From time to time I like to do a "taxonomy." I guess there's a little streak of Aristotle or Darwin in me. Recently I was having a discussion with someone about liberal-conservative disputes within the Church, and it made me think of how much differently we would think of those terms if only we made the proper distinctions.
Mythologically, 'liberal' and 'conservative' are descriptors of two sides of a spectrum of thinking, applicable analogically to various spheres of human life where disagreement is common: politics, economics, psychology, and of course, religion. Without making value judgements, generally speaking the 'liberal' side of any subject is associated with prioritizing autonomy (of a person or a thing) over and against authority, novelty over and against tradition, and the individual/part over and against the community/whole.
Sometimes this dynamic takes unsuspected shapes. For example, the Republican Party is characteristically politically conservative (valuing traditional and visible authorities in common life, emphasizing the integrity of local communities), yet economically liberal; moreover, they tend to appropriate 'liberal' language when defending states' rights against the federal government. Economically, the Republican platform emphasizes the autonomy of markets and businesses from foreign influences of authority; hence why republicans can (and do) spend a good deal of their time harping on the 'oppressive authority' of 'big government'.
The difficulty is that, although these words are in fact descriptors of certain patterns of thought of religious people, they describe nothing religious. By the very fact that the word "conservative" involves an attitude toward human authorities, human history, and human communities, it definitively does not transcend any of these things. It is something of an insult to call John Paul II or Benedict XVI "conservative," and leave it at that. Sometimes the worst people in the Church are conservatives.
I am going to suggest that the terms 'liberal' and 'conservative' be taken off of the mythological spectrum. Starting from spectrum-models is bad for ecclesiology (although we do talk about other Christians sharing theological community in matters of degrees, but this has a very specific function).
Instead, let us consider Catholic 'conservatives' and what makes them such. On the surface, we might say that one thing they have in common are the preferences mentioned above--authority, tradition, and community. But consider that two such 'conservatives' might hold those preferences for very different reasons. Thus I distinguish already between two fundamentally different conservatives: a cultural/notional conservative, and a religious/assenting conservative.
Disclaimer: I am writing here about Catholics that are particularly self-aware of their worldviews and who are likely to engage in disputes. I am not writing about Catholics who are unreflectively Catholic and for whom controversial Catholics issues are not frequently in the forefront of their consciousness. More on that later.
A cultural/notional conservative (heretofore CNC), has a faith which is coincidental with his or her pre-existing dispositions. That disposition may or may not have a religious character. For such a conservative it may be more relevant that the Church's priesthood is male or that it teaches against homosexual acts, than that the Church is the Body of Christ or that Mary intercedes for us before her Son. I was told of one super-orthodox Catholic seminarian who left the seminary AND the faith in order to become an orthodox Jew. The key feature of this kind of conservativism is that the Catholic's assent to the Magisterium is conditional, not absolute; he/she has a pre-existing opinion or philosophy which precedes, and sometimes overrides his/her faith commitment (e.g., patriotism, traditionalism, fundamentalism, sexism, free-market capitalism, etc.). In this respect, a CNC is different from the liberal only superficially--he/she merely believes different things than does the liberal, but not in a different way.
The religious/assenting conservative (RAC), I would argue, is another animal entirely. (Quick disclaimer: again, 'sometimes the worst people in the Church are conservatives', and this brand of conservativism is no exception). Simply, an RAC gives assent, on principle, to everything they understand to be the teaching of the Church. This is the sort of person for whom, in a dispute, an argument from authority works. On at least a superficial level, "because the Church says so" is a meaningul, belief-forming clause. The RAC places the Catechism, conciliar doctrine, encyclicals, and teachings from the Curia--and sometimes much more--in an epistemological category distinct from and priviledged over other sources for their beliefs. These things hold an epistemological priority, if not an overt theological one, over even personal readings of the Bible, which does not 'live' outside of the Catholic Church.
It would be a mistake to envision for oneself a stereotypical RAC; though perhaps a statistical minority within the whole span of Catholics, RACs come from an unlimited set of motivations and histories, and take as many diverse forms in their religious approach, emphases, spiritualities, and even theological opinions. But the key difference between an RAC and everyone else--unreflective Catholic, CNC or liberal--is that the RAC consciously and willfully believes Catholic doctrine and follows Catholic discipline out of a foundational and firm trust of the hierarchical Church--a veritable hyperdulia.
More later, maybe (that's a promise I often break).