In a recent article for InsideCatholic, I argued
that churches that turn toward theological liberalism soon begin going downhill in terms of their membership. As these churches adhere to less and less of traditional Christian doctrine and morality, their membership shrinks. For a church to become theologically liberal is to opt for institutional suicide, or at least institutional valetudinarianism.
I think the historical record is perfectly clear on this. Catholic liberalism in the United States is a relatively new thing, dating back only to the 1960s. But in only 40 years, we have seen the Catholic Church in America, as its liberalism quotient (so to speak) has gone up, go into a proportionate decline. Liberal Catholics, of course, might argue that this Catholic experiment with theological liberalism proves nothing. Forty years is too short a time for such an experiment; and besides, liberal Catholics usually add, the problem has not been too much liberalism but too little. The Church is still tied, they argue, to its old ways of thinking and doing. It is not sufficiently modern. Let’s try a truly modernized Catholicism, and we’ll see the Church flourish as never before.
You can make that argument if you like. But to do so, you have to be ignorant of the much longer and much more unlimited Protestant experiment with theological liberalism. In the Protestant world, liberalism emerged more than 200 years ago, appearing at approximately the same moment in Germany and England, and soon thereafter in New England (where it took the form of Unitarianism). This has been a lengthy experiment, having been carried on for more than 10 percent of the entire history of Christianity, and by now there has been no limit to the amount of Christian doctrinal and moral content that has been thrown overboard. (Read the works of Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong to see the absurd lengths to which Christian liberalism can go.) The end result has been the same everywhere and always: a decline in churches that embrace theological liberalism. When some new experiment begins, there may be a moment of brief upsurge in religious interest. But this soon disappears, and the inevitable decline sets in.
This brings me to a puzzling question: Given this clear historical record, why do so many apparently intelligent and well-educated Catholics wish to push their religion in a theologically liberal direction? Why do they want to amend the Church’s teachings on sexual morality, abortion, and suicide? Why do they want to de-emphasize or redefine doctrines like the Trinity, the Divinity of Christ, the Resurrection, the Virgin Birth? Don’t they realize that they are, in effect, trying to push their Church in the direction of institutional suicide?
Part of the answer to these questions is simply that most Catholics, including those who are otherwise well-educated, know little about the history of Protestantism. Catholic religious educators have never been enthusiastic about teaching young Catholics about Protestantism. For that matter, many Catholic religious educators don’t do a very good job of teaching about Catholicism itself — a very complex thing — let alone teaching about the many varieties and shades of that even more complex phenomenon, American Protestantism.
Further, adult Catholics who rely on the mainstream media to get information about the world will get very little information about the history of Protestantism, and this for two reasons. Secular journalists tend to be uninterested in religion: They cover politics, business, foreign affairs, movies, TV, sports, real estate, medicine, celebrities, etc., but rarely do they have anything to say about American religion. Besides, most of what happens in the world of religion, though it may be of interest to historians and sociologists and anthropologists, does not count as “news.”
But another part of the answer, I submit, is a sense of cultural inferiority that American Catholics have always felt and still feel. From the beginning of American history until the 1960s, Catholics felt inferior to Protestants, who were the dominant cultural power in the country. In the 1960s, when Catholics at last came to feel that they were approximately equal to Protestants, Protestants suddenly lost their cultural dominance, being replaced by nonreligious and even anti-religious people whom we may call secularists. The Protestant cultural establishment was replaced by a secularist cultural establishment, which continues to reign today — indeed, which reigns more than ever today. And Catholics generally feel culturally inferior to these secularists.
When a group feels inferior to another group, it will make one of two responses: (1) It may engage in an act of self-deception and tell itself that it is not inferior but superior, insisting instead that the higher-ranking group is truly inferior — all the while knowing (at an unconscious or barely conscious level) that this is untrue. (2) Alternatively, recognizing its inferiority and aping the superior group, it will try to acquire that group’s superior attributes.
During the long era of Protestant cultural supremacy, most Catholics, under the leadership of a strong-willed body of priests and nuns, made the first response, though a relatively small number attempted response No. 2. But since the rise of secularism to dominance, great numbers of Catholics, especially those with higher levels of education, have tended toward the second response. That is, while not renouncing their attachment to the Catholic religion, they have amended their idea of this religion in such a way as to make it more acceptable when judged from a secularist point of view.
In particular, they have:
- de-emphasized Catholicism’s supernaturalistic elements (for secularism is resolutely naturalistic);
- amended Catholicism’s super-strict sexual morality (for secularism is sexually permissive);
- stressed the social-justice aspects of Catholic morality (for secularism is a great believer in a form of social justice);
- embraced, albeit while misunderstanding, Catholicism’s teaching about the ultimate authority of conscience (for secularism strongly believes in something it calls “conscience”); and
- rejected the notion that the leaders of the Church (i.e., popes and bishops) are entitled to teach with authority (for secularism is strongly anti-authoritarian).
When you make these amendments to Catholicism, you get Catholic liberalism, a religion strikingly different from historical Catholicism; a religion, moreover, that is moving on a slippery slope toward outright atheism.