01/20/2015 03:40 pm ET Updated Mar 22, 2015

Beyond the Conservative/Liberal Catholic Divide

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Are you a conservative or liberal Catholic?

It's a question that Catholics have been asked many times -- though usually in not so many words.

Most of the time, the question comes in the form of being asked about particular political issues: What do you think about outlawing abortion? What do you think about welfare? Do you think the Catholic Church should resist the HHS mandate? Do you think Catholic bishops should support President Obama's executive action on immigration?

Through such questions easily identifiable stereotypes emerge and harden: conservative Catholics are more comfortable with Church teaching on sexuality; liberal Catholics are more comfortable with Catholic social teaching.

Sometimes these stereotypes are simply assumed and take on an undeniably negative hue: Catholics are afraid of sex; Catholics are socialists; Catholics are fascists or radicals, Catholics are repressed or licentious -- or licentious because they're repressed.

There are multiple variations that get at this divide and I would venture to say most American Catholics have either been classified by others in this way or have classified themselves somewhere along the conservative/liberal Catholic continuum.

I know I have been classified that way; I know I have often classified myself and others that way.

Until it all stopped working.

When I left the United States for India to do dissertation research on Catholicism rural India, I found -- as do many Catholics who live abroad -- that the conventional American Catholic distinction between conservative and liberal was nonsensical. That is not to say that Indian Catholicism, for example, did not have its own tensions and divisions -- it did and does, but those tensions and divisions do not track very well with "conservative" and "liberal" as understood in American terms and by referencing the idiosyncrasies of the American political scene.

American Catholicism is, quite simply, very American.

And while the American part of global Catholicism might have an out-sized importance in some circles -- especially American ones -- the American experience by no means exhausts the diverse reality of Catholicism as it is lived and practiced throughout the world.

When I returned to the United States after my period of research, I became involved in Catholic higher education for the first time. While I was a cradle Catholic, I went to a public high school and to avowedly secular -- and secularizing -- colleges and universities. I was always much more comfortable seeing Catholicism from the outside than from the inside.

But when I started looking at Catholicism from the inside--and how it was joined to particular academic groups and institutions--it seemed to me that the distinction between conservative and liberal also didn't hold much relevance. As I saw things, Catholic conservatives and liberals often had similar styles, even if they emphasized different kinds of issues.

I have witnessed self-professed liberal Catholics speak about the need for an open church but also steadfastly refuse to include voices that might challenge their own assumptions.

I have witnessed self-professed conservative Catholics, who praise hierarchy and authority in the Church, disobey settled Church teachings and scandalously criticize Church authorities who challenge their understandings about what it means to be Catholic.

To me, all of this always reflected something more than simple "cafeteria Catholicism" in which everyone picks and chooses the most palatable parts of Catholic life.

We're all cafeteria Catholics -- myself included.

Instead, the similarity between conservatives and liberals lies in how both believe that Catholicism means something quite specific and explicit: Catholicism becomes "Catholic" not just by what it includes, but by what or whom it excludes.

Fundamentally, what joins liberals and conservatives together is a shared emphasis upon Truth. And the reason why Catholic conservatives and liberals fight is not only because they have different ideas about what constitutes that Truth, it's also because they often use similar tactics to defend their own conceptions of what Catholicism is and what Catholicism should be.

"Truth Catholic" is the term I use to get beyond the conservative/liberal divide and to emphasize that both these groups share more than they wish to admit.

I often contrast "Truth Catholics" with "Body Catholics." I met a lot of "Body Catholics" in India: middle class merchants who would go on pilgrimage; untouchable healers; elderly who venerate the saints; adolescents who say the rosary; mystics and seers who commune with Mary or see Jesus in the consecrated Eucharistic host; people who go to mass daily, monthly, or just for Christmas and Easter.

In other words, ordinary Catholics who recognize that Catholicism is about bodies: holy bodies of Jesus, Mary and the Saints, and bodies such as ours, joined together in a collective work of sacramental transformation and redemption.

Of course, you don't have to go India to find such people -- Catholics who live out Catholicism in these ways constitute the vast majority, not just in "the exotic East" or in "old-World Europe," but right here in the United States. But, generally speaking, you won't find "Truth Catholics" -- either of the conservative or liberal variety -- acknowledging "Body-Catholic" experiences except through condescending categories like "piety," "folk religion," or "Catholic exoticism."

From a sociological perspective, the real divides in American Catholicism are not between differing political orientations, but between differing class and ethnic backgrounds. But even that insight runs the risk of oversimplifying something that can have quite a range of individual variation.

I grew up in a well-to-do Catholic family that had essentially cut off all connections with its ethnic roots. We were a "Truth-Catholic" family -- after dinner conversations tended to be heavy on big theological questions like papal infallibility or the ontological proof of God's existence. In the end, however, I identify much more as a Body-Catholic -- I'm more comfortable at a charismatic healing service or a benediction than I am at a Catholic academic conference or a Church synod. I'm also less inclined to fret about doctrinal distinctions and more inclined to celebrate the many different ways Catholics live-out their religious commitments.

So, are you a "Truth-Catholic" or a "Body-Catholic?"

I suppose asking that question might not get you very much apart from an initial blank stare or an uncomfortable gesture. But maybe it just might provoke some discussion -- a discussion about the inevitably inadequate and provisional nature of any effort to the complexity of Catholicism as it is lived.