The Essence of Liberal Catholicism

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The Essence of Liberal Catholicism
The Essence of Liberal Catholicism

The following article is adapted from
the book Liberation Theology: How Marxism Infiltrated the Catholic Church written by Julio Loredo de Izcue.


The Liberal Spirit

In dealing with liberal Catholicism we must distinguish between underlying passional proclivities and doctrines properly speaking.1 The first thing we find in liberal Catholics is a profound yearning for an egalitarian and permissive state of affairs. Their natural need to justify these leanings prompted in them specific ideological trends, fledgling ideas in the course of elaboration that initially collided with their own religious and social upbringing and habits. In some cases, this clash with the old doctrines and habits prevented the liberal Catholics’ passional yearnings from producing its full consequences. In others, instead, the very dynamism of these leanings made fully explicit the revolutionary germs contained in them.

The degree of radicalism of the liberal Catholics’ explicit doctrines depended on the outcome of this clash and on their caution to avoid a complete break with orthodoxy. Accordingly, several currents appeared within liberal Catholicism, some closer to orthodoxy, others expressing clearly erroneous doctrines. Nonetheless, all of them were moved by a liberal mentality tendentially opposed to all authority and, above all, basically optimistic regarding the new times ushered in by the 1789 Revolution.

In opposition to the double principle of hierarchy and authority, viewed as oppressive and offensive to human dignity, two notions express well the liberal spirit taken to its final consequences: “absolute equality, complete liberty.” A person with a liberal mentality

“subject to another’s authority hates first of all the particular yoke that weighs upon him. In a second stage, [he] hates all authority in general and all yokes, and, even more, the very principle of authority considered in the abstract. Because he hates all authority, he also hates superiority of any kind. . .[Thus, the liberal spirit] can lead to the most radical and complete egalitarianism.”2

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Accordingly, in varying degrees of explicitness, liberal Catholics propounded equality in the political sphere with the suppression or at least attenuation of inequality between the governing and the governed. The authority to govern, they claimed (with Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau), does not come from God but from the people. The more consistent among them condemned monarchy and aristocracy as being intrinsically evil and acclaimed democracy as the only legitimate form of government. They also endeavored to establish equality in the structure of society, by attenuating differences derived from the right of property. Whence some clear tendencies toward collectivism.3

In sum, Liberalism implied a partial or total emancipation of man from the supernatural and moral orders, as well as a partial or total emancipation of the individual citizen from political authority. Both cases contained an affirmation of the sovereignty of the individual conscience. German Jesuit theologian Fr. Hermann Gruber writes, “A fundamental principle of Liberalism is the proposition: It is contrary to the natural, innate, and inalienable right and liberty and dignity of man, to subject himself to an authority, the root, rule, measure, and sanction of which is not in himself.”4

Adapting to the Mindset of the Times

As we said, liberal Catholics presented their positions not so much as logical deductions from some theoretical postulates but as an unavoidable demand of the spirit of the times. In their view, some excesses notwithstanding, the 1789 Revolution had had the undeniable merit of sweeping away the “oppressive” structures of the Ancien Régime and opening the era of modernity under the aegis of liberty. This course of events, they contended, was irreversible, and the sooner the Church accepted the fait accompli and adapted herself to the new situation, the less traumatic would be her transition to modernity. In other words, a comprehensive Revolution had changed the civil sphere and was now imposing those changes on the Church.

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Here lies, then, in all its dramatic force the problem of the relationship between the Church and the world, a problem as old as the Church herself and always at the heart of events that see the Bride of Christ carry out her salvific mission among men. While absolutely avoiding here the discussion of a topic as complex as it is delicate, we must nevertheless note that it has two aspects, a theoretical and a practical one. Theoretically: Is the Church the salt of the earth and the light of the world, or is the world the salt of the Church and her light? This is a theological and pastoral question which the Supreme Magisterium has often addressed.

For purposes of this study, however, the practical question is the more vital. The world in which nineteenth-century Catholics needed to operate had two conflicting types of influence. On the one hand, there were still important remnants of the medieval Christian order, like the “bruised reed . . . and smoking flax” as it were (Matt. 12:20), although ever weaker and more marginal. On the other hand, like devastating cockle spoiling the good harvest of wheat (see Matt. 13:24—25), one had the new world resulting from centuries of revolutionary process of which the Revolution of 1789 was the most recent chapter.

In stark contrast to the destructive Revolution, for Catholics faithful to the Magisterium, relating to the world meant to defend, sustain, and restore the remnants of Christian civilization. Therefore, they conceived their apostolate in the world as essentially conservative and counter-revolutionary.5 Far from allowing herself to be carried away by the revolutionary vortex produced by the father of lies, the Church established herself as the bulwark of order, teaching the unchanging truth to a humanity drifting away from the ways of God.

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Liberal Catholics took a diametrically opposed position: The revolutionary process was essentially good and the Church should conform her teaching, structure, and liturgy to the modern world to avoid becoming anachronistic and a hateful obstacle to human progress.6 Hence, the classical definition of liberal Catholicism as the party of those who wanted the Church to reconcile with the Revolution. As we will see, liberal Catholicism sought to baptize the Revolution of 1789, just as Liberation Theology would later seek to baptize that of 1917.

“Catholics are inferior to their adversaries because they have yet to take sides with the great Revolution that gave birth to the new society, to the modern life of peoples,” proclaimed Count Charles Forbes René de Montalembert (1810—1870) in his famous 1863 Malines speech:

“The future of modern society depends on two questions: correct democracy through liberty, and reconcile Catholicism with democracy. . . .

We accept, we invoke the principles and liberties proclaimed in 1789.”7

The French Revolution was not the only event to influence liberal Catholicism. Striving to adapt the Church to the modern world, more precisely to its revolutionary aspects, many European liberal Catholics were naturally attracted to the country that, in their view, represented modernity in its truer form: the United States of America. The great republic of America had found a constitutional framework in the liberal mold that should serve as a model for Europe while avoiding the excesses of radical Jacobinism.

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By assuring non-interference by the State in religious affairs (First Amendment), the U.S. Constitution established a de facto separation between Church and State, and, therefore, religious freedom. While on the one hand the Catholic Church does not enjoy the patronage of the State, on the other hand she is entirely free to preach her beliefs. According to liberal Catholics, this situation was ideal as it enabled the Catholic Church to join the free market of religions and compete with other confessions for a niche in the hearts of Americans, free from the prejudices and parochial rivalries that haunted religious life in Europe.

In other words, the United States was the living proof that the liberal Catholic program was indeed feasible. It is no surprise, then, that in his inaugural address at the Académie Française in 1860, occupying the chair that used to belong to Alexis de Tocqueville, the liberal Catholic leader Father Lacordaire called the United States the “prophecy and vanguard of the future state of Christian nations.”8 This conception was wholly blind to the deleterious infiltration of the naturalist spirit inside the Church, a spirit later condemned by Pope Leo XIII as Americanism. On the other hand, it was founded on a unilateral interpretation of American reality, now refuted by modern historiography. We shall return to this issue later.9


  1. Here we follow Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira’s well-known outline presented in Revolution and Counter-Revolution. The Brazilian thinker distinguishes three depths in the revolutionary process: in tendencies, ideas, and facts. See Corrêa de Oliveira, Revolution and Counter-Revolution, 26—28.
  2. Corrêa de Oliveira, 46—47.
  3. Already in 1849, Pius IX warned that the abuse of liberty and equality can lead to Socialism. In the encyclical Nostis et nobiscum, the pope wrote, “As regards this [impious] teaching and these theories, [intended to tear the Italian people from their allegiance to Us and to this Holy See], it is now generally known that the special goal of their proponents is to introduce to the people the pernicious fictions of Socialism and Communism by misapplying the terms ‘liberty’ and ‘equality.’” Pius IX, encyclical Nostis et nobiscum (Dec. 8, 1849), no. 18.
  4. Hermann Gruber, S.J., s.v. “Liberalism,” in C.E., 9:212.
  5. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira writes:

    The Revolution attacks Christian civilization in a manner that is more or less like that of a certain tree of the Brazilian forest. This tree, the strangler fig Urostigma olearia, by wrapping itself around the trunk of another tree, completely covers it and kills it. In its “moderate” and low-velocity currents, the Revolution approached Christian civilization in order to wrap itself around it and kill it. We are in a period in which this strange phenomenon of destruction is still incomplete. In other words, we are in a hybrid situation wherein what we would almost call the mortal remains of Christian civilization, and the aroma and remote action of many traditions only recently abolished yet still somehow alive in the memory of man, coexist with many revolutionary institutions and customs.

    Faced with the struggle between a splendid Christian tradition in which life still stirs and a revolutionary action inspired by the mania for novelties to which Leo XIII referred in the opening words to the encyclical Rerum novarum, it is only natural that the true counter-revolutionary be a born defender of the treasury of good traditions, for these are the values of the Christian past that remain and must be saved. In this sense, the counter-revolutionary acts like Our Lord, Who did not come to extinguish the smoking wick nor to break the bruised reed. Therefore, he must lovingly try to save all these Christian traditions. (Corrêa de Oliveira, Revolution and Counter-Revolution, 78)

    Revolutionary propaganda sometimes presented traditionalist Catholics, dubbed the “intransigent” back then, as blindly attached to the Ancien Régime and thus to a political system that history had made obsolete. Nothing could be more cartoonish.

  6. Commenting on Vincenzo Gioberti (1801—1852), Gabriele de Rosa writes, “Gioberti needs as it were to spiritualize the Church in order to change its historical and institutional structure, modernize and adapt it to pressure from the national [unification movement], eradicate it from the context of long traditions. . . . For Gioberti, the Church will thus avoid joining the revolution by the back door as part of a reluctantly accepted political compromise with the liberal world.” De Rosa, Il movimento, 21.
  7. Charles Forbes, count of Montalembert, L’église libre dans l’état libre: Discours prononcés au congrès catholique de Malines par le comte de Montalembert (Paris: Charles Douniol, 1863), 18, 70. On behalf of Pope Pius IX, Cardinal Antonelli wrote the French nobleman a letter of rebuke for that speech, which he accepted “with resignation” but without changing his position. Cavour borrowed from Montalembert the motto of his liberal policy: “A Free Church in a Free State.” See Angela Pelliciari, Risorgimento anticattolico (Casale Monferrato: Piemme, 2004), 178—86. See also Lettre a M. le Comte de Cavour, président du conseil des ministres, a Turin, par le comte de Montalembert (Paris: Charles Douniol, 1861).
  8. Henri Lacordaire, “Discours de réception de Henri Lacordaire” (Jan. 24, 1861), Académie Française. Quoting de Tocqueville, Lacordaire stated: “Order in America is born from an equality accepted by all—that permeated customs as well as the law, true, sincere, candid freedom drawing all citizens closer in the same duties and rights.” Lacordaire, “Discours.”
  9. The perception of liberal Catholics was indeed naive, to say the least. An unbiased historical appraisal shows a pattern of Protestant intolerance toward the Catholic Church lasting into the twentieth century. The Church was given freedom only to the extent that it did not oppose the liberal creed of the American Revolution. When she did, she was frequently subject to persecutions, as those epitomized by the Know Nothing Party and several other surges of Nativism. See A. James Reichley, Religion in American Public Life (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1985). Undoubtedly, the main factor in the spread of the American myth in Europe was the work by Alexis de Tocqueville, in which the author presents the United States as a model of ordered liberty. Modern authors, however, have corrected the work’s central thesis, showing how Tocqueville mentions only the egalitarian and liberal aspects of the country, almost totally neglecting its traditional and hierarchical elements. See Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002); Edward Pessen, Riches, Class and Power Before the Civil War (Lexington, Mass.: Heath & Co., 1973).

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