REINVENTING LIBERAL CATHOLICISM : Between Powerful Enemies & Dubious Allies

By Steinfels, Peter | Commonweal, November 19, 1999 | Go to article overview

REINVENTING LIBERAL CATHOLICISM : Between Powerful Enemies & Dubious Allies


Steinfels, Peter, Commonweal


Let's not waste a minute: What is a crisis? What is liberal Catholicism?

Crisis. From the Greek verb krisis, turning point, from krinein, to separate, decide. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a crisis is "a crucial turning point or situation in the course of anything." A crisis is "an unstable condition in political, international, or economic affairs in which an abrupt or decisive change is impending." A crisis is "the point in a story or drama at which hostile forces are in the most tense state of opposition."

Is liberal Catholicism at a crucial turning point? Is liberal Catholicism in an unstable condition, on the verge of significant change, and facing a moment of decision? Has liberal Catholicism reached a point in its history at which hostile forces are gathered and looming?

My answer to those questions is yes.

But what is liberal Catholicism? Note that I have not picked up one definition from the dictionary that might lead us to think of the crisis of liberal Catholicism as "a sudden change in the course of an acute disease." Actually, acute disease is a mild epithet for liberal Catholicism in comparison to some that have been applied to it.

Almost exactly a hundred years ago, a little book appeared in the United States. It was titled simply What Is Liberalism? but in reality it concerned itself extensively with Catholic liberalism or liberal Catholicism. What Is Liberalism? announced itself as a translation and adaptation of a book published thirteen years earlier in Spain, with a title that pretty bluntly answered the question: El liberalismo es pecado-"Liberalism Is a Sin"!

Not merely a sin, but "a greater sin than blasphemy, theft, adultery, homicide, or any other violation of the law of God." Liberalism is "the evil of evils." It is the "offspring of Satan and the enemy of mankind." And since liberalism is pervasive, protean, insidiously seductive, the liberal Catholic is a particularly dangerous "monstrosity," a "traitor and a fool," a pagan at heart, a pawn of the Devil, "less excusable than those liberals who have never been within the pale of the church."

This book, by the way, was officially commended by the Sacred Congregation of the Index, and it remains in print today.

If we proceed, however, a little more, as they say, non-judgmentally, we find that liberal Catholicism is the standard label for the currents of thought and action that arose in the wake of the French Revolution, Napoleon's remaking of Europe, and the restoration of traditional monarchies. This movement aimed at bringing the church into a constructive engagement with the demands for freedom of thought and expression, constitutional government, democracy, and national self-determination.

Liberal Catholicism always had a complex relationship to liberalism. Liberal Catholicism's roots were in Romanticism, not the Enlightenment, and it shared in the Romantic period's reaction, common to both liberals and conservatives, against atomistic rationalism. Liberal Catholicism began with a concern for freedom, not of the individual, not of the dissenting conscience, not of an aspiring class, but of the Catholic church. Its pioneers were not revolutionaries but restorationists, who dreamed of restoring the church's cultural power. Initially they rebelled not against the church's use of the throne but against the throne's intervention in the affairs of the church. Then they rebelled against the alliance of throne and altar because they saw the possibility of reconquering society for Catholic Christianity doomed as long as the church remained chained to bankrupt regimes. Only at the end of this process did they conclude that the freedom necessary for the church to prevail implied the general freedom of all.

Although the relationship between church and state was the leading issue that defined liberal Catholicism, and one that today seems pretty much resolved by Dignitatis humanae, the Vatican Council's decree on religious liberty, liberal Catholicism was characterized by several other traits. …

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