Saturday, September 11, 2010

Using "Liberalism" in Politics and in the Church

Some Catholics- both clergy and lay -have suggested that the term "liberalism" has a political connotation and as such, it does not belong in Catholic literature or discourse. No doubt the word "liberalism" has become politicized by Rush Limbaugh and Conservative commentators. For that reason, certain Catholics wince when it is used in a theological or religious context. For some, this word is too closely associated with Limbaugh, Beck or Hannity.

It should be known, however, that before Rush or any modern day Conservative saw the light of day, the term "liberalism" was being used by nineteenth and twentieth- century popes. At least a hundred years before William Buckley published his periodical, The National Review, the successor of St. Peter was warning the faithful about liberalism.

You may be surprised to know that popes like Leo XIII, St. Pius X, and Pius XI used the term "liberalism" in much the same way we use it today. Some will tell you otherwise. For instance, one priest, well versed in theology, proposed to me that the use of the term "liberalism" in papal encyclicals referred to unchecked capitalism. That may have been true when we consider the writings of Pope John XXIII or Pope Paul VI. However, between early nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, liberalism was used to mean the following:

1. Denying the existence of divine authority.
2. Each person defining their own morality and redefining liberty to mean license.
3. Advocating big government.
4. Causing social and political ruin.
5. Excluding the Church hierarchy from the State and other public institutions.

Below are excerpts from papal encyclicals that reference liberalism. These quotes are consistent with the above mentioned characteristics.

Pope Leo XIII, On the Nature of Human Liberty:

"Hence, these followers of liberalism deny the existence of any divine authority to which obedience is due, and proclaim that every man is the law to himself."

"By the patrons of liberalism, however, who make the State absolute and omnipotent, and proclaim that man should live altogether independently of God..."

Pope Pius IX, On Atheistic Humanism:

"In this same Encyclical of Ours We have shown that the means of saving the world of today from the lamentable ruin into which a moral liberalism has plunged us..."

"There would be today neither Socialism nor Communism if the rulers of the nations had not scorned the teachings and maternal warnings of the Church. On the bases of liberalism and laicism they wished to build other social edifices which, powerful and imposing as they seemed at first, all too soon revealed the weakness of their foundations..."

In the encyclical, Syllabus of Errors Condemned by Pope Blessed Pius IX (1862), the title of section 10 is "Errors Having Reference to Modern Liberalism." One of those errors is the idea that "it is no longer expedient that the Catholic religion should be held as the only religion of the State..." The conventional wisdom today among Catholics is that religion- even the Catholic religion -ought not to enjoy any preference or favor by the State. We've come a long way since 1862.

Even as early as 1832, Pope Gregory XVI wrote an encyclical with the title, On Liberalism and Religious Indifferentism.

Please see next blog for part 2.