How Liberalism Fails the Church

The cardinal explains

As some of you might know, this event was conceived, in part, because of a fortuitous coming together of two circumstances. The first was my January 17, 1998 homily at a Saturday evening liturgy during a National Center for the Laity meeting in Chicago. I had not prepared a homily, because I understood someone else was to preach and I was only to give a few remarks at the end of Mass. More important, I had been told the day before by the apostolic nuncio that the Holy Father would announce on Sunday that twenty-two bishops, myself included, were to become cardinals.

As I sometimes do at turning points or crises in my life, I turned to Cardinal Newman for counsel when I learned that I was to be named a cardinal. Fresh in my mind as I celebrated Mass at Old Saint Pat’s were the words of Newman’s speech when he accepted the official notification of his being named cardinal. He explained on that occasion that all his life he had contested liberalism in religion, liberalism in that context meaning relativism. Reading his speech got me thinking about the context of religion today; and when I came to say a few words after I read the Gospel, I figured that, in the absence of a prepared homily, I might try to provoke a discussion among all these rather liberal folks in front of me. I believe I did. A portion of my remarks I wrote down as best I could remember later that night:

We are at a turning point in the life of the church in this country. Liberal Catholicism is an exhausted project. Essentially a critique, even a necessary critique at one point in our history, it is now parasitical on a substance that no longer exists. It has shown itself unable to pass on the faith in its integrity and inadequate, therefore, in fostering the joyful self-surrender called for in Christian marriage, in consecrated life, in ordained priesthood. It no longer gives life.

The answer, however, is not to be found in a type of conservative Catholicism obsessed with particular practices and so sectarian in its outlook that it cannot serve as a sign of unity of all peoples in Christ.

The answer is simply Catholicism, in all its fullness and depth, a faith able to distinguish itself from any cultures and yet able to engage and transform them all, a faith joyful in all the gifts Christ wants to give us and open to the whole world he died to save. The Catholic faith shapes a church with a lot of room for differences in pastoral approach, for discussion and debate, for initiatives as various as the peoples whom God loves. But, more profoundly, the faith shapes a church which knows her Lord and knows her own identity, a church able to distinguish between what fits into the tradition that unites her to Christ and what is a false start or a distorting thesis, a church united here and now because she is always one with the church throughout the ages and with the saints in heaven.

I regret now a phrasing that gave some people offense because of my use of the adjective "parasitical" to describe a set of ideas and a movement which defines itself and takes life from an idea of church no longer adequate to the church’s self-consciousness since the Second Vatican Council. But I regret as well the deliberate misrepresentation of what, I still believe, was clearly expressed. I have a number of friends, mostly from graduate school, who regard the Catholic church as a hypocritical system. Their judgment on the church doesn’t mean they believe me to be a hypocrite, and I take no personal offense at their misunderstanding of a church I love as my mother and spouse. I understand what they are saying, even though I think they are profoundly wrong. I am saddened by their convictions and pray for their conversion, but they remain friends. Conflating ideas with the persons who espouse or even cherish them makes critical conversation impossible, in the church or anywhere else. If everyone whose cherished convictions I believe mistaken must feel insulted, we should end this conference now and bring closure as well to most other public discussions about anything of ultimate or even of purely personal importance.

Making these remarks at a turning point in my own life combined with a second, perhaps providential, circumstance: Commonweal editor Margaret O’Brien Steinfels was present at that Mass. In person that evening during supper and in a later well-constructed Commonweal editorial, she asked me to "please explain" my remarks, especially the part about "simply Catholicism." In our conversation after Mass at Old Saint Pat’s, I told Peggy that I didn’t "relish getting into a national debate at this time." The time I was thinking about, of course, was the time of a Roman consistory added to the time needed to grow into being archbishop of Chicago. But perhaps now the time has come; not to say the last word, of course, because my remarks were offered as a thesis and not as an indictment, but to move along a conversation important to all Catholics, and especially to those who do not have a vested interest in personal conflict, those disturbed by the divisions which too often paralyze the mission of the church in our time.

To clarify terms, let me enumerate several contexts which enter into the definition of "liberal" and "conservative," and which need to be made explicit to advance the discussion. First, there is the political context, from which the terms take their primary meaning. Political liberals and political conservatives both define themselves in relation to government and its exercise of power. Conservatives usually associate themselves with the constituted authorities, giving them the benefit of the doubt so that the order which saves us from anarchy and social violence can be maintained. Liberals contribute to the common good by beginning most often with a suspicion about abuse of authority and a critique of the exercise of power. They are a "loyal opposition," loyal to the goals of good government but not to the established rulers when the rulers themselves impede the achievement of those goals.

In the economic context, so closely connected with the political but not identified with it unless one is a Marxist, liberals are more concerned with the distribution of wealth and look to government to see that the political equality of all citizens is mirrored, at least roughly, in their economic equality. They tend toward a suspicion of wealth comparable to their suspicion of government, because both are instances of power. Wealth’s "social mortgage" easily becomes a social penalty. Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to be more concerned with the conditions of the creation of wealth and understand that the right to economic initiative cannot be separated from other individual rights and freedoms. In a business economy, they argue, all are enriched in time, even if there are serious inequalities for a time. The effects of governmental deregulation of the economy are softened, in the meantime, by personal generosity toward the poor.

The political and economic contexts, therefore, slide easily into the psychological. In the psychological context, "liberal" and "conservative" describe attitudes or mindsets toward societal change. Conservatives are closed to changes which threaten good order and liberals are more open to the risk of proposed change. Grossly caricatured, therefore, conservatives are "closed-minded" and liberals "open-minded."

In epistemological theory, the point of reference is neither political government, economic order, nor mental attitude toward societal change. Rather, respective stances toward the foundations of knowledge differentiate liberals and conservatives in the epistemological context. This was the context of Cardinal Newman’s biglietto speech, as it was the context for his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845) and his Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (1870). Conservative certitude and the legitimate quest for certitude about the foundations either of faith or of an intellectual discipline can be pushed into fundamentalism; liberal criticism of the same foundations can degenerate into skepticism or the relativism Newman constantly contested.

Finally, there is the context of American religion, the historical context in which we profess the Catholic faith. In this country, liberal religion treats God as an ideal, a goal expressing all that is best in human experience, while the real agents of change in the world are human persons. Religious language is important poetry, agnostic about who God is, but expressive of our experience of wholeness. The traditional sacraments are signs of our own interior dispositions and intentions. Worship may be structured but, at its heart, religion is ethical and the social agenda central. By contrast, conservative religion is keenly aware of God’s agency. God is real, independent, powerful, active. God’s presence is felt in prayer and in the reading of his holy word. Religious language is most often literal, and the Bible is often read much like a newspaper. Sacraments are signs of the interior faith given us before we receive them. The social agenda tends to be peripheral, because God will change things at the beginning of the millennium or at the apocalyptic rapture or at some other moment we can only wait for.

Neither of these historical and actual models of American religion is able to capture the Catholic sense of the church as mediator of God’s life and teacher of God’s truth, the church as a hierarchical communion, an organic body which comes into being as the gifts of Christ are shared and to which one is joined in order to be changed, to be converted, so that, with the help of God’s grace, one can accept Christ’s mission to preach the gospel to all peoples and transform the world. Before we get into "simply Catholicism," however, it would be good to stay with the historical context in exploring what I, at least, understand by liberal Catholicism.

First, I will provide a brief sketch of the "necessary" liberal Catholic project, which began in the mid-1800s and culminated with the still inadequately received Second Vatican Council. Second, I will discuss why I believe it is not unfair to call contemporary liberal Catholicism an "exhausted project," even though some of my best friends are liberal Catholics. Third (and in order to alienate myself from all personal support), I will critique "a type of conservative Catholicism" which makes the same error as liberals in an excessive preoccupation with the church’s visible government. This point will be short, since I presume most of you tend toward liberal Catholicism and there is no point in preaching to the choir about the deficiencies of conservative Catholicism. Lastly, I will attempt to stroke in lightly my picture of "simply Catholicism."

By the early 1800s, the church was besieged by a movement that she had, at least in part, helped to create: the Enlightenment, or modernity (I will use these terms interchangeably). While difficult to define, modernity has at least the following two premises at its core: First, all men and women possess a dignity or value which dictates, using Kant’s formulation, that they never be treated as a mere means but always as an end. All human beings ought to be free from unfulfilling conditions simply imposed upon them by other human beings. While the specific conditions conducive to personal fulfillment are still a subject of great debate, particularly in a "postmetaphysical" era wary of any essential or even general conception of human fulfillment, these conditions are generally referred to as "rights." These rights exist in two forms: "negative" rights (that is, "freedoms"); and "positive" rights, which are conditions that must be received from others and thus imply further duties that deeply condition freedom. Given its emphasis on every person’s freedom from being used by others, this first strand of modernity has come to be known as "liberalism." It is political and economic, psychological, epistemological, and religious, as outlined above, yet each context blends into the next. In Marxist psychology and cultural criticism, for example, acceptance of a revealed religion creates a form of personal as well as social alienation.

The second core premise of modernity is the imposing of scientific method as the point of contact between human beings and the world and society into which they are born. Science is the means to social liberation as well as the unique means to liberation from the strictures of the material world. It is a method of knowing that tightly circumscribes what can be considered truly "known" and thus simply "true." As much as it was about rights, the Enlightenment was about science as the means to human fulfillment. In general, the founders of modernity believed that through observation of sensed objects and induction, the laws of the material and human worlds could be discovered and their discovery would make possible the perfecting of life in this world. Since medieval remainders such as religious claims and dubious "universals" neither promoted human fulfillment nor accorded with the epistemological rules of the scientific method, they were to be consigned to the status of interesting examples of now superseded consciousness made irrelevant by human progress.

The Enlightenment and its two strands—liberalism and science—did not, of course, emerge spontaneously. Its precursors are well known, and are located in that thousand-year period we call the Middle Ages. Enlightenment thinkers radicalized or appropriated, and then combined, what had been bequeathed to them: humanism, philosophical nominalism, the Copernican revolution, and the implications of the Reformation. From humanism came the Enlightenment celebration of the universal dignity and rights of the individual, and a commitment to moral perfection in this world. From nominalism they adopted skepticism about traditional ethics and theology. From the Copernican revolution came a supreme confidence in science as the primary means through which the improvement of life in this world would occur. From the Reformation and its consequent religious pluralism developed the secularization of politics and culture.

Among these sources, humanism has Christian roots, as has the conviction that a well-ordered universe contains an intrinsic intelligibility. The Reformation is a Christian movement. The gradual recognition of the dignity of all men and women and their capacity for responsible freedom is difficult to understand unless one traces those notions, at least in part, to the gradual working out of the implications of the Incarnation. The Enlightenment, therefore, was not devoid of semina verbi. The challenge for the church lay in distinguishing the erroneous aspects of modernity from those that were compatible with, and even developments of, the Christian faith. The challenge was compounded when major Enlightenment figures regarded the church’s doctrines and her hierarchy as the primary enemies of modern enlightenment.

In some ways, they were and we are. The church’s first historical encounter with the Enlightenment project—which it would thereafter simply refer to as "liberalism"—was the French Revolution. The memory of thousands of priests and nuns exiled, imprisoned, tortured, and executed; of state control of religion and the suppression of the church; of a dictator who was a Lenin before his time, these determined the church’s officially negative attitude toward liberalism for a century. Formal denunciations of liberalism, in whole or part, appeared in Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors, and in Leo XIII’s Immortale Dei, Libertas praestantissimum, Longinque oceani, and Testem benevolentiae.

But in the midst of the controversy, a group now known as the "liberal Catholics" began to distinguish and assess the various aspects of modernity—cultural, political, and economic. Their names are familiar: Lamennais, Montalembert, Lacordaire, Ozanam, Acton, Newman, and Döllinger. While they differed profoundly in their analyses and their conclusions, common to each one’s thinking was a rejection of certain cultural aspects of modernity, particularly materialism, secularism, moral relativism, and individualism. Also common to each was the conviction that only a unified, energetic, convincing, and engaged church could solve these developing cultural problems. In their search for means to promote such a church in the midst of pluralism and increased state power, they began to use the church’s own history in order to question the church’s nineteenth-century thinking on the political and economic aspects of liberalism. While state-protected religious freedom had been associated with indifferentism, they pointed out that religious establishment also held the potential for state interference and even suppression, and for church corruption as well. They argued that freedom of religion would make the church more effective, and the American experience, for all its difficulties, supported this conclusion. The clash between faith and culture could be best addressed by embracing liberal political and economic institutions rather than by rejecting them out of hand.

The church’s assessment of economic and political liberalism continued throughout the better part of this century, adding new rationales and nuances that are now part of our teaching. Rights language was appropriated not only to protect private property and the free market but also to protect against their misuse by early capitalists. Because of their dignity, all persons possessed the right to family wages and safe working conditions. As the ultimate guarantor of human rights, the state had the duty to exercise a concern for the poor and family life and intervene in the economy when necessary. A representative, well-constituted democratic state would be more likely to intervene appropriately. But the state was not to be the only solution to social problems. Nonstate institutions such as unions and social-service agencies were equally or more capable of solving social problems; a limited state was apt to be less corrupt and more efficient; and the relational and self-constituting nature of the person meant that voluntary, mediating institutions were critical for the formation of persons and culture. Most important, the family is the foundation of any culture and the building block of any society, and the state has the obligation to protect and foster family life. From this logic, the principle of subsidiarity was crafted and endorsed. The church’s engagement with the modern world it had both resisted and helped create eventually resulted in the endorsement of a free society found in Dignitatis humanae, Gaudium et spes, and Centesimus annus.

Do these societal developments and the liberal economic and political institutions born of them provide models for the church’s internal life? Yes and no. As the teaching of the Second Vatican Council—particularly that of Lumen gentium—makes clear, the church is not merely a society. In the early modern era, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, arguing against a Protestant conception of the church as simply invisible with adventitious visible expression, created an ecclesiology of the visible church defined as a society. The church could be understood by looking at the Kingdom of France or the Republic of Venice. This reactive model is flawed to the extent it loses the relationships between the visible and invisible gifts that constitute the church. These relationships are the stuff of ecclesial communion. They are created among and for us when the gifts of Christ are shared. These gifts, beyond invisible grace itself, are the visible government of pastors in succession to the Twelve, the gospel as developed in the creeds and Catholic doctrine, and the seven sacraments which sanctify men and women through the action of the risen Christ. Through these gifts, Christ is always present as the Way (our shepherd or pastor), the Truth (our teacher), and the Life (our sanctifier).

Because her relationship to her Lord is always one of dependence and her relationship to her apostolic foundation is normative, the church’s teaching and constitution cannot simply be apprehended and analyzed at will, using societal categories from any age. Yet neither is the church’s history unrelated to the designs of Providence. Given historical circumstances, concepts such as personal autonomy, political sovereignty, and democratic equality can contribute to human fulfillment and should be instantiated in political and economic structures and enter into the church’s social doctrine. The church is indebted to the early liberal Catholics not only for restoring to the center of the church’s consciousness the gospel’s assertion that Christ set us free, but also for the insight and analysis that enabled the church herself to break free of the conservative societal structures in which she had become imprisoned. But because democracy is a legitimate and desirable form of political governance doesn’t make the Lord’s own gift of ecclesiastical hierarchy illegitimate, even though it can raise good questions about how power given by God should be used to make his people holy. The primary criterion in judging any idea or form of church governance remains the church’s fidelity to her Lord.

Instead of understanding Vatican II as a limited accommodation to modernity for the sake of evangelizing the modern world, the liberal project seems often to interpret the council as a mandate to change whatever in the church clashes with modern society. To caricature somewhat, the project both for ecclesial renewal and for mission in the world takes its cues from the editorial page of the New York Times or, even worse, USA Today. The church provides motivation and troops to meet the world’s agenda as defined by the world. This is a dead end, because the church’s mission would then have nothing original to contribute to the world’s self-understanding. This is not to say that many so-called "gospel values" or semina verbi are not to be found on the editorial pages of the New York Times, or even USA Today; it is to say that God’s ways are not our ways and that the greatest contribution the church makes to the world is to preach gospel truths in ways that, inevitably, will both comfort and confront any society in which she takes up Christ’s mission.

Behind the crisis of visible authority or governance in a liberal church lies a crisis of truth. In a popular liberal society, freedom is the primary value and the government is not supposed to tell its citizens how to think. The cultural fault line lies in a willingness to sacrifice even the gospel truth in order to safeguard personal freedom construed as choice. Using sociology of knowledge and the hermeneutics of suspicion, modern liberals interpret dogmas which affront current cultural sensibilities as the creation of celibate males eager to keep a grasp on power rather than as the work of the Holy Spirit guiding the successors of the Apostles. The bishops become the successors of the Sanhedrin and the church, at best, is the body of John the Baptist, pointing to a Jesus not yet risen from the dead and, therefore, a role model or prophet but not a savior. Even Jesus’ being both male and celibate is to be forgotten or denied once the risen Christ can be reworked into whomever or whatever the times demand. Personal experience becomes the criterion for deciding whether or not Jesus is my savior, a point where liberal Catholics and conservative Protestants seem to come to agreement, even if they disagree on what salvation really means. Liberal culture discovers victims more easily than it recognizes sinners; and victims don’t need a savior so much as they need to claim their rights.

All this is not only a dead end, it is a betrayal of the Lord, no matter the good intentions of those espousing these convictions. The call to personal conversion, which is at the heart of the gospel, has been smothered by a pillow of accommodation. The project for a liberal Catholic church is as unoriginal as the project for a liberal reinterpretation of the mission for the church. A church, all of whose ministries, construed only functionally, are open to any of the baptized; a church unwilling to say that all homosexual genital relations are morally wrong; a church which at least makes some allowance for abortion when necessary to assure a mother’s freedom; a church accepting contraception as moral within marriage and prudent outside of marriage; a church willing to admit the sacramentally married to a second marriage in complete sacramental communion; a church whose teaching has to stand the acid test of modern criticism and personal acceptance in order to have not just credibility but legitimacy—there is nothing new in all this. It already exists, but outside the Catholic church.

Liberal Catholicism, in the too general and somewhat unfair way I have sketched it here, has not sufficiently distinguished between the properly theological warrants necessary to argue convincingly to some of its desiderata and the reasons for ecclesial change that take their strength merely from a liberal culture which tells us, as all cultures do, what to think and how to act. In an apostolic church, however, the burden of proof for changing established doctrinal and moral teaching rests on those who ask for change. The faith of the Apostles and martyrs, of Iraeneus and Augustine, of Bridget of Sweden and Catherine of Siena, of Thomas of Canterbury and Thomas More, of Elizabeth Ann Seton and John Neumann, of Edith Stein and Maximilian Kolbe, of our parents and grandparents cannot be set aside to make our contemporaries happy or ourselves free of personal responsibility and its consequent guilt. When the apostolic faith is preached in its integrity to the young, to those who have not grown up in a church which confined them and who have found themselves, instead, trapped in our secularized culture, they take notice. Here is something different. They do not always agree, but they are open in ways surprising to those whose own liberating experiences are still bound up with the immediate aftermath of the Second Vatican Council.

Alexis de Tocqueville suggested that the centrality of the idea of equal individual rights sets Americans up for the triumph of relativism and individualism. Are these cultural proclivities, which make it hard to hear the gospel, the immediate result of liberal political institutions? Criticizing John Courtney Murray, David Schindler argues that rules of engagement between faith and culture that prevent the state, which helps to shape a culture, from informing itself religiously inevitably favor world views that demand public silence about God. Personally, I tend to think that the practical case for making our liberal political and economic institutions responsible for the culture which now clashes so grievously with the faith is still to be adequately made. Nonetheless, these liberal institutions have not prevented our developing a culture which is increasingly hostile to revealed truth or any truth that is not "made true" by personal choice.

In response to both a secular liberal culture and its perceived impact on the church, a certain type of conservative Catholicism picks up the debate on the wrong terms. Seeing that, in a genuine clash between modern or any other culture and the apostolic faith, the faith remains normative, conservative Catholicism in some of its reaction takes refuge in earlier cultural forms of faith expression and absolutizes them for all times and all places. While certain that it differs fundamentally from liberal Catholicism, this conservatism shares the Bellarminian understanding of the church as society. The hierarchy therefore become central, responsible for all good as well as for all ills, able to correct all aberrations by invoking their authority. Correct in understanding that the church is essentially conservative in handing on the apostolic faith, contemporary conservative Catholicism can fail to see that the church is also, for that very reason, radical in its critique of any society. Just as liberal Catholicism is frequently uneasy with the church’s understanding of the gift of human sexuality when her teaching runs up against the popular Freudianism of the sexual revolution, conservative Catholicism is often uneasy with the church’s understanding of a just society when her social teaching draws conclusions about social services and the distribution of wealth from the premise of universal human solidarity.

The neuralgic point, therefore, is the human person. Both conservatism and liberalism, in religion and other fields in America, tend to look on the person as a bundle of desires or dreams, animal impulses and higher aspirations, which are synthesized individually by choice and controlled socially by law. Law, therefore, is always an imposition, an imposition gladly internalized in some areas by liberals and in others by conservatives. In religion, liberal pastoring means assuring people that the unconditional love of God means putting aside even moral laws when they get in the way of personal fulfillment; conservative pastoring means insisting on law without linking it clearly to the truths that Christ reveals about the dignity and freedom of the human person. The human person is the way of the church, but her understanding of what it means to be human is taken from her belief in who Christ is, a belief born of our living together, in ecclesial communion, Christ’s own life.

The church does have power given her by Christ, the power to proclaim the gospel and celebrate the sacraments and pastor his people. Since any claim to power in a popular liberal culture has to be justified by pointing to it as service or by claiming its popular ratification or reception, the church in this culture is called to examine constantly her use of power. She cannot reduce the gospel, however, to what the culture will bear. We are back to "simply Catholicism," which locates power in Christ and in his gift of authority to the Twelve. The church preaches Jesus Christ, not herself; but Christ cannot be adequately known except from within his Body, the church.

Within the church, the bishops are the reality check for the apostolic faith. They are not free to change established dogma or create new doctrines, unless they want to become heretics. In being presented as a revolution rather than a development of doctrine, the Second Vatican Council has left some Catholics with the impression that bishops control rather than preserve the apostolic faith. If bishops won’t change, it must be fear or willfulness or perhaps stupidity that prevents their being enlightened. It is then up to Catholics with an agenda to force them to change or to make the changes themselves, in a separate peace. But a church of such factions not only cannot evangelize, it cannot think. That is the greatest practical difficulty, it seems to me, in the use of the terms "liberal" and "conservative." When they are applied now, or even as they were sometimes applied in papal documents in the last century, people stop thinking things through. In thinking things through in the church, bishops are the verification principle in the development of doctrine.

Pastorally, bishops are ordained to headship, which does not exhaust leadership. Leadership is influence; sometimes it is based on office, sometimes on charism or purely personal gifts; always, in the church, it is more obviously from Christ when the leader’s friendship with the Lord is evident. When headship and leadership are not adequately distinguished, then either every leader has to become a priest or every priest has to recognize the injustice of co-opting leadership and become just like those who minister only out of the sacraments of baptism and confirmation. In either case, Christ’s original gift of the Twelve disappears or is no longer adequately visible.

The current PBS series on Pope John Paul II ["John Paul II: Millennial Pope"] raises the question: Is this a pope for our times or against our times? The only adequate answer is: both. That is "simply Catholicism."

 


More from the Commonweal forum "The Crisis of Liberal Catholicism":
Introduction, by Margaret O'Brien Steinfels
Reinventing Liberal Catholicism, by Peter Steinfels
Liberalism Doesn't Exist, by John T. Noonan
An Exhausted Project? by John T. McGreevy
We're All Liberals Now, by E. J. Dionne Jr.

Published in the 1999-11-19 issue: 

Cardinal Francis George, OMI, is the archbishop of Chicago.

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