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Why we need to stop talking about priests and nuns (and other religious leaders) this way

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Traditional or progressive, conservative or liberal are terms not only misused but even misunderstood.

Isn’t it time to stop labeling religious communities with alien terms?

I always wonder what commentators mean when they say a religious community is traditional or progressive, conservative or liberal. Why do we bring these foreign terms into religious life and the Church?

There obviously are different types of religious communities.

A contemplative community is different from an active one; a preaching community is different from one dedicated to serving the poor; a community might follow an Ignatian or Franciscan spirituality; it might be charismatic or do the liturgy in Latin; it might do mental prayer together in adoration or leave it for each to do on his own; and many other divisions that distinguish the hundreds of religious communities around the globe.

But none of these things make them “traditional” or “progressive,” “conservative” or “liberal.”

Many still use these four foreign terms to the detriment of understanding religious life.

The CNS style guide – the standard for religious reporting – has very strong words regarding “conservative” and “liberal.” It states the same for both: “This term is often used to signal contempt for sincerely held religious convictions.” It follows this up with a rule on usage: “In general, do not apply it to an individual or group except in quoted matter or when someone uses it as a self-description.”

I think we can apply this to same rules to progressive and traditional as they are often the more contemporary versions of those terms.

Nonetheless, it’s worth examining further why these two binaries are inappropriate to describe religious.

Progressive vs. Traditional

Progressive can mean one of several things. Merriam-Webster gives several definitions, of which two might be relevant.

First, “Of, relating to, or characterized by progress; making use of or interested in new ideas, findings, or opportunities.” If we are looking at new findings and ideas, there are several communities that have developed new structures for religious or consecrated life in the Church or new apostolates: Opus Dei and the Sisters of Life, for example. However, whenever I’ve seen the term “progressive” used regarding religious life, this isn’t what they mean.

The second possible definition is “Of or relating to political Progressives.” But religious are supposed to be arm’s length from politics. A religious community by nature shouldn’t be politically aligned beyond giving general principles for political choices.

Traditional means related to tradition. As Merriam-Webster puts it: “Of or relating to tradition; consisting of or derived from tradition a traditional celebration; […] following or conforming to tradition.”

If this means something like following all Scripture and Tradition, obviously every community should be Traditional. Even beyond that, every community follows the tradition of religious life.

It might also refer to some specific tradition(s) of the Church but then every community is traditional in a different way. A monastic community follows the great tradition of St. Benedict; all the varied Franciscans follow the tradition of St. Francis; and a charismatic community can base itself on traditions of the early Church.

Each new community reveals something new about the Church and her wonders. However, often this is 90 percent tradition and 10 percent innovation. The innovation being either in how traditions are put together or in some new aspect added to existing tradition. Unless you go back to St. Anthony of Egypt (first desert father), no religious community is something completely new.

Conservative vs. Liberal

Liberal and conservative are often political terms like progressive, but they also both have meanings that should apply to all religious.

Merriam-Webster’s first definition of liberal is something every religious community should have a bit to do with: “Of, relating to, or based on the liberal arts.” Both the medieval and modern liberal arts are things that should pervade religious formation.

In the medieval liberal arts we have grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Grammar helps speak or write properly. Logic helps understand the faith. And rhetoric helps share the faith. Religious are called to do all three.

The modern liberal arts are less clearly defined but include university classes of more general knowledge and general intellectual skills such as languages, literature, history, and philosophy. Although some religious would emphasize these studies more – such as those that preach or teach, and any religious studying for the priesthood – it would be proper to almost every form of religious life to have a bit of these.

The second definition also seems to apply to all religious: “Marked by generosity, openhanded; given or provided in a generous and openhanded way.” The very act of becoming a religious is a sign of generosity, but even more so, every community should be generous in how they treat others.

On the other hand, every community should be conservative if we take it to mean preserving or conserving existing institutions or norms. Every religious community and every member should be for conserving the Church and her moral and spiritual doctrine.

In the end, progressive, traditional, conservative, and liberal don’t properly describing Catholic religious. If you look at most communities, they are both progressive and not progressive, traditional and not traditional, liberal and not liberal, and conservative and not conservative. It all depends on what you mean by those terms. So let’s stop using these terms to describe and divide us.

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