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Priest believes people are healthier if they express and embody more than one ideology

Addressing polarities in families, churches, communities, schools, cultures, the nation and even within individuals, author and lecturer Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI, unraveled myths about conservatives and liberals. 

He believes people are more than their ideology if they are healthy:  “We need both polarities living in tension in us to be healthy,” said the president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Tex. 

Ron Rolheiser

Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI, unravels myths.

Along with the human tendency to classify is an innate tension in churches, communities—even in Jesus—between conservative and liberal values, he said, in the “Catholicism for a New Millennium” series at Gonzaga University.

“There are and always have been polarizations.  Sometimes they are less, but today we are highly polarized,” Father Ron said, noting that when polarizations were less intense from 1962 to 1965, Vatican II was possible.

He is concerned about divisions behind the red- and blue-states map after the 2004 presidential election and about current controversies over abortion, gay marriage, stem-cell research and confirmation of judges.

In the church, an ecclesiastical apartheid divides liberals and conservatives.  We are nice to each other on the surface, but avoid each other.”

Despite that, Father Ron considers polarization between liberal and conservative principles a necessary, life-giving part of life.

“We are born with both temperaments,” he said.  “If God designs us that way, there must be a purpose.

“Many people have friends on both sides of the ideological fault line.  Some want everything to stay the same. Some think everything should change.

Both temperaments are gifts of God,” he affirmed, “part of every person, family, church, community and country. Without a liberal component, life petrifies.  Without a conservative component, relationships dissipate.  The conservative temperament pulls people together, makes rules and sets boundaries.”

Father Ron said Peter, as the first pope, had to be conservative, drawing boundaries and setting rules.  The Apostle Paul ministered on the edges, on ships, “working with weird people.”

“Sometimes we are conservative or liberal by principle, but liberal or conservative by practice, such as someone in a conservative job volunteering with the poor.

“I’m in a mission congregation that is liberal by principle, living at the edges and trying to make new life, stretching Catholic principles,” he said.  “So I am liberal in my job, but hold some conservative ideas, too.”

Father Ron finds tension in ecclesiology, theology and Jesus’ life.  For him, a difficult passage is the one about Jesus walking on the border of Samaria and meeting a Phoenician woman, who is walking on the edge of her country, ethnicity, gender and religion, seeking a miracle. 

“Although  not a Jew, she addressed him by his Jewish identity: ‘Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me.  Heal my daughter.’   He gave a conservative reply, saying it was not fair ‘to take the bread of the Hebrew children and give it to the dogs.’  So she addressed him by his universal identity, saying ‘Adonai, even the dogs eat crumbs that fall from children’s tables.’”

Father Ron likened that to a leader of Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) who had  just led 20 people through nine months of preparation for baptism.  A woman comes and asks, “Are you an RCIA leader?” and says, “I’d like to be baptized.”

“Others took the full program.  It’s not fair for her to jump in at the last moment.  However, if she asks, ‘Are you a Christian who believes in the universal God, and in grace and salvation through Jesus,’ it’s clear she is ready to be baptized.”

Father Ron said Jesus has two identities and loyalties—as Hebrew God and universal God.

“Being a universal Christian is a powerful identity we can’t blow off any more than I could blow off my identity as an ordained Catholic priest in the Missionary Oblate order, loyal to canon law under Pope Benedict XVI.

“Someone may be a Presbyterian or Episcopalian, but also is a human being, a universal instrument of God.   No one can blow off that identity,” he said.

“Part of each of us needs to be part fiercely liberal and part fiercely conservative,” he said.

“On abortion, the right understands that the unborn child is a human life.  The left says a woman’s right to choose is the only issue.  Both are important issues,” Father Ron said

In Canada, we just had a fierce debate about gay marriage.  The right and the left knocked each other out.  The right defended the constitution, and the left emphasized freedom of religion.”

Teaching in a graduate theological school, he considers theology a liberal enterprise and catechesis a conservative enterprise.

“The purpose of theology is to stretch our minds to ask questions, so we mature in faith.  There are no irreverent questions.  Catechism nurtures neophytes into faith, teaching rules, dogma and doctrine,” he said.  “Both are needed in the church.”

While calling Catholics in the audience to be loyal to their church, he asked what that loyalty means about Hindus, Taoists, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews and others, given that “we are brothers and sisters under one God, the God of all who created all. 

“That reality creates an innate tension we must carry,” he said. 

Two years ago, the most popular movies were “The Passion of Christ” and “Fahrenheit 911.”  Catholics produced both films.  Mel Gibson, a right-wing Catholic, produced “The Passion of Christ.” Michael Moore, a secular humanistic Catholic, produced “Fahrenheit 911.”

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Michael and Mel were in the same parish—even in the same person!” Father Ron contemplated.

He then noted some principles to help people develop inclusive ecclesiology and humanity.

 “We need to carry both parts of Christ: the Christ who came to the world and loved it in a way that scandalized the world, and the Christ who stood where the cross was erected—wherever anyone is rejected or excluded for being unborn, old, even a murderer.

“Capital punishment excludes.  Standing at the cross, we must tell the world it is wrong,” he said.

With God as author of all that is, Father Ron advised saying “yes, but” to the world—“yes” for example, to the Olympic Games for the beautiful, disciplined bodies, but “no” to Nike’s labor practices, to steroids and to competition. 

We must see both what’s right and what’s wrong,” he said.

Similarly, no matter how great people think the United States is, he said, they should not be afraid to offer criticism if they love it.  Part of loving and being loyal to family, friends, church and country means to be critical and speak if something is wrong and needs to change, he said.

“That’s how to bring the tension together and carry it,” he said.  “Sensible people feel the tension in the church and society.

“Jesus is right, left and middle, so we do not need to be right, left or middle, but men or women of faith, letting faith lead us to be compassionate,” he said.

He considers ideological liberalism or conservatism “phases we go through to reach our second naiveté, which is past sophistication, polarities or common ground.”

Rather than letting an ideology limit, Father Ron advises letting faith “stretch you further.” 

Ideology is like a disease.  If we think based on group thinking, we inhale ideology like a virus.  We need to ask what is real and what we really believe.

“To be healthy, we need to know there are boundaries to truth.  We need to know dogma and be obedient, because without laws, we have anarchy.  We also need poetry—theology and love—that inflames and inspires our hearts.”

So he calls for “giving up our need to be right,” stopping at the foot of the cross aware “we will transmit the hatred and injustice we don’t transform into love.”


By Mary Stamp, Fig Tree editor - Copyright © November 2005