The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 26, 2023 - 5:57:40

Liberalism in religion and morals vs. liberalism in temper and mode

Katie van Schaijik, Jan 28, 2015

One reason many people are either more enthusiastic or more upset about Pope Francis than the reality of the man justifies, is, I propose, because they conflate two different kinds of liberalism: liberalism as a kind of personal sensibility and liberalism in the realm of truth.

Oversimplifying and limiting myself to the contemporary context for brevity's sake, liberals of the former kind tend to be concerned about the poor, about social justice, about inequality. They favor "collective action" and government intervention more than conservatives do. They express sympathy and solidarity with the underprivileged, the marginalized and the outcast. They're typically more attuned to mercy than justice.

I think there's no doubt that Pope Francis is a liberal of this kind. So have been many saints and other moral heroes of modern times, including Dorothy Day, Jacques Maritain, Charles Peguy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Whittaker Chambers, among others. 

But the term liberal commonly indicates something else too, viz. a practical denial of the objectivity of truth in matters of faith and morals. No one articulates the concept better than Newman, who saw liberalism in religion as "the great mischief" of his day and dedicated his life to opposing it.  

Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily. It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion, as true. It teaches that all are to be tolerated, for all are matters of opinion. Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous; and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy.

Elsewhere he expressed the same idea this way:

That truth and falsehood in religion are but matter of opinion; that one doctrine is as good as another; that the Governor of the world does not intend that we should gain the truth; that there is no truth; that we are not more acceptable to God by believing this than by believing that; that no one is answerable for his opinions; that they are a matter of necessity or accident; that it is enough if we sincerely hold what we profess; that our merit lies in seeking, not in possessing; that it is a duty to follow what seems to us true, without a fear lest it should not be true; that it may be a gain to succeed, and can be no harm to fail; that we may take up and lay down opinions at pleasure; that belief belongs to the mere intellect, not to the heart also; that we may safely trust to ourselves in matters of Faith, and need no other guide,—this is the principle of philosophies and heresies, which is very weakness.

Because these kinds of liberalism so often go together, many people see evidence that the Pope is a liberal in mode and temper and leap (either with joy or dismay) to the conclusion that he must secretly want to change Church teaching in the area of morals.

I think the conclusion is unwarranted. 

1) We know by faith that the teachings of the Church in the areas of faith and morals are immutable.

2) We know by many concrete examples, such as the ones listed above, that liberal sensibilities can and often do go together with doctrinal orthodoxy.

3) The Pope has repeatedly affirmed and consistently displayed across a long priesthood his commitment to the teaching tradition of the Church.