Opening the Word: Moving beyond labels

Is Catholicism “liberal” or “conservative”? Is it “left-wing” or “right-wing”? Such questions reflect the language and thinking of our age, which is dominated by politics and calculated on a spectrum running from this side of the temporal realm to the other. But Catholicism cannot be adequately placed within such boundaries. 

Today’s Gospel provides evidence for this fact. First, there is the Apostle John, flummoxed by the success of “someone” casting out demons in Jesus’ name while failing to follow the disciples. Notice that John told Jesus that, “we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.” Surely the disciples, having been selected by Jesus and having spent so much time with him, had the right to either accept or reject this unidentified “someone.” Wasn’t it an issue of proper power and legitimate control? And wouldn’t such a concern, today, be “conservative” in nature? But Jesus rejected such a narrow perspective regarding the situation: “Do not prevent him.” Those who perform mighty deeds in Jesus’ name cannot also speak ill of him. Why? Because, in some way, they have an authentic faith in Jesus, even if they do not possess the fullness of faith. 

This might be contrasted, by the way, with the Jewish exorcists described in the Acts of the Apostles, who sought to use the name of Jesus in performing exorcisms, and were rebuffed by the evil spirit: “Jesus I recognize, Paul I know, but who are you?” (Acts 19:13-16). 

The problem with the disciples’ perspective, Adrienne von Speyr observes in her meditations on the Gospel of Mark (Ignatius Press, 2012), is that they “admit of no competition”; they are jealous and probably even embarrassed. They were reacting out of pride. John, von Speyr writes, “loves the Lord, but he has not yet grasped the Lord’s mind deeply enough. Precisely love ought to open itself completely to embrace the beloved’s intentions.” Jesus admonished them to practice authentic liberality (not to be confused with liberalism) in matters of faith and charity. 

Which brings us to Jesus’ exhortation to practice discipline when it comes to avoiding scandal and not leading others into sin. This, on the surface, might appear to be a form of “conservatism,” apparently fixated on the punishment for sins committed. Jesus’ rhetoric is intense: “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. … And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.” It is safe to say Jesus was not encouraging self-mutilation. But he was making a severe demand, an exhortation to fully renounce temptation and sin — especially sin that causes scandal. 

Scandal, the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, “is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil.” Those who give scandal by their words or deeds can destroy spiritual life. “Scandal is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense” (No. 2284). Experiencing physical pain and discomfort for a while here on earth cannot compare with the eternal spiritual torment awaiting those who do not repent of their sins. “There is no compromise,” says von Speyr. “When we stop something we need to stop, we do this in simple obedience to the Lord.” 

Those who truly love Jesus are not jealous or fixated on power. Instead, they focus on dying to sin and living for God — and for others. They are neither liberals nor conservatives, but obedient disciples. 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of