Labels are dangerous things, and I try to avoid them. But considering all the objectionable labels, the murkiest is “Catholic Liberal.”
In the first place, I don’t know what the tag “liberal” really means. Some in the U.S. use it to designate any Catholic who doesn’t vote blindly for Republicans. That position is so silly that it doesn’t merit rebuttal.
As a political force, liberalism places great emphasis upon 1) individual rights over institutions and society; and 2) centralized power in “big government.” In the Church, centralized power in the papacy was outlined by the Council of Trent in the 16th Century and was climaxed in the reign of Pope Pius IX. He deftly utilized centralization of power as advocated by secularizing liberal political governments to create a “bully pulpit” for conservative control. (There has been a parallel movement in US politics wherein the centralization under the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt that was abhorred by conservatives then is now supported with a Bush in the White House.)
The task left to liberalism today is to advocate within the Church concern for individuals and rights. Thus, for instance, liberalism urged the US Bishops to join the Civil Rights Movement against segregation, to denounce wars of invasion and occupation such as in Vietnam and Iraq, to support universal health care reform, and to insist upon family values in the reform of immigration laws. However, I consider these issues to belong to all of us as Catholics, and not only to liberals.
In my thinking, there is a difference between being a “Liberal Catholic” and being a “Catholic Liberal.” Catholic Liberals attach their primary loyalty to the secular public opinion or specialized movements rather than their brothers and sisters in the Church, while Liberal Catholics keep the priorities straight. For instance, it is one thing to advocate peace and racial harmony: it is another to accuse the Church of war-mongering or racism. Or again, is Catholicism structurally “anti-Semitic” and was Pope Pius XII “Hitler’s pope?” The reasoning used to arrive at nasty conclusions often derives exclusively from outside voices. While we should listen to people outside the Church, the strategies for change should come from the Catholic experience. I choose this example because there has been significant progress in Jewish-Catholic relations over the past quarter century, yet we still see a stream of commentary, books and articles that attack Catholicism from perspectives that I consider faulty. I understand that sometimes passions will boil and that Church authorities need to be confronted with the serious consequences of inaction. However, when the message emphasizes “liberalism” instead of “Catholicism,” it often becomes self-defeating.
Perhaps what I most find unappealing in people more liberal than Catholic is a distressful “groupies-ness.” Fad seems to outweigh fact in such a world. It you haven’t adopted their perspectives, you are dismissed as a dolt. I remember at one conference that stressed “critical theory,” we were instructed that no book more than five years old was relevant. One speaker announced that (Horrors!) the priests at a son’s Catholic school had ACTUALLY suggested that masturbation was a sin! (I wish I could print here the inflections of that diatribe).
My fullest distaste is for how this elite group handles the abortion issue. Instead of seeing abortion as the destruction of human life, these folks dismiss the issue in secular terms as “control over a woman’s body.” Now in Catholic America, there are differing approaches about what ought to be done about abortion, particularly in politics. We Catholics are united, however, in considering abortion to be wrong, plain and simple. But if you gather with the flock that believes all truth is relative, nothing is ever plain and simple.
Liberals seem to be caught in an endless headline loop, creating condemnatory catch-words out of the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, Humanae Vitae, sexual sins and papal sincerity. Until Catholic Liberals realign loyalties to make the Church come first, don’t count me in.