Fr. Vincent McNabb OP – Liberal Catholicism (1923)

[Found in From a Friar’s Cell, Chapter XIX.]

The late Bishop Brownlow in forwarding to his clergy the “Joint Pastoral of the English Hierarchy on Liberal Catholicism” added the following words:

It is possible that the term ‘ Liberal Catholic ‘ may be misunderstood by some, and be supposed to be equivalent to ‘ Catholic Liberal’; and the Pastoral may thus be supposed to strike at Catholics who are Liberal in politics. Nothing could be further from the minds of the Bishops; for the Catholic Church has among her most faithful children, persons of every political party; and there are Catholic Liberals who are quite as loyal and devout members of the Church as Catholic Conservatives. There is a propensity in human nature which prompts us to apply ecclesiastical censures to other people; instead of taking the warnings home to ourselves. The faithful cannot be too much on their guard against imbibing the poison of Liberal Catholicism; but they should be equally careful to abstain from stigmatising others as ‘ Liberal Catholics ‘ who may be as loyal to the Church as themselves.

(Jan. I, 1901.)

The wise words of a wise prelate are but a reminder that nowhere more than in ecclesiastical politics and doctrine do words prove themselves the veils of thought. In saying what must be said on the present subject the writer must trust that his readers will go beyond the spoken word to the unspoken thought; and even beyond the thought to the thing if real ambiguity is to be avoided. For on a subject surrounded by undefined frontiers and teeming with unsettled terminology, a writer could hope to avoid ambiguities only by leaving the realm of realities for that of intellectual logarithms. So that though I shall not hope, I shall expect to be somewhat obscure; whilst still expecting and hoping to leave the matter a little less obscure than before.

Thus I shall ask you to allow me to condemn once for all whatever we find ourselves obliged to condemn by the Joint Pastoral. Yet I need not add that we are not therefore obliged to condemn the whole of Liberal Catholicism merely because we are obliged to condemn it as a whole. Nor are we therefore to anathematise the thing because the word is suspect.Have we not heard warm denunciations of the phrase “Catholic Socialism”? yet in point of fact the Church in her relations to religious orders not only approves but favours a form of Socialism; and not only Socialism but Communism! Thus they may be, and the Joint Pastoral says there is, in ecclesiastical matters a definite intellectual or political atmosphere known as “Liberal Catholicism”; this is indeed reprehensible; and yet a certain tone of Liberalism amongst Catholics is allowable in theory and wise in practice.

It may help us to clear the matter in hand if we begin by distinguishing two spheres of Liberalism, viz. : the speculative and the practical, the sphere of thought and the sphere of action, the sphere of culture and the sphere of politics. A man may be liberal in one; and a reactionary in the other. Thinkers are not necessarily statesmen. Nor are there many Prime Ministers who could write or perhaps appreciate the Foundations of Belief. In ecclesiastical affairs a Catholic may be a liberal to excess in matters of thought, and medieval beyond endurance in matters of policy. Again, boldness in ecclesiastical policy is not necessarily the outcome of originality in thought. A safe secretary of the Index might play havoc with the Propaganda. A broad-minded Canon Penitentiary might almost strangle the Holy Office. St. Thomas Aquinas was never elected Prior. St. Gregory and St. Leo are the only Doctors to wear the Tiara. Plato’s ideal of statesmen-philosophers viewed historically has remained one of the most foolish dreams of one of the wisest men; so far removed is the sphere of deed from the sphere of thought.

Another distinction is of hardly less practical importance. Liberal Catholics of the exaggerated type are not confined to the laity. Just as it is naive anthropomorphism that adjusts the categories of Church and world by identifying the Church with clerics and the world with laics or with the reigning dynasty, so it is the same immature thinking that identifies liberalism with the lay minds and conservatism with the clerical. For though it may be true to say that that somewhat indefinite thing, the world, cannot flow into the mere abstract Church, still Our Blessed Lord’s own gracious parables lead us to expect tares in the broad concrete field, and fruitless branches on the wide-spreading concrete tree of the Church. False liberalism is not a parasite of the mere lay mind. It has no prejudices against clerics. Indeed if we take the heresiarchs such as Arius, Nestorius, Eutyches and the rest to be classical examples of the liberalism we would condemn, it is regrettable to find that they are not laymen. Most of the wrong thinking from which the Church has suffered has come from clerics; and as a class we are tolerable to our Master only because in spite of the grievous hurt we have done. He has commissioned us to be the salt of the earth. The very greatness of our mission and of our powers has brought about the evil we have wrought. For all power wherever found is power for evil as well as for good; and the greater the power, the greater the evil.

A definition of Liberal Catholicism either of the sound or unsound type will hardly be expected from one to whom in both its forms it appears rather as an attitude than an opinion. To the true liberal Catholic false liberalism is something a little less intolerable than heresy and a little more dangerous than schism; for as the Ancren Riwle observes, “a foe that seems a friend is a traitor beyond all traitors.” And it not seldom happens that the severe sentence passed by the true liberal upon false liberalism is passed in turn upon the true liberal by those who repudiate both the name and the reality of liberalism.

Liberalism is sometimes so defined as to be synonymous with that definite mentalité, to quote a phrase of Fonsegrive—which measures all intellectual propositions or statements, whether dogmas or scientific conclusions, by the principles and standards of experience. So used, Liberalism becomes identical with what the Vatican Council has called Rationalism. Undoubtedly there is some infiltration of Liberalism into Rationalism or vice versa [1]. But a clear distinction may be made between both; and it is no part of a philosopher’s duty to ignore or obscure distinctions. Rationalism as a word never bears a good meaning; Liberalism may mean something good or something bad. There are no orthodox rationalists; but there may be orthodox liberals. It is not easy to state wherein the distinction between the two lies, even though we are quite sure that a distinction does lie between them. Perhaps we shall be near the truth if we say that Liberalism is a leaning, and Rationalism is a bent; or that Liberalism is a tone of thought and Rationalism is a dogma; or that Liberalism may be the raw material and Rationalism the finished product. A rationalist is one who looks on himself in theory and practice as everywhere free from the bridle of authority; a liberal Catholic is one who merely acts as though free from the limitations of here and now. A rationalist is a high priest and prophet of reason; a liberal Catholic acknowledges himself the student and even the servant of faith. And if the rationalist has no limitations but those of the mind thinking and the objects thought, the liberal Catholic makes light of the limitations or restrictions of time and place. For, Liberalism not being a dogma but an attitude, the same dogma may to-day characterise an advanced liberal and to-morrow betoken the most orthodox Catholic. Arianism, Nestorianism, Lutheranism are dogmas or denials subject to no change. But the unsafe liberal Catholic of the twentieth century may anathematise his fellow liberal of the nineteenth; and may deserve a like anathema only by his forgetfulness that to anticipate is often as dangerous as to delay; and that the twentieth century must not too hastily take up the methods, of the twenty-first.

This leads us to one of the chief elements of Liberalism, false and true. A true liberal is a true loyalist. But his loyalty is to the Church’s future no less than to its past. He does not look on to-day as the tomb of yesterday but as the womb of to-morrow. Though the Church’s past is one of splendour he looks forward to a more splendid future. For him Christianity is indeed the fulfilment of the promises; but still more is it the bringing in of a better hope. Jesus Christ is a midpoint ending and beginnings divine promises. The world the Church covets most is a world that is to be. Its daily prayer is “Thy Kingdom Come !” Its eyes in apostolic days were not turned back upon an Eden but forward to a millenium. Thus the true liberal does not look on Christianity as a crucifixion, though it dies daily; but as a resurrection, for behold ! it lives. Nor can he see in the Incarnation merely an episode; but an institution. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, to-day and forever. A true liberal does not rest his faith on a dead past but on a living present; nor on an historical fact but on an existent reality; nor on an empty tomb but on a Real Presence. Sometimes he seems to disregard history; but this is only his human way of saying that the future is almost more to him than the past. He is impatient when a certain class of Catholics boast of their loyalty, thereby expressing a mere sentiment for what has been,as though loyalty like memory was only retrospective. In Lacordaire’s strong phrase, he is “a citizen of the future,” and he bows down before the New Era that is to be.

Therein lie his strength and weakness. Because the future is not the past, he is tempted to think that it must be other than the past. Unless closely watched and wisely guided, this feeling may grow to mean that between past and future there must be a break. In his zeal for continuance he may be led on to hold a break of continuity; as if the Church had persistence only at the cost of consciousness. In other spheres this would not matter much, but the Church must be a continuous consciousness. For she has the mind of Christ, and what He was yesterday He is to-day and will be forever.

This element of expectation which is the life—and may be the death—of sound liberalism is joined with a certain insistence on doubt and difficulty. If to look into the present state of the economy of Redemption is to peer through a glass darkly, what must it be to look through the added darkness of to-morrow? A true liberal is a man whose face is set eastward. As he journeys onward he is always an hour’s march before the rising sun, in that darkest hour before dawn. He will scarcely allow himself the consolation of seeing each day’s sun at mid-day, for that would be to rest on the way, and to falter in pressing forward toward the goal; and for him life and especially spiritual life is movement; and “Not to go on is to go back.” He lives in an hour of darkness; and makes his dwelling place amidst the clouds.

This again is his strength and weakness. Unless he has the true philosophic attitude of faith he will allow difficulties to usurp the jurisdiction of doubts; ignorance will become error; and, in spite of “malo esse quam videri” things will be taken not to be, because they are not seen to be. In matters of doctrine this attitude leads some men to leave entrenchments and to go out in the open in the hope of cutting off an enemy who has made a feint of flight. How often have lines of defence been abandoned for no better reason than that they were built yesterday, and now it is to-day; or that they were thrown up in the night and now the sun is shining on them; or that the defenders know better than their foes the weak parts of the defence. Never was a fortress equally strong everywhere; and never was it defended by men who were conscious only of its weakness. But it does not cease to be defensible merely because all its parts are not equally strong; or because no one knows its weakness so well as its defenders. Part strengthens part; nor is it taken until every bastion has been won.

In practical matters the frame of mind which allows difficulties to weigh like doubts, will allow the defects of persons to compromise institutions. But whilst a loyal Catholic may well turn his eyes towards the future, he must not fret his soul because others have the official duty of turning towards the past and looking warily to the Church’s steps.

To the elements of Liberalism in general we may now add those of modern Liberalism; which we shall find to take their shape and colour from the modern social and intellectual environment.

Liberalism in ecclesiastical politics would seem to be identical with or begotten of a reaction against medieval feudalism. It is profoundly interesting that in feudalism, i.e., in the first definitely Christian civilisation we have seen, society is found resting on something like a social pact; and labour is associated not with slavery but with free serfs bound by oaths to military service. In pursuance of something like the same principle, the relations between Church and State were fixed by Charters or Concordats, whereby the civil and ecclesiastical powers so bound each other to mutual aid that we find Bishops and Abbots leading troops, and secular judges meddling with theology. In spite of the politic toleration of Jews the common teaching of feudalism was “One Kingdom: One Church.” All this reminds us that the age of crusades and charters bore within its heart something of the romantic idealism that had led the Church of Jerusalem into a premature effort after communism. The crisis of feudalism came when Protestantism brought western civilisation face to face with the still more complex problem of dealing with men not in the abstract but in the concrete, not with idealised rational animals but with German monks and English sovereigns. But even after three hundred years of struggle feudalism has not yet taken leave of Europe. In some states it still serves to embody the relations between civil and ecclesiastical powers. Every year however adds to the frailty of its tenure. Even as we speak its last foot-hold in a great continental nation is being washed away by the floods of uprising Socialism. Comparing these feudal relations to a dying man, over-cautious conservatism is the child who will not see death approaching, being blinded by the memory of his father’s long years and many illnesses; the false liberal is the child who would hasten the father’s death by withdrawing the pillow or by a bustling preparation for the funeral. The true loyal liberal is the child, who, whilst doing his best to keep life as long as possible, would yet prepare for the death which he has so long foreseen and dreaded.

Just as Liberalism in ecclesiastical politics is a counter-current to feudalism, so in ecclesiastical thought is it a counter-current to formalism. Carried beyond its limits this liberal current broadens out into merely destructive criticism. It is significant that Descartes the Gaul and Kant the German, the two most influential thinkers since the sixteenth century, should have given us the practice and theory of criticism. But criticism is naturally if not necessarily formless and amorphous. Its aim is to make debris; it sometimes ends with chaos. It should not end there, if critics were true to the etymology of their name. For if a critic is a judge, his judgments should be decisions and should stand. The true Catholic liberal thinker recognises that though the Church is founded on a rock, men build thereon “gold, silver, precious stones, wood hay, stubble.” From time to time an examination has to be made not of the foundation “which is Christ Jesus” but of the lower courses of masonry laid down by man. This inspection of the lower courses of masonry and rejection of what is old or crumbling is a critical work worthy of the best intellects of the Church. Nowadays much has to be done in the sphere of philosophy and history. Philosophy has to be translated into modern forms of thought or to be revised by anew synthesis of psychological and cosmological data. History has almost to be re-written. In great part only its outlines remain true to fact; and large regions of eventful history have for the first time to be welcomed within its frontiers. Strangely enough, exaggerated liberalism of thought sometimes flees to philosophy and sometimes to history in its protest against the formalism of the past. For the most dominant current in modern philosophy is singularly amorphous and even nebulous; whilst history has almost shrunk back to a bare index and précis-making of past events, shorn of all the formal and ideal valuations of former ages.

A further element in modern Catholic liberalism is the recognition of rights. It would be straining a threadbare theme to insist on the fact that Christianity has practically created the theory of man’s unchartered rights. Medievalism, whether in thought or action, was not altogether freed from the thraldom of petty intellectual and social tyranny. Plato and Aristotle were in the sphere of thought what Constantine and William the Conqueror were in the social sphere. Few, even of the boldest thinkers, dared cast aside the over-lordship of these two ” tyrants ” of thought. But theirs was a mild Hellenic thraldom, tempered by their graceful καλοκαγαθία. And in spite of the subtleties of commentators their philosophy is the nearest approach the world has yet seen to organised good sense.

But the sixteenth century at one stroke broke away from the statutory to the natural rights of man as man. Exaggerated liberalism, which is but an over-development of this birth-throe, is too insistent upon its claims and too unobservant of its duties. Sound liberalism is more concerned to grant freedom than to claim it. And outside these two classes a third class is still found for whom the modern and essentially Christian idea of a human being freighted with duties growing into rights and rights resting on fulfilled duties is a disloyalty to a past Christian civilisation.

So far we have assumed that Liberalism is loyalty to the future equally with the past—that it is therefore a keen realisation of difficulty. Moreover in its modern form it concludes a democratic counter-current to feudalism and a critical counter-current to formalism joined to an explicit assertion of the social and intellectual rights of man.

The nineteenth century gave us a notable example of true ecclesiastical liberalism in two men born within a few months of each other, John Henry Lacordaire and John Henry Newman. Both were converts; both had been smitten in different degrees by unbelief. Lacordaire was a liberal in action; Newman, in thought. Lacordaire had few difficulties with the Creed; Newman hardly touched ecclesiastical politics. Lacordaire was neither attracted nor repelled by the dogmatic side of the Church. Of his conversion he could write, ” I have reached Catholic belief through social belief; and nothing appears to me better demonstrated than the argument : Society is necessary; therefore the Christian religion is divine, for it is the means of bringing religion to its true perfection.” Newman was actually kept back by the political action of the Church at the time when he was being drawn to acknowledge her as the covenanted guarantee and guide of dogmatic developments. Lacordaire called himself a “Citizen of the Future” and found a journal entitled The New Era; Newman left behind the outline of a vast scheme of development. Lacordaire sprang from a nation that was breaking the bonds of feudalism in Church and State; Newman belonged to a State-church that hardly felt its feudal fetters in the profession of dogmatic liberalism. Both the Gallic tribune of the Church and the Anglo-Saxon thinker insisted on the rights of action and thought—Lacordaire, in his phrase, ” Liberty is not given, it is taken”; Newman in his phrase, “Conscience first. Pope afterwards.” Yet both men made their claims for others more than for themselves: Lacordaire thrice bowed to the stern voice of obedience; Newman could write ” My own Bishop is my Pope” [2]. “A Bishop’s lightest word ex cathedra is heavy.” [3] Lacordaire, although he could say on his death-bed “I hope to live and die a repentant Catholic and an unrepentant liberal,” did not recognise that his liberalism energised mostly in his outer life of action; Newman, because he was geographically and ecclesiastically associated with Tory feudalism, detested liberalism in politics to such an extent as not to recognise that he was a Sir Galahad of dogmatic liberalism. Lacordaire was before his age in demanding and employing the three freedoms, of the Press, of Education, and of Church Government; Newman in his Grammar of Assent, Development of Doctrine, and Essay of Inspiration has laid down liberal lines of thought in the sphere of Philosophy, Theology and Scripture. Lastly, Lamennais, the apostate French Abbé, throws into relief the sound liberalism of Lacordaire; and Darwin, the spoiled priest of the Establishment and author of a purely biological theory of development, is subtly contrasted with Newman, his pioneer in the sphere of theological development.

From the lives of these two great souls and true liberals it would seem that a lesson is taught to us whose path is beset by even greater dangers than those they so fully overcame. Lacordaire the fearless man of action stands in contrast with Newman the quiet thinker. The man who held Notre Dame spell-bound by his eloquence was above all an ascetic; the seer who won England by the story of his change of soul was a mystic. In that as in so much else their lives and especially their inner lives are still symbolical. Some of us are beset in the sphere of church government by temptations to an unrestrained political liberalism. Too intent on to-morrow, we are fretful with to-day. For such of us even the terrors of Lacordaire’s inflictive asceticism are not without a stern lesson. The student of St. Sulpice who threw the quaint college-caps behind the fire, and the sub-editor of L’Avenir who wrote impassioned pleas for disestablishment had to practise many an hour of rude ἄσκησις before his soul brought itself to its final childlike pliancy in the hands of authority. So steeped in the love of freedom as to allow it no small share in his choice of a religious order, he yet undertook the life of vowed obedience; nor did his life ever lag behind his vow. “Child of an age that knew not how to obey,” he felt that it could learn and he could teach no better lesson that that of the Son Who was obedient unto death. The dangers springing from the applause of thousands of his fellow-citizens whom he was leading to faith, he stifled under the feet of some simple lay-brother to whom he poured out the humbling story of his sins. He first lived, then preached, Christ crucified. Social theories and ecclesiastical politics became simple to this passionate wooer of the Cross when he recognised that his Master’s divine diplomacy was to live what He preached and to give His life for His foes. Personal rights and privileges came to him coloured by the thought that the One Who had all rights and privileges emptied Himself of all save that of claiming to be loved by loving unto death those who hated unto death. His whole inner life has been summed up in these striking words: “His love for the Cross was exclusive, passionate; not a platonic love, but a fire that led him to copy the pattern shown him on Calvary. All his mysticism was reduced to this simple principle: To suffer:—to suffer in order to satisfy justice—to suffer in order to prove love.” He was a true ascetic; and could therefore dare to be a true liberal. For he bore in his soul the marks of Christ crucified; he sought to blot out the handwriting against the world he lived in by nailing it to the cross; and everywhere as he moved amongst men his life and word preached the truth that the Cross of Christ is alone the redemption and enfranchisement of man.

If Lacordaire was an ascetic, Newman was a mystic. As Lacordaire’s sound liberalism grew out of his true ascetism, so did Newman’s sound liberalism grow out of his true mysticism. For him a vision was the object and the reward of life. Had he been rapt with St. Paul to a sight of the third heaven, had he seen things which even his golden tongue could not utter, he would have spoken of his rapture as “seeing through a glass darkly” in comparison with the vision he was to see. Death, to such a soul, could only seem the swift passage “from shadows and symbols to the Truth.” Yet he wasted his life in no vain mood of regret for a vision he could nowhere descry in this world of shadows. He had the seer’s gift of seeing beyond and within; and of seeing first of all, the dim frontiers of further fields of light. Nature was sacramental to him; it was the garment of God. It was even liturgical and “‘”chanted to his soul with solemn voice.” Things did not therefore cease to belong to nature because they proved to be divine. And as the meanest flower—a spray of snapdragon on a coUege-wall—had thoughts too deep for tears, so did the simplest revealed truth, no matter in what half-forgotten language enshrined, open up vistas of thought along which his great mind ranged to the Infinite. Such a simple phrase as “The Word was made flesh” he could not read without seeing three fathomless mysteries yawning under his feet. To him the formulas of faith were not too shallow but too deep for thought. He had the sensitiveness of those mystics who could not hear the name of God by whomsoever spoken without being borne against their mil into high regions of superconscious thought. Filled with the bliss of the divine cloud he showed no fretfulness under the dim lights of the Credo. There were no mysteries for him; but one all embracing mystery— God. And in that light he saw light, and in that shadow he bore meekly with all shadows. Like St. Teresa, whose soul thrilled whilst chanting the Creed at Mass, his whole mind swayed to the balanced antitheses of the Creed of Athanasius. He looked upon it almost as the grandest song of faith; for whilst he chanted it, his mind leaped beyond the word to the divine reality and there found itself flooded by the “Blessed Vision of Peace.”

Visitors to the Convent of the Carmelites in Paris are shown the cell where Lacordaire prayed; and upon the wall, are still pointed out the blood-marks of his pitiless self-conquest. You have but to go an hour’s walk along the Iffley Road from Oxford to see the brick-floored cell where Newman knelt to see and stood to write the “master light of all his seeing “—the vision that led him on. Such of us as would dare to tread the way of these two great souls and do some little of the work they left undone, must one day kneel down at least in spirit within those two shrines and learn their lesson. For only when some of the Master’s ascetic and mystic self-denial—some of the sorrows or shadows of Golgotha—has mastered our soul may we hope to be true to our freedom and our responsibilities, to our past and our future, to ourselves and to God.

[1] Newman would seem to identify Liberalism with Rationalism in the following passages : “My battle was with Liberalism; by Liberalism I mean the anti-dogmatic principle and its developments.” (Apologia. Chap. II. I). “Liberty of thought is in itself a good; but it gives an opening to false liberty. Now by Liberalism I mean false liberty of thought, or the exercise of thought upon matters in which, from the constitution of the human mind thought cannot be brought to any successful issue. Among such matters are first principles of whatever kind and of these the most sacred and momentous are especially to be reckoned the truths of Revelation. Liberalism then is the mistake of subjecting to human judgment those revealed doctrines which are in their nature beyond and independent of it, and of claiming to determine on instrinsic grounds the truth and value of propositions which rest for their reception simply on the external authority of the Divine Word,” (ibid. Appendix, Note A.) The following passage would seem to confirm the distinction between Liberalism and Rationalism: “The most oppressive thought in the whole process of my change of opinion was the clear anticipation verified by the event that it would issue in the triumph of Liberalism. Against the anti-dogmatic principle I had thrown my whole mind; yet now I was doing more than anyone else could do to promote it. . . . But this was not all. As I have already said there are but two alternatives, the way to Rome, and the way to Atheism : Anglican is the half-way house on one side and Liberalism is the half-way house on the other.” (ibid. Appendix, Note A.)
[2] Apol. Ch. II.
[3] Ibid.