine Church of jurisdiction and office is a good example of tradition’s capacity to inspire innovative thinking. The great Marian doctrines set boundaries for Catholic faith. In doing so, they compel fresh thought and new insight into the riches of the Church’s heritage and the mysteries of God’s action in the world.

Doctrine is not excess baggage weighing Catholics down on the journey of faith. Doctrine is the vehicle that enables the journey to take place.


  • George Weigel

    George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the author, most recently, of The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform (Basic Books, 2019).

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