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:
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.