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Objection: "Are You Liberal Catholics?"

By David Bennett

Are we at Ancient and Future Catholics liberal Catholics? We feel that we have to answer this objection, because our name "Ancient and Future Catholics" seems to imply some type of progressivism or liberalism. A definition of liberal is in order. "Liberal" in its original sense just means free, i.e., allowing freedom in belief, practice, etc. However, these days, for most people, liberal means being politically or theologically leftist. Unfortunately "liberal" and "conservative" have become loaded terms, shaped mainly by American politics. We want to address common uses of the word "liberal" and explain how each relates to Catholicism.

To start, we must note that the Catholic faith, based on the ancient and received faith, "once delivered," is generally going to be conservative: it is the nature of the Catholic Church to move slowly and with caution. Thus, Catholics are not "liberals" in the sense of being culturally or religiously progressive. Politically, the Church is the best witness when she sticks to her values and beliefs regardless of secular and cultural trends, hovering above political ideologies. So is Catholicism leftist or rightist? In the current political milieu, such classification is difficult, since many faithful Catholics hold political views across the spectrum. Some, including the editors of this website, believe in small government, and that government is a contributor to most social problems, while other Catholics believe government is the solution to social problems.

Generally, the Church holds beliefs related to social and political matters that transcend modern labels. For instance, the Church is generally opposed to most wars (unless the strict conditions of a just war can be met), against capital punishment except under certain specific conditions, and in favor of outlawing abortion. However, these teachings are not based on current political trends, but rather the teachings of the Bible and Tradition.

Now, if by "liberal," you mean theologically liberal, such as denying Jesus' divinity, resurrection, or his virgin birth, then Catholics are far from liberal. One cannot be Catholic and deny these beliefs. These beliefs are dogma, and not believing them amounts to heresy (incorrect belief). However, moments of individual difficulty do not amount to heresy, as we all struggle at times with our beliefs. However, part of accepting the Catholic faith is submitting to the Church's teaching.

In terms of morality, Catholics are not really morally "liberal," since being liberal (progressive) regarding morality often refers to accepting and celebrating moral innovation. Catholics are quite conservative morally, and oppose things that Western culture almost unanimously accepts and praises, such as artificial contraception. However, does this mean Catholics support banning all behaviors they consider immoral? Some Catholics would say "yes," and many Catholics on both the political left and right would gladly use the government in this way. However, Catholics of a more libertarian nature believe that the best way to transform a society is not by banning personal immoral behavior through government punishment, but rather, through changing hearts and minds.

Finally, the word liberal has traditionally meant allowing freedom and liberty. The classic Catholic doctrinal and moral consensus, while generally conservative, allows some room for divergence on side issues, discipline, and spirituality, and certainly all disagreements within the Church and with those on the outside must be charitable and free of coercion. While some orthodox Catholics are very narrow in their interpretation of Catholicism, most Catholics, including popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI recognize the importance of charity when dealing with all people.

We may be considered too "liberal" in the progressive sense for some Christians, because like most Catholics, we accept many conclusions of modern science and biblical studies. What many define as "liberal" are beliefs and practices that do not line up with 19th century conservative Protestant thought, i.e. "fundamentalism." Unfortunately, "fundamentalism" is really just another modernist movement. It is rather strange for a Catholic to be called a liberal by a fundamentalist, because Catholicism is about preserving the ancient Apostolic faith, which makes 19th century theological trends and beliefs seem liberal and new themselves.

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In conclusion, we Catholics are called to follow Jesus, not modern political or moral trends. Because of this, orthodox Catholic Christianity (i.e. the Christianity of the early Church and beyond) transcends modern political, social, and theological labels. The vision of our website, and that of the Catholic Church, is that as Christians we should not work our faith around modern cultural and secular trends, but rather strive to view cultural and secular trends in light of our faith in Jesus Christ.

Last updated 12-27-2010

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