Posts Tagged ‘Liberal Christianity’

“Liberal Christianity” and the Real Church

Thursday, July 19th, 2012

In my last post, I considered a question of Catholic identity, stemming from a story about the Diocese of Arlington, and their request that all catechists make a profession of faith.

A second item in the press has also raised the question of Catholic identity.  In the New York Times, Ross Douthat, one of the most perceptive observers of modern religious trends, wrote on the question “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?”.   The focus is on the Episcopal Church, but the piece (and his recent book, “Bad Religion”) is also a challenge to us as Catholics to consider the identity of our own Church.

“Liberal Christianity” is a notoriously protean entity, but it can be found in every Christian community, including the Church.  It has variously been known under the term “modernism”, or “revisionism”.  It is often conflated with political liberalism, but the two are not always or necessarily connected or identical.  Theological liberalism’s characteristics include:

  • A rejection of Church teaching authority either in whole or in part;  this is frequently seen  in assertions or implications that there are other sources of authority that are entitled to equal or greater weight than the Magisterium on matters of faith and morals (e.g.,  the writings of academic theologians, the alleged consensus of the people, the beliefs of other religions, etc.);
  • Promoting the idea that Revelation is subject to continual revision based on the purported lessons of modern science or philosophy; we see this most often in calls for the Church to “update outmoded teachings” or to “get with the times”;
  • A dislike or open disregard for certain aspects of Church law, particularly those that require doctrinal fidelity for individuals or institutions (e.g., Pope John Paul’s decree Ex Corde Ecclesiae on the fidelity of theologians and universities) or the liturgical rubrics;
  • Proposing the revision of moral doctrine based on the common behavior of people (i.e., their sins), the results of opinion polls, or developments in contemporary philosophy or psychology;  this is particularly focused on sexual matters (e.g., contraception or homosexual acts), and is very popular in Catholic academia (as was seen in the recent  Notification by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that a book by a prominent theologian was incompatible with the teaching of the Church);
  • Negative attitudes towards traditional devotions and liturgy; this can be seen in some of the opposition to the new translation of the Ordinary Form of the Mass, and in the contempt and hostility of some towards the Extraordinary Form;
  • A distorted notion of the absolute autonomy of individual conscience, without recognizing that conscience must always be formed by the teachings of the Church and subject to the commands of God;
  • A sense of the post-Conciliar Church characterized by what Pope Benedict has called “a hermeneutic of rupture” from tradition; we all know this as the amorphous “Spirit of Vatican II”, which has led to all sorts of innovations and abuses that have no basis in the actual teachings of the Council or the traditional teachings or practices of the Church.
  • Those of us raised in the 1960′s and 1970′s are very familiar with this brand of “liberal Catholicism”.  We have all been immersed in it, and have seen its failure, which led Cardinal George to call it “an exhausted project… [that] no longer gives life”.  There are many, many flaws in liberal Christianity, and Cardinal George does an excellent job of dissecting the corpse.

    Douthat’s piece in the Times focuses our attention particularly on the failure of liberal Christianity — and liberal Catholicism in particular — to properly understand the nature and purpose of the Church.  In that view, the Church is merely another sociological phenomenon, no different from any other worldly entity, the purpose of which is limited to worldly matters — to empower people (women, minorities, etc.), redress historical grievances, effect political change, and so on.

    This fails to understand the nature of the Church.  She is the Body of Christ, His Bride, and is, in a deep existential sense, inseparable from Him.  Although made up of flawed and imperfect humans, we can never speak of the Church without speaking of Christ Himself. She is human, indeed, but She is also divine.  As both a human and divine entity, the Church respects both the human and divine aspects of every person.

    So, the purpose of the Church is also not limited to human affairs.  Her ultimate purpose is to bring people into a loving relationship with Jesus Christ — an encounter with a real person — so that people can come to know the Father through the Spirit, and thus attain eternal life.   While the  earthly activities of the Church are valuable and must be pursued out of obedience to the will of God, they all take a distant second place to that fundamental task of bringing people to God.

    Liberal Christianity doesn’t think of the Church that way, and never speaks of Her that way. That is why, as Cardinal George pointed out, it “no longer gives life”.  Indeed, that is why liberal Christianity is diminishing in numbers and influence, because their interests (politics, sexual innovation, environmentalism, etc.) do not appeal to the basic desire of people to know and love God.  As evidenced by its obsession with separating sexuality from fertility, liberal Christianity is sterile, and we all know where sterility leads.

    The real Church, which passionately loves Her devoted Bridegroom, longs to bring everyone to know Him as well.  She is focused on the final goal — life forever in the eternal exchange of love that is God’s own life.

    Our real Church is rich and fecund, and will always bear fruit.