Things rarely are simple. Nothing, save God, comes without a shadow.
That’s good to keep in mind when we assess the pros and cons of liberals and conservatives. Each brings something to the table and each too has an achilles heel.
What is the achilles heel within liberal Catholicism? I suggest three places where liberal Catholicism (Protestantism included) might want to do some self-scrutiny:
1) On our failure, by and large, to inspire permanent, joyous religious commitment.
Cardinal Francis George, speaking at a colloquium organized by COMMONWEAL magazine, recently made this statement:
“We are at a turning point in the life of the church in this century. Liberal Catholicism is an exhausted project. Essentially a critique, even a necessary critique at one point in our history, it is now parasitical on a substance that no longer exists. It has shown itself unable to pass on the faith in its integrity and is inadequate, therefore, in fostering the joyful self-surrender called for in Christian marriage, in consecrated life, in ordained priesthood.”
Cardinal George’s comment is directed more towards liberals within Roman Catholic circles, but it applies, I suggest, equally well within Protestant and Jewish circles.
This is not a comment that goes down well with everyone, especially with those of us who have given the best part of our lives struggling to open our churches up to a healthier, less-fearful relationship with modernism, science, secularity, and the very real moral progress that these have helped to bring to the world. Liberal ideology, despite all it has been accused of, has been one of the most powerful moral forces on the planet for the last 400 years. The opposite of the liberal and secular is not the spiritual or the church, but the Taliban. I don’t think any of us, conservatives included, want to be there.
But George’s comment strikes at a particular painful area. For all of our work at affirming human dignity, spreading the democratic principle, highlighting the plight of the poor, working at eliminating racism, pushing for gender equality, furthering ecological sensitivity, and affirming non-violence we haven’t been able to inspire our own children to follow us in the path of the faith and in the path of adult commitment. Former generations, whatever their faults, did this better. Whether that fault is inherent in liberal ideology itself is not the point. We haven’t been able to do it and it’s something we must examine ourselves on.
2) Have we been too naive in hooking our moral star to liberal ideology in the secular world?
There was a time between 1960 and 1990 when it seemed that the moral idealism of liberals in the church and the moral idealism of liberals in the culture were good dance partners. Liberals inspired by the gospel and liberals fuelled by secular sources had, it seemed, the same agenda: equality for all, non-elitism, greater ecological sensitivity, the elimination of poverty, greater ethnic and racial harmony, wider tolerance, wider mutual respect, and so on. The social agenda of the gospel and the agenda of liberal secular ideology seemed to be one and the same. We lived with the naive assumption that it would ever be thus.
But is this so? Hardly. Divorced from their Judeo-Christian roots, secular liberals have grown-up, and, like so many of our own children, taken some distance from the gospel. Secular liberalism has shifted its moral passion away from the issues of the poor and the misuse of power to issues of gender, sexuality, personal choice, and lifestyle. Secular liberals and liberal Christians are, today, no longer the harmonious dance partners they once. And we’ve been slow to recognize and accept this. Too often, we, liberal Christians, are now dancing with the wrong partner.
3) Have we been too fundamentalistic in not appreciating or even condemning certain religious movements and practices because these offend our liberal sensitivities or remind us too much of our own religious past?
One wonders whether the under-appreciation that we, liberals in general, have had for movements like PROMISE KEEPERS, CHARISMATIC RENEWAL, MARRIAGE ENCOUNTER, CURSILLO, RENEW, ALPHA, and the like, draws its source in genuine concern for the gospel or from offended liberal sensibilities. We tend to look at these movements, see there some strains of patriarchy, fundamentalism, piety, and uncritical submission to authority, and, irritated by these, fail to admit the real gospel transformation these movements sometimes help inspire. Offended in our liberal sensitivities, we become fundamentalist ourselves – uncompromising, unnuanced, locked into a pre-prescribed view, unable to see that sometimes the cruder discipline of authority is needed before someone can live the fuller freedom of the gospel. PROMISE KEEPERS, for example, may not be a spirituality for a mature Christian, but anything that helps get millions of men back home, faithful to their wives, and back to prayer and church should certainly not be seen as the enemy. Liberal assessment of these movements has sometimes been far from compassionate and wise.