Catholic Vitalism


This article was written on 02 Apr 2016, and is filled under Uncategorized.

The Future of Catholicism Part 2: Liberal Catholicism

Shortly after being received into the Church in 1994, I decided to pursue a Master’s Degree in Theology. For various reasons, I enrolled in a program at Weston Jesuit School of Theology (subsequently merged with Boston College), where I encountered, in its fullness, the position which usually goes by the name of Liberal Catholicism. The term ‘Liberal Catholicism’ can be somewhat confusing, because, in the American context, ‘liberalism’ has taken on a meaning somewhat distinct from the classical meaning of the term. This distinction might at first seem academic, but, as we’ll see in Part 4 of this series, it’s tremendously important in understanding the philosophical commonality that exists between Liberal Catholicism and its apparent adversary, Neo-Conservative Catholicism. Despite the ambiguity of the term, we’ll adopt it here in its American sense.

In this sense, Liberal Catholicism represents the most obvious response to the dominant culture in America, which is a modified form of Enlightenment philosophy. Broadly speaking, Liberal Catholicism simply attempts to accommodate Catholicism to Enlightenment thinking. Though Liberal Catholicism is much-maligned, at its core one can divine a legitimate Catholic impulse: the desire of missionaries, who find themselves in a foreign culture with strange categories, to avoid imposing unnecessary traditional categories and practices, in order to facilitate evangelization (a good example is the use of the concept of the ‘Tao’ in Asian culture to express the Johannine concept of ‘Logos’).


As I stated in the Introduction to this series, I’m going to try to summarize the spirit of each of these groups using the analogy of children whose mother (the Church) is visited by an aggressive man (Modernity) who seeks to take over their home. On this analogy, Liberal Catholics are children who fall in love with this visitor and encourage their mother to submit happily to all of his demands.

Assimilating the Enlightenment

However, assimilating the Enlightenment (or Modernity, which is another name for the same phenomenon) into Catholicism is a very different task. Here, it’s crucial to understand the history behind this phenomenon. Modernity arose gradually, and part of its genius is that it often attempts to cloak itself in the language of ‘neutrality’, or ‘reason’, or ‘common-sense’; however, at its core, it is a movement which utterly rejects what came before it. And what came before it?–The late medieval Catholic synthesis, which, though it was far from perfect, and was already in a state of intellectual and moral decadence, at its core attempted to incarnate the traditional teachings of Catholicism in society. The argument that Modernity is, at its core, a rejection of Catholicism, is made forcefully by Catholic historian Thomas Storck in his classic article “Liberalism’s Three Assaults”, but I think any analysis of this movement would come to similar, if perhaps less polemical, conclusions. One need look no further than its own nomenclature to see the movement’s revolutionary nature: calling itself ‘The Enlightenment’ implies, of course, that the Catholic culture which preceded it was a time of darkness: specifically, the darkness propagated by an ignorant and superstitious Catholicism. Similarly, naming this movement ‘Liberalism’ implies that it freed mankind from a culture in which the human spirit was oppressed by, of course, the moral and social authority of the Catholic Church.

As with many conflicts, the passing of years (in this case centuries) takes a bit of the edge off the original conflict, and by the twentieth century, the ‘siege mentality’ that dominated post-Enlightenment Catholic theology for so long began to seem unnecessarily harsh and un-Christian to many Catholics. So, when Pope St. John XXIII in 1959 called for an Ecumenical Council with a spirit of ‘aggiornamento’ to re-engage the modern world in a pastoral way, many accommodationist Catholics saw it as a long-overdue opportunity to finally pursue their agenda with the blessing of the Magisterium.

Liberal Catholicism had its heyday during the two chaotic decades which followed, in which the Council and its reforms were debated and then implemented, often in ways which wildly exaggerated the very modest concessions to Liberalism found in the Conciliar documents.

As a student at Weston Jesuit in the late ’90s, I experienced Liberal Catholicism in the beginnings of its decadence. The wildly popular pontificate of John Paul II had curbed many of the intellectual and liturgical excesses that had multiplied in the ’60s and ’70s, and definitively re-interpreted the Council in harmony with traditional teaching, cemented by the publication of the Catechism in 1992. I chose to concentrate my studies in Church History: as I read many of the foundational writings of the great saints and theologians of the Church, they seemed to solidly support the Pope’s ‘hermeneutic of continuity’. I was continually amazed by the acrobaticism of many of my professors, who seemed so invested in the Liberal Catholic Project that they insisted on seeing discontinuity at every turn. Though most Church History professors were relatively tame in their interpretations, the school was saturated with examples of theological Liberalism, each more flabbergastingly innovative than the next: the invention of an ‘academic Magisterium’ paralleling that of the Episcopacy; the creation of arguments for female ordination from the faintest historical evidence; the mind-boggling ‘discovery’ of arguments for homosexuality in the Bible…

During the time I spent at Weston, we shared our campus with the super-liberal Episcopal Divinity School, where one could see the obvious direction in which this Project was heading, where the amazing acrobatics of Liberal Catholicism were upstaged by the full circus of radical Episcopalianism, complete with a Bearded Lady (no, seriously, s/he sat next to me in class!) and the ruthless public scourging of all things male or European.

And the Liberal Project is not only intellectual suicide: the past few decades have shown us that it quite obviously leads to its own literal extinction as well: religious orders which have led the way in the Liberal Catholic project (including of course the Jesuits) have experienced an enormous and irreversible decline in numbers. Go to any event organized around the liberal Catholic project, and you’ll see an inordinate number of grey-haired enthusiasts, and almost no one under the age of forty.

…Which is not to say that Liberalism itself has died out–far from it. Just that younger Liberals have recognized the futility of retaining allegiance to a system of belief that they find revolting to its very core.

The Positive Thing about Liberal Catholicism

Here’s where the term ‘liberal’ gets confusing: like political ‘liberals’ in America, some aspects of Liberal Catholicism stand in opposition to classical Liberalism, especially in the economic sphere: support of unions, the critique of the ruthlessness and environmental degradation inherent in the Capitalist economic system. On these points, Liberal Catholicism often remains close to the traditional teachings of the Church, in spite of its accomodationist tendencies.

Sociological Analysis:

The number of hard-core adherents to the Catholic Liberal project is small: perhaps 20% of involved Catholics. They are inordinately old, but have a great deal of power in the Church, as many are well-educated and are in positions of authority in Catholic schools, Catholic hospitals, and parishes.

After three decades of strong and unflagging Vatican opposition to their project, the pontificate of Francis has raised some hopes for the Liberal Catholic movement. However, it remains to be seen whether Francis’ apparent liberalism is merely a matter of style or is one of substance, and if so, whether it can revivify a project which is on its deathbed.


Leave a Reply