Tuesday, December 20, 2011

What Should We Do With the Liberal Catholic?

Apologies for the lack of posting recently—not that I think the internet desperately needs my outpourings, but because even the worst Catholic blog, if fairly regularly updated, must serve as a counterweight to the mighty tidal wave of liberal-left-secularist-progressive blogs, tweets, Facebook pages and goodness knows what else on the Irish internet. The logic is a bit like turning up at a public meeting to lend your lungpower to the right side. It doesn’t really matter what you say as long as you say it loud enough to be heard, and maybe even drown out the other side a little.

Incidentally, and on a biographical note, I have a visitor coming from America soon, a Catholic lady from Richmond, Virginia. Richmond is a small city, and Catholics are in a minority there, but it boasts at least two big churches that are packed out at every Mass. One of them, St. Benedict’s, is sure to delight the hearts of the traditionally-minded; long Mass, lots of Latin, deacons, altar servers in vestments—some of the female worshippers even wear headscarves. And, incredibly, it’s a young parish, with tons of young families and twenty-somethings to be seen.

I’m wondering what she will make of Ireland’s religious life; the strong contrast between the Catholic legacy everywhere to be seen (churches, shrines, streets named after saints, the Angelus bells broadcast on state radio and TV) and the tepid practice (before all the Sunday Masses were amalgamated into one, my local church had as little as nineteen worshippers at the earliest Mass).

But that’s not what I wanted to consider in this post. I wanted to wonder aloud—how should we treat liberal/progressive/left/dissident/cafeteria Catholics?

I have an admission to make. When I’m listening to the radio, or watching TV, or reading a newspaper, or even surfing that ole internet, and I find myself attending to someone giving their opinion about the Catholic church (as everybody does sooner or later), there are certain key words and phrases that make me stop listening. One is “clericalist mindset”. Another is “authoritarian”. Then there are “homophobia”, “reclaim the Church”, and “backward-looking”.

As soon as those catchphrases are used, I’m pretty sure I know what the person is going to say, and I know where the train of thought is going. Into heresy; into the dereliction of dogma and onto the broad, easy path that so many fossilized and perishing human creeds have trod already; into indifferentism and irrelevance.

Nor is this true only of challenges to dogma. I used to read the column of Nuala O’Loan in the Irish Catholic before I heard her, on radio, making the case for women priests. Since then, I skip over her column. Doesn’t she know that Pope Benedict has explained the Church’s stance on female ordination is irrevocable?

But is this right? Should I really stop listening to someone just because they have sounded my liberal alarm on one issue? Might they not have something interesting to say, aside from their errors?

I think there is a danger of the enthusiastically orthodox—like me—mistaking orthodoxy for holiness. The game of “spot the heresy” can become a little too gleeful, a little too self-congratulatory—even a little too pharisaical, perhaps. It is probably the case that the majority of Ireland’s practicing Catholics knowingly go against Church teaching in some way, and I am absolutely sure that thousands upon thousands of them—if not most of them, if not all of them—are closer to the Kingdom of Heaven than I am.

One thing I am always struck by, when reading the writings of Pope Benedict XVI, is the irenicism and calmness of the supposed “Panzerkardinal”. He does not denounce atheists or agnostics or secularists, and has even (I hope I do not misrepresent him) suggested that the dynamic between faith and doubt is part of the human condition; he draws from Protestant theologians and Protestant Biblical scholars; he quotes spiritual writers from other religions, such as Gandhi. Even his recent comments on condom use by homosexuals, utterly distorted as it was by the secular media, show how “edgy” he is willing to be.

I think there is truth in what Chesterton said; when you know where the line is, you can go as close to it as you like. Perhaps the truly orthodox are the least impatient with heresy, the least prone to a “siege mentality”. In any case, liberal Catholics are a presence in Irish life that cannot be ignored; unfortunately, even amongst the clergy. Name-calling and polemics are not going to get us anywhere. I think we have to be nice to the progressives, if we are ever going to win them back to orthodoxy.


  1. who gives a fuck what sentimental irish queers say or think, shalaylay-- cat. or not

    stay in spud land. over here, you wouldn't last a week

  2. In the comment above we can measure the sort of calm and reasoned discourse found among those who denounce Catholics as fools and bigots.

  3. That's why I chose not to delete it!

  4. Hahaha oh wow that first comment.

    Anyway, I must admit I myself am guilty of the whole 'spot the heresy' thing and tuning it out completely. This is the internet, there is alot of that guff here. The last time I engaged a liberal Catholic, oddly enough with regards to evangelising and whether or not it was moral to 'impose views' by telling someone they are wrong, descended into a spiral arguement, which I couldnt win because apparently the other catholic rejected leviticus when I was quoting the new Testament.

    It gets tiring, very tiring, and sometimes I honestly do think it is just better to shout over them and drown out their noise.

  5. Well, I think it has a lot to do with how sincere their Catholicism really is. I think with many so-called liberal Catholics there is really nothing left of their faith except some kind of ethnic pride (you will have plenty of experience of this in the North, I'm sure) or attachment to Catholic ritual or hymns or something like that. It's purely sentimental and residual.

    But then I think there are liberal Catholics whose motives are genuinely spiritual and who simply don't see the contradictions within their views. I think it is important to be gentle with these people and not estrange them further-- without ever compromising the truth.