The Failure of Liberal Catholicism

An examination of its claims – the first of a two-part series.

No one has yet managed to transcend or synthesize the concepts “liberal” and “conservative,” however inadequate those words are for denoting religious beliefs.

Conservative Catholics define themselves in terms of obedience to Church authority, acceptance of official teachings, and a strict personal morality, especially in matters of sexuality, while liberals offer a more expansive idea of the Church, a purportedly liberating understanding of what it means to be a Catholic.

The conservative claim is more modest than the liberal claim, because conservatives do not offer themselves as spiritual paragons—a conservative Catholic can readily admit to being a bad person in need of redemption.  Liberals, on the other hand, claim to have actually found a better way of being Christian. Given human nature, that is a promise they cannot fulfill.

A former publisher of the National Catholic Reporter in effect defined liberal Catholics as those who “embrace all of God’s people…loving…welcoming…open…tolerant…. Our greatest fulfillment as Catholics is a sense of community and belonging, whatever baggage and differences we carry…. It’s about making room for everyone under a very big tent….”

But apparently Sister Rita Larivee did not actually read the newspaper that she once oversaw, since it demonstrates how far short liberal Catholics fall in being welcoming, open, and tolerant.

An NCR editorial refers to “right-wingers” who write “windy, disgruntled, and largely unpublished letters to the editor,” a description that, except for “unpublished,” exactly describes the paper’s own letters column, where each week the most severe condemnations are pronounced on the latest betrayal of the Gospel, with some of the hanging judges’ names appearing over and over again:

“…centuries ago the Eucharist was stolen from us and it is time we took it back. And there is no such thing as ordination.”

“….the shepherds have abandoned the sheep and have become part of the wolf pack…”

“…the church trying to saddle the laity with its bleak view of marriage by citing some looney malarkey about Adam and Eve…”

“….repressively psychotic…. Lies, denial, arrogance, selfishness, and cowardice—such are the notes of the culture within which Catholic priests now live…”

“[The Church is] a culture of hypocrisy and dishonesty that has been with us since the Middle Ages…hidden for centuries under the guise of spirituality and religiosity…”

“…hot air from an impotent male hierarchy…blather”

“[the bishops’] chicanery is beyond arrogance and should  be rejected.”

“The Inquisition and witch hunts are alive and well…. I am glad I am a mature Catholic who does not take seriously these nonsensical pronouncements.”

“Below a veneer of justice is a cesspool of deceit and bullying.”

“Our popes since John XXIII have been just plain pathetic. Most of the US bishops…are just as bad…. These aristocrats do not give a hoot about the Eucharist except for posturing. They are…dressing up as if for the Philadelphia Mummers’ parade and laughing all the way to the Vatican Bank.”

“What is wrong with this [bishop]? …his actions clearly disregard the teachings of the Gospel. [He] appears to foster the kind of mindset seen during the days of the Spanish Inquisition and the Sen. Joseph McCarthy witch-hunt…I really don’t trust [him] and believe he is capable of doing great harm to the church.”

“Apparently [a bishop] would join forces with the devil if it would keep him and his fellow hierarchy types in their power palace.”

One NCR contributor, Jamie Manson, calls the denial of ordination to women “profound spiritual violence” and charges that the Church teaches that “women’s bodies defile the Eucharist,” and an NCR editor, Rick Heffern, charges that “pathology underlies the Vatican’s insistence that an all-male priesthood is necessary.”

A participant in the liberal liturgical blog Pray Tell referred to the more conservative New Liturgical Movement blog as “the bowel movement.” (Pray Tell’s moderator, the Benedictine Anthony Ruff, later fastidiously moderated this to “BM.”) Another Pray Tell blogger compared the bishops to Communist propagandists and said, “These guys have no compunction about telling outright lies,” while Ruff charged that “much deception and mischief” mark attempts at liturgical reform.

After John Paul II was shot, an Irish Jesuit, Cyril Barrett, was heard to “bellow” in a London restaurant, “The only thing wrong with that bloody Turk was that he couldn’t shoot straight,” a complaint that, when Barrett died, was fondly recalled as evidence of his “detestation of intellectual narrowness.”

In such an environment, the NCR, with no sense of irony, laments that a liberal bishop “suffered personal attacks and angry denunciations,” while another endured a “smear campaign by enemies inside and outside the Church.”

Conservative Catholics are frequently denounced as Pharisees. But in reality pharisaism underlies the attitudes of many of those who cry “Pharisee.” (An organization called Voice of the Faithful for a time actually promoted a “Pharisee Watch,” inviting people to nominate other Catholics as “modern-day Pharisees.”)

A retired teacher warns against the phrase “and with your spirit,” because it will “encourage ordinary Catholics to think that their religion is basically about saving souls” and “will once again lead the ordinary Catholic astray.” The writer does not consider himself a naïve “ordinary Catholic.” In his enlightenment he understands vastly more than such “ordinary Catholics” as, for example, Ignatius Loyola and Teresa of Avila, who naïvely thought their religion was about saving souls.

Another NCR reader recounts, “Recently I asked a friend why she is a Christian. Her immediate answer, without reflection, was ‘So I can go to heaven.’” The author thereupon gazed into the heart of his “friend,” discerned that she was “unthinking and in thrall to fear,” and proudly announced that, by contrast, “I am a member of Pax Christi.”

Sister Celine Goessl condemns the hierarchy as whitened sepulchers, in contrast to which “the people of God see the real truth as we [nuns] live our lives in fidelity to the Jesus of the Gospels.”

Addressing the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), made up of the officers of most “mainstream” communities, Sister Shawn Copeland contrasted her audience with “the law-abiding, but lukewarm; the unthinking, but self-righteous; the domineering, but fearful,” magnanimously inviting such people to follow “our call to holiness.”

Liberals lament “extremists” and the absence of civility in both political and religious life, but it is only conservatives who are found guilty of such offenses. The priest-theologian Richard McBrien insists that he knows of no “progressives” who have a divisive agenda.

Few conservative Catholics defend the way in which clerical sexual abuse has been dealt with by the hierarchy. Indeed, given the importance they place on sexual morality, conservatives are, if anything, even more appalled than are liberals. But the scandal was quickly (and predictably) turned into a partisan issue. Voice of the Faithful—founded for the purpose of demanding official action—soon became merely one more liberal lobbying group.

Readers of the NCR repeatedly express outrage that Cardinal Bernard Law, former archbishop of Boston, has not been punished enough for tolerating sexual abuse. But liberals have little to say about Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, who has been openly defiant in covering up scandals, and when other liberal episcopal heroes—Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee, Cardinal Godfrey Daneels of Belgium—were found to have been equally complicit, liberals made no agonizing reappraisals.

Margaret O’Brien Steinfels, a former editor of the liberal Catholic journal Commonweal, admitted that, despite the fact that Weakland took no action against predator priests and used diocesan funds to pay off his blackmailing male lover, he remained for her an almost ideal bishop. McBrien and the feminist nun Joan Chittister both praised the wisdom of Weakland’s published memoirs, and an NCR reader identified him as one of the few “faith-filled bishops.” The NCR does not remind its readers that one of the most egregious clerical offenders, Paul Shanley (whom Law protected), was praised in its pages at least three times, even after he had been exposed.

In their incessant excoriation of “the bishops,” liberals ignore another group of individuals who are equally culpable—superiors of religious orders. No one has investigated how clerical misconduct was dealt with by, for example, the liberal Timothy Radcliffe, the former master general of the Dominicans, or by the liberal superiors of the Society of Jesus, although those orders dealt with the abuses no more forthrightly than did most of the bishops.

It is liberal dogma that a female hierarchy would deal with clerical abuses in the proper way, but the reality is otherwise. The LCWR curtly refuses to meet with people claiming to have been abused by religious sisters, refusing even to put the issue on its agenda.

Liberals routinely identify themselves as “thinking Catholics,” a category that seems to exclude, for example, the late theologians Hans Urs von Balthasar, Jean Danielou, Henri DeLubac, and Avery Dulles, as well as the two most recent popes. Orthodox theologians, according to the NCR, merely “regurgitate the party line,” and the paper’s “theological giants” include the late “post-Christian” ranter Mary Daly, but none of the above thinkers.

There are orthodox Catholic professors at prestigious universities, but their existence has to be ignored, since by definition to “think” means to dissent. Elizabeth Anscombe was perhaps the most important woman philosopher of the 20th century, but liberals cannot acknowledge her, since she strongly supported Catholic teaching about contraception and other things.

Part of this liberal conceit is the claim that those who dissent do so only after long and careful study. But, as the pages of the NCR also demonstrate, dissent is often reduced to jeering slogans. Few liberals seem even to have read Humanae Vitae, much less could they offer a careful critique of it.

In fact, for liberal “thinking Catholics” feelings often rule, and they employ a kind of emotional blackmail to make their case—justifying their demands on the grounds that they have suffered so much.

Ruff laments that, “When I think of Our Lord’s teaching…I weep.” Letters to the NCR often begin, “My heart goes out…,” “I weep with sorrow….” McBrien reports on a parish staff “who are hurting terribly” and of a woman “who darted out of the church during a recent homily—in tears,” the priest’s offense being that he restored traditional devotions, urged people to go to confession, and covered the statues in purple during Passiontide. (“The parish is grieving.”)

The Council spoke of “reading the signs of the times,” a task that is surely among the most difficult and treacherous imaginable, but only liberals are thought capable of doing this. The NCR says of a group called FutureChurch that “they see very far down the road” and “have the patience and good will to drag us along with them.”

The NCR sums up the recent history of the Church thus: “It has been an open secret that powerful forces in the Church’s leadership have strongly opposed the reforms set in motion by the Second Vatican Council and have worked quietly but assiduously during the past 40 years to roll back what has been accomplished. The regression is usually couched in Orwellian churchspeak, which lavishes praise on the Council even as its intentions are reversed.”

The fallacy of this account lies in the sleight-of-hand movement from the little phrase “set in motion” to the Council’s “intentions.” No one could even attempt to show that the collapse of religious life, the sexual revolution, and the “ordination” of women are what the Council intended. It explicitly condemned contraception, abortion, and divorce, and forbade anyone to make unauthorized changes in the liturgy. Yet liberals continually lament that “John XXIII is turning over in his grave,” as though his purpose in summoning the Council was to validate contraception, abortion, divorce, homosexuality, and women priests.

The feminist nun Theresa Kane states flatly that women’s ordination was “the vision of the council,” and the nun-theologian Sandra Schneiders claims that Vatican II called nuns to follow a  road that leads to “globalized postmodernity,” a term that was not even in use at the time of the Council and seems capable of meaning just about anything.

The liberal movement is disproportionately made up of elderly people who look back nostalgically to the 1960s, so that when one NCR reader spoke of the “old church,” she meant the period from about 1960 to the election of John Paul II in 1978, and another asked incredulously, “Since when has someone proclaimed the teachings of the church to be infallible?”

Another reader went so far as to suggest that Benedict XVI is an “invalid” pope, because he and John Paul II have a “passionate prejudice” against the infallible Council. Another reader announced that the two most recent popes are guilty of heresy and are excommunicated for their attempts to “undo a council.”

But it is precisely the liberals who engage in “Orwellian churchspeak.” Their “hermeneutic of discontinuity” (Benedict’s phrase) depends on discovering hidden meanings in particular words and phrases of the conciliar decrees and treating the Council fathers either as “channelers” of messages they did not understand or as having deliberately concealed their intention in a kind of code.

Thomas Roberts, an NCR editor, claims, “To downplay the Council’s impact, dividing Catholics into ‘hermeneutic’ groups, has become a favorite tactic,” a claim that assumes that Benedict and John Paul II either did not understand the Council (whereas Roberts does) or deliberately set out to falsify its meaning. Those who do not accept the liberal hermeneutic are either themselves dishonest or dupes of a dishonest hierarchy.

At the time of the Council liberals read the signs as requiring that Catholics be transformed into a force for “social justice,” an ambition that, while it fell short of the Council’s fundamental concern with spiritual renewal, was at least compatible with its purpose.

But that project largely failed, because “social justice” slid irresistibly into left-wing politics (especially feminism) and because liberals themselves set about systematically undermining Church authority. If most Catholics now do not listen to bishops who speak about contraception, they also see no reason to listen to them on capital punishment or immigration. Liberals who welcome Catholics’ acceptance of abortion as a sign of a “mature, thinking faith” see those same Catholics as selfish and morally obtuse on other issues.

The fatal liberal error was incorporating the sexual revolution into “social justice,” measuring the Church’s “progress” primarily by how much of that revolution it accepts. A 71-year-old lady complains, in the pages of the NCR, that “gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered” people are discriminated against by the Church, a litany of victims that is endlessly chanted verbatim.

The Church’s refusal to endorse the sexual revolution is taken as proof that the hierarchy is “sex-obsessed,” but it is liberal Catholics themselves who manifest that obsession. No liberal priest can talk for five minutes without calling for an end to priestly celibacy, and liberal laymen rail against the prohibition of contraception even as they practice it.

An international conference of moral theologians urged that the ideas of non-Westerners be brought fully into the mainstream of theology. But when African Anglicans threatened to leave the world-wide Anglican Communion because of its acceptance of homosexuality, their action was either ignored or condemned as narrow-minded. The sexual revolution must be protected at all costs—liberals who insist that almost all Christian doctrines are culturally conditioned treat that revolution as an unquestionable absolute.

To counter clerical sexual abuse, liberals demand “accountability,” but that applies only to abuses already perpetrated. They say much less about prevention, because to do so would require confronting the fact that homosexual priests have been responsible for the great majority of the abuses. (The standard liberal line is the absurd claim that the abusers are heterosexuals who simply happen to like young men.) When a Vatican official pointed out that only 10 percent of known cases of clerical sexual abuse involved actual pedophilia, a priest and a nun writing in the NCR denounced that factual statement as a pathological evasion.

The liberal priest-theologian Charles Curran says that clerical sex scandals “have made many people recognize the need for change in our church.” But sexual abuse is a gross violation of Catholic moral teaching, and it is difficult to see how Curran’s lifelong advocacy of a more permissive sexual morality somehow makes such transgressions less likely.

The sexual revolution was readily embraced by liberal Catholics primarily because they take it for granted that their religion is an obstacle to enlightenment and that they require secular tutelage. The faith must be continually subjected to outside judgments and is conceded validity only insofar as it passes those judgments.

Ken Briggs, a former religion editor of the New York Times, informed NCR readers that with regard to homosexuality, “The Episcopalians, aristocrats of American church life…set a bench mark for all churches, even Catholicism, which officially appears at the farthest remove from reform on this front.” (Here as elsewhere, “reform” means the exact opposite of what it has always meant in the Church.)

The NCR laments that none of the founders of the environmentalist movement were Catholics. But that is true virtually by definition, since liberal Catholicism simply follows whatever secular cause happens to be in the ascendancy. (The NCR would find it both irrelevant and embarrassingly parochial to point out the absence of secular liberals in the pro-life movement.) 

With regard to environmentalism, the NCR went so far as to indict liberal Catholicism itself, accepting an environmentalist’s criticism that the Catholic emphasis on “social justice” causes Catholics to focus on human beings rather than on nature. (The paper points out that the reported “miracle of the sun” at Fatima is something of which modern nuns would disapprove as “the misuse of so much solar energy solely for evangelization,” the word “solely” casually denigrating the fundamental Christian obligation of evangelization.)

At its extreme, liberal Catholicism actually becomes anti-Catholicism, so that Ed Doerr, head of the anti-Catholic organization Americans United, occasionally writes to congratulate the NCR on its latest exposé of Catholic misdeeds.

The iconic liberal priest-theologian Hans Küng seemed to take leave of his senses in warning potential converts from Anglicanism of “cunning Vatican diplomacy,” “those caught in the Vatican dragnet,” “the Roman thirst for power,” and even “the Roman dungeons.”

The liberal English Catholic journal The Tablet featured an open letter from a Hungarian Catholic theologian begging Anglicans not to join “our troubled Church” and excoriating Benedict for not accepting women priests and homosexuality, both of which, the writer asserted, it is the historical duty of the Anglican Communion to champion.

Liberal Catholics internalize the anti-Catholic bigotry of those whose approval they desire, as the novelist Mary Gordon, who told the NCR, “Saying I am a Catholic writer automatically lowers my IQ by 90 points. But I can understand why some people think that.” She “distances herself from the hierarchy” and lets people know that she supports Planned Parenthood.

The NCR featured an Oregon parish that apparently chooses not to witness to the fullness of the Catholic faith in a heavily secular environment (“‘You are a Catholic?’ a neighbor asked. ‘I thought you were a smart person.’”) Instead, the parishioners merely try to show that they can be as “green” as anyone else, and a star attraction at a parish festival is the militantly pro-abortion politician Robert Kennedy, Jr.

Given their understanding of the Church, its history is to most liberals a closed book and the best they can do is to mine the past for episodes that can be fitted into modern ideology. Chittister dismisses the entire period from the Council of Trent to Vatican II as a time when “the Church managed to stop time and halt renewal for 400 years.”

John Henry Newman is extolled for upholding the authority of conscience, while his warning that “liberalism” (very much in the present meaning of the word) was the gravest threat to Christianity is ignored. An NCR reader objected to his beatification on the grounds that many Anglicans still “resent his conversion,”  which seemed to imply that he should have ignored the promptings of his conscience. (Liberals demean the Anglican converts by treating them not as free people making responsible decisions but as naïve dupes.)

Jesus himself is finally inaccessible to liberals except insofar as he can be seen as a somewhat timid feminist, a self-fulfillment therapist, or a political revolutionary. Classical Christology is a barrier to their understanding.

Almost 50 years after the Council, embittered liberals endlessly pick at old scabs, complaining that the Church did not follow the path they were certain it would take.

McBrien complains that good priests are “treated like traitors” and the Church is “demoralized” because “when a pastorally healthy bishop dies…his successor is a rigid, censorious micromanager.” The newer priests celebrate Mass only in Latin, “harangue” the people about their sins, fire their staffs, and make abortion the only subject addressed from the pulpit, McBrien reports.

Such complaints often reveal the disgruntled priests’ invincible sense of their own superiority, which an ungrateful Church does not recognize. An Australian priest, Eric Hodgens, makes the unwittingly clericalist boast that “we were successful at educating a newly vital and active laity,” and he dismisses the two most recent popes as intellectually deficient in contrast to his own generation, “when the priesthood held its biggest proportion of intelligent, educated, and competent leaders.”

The late NCR columnist Tim Unsworth once admiringly described a group of ex-priests in Chicago who gathered regularly for lunch and to shake their heads over priests recently given promotions, all of whom, the ex-priests agreed, were inferior to themselves.

The ex-priest Eugene Kennedy has spent decades sniping at the Church as a “broken-down seesaw” and “the midway of the clerical culture circus.” The new translations of the Mass are a fraud, like “patent medicines hawked off the backs of 19th-century wagons.” Kennedy once psychoanalyzed the bishops—from a distance—as insecure in their own masculinity and therefore driven to punish liberal priests, who are truly masculine. (This was before the bishops were found to be derelict in punishing sexual predators.)

James Gilgannon, an elderly Kansas City priest returning to his native diocese after decades in Bolivia, published an “open letter” to his much younger bishop deploring the way in which the bishop, with his “narrow ideology,” had betrayed the dreams of Gilgannon’s generation, especially in his forthright opposition to abortion.

Denise Simeone, self-described as “skilled at group facilitation, long-range planning, and mission development,” writes an open letter to priests of a certain age (“you marched at Selma”), with whom she commiserates for the many ways they have suffered and been morally compromised by their association with the hierarchy. Pat Marren, a former priest who is an NCR staff member, laments that “Vatican II priests” have undergone “suffering and frustration under an institutional Church they served so faithfully.”

But conservatives Catholics know that the tyrant most to be feared is usually the one closest to home. For years conservative priests, religious, and laity suffered under the arbitrary authority of bishops and superiors who in effect held themselves exempt from higher authority. “Vatican II priests” wielded unchallenged power for decades and are only now being asked for accounts, which they often refuse to render.

The second installment in this series can be read here.

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About James Hitchcock 0 Articles
James Hitchcock is a professor of history at St. Louis University.