Since the social upheaval of the French Revolution, a movement which has caused great division within the Catholic Church is that of Liberalism. Depending upon the time and place in question, Liberalism has taken on a variety of forms which have been both condemned and endorsed by Rome. At its worst, this movement has given birth to atheistic Rationalism and Communism. But Liberalism has also produced a body of social teaching which reminds Catholics that the faith is to be lived in charity for the betterment of society.
In his essay entitled Liberal Catholicism (1923), Fr. Vincent McNabb, O.P., draws a distinction between practical and speculative Liberalism. He points out that a man who is liberal in one of these spheres may not be so in the other:
"It may help us to clear the matter in hand if we begin by distinguishing two
spheres of Liberalism: the speculative and the practical, 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 appreciate the Foundations of Belief. In ecclesiastical affairs a
Catholic may be 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 (of
forbidden books) might play havoc with the Propaganda (the missionary propagation
of the faith). 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 of the Church to ever wear the Tiara. Plato's ideal of the
statesman-philosopher 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." 1
Though what Fr. McNabb considered "liberal" in the years following World War I might not be viewed as liberal today, his main point of contention is that it is possible for a Catholic to be a liberal thinker without becoming a Rationalist. He further asserts that a man can be openly liberal in social policy and still remain true to the faith.
While I concede that a Catholic who is liberal in thought may remain doctrinally sound, it is becoming increasingly clear in our era that political and social liberalism leads to heresy. The reason for this is that unlike the early twentieth century in which Western Civilization was still largely under the Banner of Christ spoken of by St. Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises, today we have drifted far from God and are operating more and more under the Banner of Satan. This can be demonstrated by comparing American politics of the 1920's with American politics of today. In the former, the liberal political agenda was more in tune with Catholic social teaching. Today, however, the liberal agenda has become the enemy of both Catholic doctrine and the Natural Law.
In the 1920's the United States was undergoing tremendous change, both economically and culturally. In the economic arena the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. Beginning with the Ford Motor Company and then spreading to companies in a host of other industries, manufacturing quickly began to replace agriculture as the driving force of our nation's economy. The federal government, which was very conservative at the time, did all that it could to help big business to prosper; granting tax breaks to large corporations, establishing high tariffs on foreign products, and allowing companies to operate with little government oversight. While this produced a period of apparent prosperity, it also created many social problems. Manufacturing employees often fell victim to the greed of their employers, working extremely long hours in dangerous conditions for wages that still made it difficult to provide for their families. As a result, women and children often entered the workforce to make up the shortfall in income, seriously disrupting family life and endangering the weakest members of society.
In response to this, liberal politicians began to intervene on the side of labor, pressing for the establishment of labor unions, living wages, the 8-hour workday, health insurance and pensions, and child labor laws to prevent the exploitation of minors. All of this was endorsed by the Catholic Church, which had been speaking about these same issues for nearly thirty years.
In his social encyclical Rerum Novarum (May 1891) Pope Leo XIII wrote extensively on the plight of the working class. Before addressing specific issues, the Holy Father laid the groundwork for the Church's teaching by speaking about the dignity of man and his ultimate purpose in life and society:
The working man, too, has interests in which he should be protected by the
state; and first of all, there are the interests of his soul. Life on earth, however
good and desirable in itself, is not the final purpose for which man is created; it is
only the way and the means to that attainment of truth and that love of goodness
in which the full life of the soul consists. It is the soul which is made after the
image and likeness of God; it is in the soul that the sovereignty resides in virtue
whereof man is commanded to rule the creatures below him and to use all the earth
and the ocean for his profit and advantage. "Fill the earth and subdue it; and rule
over the fish of the sea, the fowl of the air, and all the creatures that move upon the
earth." In this respect all men are equal; there is here no difference between rich and
poor, master and servant, ruler and ruled, "for the same is Lord over all." No man
may with impugnity outrage that human dignity which God Himself treats with great
reverance, nor stand in the way of that higher life which is the preparation for the
eternal life of Heaven. 2
With this as his foundation, Leo XIII goes on to speak about various issues plaguing the working poor of Europe and the United States. Among other things, he addresses the length of the workday, the observance of Sunday as the Lord's day, child labor, women in the workplace, living wages, and the desirability of labor unions. From this it becomes clear that much of what political liberals were trying to accomplish in the 1920's was in accord with the established social teaching of the Catholic Church.
Apart from these issues affecting labor, a serious cultural problem being addressed by social liberals at this time was the persecution of black Americans. Though they had ostensibly been given their freedom and the legal right to vote and to own property, black citizens were being heavily discriminated against, especially in the states of the former Confederacy. With the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1920's, this took the form of organized terrorism. The Klan promoted itself as a white Protestant organization whose primary goal was to uphold Anglo-Saxon democracy. They considered Jews and Catholics to be foreign invaders who would eventually destroy the United States if not vigorously suppressed. Most of their hatred, however, was directed against blacks who they attacked with particular fury.
By 1924 membership in the Ku Klux Klan reached its peak at more than 5 million men.3 While conservative politicians were either ambivalent toward the Klan or quietly sympathetic to their cause, liberals sought legal ways to break them. At the forefront of this effort was the Catholic Church. Though it is true that Blessed Pius IX had expressed a certain degree of admiration for the Confederacy during the war between the states (in part because of their status as an agrarian society), the Catholic Church was firmly opposed to the Klan from its inception. With the successful prosecution of various Klan leaders and the public exposure of Klan atrocities, membership quickly dwindled. By 1930 the organization could boast of only 30,000 official members, though countless others in both the North and South would continue to support their shameful efforts for years to come.
While greatly simplified in their presentation, these brief illustrations demonstrate that in the early days of the twentieth century there was a marriage of sorts between the political liberalism spoken of by Fr. McNabb and the social teaching of the Church. Thus, in his era it was possible for a liberal Catholic to remain true to the faith.
However, an examination of current liberal thought will prove with equal clarity that there is now an estrangement between Liberalism and Catholicism. Masquerading as champions of justice and compassion, today's social liberals have embarked upon a campaign of deception that has led millions of Americans astray. What is worse is that a great many Catholics have also been deceived into promoting heresy.
Rather than acting in union with our Lord and His Church, modern society has turned away from what is holy. Contraception, abortion, euthanasia, homosexual marriage, and the systematic removal of God from public life have become the staples of the liberal political agenda. Though numerous quotations from the Catechism and Holy Scripture could be cited in opposition to each of these errors, what is behind all of this is a rejection of the Social Kingship of Jesus Christ. Modern man has turned in upon himself and has forgotten the One who has purchased us with His blood. The result is a darkening of the mind and weakening of the will which has manifested itself in rebellion to God's authority.
In his encyclical Quas Primus (December 1925), Pope Pius XI discusses this important topic:
"With God and Jesus Christ excluded from political life, with authority derived
not from God but from man, the very basis of that authority has been taken away,
because the chief reason of the distinction between ruler and subject has been
eliminated. The result is that human society is tottering to its fall, because it has
no longer a secure and solid foundation.
"When once men recognize, both in private and in public life, that Christ is King,
society will at last receive the great blessings of real liberty, well-ordered discipline,
peace and harmony. Our Lord's regal office invests the human authority of princes
and rulers with a religious significance; it ennobles the citizen's duty of obedience...
If princes and magistrates duly elected are filled with the persuasion that they rule,
not by their own right, but by the mandate and in the place of the Divine King, they
will exercise their authority piously and wisely, and they will make laws and administer
them, having in view the common good and also the human dignity of their subjects.
The result will be stable peace and tranquility, for there will no longer be any cause of
At the end of his essay on Liberal Catholicism, Fr. McNabb profiles a man who he describes as at once a true social liberal and a loyal Catholic. John Lacordaire was a fiery French Carmelite who promoted liberal social policies and liberal thought among the faithful in Europe. This sometimes led to trouble, as it is noted that on three separate occasions Lacordaire had to bow to "the stern voice of obedience" and bring himself back into union with the Magisterium when in his zeal he had gone astray of Church teaching. But unlike the false liberals of today who thumb their noses at Church authority, Lacordaire tempered his liberalism through union with Christ on the Cross. In a brief passage that pulls at the heart strings and reveals the true humility of this loyal cleric, Fr. McNabb describes Lacordaire's penitential response (both spiritual and corporal) to the correction provided by the Apostolic Church:
"All of 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,
for he bore in his soul the marks of Christ crucified...Visitors to the Convent of the
Carmelites in Paris are shown the cell where Lacordaire prayed; and upon the walls
are still pointed out the blood-marks of his pitiless self-conquest." 5
This, according to Fr. McNabb, is the key to everything. Only through humble submission to our Lord and the willingness to join in His suffering can a man keep himself from falling into the error of pride. This is what separates Lacordaire from his ancestors who had launched the French Revolution --- while the revolutionaries would submit to no king, this faithful Carmelite bowed low before his King and his God.
In this lies a lesson for each of us and the ultimate hope for the redemption of society; for as Fr. McNabb so aptly puts it, "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." 6