Liberalism and Theology

Author: Fr. Stanley L. Jaki


Fr. Stanley L. Jaki

A new situation has come about within the Christian community itself... with regard to the Church's moral teachings. It is no longer a matter of limited and occasional dissent, but of an overall and systematic calling into question of traditional moral doctrine.[1]

So stated Pope John Paul II in his latest encyclical, <Veritatis splendor>. The situation is indeed very new. Church historians may not agree as to how far back in time they should go to find a situation similar to the one described in the encyclical. But they would certainly agree that no encyclical issued during the last 200 years contains a statement even remotely as ominous.

Not that during those two very modern centuries there has been no dissent. Also, the dissent could be so radical as to call for the harshest conceivable words of condemnation. Thus in his encyclical, <Pascendi dominici gregis>, Pius X decried, in 1907, the modernist position as a "delirium," an "insanity," an "audacious sacrilege," a "monstrosity." He used such extremely harsh words only because he felt he could thereby alert each and all to the seriousness of an error which, however, was held only by a few, indeed only by a very few.

Moreover, that saintly pope did not have to face a dissent in moral theology, which, concretely or existentially speaking, is always far more serious than a dissent in matters of faith. Dissent in morals involves not merely man's head but also his very flesh and blood that pull him away from truth with a far greater force than would purely intellectual urges. The following of Christ has indeed its moment of truth when one has to deny oneself and take up the cross not only once or twice but, as we have it in St. Luke's Gospel, each and every day.

It has often been said that the anti-modernist policy of Pius X did not eradicate the evil of modernism but merely suppressed it, pushing it underground, so to speak. Should one then say that the alarming situation registered by John Paul II is a broad revival of modernism? It would be a mistake to think so. First, nothing could have been easier for Pope John Paul II than to refer to modernism. After all, he is not one to mince words. But there is no mention whatever of modernism in the encyclical <Veritatis splendor>. Second, it would have been wrong to refer to modernism for a simple reason. As was noted above, modernism, as denounced by Pius X, related to dogma rather than to principles of morality. Pope John Paul speaks, however, about a dissent concerning moral theology. But he also speaks of a universal and systematic dissent. Now a dissent, to be systematic, must have a system to support it, and systems, precisely since they tend to be universal, can easily be given a verbal label which is always a universal. Still, John Paul II did not give a name, a general label, to that universal and systematic dissent. The words he uses, such as relativism, consequentialism, and behaviorism, are but partial aspects of a broader trend. Nevertheless, it is not difficult to identify that trend as liberalism.

There is, however, no reference to liberalism in the encyclical. A possible reason for this is the amorphous character of what is meant by liberalism. It is difficult to improve in this respect on the words of Ramsay Muir, a prominent professor of economics, who, in the wake of World War I described liberalism as follows:

Liberalism is a habit of mind, a point of view, a way of looking at things, rather than a fixed and unchanging body of doctrine. Like all creeds it is a spirit not a formula. It gets expression from time to time in formulae and programmes of policy, but these are always and necessarily determined by the circumstances of the time in which they are framed; they can, therefore, have no permanent validity; they need to be continually revised and recast, or they become mere shackles on the spirit which they try to express.[2]

Much the same amorphous nature of liberalism is conveyed in the more popular formula given by an equally prominent liberal, Dorothy Thompson, shortly before World War II. Liberalism, she wrote, is "a kind of spirit and a sort of behavior, the basis of which is an enormous respect for personality."[3] The expressions "kind of" and "sort of" are in English standard verbal means to protect one's intentionally vague discourse from the threat of clear objections. But here they were obviously called for because of the difficulty to define clearly the profile of liberalism.

After World War II it became a chief problem for liberals to make it credible that their reluctance to be clear was a poor means to counter the clear threat of Communist totalitarianism. Under the duress of that threat a fair number of perceptive liberals thought that liberalism was digging its own grave by its refusal to admit anything absolute, including some absolute limits to the use of one's freedom. This refusal, they saw, promoted anarchy which in turn would usher in totalitarianism. One of those perceptive liberals was Michael Polanyi. In a much quoted article he criticized in 1950 the inconsistency of liberals who, while advocating freedom, refused to consider the meaning of man's ability to be free in a universe in which nothing else was free.[4]

Yet while the liberals could not often state what they really wanted, they were all too clear on what they really opposed. "Liberalism turned away from the ideal of the medieval saint and proclaimed the modern ideal of the reformer." These words are from a book, The Faith of a Liberal, written in 1949 by Morris Cohen, a prominent professor at Columbia University at that time.[5] Indeed, this anti-Christian character of liberalism was clearly in view when the word liberalism was first used in 1811 in Spain to promote a new, secularizing constitution. Long before that, liberalism was on the march as a principal means of securing for the middle class (bourgeoisie) the accumulation of its wealth. Indeed, countless are the documents which show that the various liberal political movements during the 17th and 18th centuries had the protection of private wealth as their chief aim. The limits set to absolute monarchies, the stepwise extension of voting rights, the various customs legislation had this one thing in common. From Thomas Hobbes through Adam Smith and the French physiocrats on the continent, to Jeremy Bentham and Herbert Spencer, a great variety of politico-economic theories have the protection of private property for their central theme.

The theme antedates, of course, the 17th century. It was born during the 15th century, in a more or less open break with the medieval and indeed Christian outlook on life which put the emphasis not on this life but on the life to come. Poor and rich equally enter that life with no possessions except such that the moth does not devour and the rust does not corrode. Liberalism, however, put the emphasis on the life here and now, and on the demand that life down here should be comfortable, at least for a relatively few. It is in this light that one should see the general agreement among liberal economists that an unemployment rate of seven percent is healthy, because it is inevitable. Not all can be equally well off.

The grim pursuit of riches, has, of course, for its foundation the very un-Christian conviction that life is bounded by one's birth and death. Not that liberals would always dismiss the prospect of eternal life in a categorical way. Eternal life is left as a vague possibility, at best an added bonus, like the icing on a cake. But it is the essence of liberalism to focus on material well-being down here on earth. One only needs to couple this emphasis on material well being with the evasive vagueness of liberals about principles to see the necessary, the inevitable dynamics of liberalism in theology.

But before setting forth and denouncing that dynamics, it is important not to rush into an indefensible position. Once in that position, one cannot but concede that only liberals can be generous, open minded, daring, and enterprising; only liberals would explore the unknown, only liberals are innovative, only liberals are entitled to repudiate with Horace the label, <laudator temporis acti.> Once in that indefensible position, opponents of liberals are condemned to see nothing but the good old days, without seeing that, on a close look, those good old days were all too often pretty bad times indeed.

Indeed one can gather from unimpeachably conservative authorities some high praise for liberalism. According to one such authority, "it must be borne in mind, that there is much in the liberalistic theory which is good and true; for example, not to say more, the precepts of justice, truthfulness, sobriety, self-command which are among its avowed principles, and the natural laws of society." The one who said this is none other than John Henry Newman. Further, he uttered these words at the very moment when he was formally notified in Rome on May 12, 1879, that the next day he would be created a Cardinal.[6]

In reply to that notification Newman gave a brief speech in which he summarized the chief motivation of his public life as something most anti-liberal:

For thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of Liberalism in religion... it is an error overspreading, as a snare, the whole earth; . . . 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.

Did then Newman oppose liberalism in theology or religion alone, but not the socio-political applications of liberalism? In the same speech he gave to this question an answer which again strikes one with its markedly anti-liberal tone:

Hitherto, it has been considered that religion alone, with its supernatural sanctions, was strong enough to secure submission of the masses of our population to law and order; now the Philosophers and Politicians are bent on satisfying this Problem without the aid of Christianity. Instead of the Church's authority and teaching, they would substitute first of all a universal and thoroughly secular education, calculated to bring home to every individual that to be orderly, industrious and sober is his personal interest.

It would, of course, be a great mistake to think that Newman, a great logician, would contradict himself, and in a brief speech at that. He himself gives the solution to the apparent contradiction as he refers once more to the principles of what he called liberalistic theory: "It is not till we find that this array of principles is intended to supersede, to block out religion, that we pronounce it to be evil." He also stated, in the same breath, that it was the exploitation of that array of principles which constituted that most successful strategy of none other than the devil, the Enemy:

There never was a device of the Enemy so cleverly framed and with such promise of success. And already it has answered to the expectations which have been formed of it. It is sweeping into its ranks great numbers of able, earnest, virtuous men, elderly men of approved antecedents, young men with a career before them.

Were he to live today, Newman would add that a great many Catholic theologians have been swept into those ranks, however unwittingly.

Only a conservative would speak in this way, although today Newman would protest against using this term. I said, today, or times very different from his. A hundred and fifty years ago, in the Spring of 1850, he could describe the ecclesiastical situation in words that today would sound unbelievable:

Never was the whole body of the faithful so united to each other and to their head. Never was there a time when there was less of error, heresy, and schismatical perverseness among them.[7]

What a contrast with the present situation, a situation of universal systematic dissent, a situation registered by the Pope himself! And were Newman to explain himself on theologians who had been ensnared by the Enemy, he would point to their heavy reliance on categories such as liberal versus conservative, traditional versus progressive. It is by relying heavily on these categories, that they try to evade the categories of true versus false, holy versus sinful. But it was precisely these categories that form the backbone of Newman's foregoing description of Christian religion as being in irreconcilable opposition to the ideology called Liberalism.

Newman allowed liberty to theologians to be liberal only as long as they kept in focus the categories of true versus false, holy versus sinful. In fact he greatly availed himself of that liberty. So much so that some, who would today be classified as archconservatives, such as the great Cardinal Manning, called Newman the most dangerous Catholic in England! But even when Newman made some of his apparently most liberal statements, he could balance them with very conservative ones. Nothing sums up more succinctly his very balanced views on the development of dogma than these two short phrases:

It [the formulation of revealed truth] changes with them [the times] in order to remain the same. In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.[8]

This is why, when asked after he had become a Cardinal what he would do if elected Pope, Newman said that he would immediately set up a number of commissions to study what changes should be made in a number of areas with all deliberate speed! Did this mean that Newman would have, as Pope, let the Church be run as a parliamentary or liberal democracy? Far from it. Three years before he became a Cardinal, Newman gave a capsule formulation of his idea of the Catholic Church:

Christianity is at once a philosophy, a political power, and a religious rite: as a religion, it is Holy; as a philosophy, it is Apostolic; as a political power, it is imperial, that is, One and Catholic. As a religion, its special centre of action is pastor and flock; as a philosophy, the Schools; as a rule, the Papacy and its Curia.[9]

Do not some prominent liberal theologians make a sport of disobeying the Pope by flouting directives issued from his Curia?

What has been said about Newman may seem a long digression in a relatively short essay, but an all important one for the purposes set by our topic: liberalism and theology. For few things put liberals so much on the defensive as the assertion that Newman was anything but a liberal. Have not liberal theologians tried to appropriate Newman to themselves as their patron saint? But it is precisely Newman's characterization of liberalism in relation to Christian religion that should make it clear why so-called liberal theologians always run the risk of promoting heresies, however unwittingly.

Being liberal, those theologians must share something of the program of liberalism. At the very core of that program is the emphasis on nature, on life on this earth, on fulfillment here below. The foremost of those liberal theologians, say a Rahner or a Schillebeeckx, have never denied eternal life. They never suggested that there was no such life; they never ridiculed the words of the Gospel: What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but in the process he loses his very soul? But they certainly put the emphasis on nature whenever they discussed any supernatural proposition. Moreover, as befits liberalism, which, as we have seen, even according to liberals is more an attitude than a clear statement, liberal theologians are long on describing attitudes and short on being to the point.

What then is the outcome? To predict it one need not be a prophet, not even a professional theologian; it is enough to be a plain Catholic, who still remembers the propositions of the Apostles' Creed and takes them with plain common sense. The first of those propositions is about the Maker of all, that is, the Creator of all creation. The liberal theologian will put the emphasis not on the Creator but on creation. But by creation he understands not so much the act of God whereby he creates out of nothing and freely, but its target, the created world. Worse, his interest in the natural will tempt him to identify that created world with Nature, which secular liberals view as uncreated, as existing on its own terms. Hence the emphasis of liberal theologians on respect, in the guise of ecological concern, for Nature as if Nature had been created for its own sake and not for man's sake.

The same dynamics, the same imbalance toward the natural, can be seen in liberal theologians' treatment of belief in Jesus Christ, the Redeemer. Plain logic demands that if man is to be redeemed, he has to be in a state of captivity, in a state of perdition. This is a chief reason why the Church has always stressed that all men sinned in Adam and therefore fell into the grip of the Devil or the Enemy. But the dynamics of liberalism, which is ruled by an optimistic view of human nature, prompts the liberal theologian to de-emphasize as much as possible the fallenness of human nature. He would not, of course, deny the dogma of original sin, but does everything to make it appear that original sin is not tangible at all. Thus it became a trend in the new or liberal theology to claim that original sin cannot be closely tied to anything concrete in human experience, be it ignorance, concupiscence, suffering, or death. No liberal theologian would repeat, for instance, with Newman that it looks as if the human race had been involved in a "terrible aboriginal calamity."[10]

Such a calamity, which Newman meant to be taken for original sin, is not something strictly concrete. Even in concrete actual sinful acts, the sin itself remains purely non- material, the absence of what should be there. But in this empirical age, when champions of the new or liberal theology swear by the empirical, it should seem rather strange that they downplay the most empirical of all dogmas, as Chesterton called the dogma of original sin. Do we not all experience its effects in ourselves day in and day out? Liberal theologians are far more interested in liberating man from socio-economic oppression than from the oppression of sin.

The same naturalist dynamics, which forces the liberal theologian to shy away from original sin, forces him to shy away from what is divine in Christ. Consequently, great religious leaders, such as Buddha and Muhammad, will be seen as variations on the incarnation of the divine in the human. I have heard a liberal theologian claim in a public lecture that Jesus is not on a higher level than any of the great religious leaders. Christological dogmas are then treated (Schillebeeckx is an example) as culturally conditioned formulas which are always revisable.[11] Liberal theologians writing lives of Jesus can go so far as to claim that Jesus was a mere Galilean peasant, with all the ignorance and limitations of such peasants.[12] But the naturalism, which liberalism demands from the theologian, is also evident in the claim of one such biblical expert that while his critical reason forbids him to see a divine being in Jesus, he accepts his divinity on faith. Such a distinction between faith and reason is, however, the very dynamic which turns faith into a subjective sentiment which does not strictly depend on supernatural grace.

This is not to suggest that a liberal theologian would necessarily draw all the consequences of that dichotomy between faith and reason. Thus Karl Rahner did not mean to reduce the virgin birth, that is the miraculous birth of Jesus, to the level of a purely natural birth, where the mother's hymen is broken in the very first birth. But Rahner failed to consider the consequences of his "explanation" of the virgin birth by distinguishing between the idea of virgin birth and the reality of it. The distinction was the distinction between the Kantian <Ding an sich> which is unknown and the idea of the thing which alone could be known.[13]

While on this point Rahner did not draw the naturalistic consequences of the Kantian position, he did so in respect to papal authority. This happened after the present pontiff had appointed Father Dezza, subsequently a cardinal, as General of the Jesuits, obviously to save many of them from the naturalism that invaded the Society under the generalship of Father Arrupe. Rahner, with eight other leading Jesuits, signed an open letter to the Pope in which they protested the Pope's disregard of the democratic rights of the Society to elect their own General.[14] Now what are democratic rights, if not the chief means which according to liberalism will usher in the better future?

With respect to the Eucharist the liberal theologian emphasizes the natural externals of the sacrament as a banquet. The Eucharist is certainly a meal, even a banquet, but a sacrificial one, the very point which the liberal theologian is not going to emphasize. Obviously, any emphasis on sacrifice, on self-immolation, would strike at the very root of the liberal claim that nature is good by itself and because of this it should not be sacrificed. The doctrine of transubstantiation is naturally too supernatural for the taste of the liberal theologian. While he cannot directly deny it, he will make much of the philosophical objections to the Aristotelian doctrine of substance and will promote a ritual in which acts of adoration, such as kneeling before the sacrament, are eliminated.

Such naturalist weakening of the traditional view of the Eucharist goes together with a liberal revamping of the notion of the priesthood. Hence the emphasis on the service which the priest should perform toward the community. But that service- counseling, organization, preaching, instructions-is such that any layman can do it Another way of naturalizing the sacramental priesthood is to push for the ordination of women, very often under purely naturalistic or feminist pretexts. The irony is that this push is readily followed by the claim that there is no need for priests at all. So it happened within the Church of England no sooner than it allowed women to receive its rite of ordination. Naturally the claim that by nature everybody is a priest was decried by many, but the claim was instructive of the naturalist logic at work in liberal theology.

That logic has been at work for four centuries now in Protestantism. Barth merely reacted to that logic without drawing the full logic of what he had seen unfold as a historic fact. Much less could he be expected to draw that logic in the full glare of publicity. Indeed, only in strict privacy did a prominent Barthian, whose name I am not at liberty to divulge, disclose to me his suspicion that naturalism is the real outcome of Protestantism. Naturalism is also the chief harm which liberalism is producing in Catholic theology.

The optimist view of human nature which is fostered in liberalism forces the liberal theologian to be silent on hell. If he speaks of heaven he describes it as a place into which everybody would slide almost naturally and almost insensibly. Naturalism lurks between the lines of such a statement in the sermon delivered at the funeral service of Jacqueline Kennedy that we all should be "filled with gratitude for the graces lavished upon Jacqueline and through her upon us all, and most of all gratitude for the gift of salvation that God has won for Jacqueline."[15] Lackeying to the rich, the powerful, and the glamourous (especially when it flies in the face of matters public and obvious) does not seem to jibe with Paul's warning that we all should work on our salvation "with fear and trembling." But this warning is hardly echoed even in modest contexts. Liberalism in theology translates itself into "politically correct," that is, plainly naturalist language when at a typical Christian burial not a word is being said about judgment, particular or final. The resurrection of the body will then become a prospect for all, since liberal theology overemphasizes the Catholic doctrine that nobody is condemned for personal fault.

What is the common theological trait of all these manifestations of liberalism in theology? It is the upsetting of the balance between the natural and the supernatural. As a theological term the supernatural was coined by medieval scholastic theologians, especially by Thomas Aquinas. Liberal theologians see in the medieval provenance of that term the Achilles' heel of the traditional doctrine that grace, being the utterly gratuitous gift of God, is not merited. But if one can argue against anything medieval just because it is medieval, then the twentieth-century liberal cannot protest if his views are slighted at the outset for their being no less time-conditioned.

At any rate, the medieval scholastic teaching about the relation between the natural and the supernatural was a very balanced doctrine. It was Thomas Aquinas who insisted that the supernatural, the grace of God, does not destroy but lifts up what is merely natural: <Gratia non destruit sed elevat naturam>. The liberal does not necessarily deny this, but goes on arguing that if the supernatural can raise the natural, then the natural must have a receptivity for the supernatural.

But the question is precisely this: can the receptivity be interpreted in such a way as to endanger the utter gratuity of grace? Clearly, one is faced with what conceptually is an insoluble dilemma. One is faced with the task of a balancing act, with the duty similar to the one which Christ enjoined when he said: "Render to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's." Concerning this particular question, or the question of Church-State relations, their long history shows that a perfect balance could not be perfectly articulated and much less acted out. The same is true with respect to the relation between the natural and the supernatural.

This means that those who insist on unfolding in full the receptivity of nature to the supernatural shall forever have material to work on. They can always claim that the last word, in all particulars, has not yet been stated. This is perfectly true. No matter how perfect a dogmatic formula is, the reality or truth which it conveys is always deeper than our verbalizations of it. Hamlet's phrase, "to be or not to be," can forever be put in a better or deeper light, precisely, because that verb "to be," no matter how clear it may be by itself, shall forever fall short of the depth of meaning which is included in the reality of existence, especially when seen against the very real possibility of nonexistence.

But, although it is always legitimate to emphasize the receptivity of nature to the supernatural, there remains always the risk that the emphasis will entail the turning of the supernatural into a fruit of that receptivity, destroying thereby its genuinely supernatural character. Indeed, some of the best liberal theologians, such as De Lubac, whose sincere loyalty to Pope and orthodoxy is above any doubt, did not succeed in presenting their work on that receptivity in such a way as to allay legitimate fears that they had not indeed safeguarded the supernatural. In other words, in this human condition there will always be a struggle, a sort of a fluctuation between two possible approaches while both approaches ought to be cultivated carefully. But since a perfect balance is not possible, one is going to make a mistake. The question is whether the mistake one will have to make will be bigger or smaller. Is there a guideline which assures us that the mistake will be smaller rather than larger?

I think there is such a guideline. One of its best formulations, which is very relevant to our topic-liberalism and theology-is due to Saint Bonaventure, the great Franciscan Doctor of the Church. He gave that guideline in the context of his discussion of the relation of grace and free will, this most acute aspect of the relation between the natural and the supernatural:

However much you ascribe to the grace of God, you will not harm piety by so doing.... If, on the contrary, you wrong grace by crediting nature with what belongs to grace, there is danger.... Even though (the former) position were false, it would not harm piety or humility; it is therefore fitting and safe to hold it.[16]

This was also the principle which Newman followed in deciding the great issue whether he was to join the Catholic Church. The issue was between the natural and the supernatural. He saw that if there was any progress in the Church of England it was towards the shallows of naturalism. Within that Church, ruled by the ruling social class and political establishment, the gentleman took the place of the saint as the ideal to follow. The norms of the gentleman were the norms of mere nature. But from the very start the Church held high norms which implied a rise above nature, a rise which only the supernatural grace of God could implement. The process was best implemented in the saints. This is why Newman kept saying: "Be my soul with the saints!"[17]

Herein lies in simple terms the solution to the relation between theology and liberalism. Take any old or modern saint. Take, for instance, Mother Teresa, whom everybody would consider a living saint. She is heroic, she is daring, she is compassionate, she is understanding-qualities which liberals like to ascribe to themselves. But a liberal she cannot be called, not even by the farthest stretch of the imagination. And all the liberals in the Church know that her heroic virtues present a far greater threat to them than all the non-liberal theologians taken together. And this is why liberal theologians poured out a good dosage of their sophisticated scorn when the road was opened for Newman's eventual canonization after Rome declared that he had heroically practiced Christian virtues.

For what are the saints, or rather, what are the saints in the Church? Let us use a comparison which, because of its modernity, may sound very liberal. In olden days the Church was likened to a boat, to a bark, to a ship. It has become a classic to speak of the bark of Peter, with the pope at its helm, a bark tossed around by the waves but always remaining afloat and always making some progress in spite of adverse and treacherous currents. Let us be modern, liberal, if you wish, and speak of the Church as a car, an automobile. Clearly, the steering mechanism would be the pope and the bishops in union with him. The frame would be the ecclesiastical organization into dioceses and parishes. The motor would be the sacraments. The grace of God would be the gasoline. But the saints would be the spark plugs that keep igniting the motor. Indeed, throughout Church history it was the saints who kept the motor of the Church really running, a motor which in its spiritual form too should be revitalized at every split second, or else it will come to a stop.

A great many things can be said in support of theological liberalism, or rather of theologians who are typically classified as liberals. They provided many new perspectives, say, on Church-State relations. They supplied enthusiasm for the elaboration of Catholic social teaching. They made largely possible a much-needed dialogue with non-Catholics, with non-Christians, and even with atheists. They, and not the so-called conservatives, made the Church ready to accommodate itself to an increasingly pluralistic society, not only in the West but all across the globe. This is not to say that liberals carry no serious responsibility for much of the disorder in the Church and for much of the misunderstanding about the Church as seen from the outside. They and not the conservatives spread the illusion that the Church is another democratic society whose laws and constitution can be redrawn by opinion polls and majority vote.

But the most serious failure of liberal theology and liberal theologians lies in their chronic inability to generate saints. The reason for this lies in their undue focusing on the value of the natural. Because of this they are unable to see the difference between any ordinary coin and the coin which Jesus Christ spoke of. On any ordinary coin the two sides are equal. But one side of the coin Jesus spoke of, has the name of God on it, a God who is not man's equal, but his very Creator. This is why liberals have always been insufficiently attentive to those words of Christ that made all saints: What does it profit a man if he gains the world but in the process he loses his very soul? Ordinary coins can be exchanged at will and pleasure. But there is one exchange for which there is no liberal provision, about which there is no analogy in the free market economy advocated by liberals: If a man tries to obtain something for his very self, to recall Christ's words again, he receives nothing in return. Herein lies the root of the ultimate bankruptcy of liberal theology. Its basic trading policy is far more deceptive than the foolish gesture whereby a whole orchard is given away for a mere apple. We know what happened to Adam and Eve. It is liberals, not conservatives who are turning our first parents into mythical figures, and keep reinterpreting their foolish bargain so that it may appear, if not a good investment, at least something of no real consequence.

I am not saying that liberal theology, unless it is plain modernism, offers divinity for man. But by overemphasizing the natural it puts the plain Christian on a roller coaster which goes up and down, although it never climbs as fast as it rushes downward and can never regain its original height. It is also bound to come to a stop at the lowest level of its course. The opposite dynamics has been the specialty of the saints. It is not the dynamics of an easy soaring all the time. Rather it is the dynamics of re-engaging every day in a struggle that goes on until the end of each and every life.

That there is such a battle, such a struggle, is stated in the documents of Vatican II, indeed, in its most celebrated, most often quoted document, which begins with the words "Gaudium et spes" (joy and hope). There in paragraph 37 we read the statement, hardly joyful but never forgotten in the Church, except perhaps now and then, in a moment of liberal euphoria, like the early 1960s. The statement is preceded by a warning about the temptations of "progress,"[18] this great liberal catch-word:

While human progress is a great advantage to man, it brings with it a strong temptation . . . thus it happens that the world ceases to be a place of true brotherhood. In our own day, the magnified power of humanity threatens to destroy the race itself.[19]

And now to the statement itself:

For a monumental struggle against the powers of darkness pervades the whole history of man. The battle was joined from the very origins of the world and will continue until the last day as the Lord has attested. Caught in this conflict, man is obliged to wrestle constantly if he is to cling to what is good. Nor can he achieve his own integrity without valiant efforts and the help of God's grace.

The statement describes the most realistic aspect of human existence and human history. But precisely because of this, grave questions can be raised about the statement. Why is it that a Council, whose documents occupy at least twenty thousand lines, had only six lines for what according to the Council itself is the most real aspect of human history?

This question should seem all the more pertinent as the Council's stated aim was a reorientation of the Church to the modern world. Was the modern world not part of that monumental struggle? Why then only six lines about that struggle, out of more than twenty thousand lines? The answer lies with those who drafted that document, most of them leading liberal theologians. They were part of the euphoria of the sixties, just as the Church is always part of the world, so much so that in the Kingdom of God the wheat and the cockles keep growing together until the end of time. For the Evil One keeps sowing the bad seeds. The Evil One has indeed been so active in post-Vatican II times as to prompt Paul VI to state, about twenty years ago, that the Devil was loose in the Church. No wonder that the statement quoted above is prominently quoted in the <New Catechism>.[20] What was almost hidden, is now being proclaimed from the rooftops.

Such topics are not favorites with liberal theologians. And while such topics are not foreign to conservatives, they all too often act in reference to such topics as if they were so many liberals. In brief, liberal theologians practically deny original sin, whereas the conservatives plan and act and dream as if original sin did not exist. Conservatives love to dream about a total renewal of society. How many times have we heard this expression during the last twenty-five years! Yet this is the kind of expression which should be eliminated from the dictionary of true conservatives. It is an expression which only gives illusions. The U.S. Presidential elections of 1992 and the recent Polish and Hungarian elections proved only too well that big and small countries will not fail to give new opportunities to some very evil factors to rekindle a struggle that goes on until the end of time.

The struggle is between selfishness and generosity or self-sacrifice. The ensuing problems that, as if they were an epidemic, are increasingly plaguing individual and family life are not fashionable topics for liberals, who are always on the side of permissiveness. Let me talk about the economic struggle, a less personal matter. A mere ten years after Vatican II closed and Paul VI appealed for a definitive "breaking of the hellish circle of poverty," the city of Rome hosted the World Food Conference. Its aim was to find means of alleviating hunger in many parts of the world. Everybody looked to the U.S. for help. But Earl Butz, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, told the needy nations: "If you've got the money, we've got the food."[21] No food was to be bartered for mere good will, for mere gratitude, because in such a barter only such givers could benefit who appreciated rewards mainly to be had in heaven.

But let me return to those mere six lines in that Vatican II document. Their shortness was similar to the brevity with which such doctrines as purgatory and hell were treated there. Twenty years later, Cardinal Ratzinger, one of the architects of those documents, admitted that something went wrong, and indeed very wrong.[22] This should be no surprise. In all the ecumenical Councils, without any exception, many things did not turn out as well as one would expect. Every Church historian knows this. In fact liberal theologians are the most critical of all Councils, with the exception of Vatican II. If they criticize it, it is only because it did not provide for the automatic convocation of an even more liberal Vatican III.

Vatican II was in large part the Council of liberals. They therefore carry the chief responsibility for the strain which has since heavily sapped the strength of the Church. As a result the Church has been left largely unprepared for the perils of liberalism, which, when realized, do not appear much less destructive than the perils of totalitarian materialist regimes. But to expect that liberal theologians would ever write liberally about the problems inherent in that strain would be equivalent to taking, of all places, the ranks of liberal theologians. There are far more reliable seating accommodations in the Church which has the duty to conserve the great deposit of Faith about a very supernatural salvation.


1 <Veritatis splendor> #4. See official English translation, <The Splendor of Truth> (Boston, MA: St. Paul Books and Media, 1993), p. 13.

2 R. Muir, <Liberalism and Industry: Towards a Better Social Order> (London: Constable, 1920), p. 15.

3 <Dorothy Thompson's Political Guide—A Study of American Political Liberalism and its Relationship to Modern Totalitarian States> (New York: Stackpole Sons, 1938), p. 77.

4 Polanyi did so in his "The Logic of Liberty" which later appeared as "Perils of Inconsistency" in his collection of essays, <The Logic of Liberty> (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951).

5 M. R. Cohen, <The Faith of a Liberal> (New York: H. Holt, 1946), p. 437.

6 Newman's speech is reprinted in W. Ward, <John Henry Cardinal Newman> (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1912), vol. 2, pp. 458-62.

7 J. H. Newman, <Difficulties of Anglicans>, see new edition with introduction and notes by S. L. Jaki (Clinton, MI: Real View Books, 1994), p. 218.

8 J. H. Newman, <An Essay on the Development of Christian Dogma> (new ed.: London: Basil Montague Pickering, 1978), p. 40.

9 J. H. Newman, <The Via Media and the Anglican Church>l (new ed.; London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1896), vol. 1, p. xl.

10 J. H. Newman, <Apologia pro vita sua> (Garden City, NY: Doubleday), p. 320.

11 E. Schillebeeckx, <Jesus: An Experiment in Christology> (New York: Seabury Press, 1979).

12 For instance, <A Marginal Jew> (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1991), by John P. Meier, professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Washington DC, and <The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant> (San Francisco: Harper, 1991) by John D. Crossan, professor of biblical studies at De Paul University, Chicago. To crown the "liberal" irony, the latter book is advertised as "the first comprehensive determination of who Jesus was, what he did, what he said."

13 See on this my booklet <The Virgin Birth and the Birth of Science> (Front Royal, VA: Christendom Press, 1990), pp. 17-19.

14 See my <The Keys of the Kingdom> (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1986), pp. 174 and 205.

15 This statement of Father Walter F. Moodrys S.J., at the funeral mass in St. Ignatius Church, New York City, May 23,1994, should seem particularly "liberal" in view of the prominent presence, at the mass as well as at the burial, of Mr. Maurice Tempelsman, a diamond magnate, who, although married, was Mrs. Kennedy's "intimate" companion for the past ten or so years.

16 See. E. Gilson, <La philosophie de Saint Bonaventure> (Paris: J. Vrin, 1926), pp. 456- 57. The quotation is from Bonaventure's commentaries on Peter Lombard's Sentences II, 26, un. 2. conclusio. This is not the only passage in which Bonaventure spoke in that very same vein.

17 Newman, <Difficulties of Anglicans>, p. 259.

18 For details on those temptations as evidenced by the deification of Progress during the last two hundred years, see my <The Purpose of It All> (Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 1990), ch. 1.

19 <The Documents of Vatican II>, ed. W. M. Abbott (New York: Guild Press, 1966), p. 235.

20 <Catechism of the Catholic Church>, #409.

21 In 1974. Quoted in A. S. Miller, <Gaia Connections: An Introduction to Ecology, Ecoethics, and Economics> (Savage, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1991), p. 173.

22 V. Messori, <The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church> (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985).