Liberal Catholicism is going to die. In a recent article on the conclave to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI, one of the world’s most experienced foreign correspondents Greg Sheridan made the point that sooner or later liberal Catholics realise that liberalism is just much easier if you drop the demands of genuine Catholicism altogether. After all, who wants to worship a God who seems to keep challenging the desire we possess to create our own rules. Much easier to roll out a new golden calf and worship ourselves.
Liberalism’s elevation of personal freedom and its misunderstanding of conscience sooner or later come into conflict with real Catholicism. Real Catholicism communicates that while the individual is important they are ‘contingent beings’, created by a God who, while loving them, also transcends them. As such, we do not create our own morality, we discover one. That morality is written into the fabric of our bodies and relationships; it is revealed in the canon of scripture and communicated via the Church’s teaching throughout time. Liberal Catholics don’t much like the Magisterium because it interferes with their desire to recreate the Church in the their own image. Interestingly, the Church has seemed curiously and consistently resistant to that desire for millennia. She is not an ecclesial version of the local footy club with an AGM.
Catholic liberalism is essentially an oxymoron. You cannot advocate both the absolute primacy of individual conscience whilst also believing in dependence upon a God whose very nature is moral and who in His essence creates the very categories of what is true, good and beautiful.
Over the last decade I have had innumerable experiences with senior Catholic education administrators and school staff who are caught in the midst of this very problem. They resent the Church at some deep level and see it as their job to drive some kind of internal reform. The result is total indifference on the part of a generation of students who wonder why many teachers lack any passion for the faith. The result is also a vast number of schools where staff formation in the faith and their commitment to the goals of Catholic education has been kneecapped. The Church seems not to need external enemies; she has enough internal ones.
Liberal Catholicism is going to exhaust itself within the next quarter century. It just takes too much effort to ‘kick against the traces’ for this long. If God won’t let me do what I want and remake the Church to match my political affiliations then why bother hanging around? My sense is that as liberal Catholicism grasps this truth it will lash out in increasingly strident ways with a renewed, intense but short-lived attack on orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is such a misunderstood word. It simply means acceptance of what the Bishop of Rome teaches. Nothing more, nothing less.
The risk is that committed orthodox Catholics present themselves as arrogant or triumphalist. Rigid ultra-orthodoxy is joyless and mean spirited and usually masks a distrust of God not disimilar to the liberals they resent. My sense for years has been that it is all so much simpler. There is only one Church and one Bishop of Rome. There is a single invitation to surrender our wilfulness to what Chesterton called ‘the democracy of the dead’ – the millions of men and women throughout the centuries who have had the humility and wisdom to submit themselves to a wisdom greater than their own.