Liberal Protestantism and Liberal Catholicism

Catholic liberals (by which I mean theological liberals, not political liberals) never cease to amaze me. On the one hand, they appear to have a sincere devotion to their religion. On the other, they campaign for moral and theological changes that, if carried into effect, would tend to destroy their Church.
Why do I say this? Because the history of Protestantism has made it perfectly clear what happens when a Christian church turns liberal or modern. Unless a Catholic is quite unfamiliar with the sad history of liberal Protestantism, he would not call for the theological liberalization or modernization of Catholicism.
In America, liberal Protestantism has always had three characteristics: (1) It is an attempt to find a compromise or via media between traditional Christianity and the fashionable anti-Christianity of the day. (2) In seeking this compromise, it drops certain traditional Christian beliefs as so much excess baggage. (3) To atone, so to speak, for this weakening of doctrine, it intensifies its moral commitments.
Three great “moments” in the history of American liberal Protestantism illustrate what I mean here. The first was the emergence of Unitarianism in the first quarter of the 19th century. The fashionable anti-Christianity of the day was Deism — as found, for instance, in one of the writings of Tom Paine (The Age of Reason). So Unitarianism, in pursuit of a via media, dropped the Trinity, the Divinity of Christ, Original Sin, and a few other Christian doctrines. To make up for these discards, it strongly committed itself to the anti-slavery cause.
The second moment was the emergence of Modernism at the close of the 19th century and the opening of the 20th, at a time when the fashionable form of anti-Christianity was Agnosticism (e.g., Herbert Spencer and Thomas Henry Huxley in England, and, in the United States, that skeptical windbag Robert Ingersoll). Modernistic Protestantism did not, like the earlier Unitarians, openly reject traditional doctrines so much as it affirmed its beliefs in these doctrines in an equivocal way. For instance, your modernistic Protestant would claim to believe in the Trinity, the Divinity of Christ, the Resurrection, etc.; but when you carefully examined what he meant by these beliefs, you would find that he didn’t really hold them at all. Instead, he believed in something else, but he twisted the meaning of the traditional Christian phrases so that they would apply to his new and very non-traditional beliefs. (Many liberal Protestants –Marcus Borg, for example — do the same thing today.) To make up for this casting off of doctrine, the modernist had a strong commitment to the “social gospel.”
The third moment was the response to the Sexual Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s. This Revolution was the then-fashionable form of anti-Christianity, and it remains the fashion today. Liberal Protestantism, searching as ever for a via media, gave its conditional blessing to premarital sex, unmarried cohabitation, abortion, homosexuality, and — more recently — same-sex marriage. I say “conditional” because, instead of giving a blanket endorsement to these practices, as anti-Christians did, liberal Protestantism said it would endorse them only when those undertaking them did so in a thoughtful, prayerful, and loving way. In this third moment, the intensification of moral commitments no longer has to do with corollaries of Christian morality — as in the earlier cases of abolitionism and social justice — but with a strong commitment to elements of an anti-Christian sexual morality.
Liberal Protestants of any one generation have always said something like this: “We’ll discard elements A, B, and C of traditional Christianity, but no more; we’ll stop there.” But the next generation says: “If our parents could drop ABC, we’ll drop DEF — but we’ll stop there.” Of course, it never stops. Once the “right to drop” is embraced, eventually everything will be dropped.
For the better part of 200 years, then, liberal Protestantism has been emptying itself of Christian content. First it got rid of Christian doctrinal content; more recently it has got rid of Christian moral content. Of course the liberals will claim that they have got rid of the inessential “over-beliefs” of Christianity and have boiled the religion down to its essential content, namely love of neighbor. That this love of neighbor largely consists of tolerating and encouraging what Christianity has always counted as serious sin is a reductio ad absurdum of that claim.
Who can be surprised, then, that the Protestant denominations that have been seriously infected with liberalism (the so-called “mainline churches”) are rapidly declining in numbers, not just in relation to the national population generally but even in absolute numbers?
And who can be surprised that American Catholicism, many of whose members turned in a theologically liberal direction after Vatican II, is also declining? The Catholic decline, to be sure, is masked by the sloppy way in which American Catholicism counts its members. You’re counted as a Catholic if you were baptized Catholic. That means that millions and millions of people are counted as Catholic who are quite indifferent, and in many cases downright hostile, to Catholicism. If, more realistically, we count as Catholic only those who continue to be somewhat serious about the religion — for example, by going to church once a week — we’ll see that there has been a steep decline.
Those Catholics who are not ignorant of the history of liberal Protestantism cannot, if they are honest with themselves, favor the theological liberalization of Catholicism. But, of course, some historically well-informed people are not honest with themselves, while vast numbers of Catholics — including many Catholic priests and more than a few Catholic bishops — are immensely ignorant of the history of liberal Protestantism. And so Catholicism in America continues to slide downhill.



  • David R. Carlin Jr.

    David R. Carlin Jr. is a politician and sociologist who served as a Democratic majority leader of the Rhode Island Senate. His books include “Can a Catholic Be a Democrat?: How the Party I Loved Became the Enemy of My Religion” and “The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.” Carlin is a current professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island at Newport.

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