I was asked recently, "In matters of Church, are you liberal or conservative?"
Since I did not know how my inquirer defined those terms, I chose not to choose. (A good apologist knows that the one who defines the terms wins the argument.) I replied, "I'm orthodox."
My dictionary defines conservative as "traditional in style or manner, avoiding novelty." Liberal is defined as "favorable to progress or reform."
With those definitions in mind I asked myself, "In matters of Church, which are you --liberal or conservative?"
As I read the New Testament I am struck by the simplicity of Jesus' teaching, by his emphasis on God's mercy, by his gathering of disciples who were neither philosophers from Greece nor lawyers from Rome but fishermen from Galilee and a headstrong Pharisee from Tarsus.
He forgave sinners, reprimanded the self-righteous, and warned his followers not to seek positions of rank or titles of honor but to be servants meek and humble of heart.
Jesus was stern: "You know how the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall no be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave" (Matthew 20:26-27).
Things changed over the centuries since Jesus taught and the Gospels were written. In the earliest days one was evangelized, baptized, and then catechized. Celibacy was not required of a bishop; forgiveness of sin did not require confession to a priest; liturgy was in the vernacular; bishops were chosen by the people not the pope.
Something changed when the Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, offered Church leaders money, houses, and titles, and built basilicas for Christian worship.
Something changed when more and more authority was acquired by the bishop of Rome and the successor of Peter became "the Supreme Pontiff," when bishops became princes and were called "Your Grace," when the priesthood became a career.
Something changed when the Vatican insisted on uniformity at the expense of diversity and unity, when the term "Church" became synonymous with the hierarchy, when the people became "the simple faithful."
Changes in the Church are inevitable, indeed required, if she is to be faithful to her mission in a changing world. But along with the necessary changes came novelties in liturgy (priests turned their backs on the people and spoke in a foreign language), in law (a metropolitan bishop is obliged to request the pallium from the Roman Pontiff, cf. Canon #437), and in papal power (choosing who can be ordained a bishop, or insisting that a non-infallible teaching is definitive and may no longer be discussed).
It seems to me then that a conservative is one who shies away from novelties and cherishes foundational beliefs and practices. A liberal is one who promotes progress, changes and reform.
A conservative Catholic would be one who wants to see his Church drop hierarchical titles such as "Your Eminence," celebrate Mass in the old style (i.e., in the vernacular with the people gathered about the table), return selection of the bishop to the local church community, accept married clergy, and reaffirm the Gospel values of poverty and service in the early Church.
A liberal Catholic would be one who wants to maintain clericalism, celebrate Mass in the recent innovative style (i.e., in Latin with the laity separated from the altar), intensify papal centrism, require celibate clergy, and promote titles, vestments, and practices of the Medieval Church.
My analysis transposes the common application of the terms liberal and conservative, so you can see why I am reluctant to choose one as a self-description. I have come to believe that conservatives are really liberals, and liberals are really conservatives. You perhaps do not agree with my assessment, but then he who defines the terms wins the argument.