Liberal Catholics: Shopping in the Wrong Store

I understand, and even sympathize with, Catholics who, realizing that they strongly dissent from certain Catholic doctrines or moral principles, abandon the Catholic Church and migrate, for instance, to the Episcopal Church or to the wasteland of agnosticism and atheism.  If you think it is absurd to believe that a child can be born of a virgin, or that a man can rise from the dead, or that Jesus can be actually present in what appears to be bread and wine, or that there is something profoundly unnatural in the sexual embrace of two homosexual persons, or that abortion is never justified – if you deny any of this, you are probably doing yourself and everybody else a favor if you leave the Catholic religion and go someplace else.

Further, I understand, and even sympathize with, Catholics who, for whatever reason, dissent from certain Catholic doctrines or moral principles and yet remain in the Catholic fold without publicly making a fuss about their dissent.  Such people think that they may possibly be wrong; or that the Church is right in some way that’s hard to see; or that the Church is right in most things even though it may be wrong in a few; or that the Catholic Church, while not perfect, is better than the available alternatives; or that Catholicism is so much a part of their personal identity that they cannot contemplate giving it up.  Either expressly or by implication they utter the prayer: “Lord, I believe; help Thou my unbelief.”

I even understand and sympathize with those Catholics who remain in the fold without bothering to ask themselves the question, “Do I dissent or not?” – even though if they asked this question, they might find that they do dissent.  They remain in place the way a big rock remains where it was dropped near the end of the last Ice Age.  Something like gravity holds them in place, not theological reflection.

While I find it easy to understand, I find it impossible to sympathize, however, with Catholics who, finding that they dissent from the Church on some important questions of faith or morals, decide that they have a plan for improving the teachings of the Church.  Let us call them “reformist” Catholics.  They are content to remain within the fold if the official Church will be good enough to assure them that it is on the road to correct doctrine.

For example, they’re hoping that the Church is on its way: to getting rid of its foolish ban on contraception;  to acknowledging that sexual love is perfectly “natural” for certain persons (those who are “born that way”); to allowing abortion as right and necessary in certain circumstances; and to letting the individual decide whether to believe the various articles of the Nicene Creed.

These Catholic dissenters understand that the Church cannot make a wholesale revision of Catholic teaching overnight; such things take time.  And so, for the time being, they will be content with a few “gestures” in the right direction, indicating that the official Church is getting ready to adjust its teachings so that they become more “reasonable” or “liberal” or “progressive.” Such gestures would prove that the Church would like, if possible, to “get on the right side of history.”


One such gesture is the honor that has been paid to Fr. James Martin S.J. – American Catholicism’s most conspicuous defender of homosexuals and homosexuality – by some leading American bishops and even by the Vatican.  Another is the tolerance by some bishops of parishes that especially cater to gays and lesbians and bisexuals.  Yet another: the sanctions imposed by some bishops on diocesan priests who are outspoken and energetic – too outspoken and too energetic in their bishops’ opinion – in their condemnations of abortion and homosexuality.  Another is the conspicuous unwillingness of many priests and bishops to give public support to legislation aimed at restricting abortion.

For Catholics of that stripe, one of the most encouraging of such “gestures” happened a few months ago when the Catholic bishops collectively decided not to impose any sanctions on the Catholic (or should I say “Catholic”?) president of the United States for his strong support of abortion and homosexual practice.

If you are a “reformist” Catholic, how can you fail to see this “permission slip” given to Biden as anything other than a promise that even better (by your definition of “better”) things will happen if you are patient?

Promising though this wink-and-nod to Biden was, it’s not enough for reformist Catholics.  They have been patient for too long.  They want further gestures: Women’s ordination or a collective pastoral letter from the bishops endorsing contraception and permitting divorce and remarriage without an annulment.

I said above that I have no sympathy with this reformist mentality.  Demanding that the Catholic Church adopt the beliefs and values of secular humanism (which is what the reformists are doing – for their real religion is secular humanism) is like demanding that your local liquor store sell butter and eggs.  That’s not the nature of a liquor store.  If you want butter and eggs, go to a butter-and-eggs store.  I can understand that if you have a strong desire for butter and eggs, you will be dissatisfied with your liquor store.  But I am unable to sympathize with your dissatisfaction.

For an immensely long stretch of human history, the Catholic Church has claimed to be the very institution founded by the God-man Jesus Christ during the reign of Tiberius Caesar.  It has claimed that its doctrine and morals are the same doctrine and morals taught by the Apostles.  Now, this is an extraordinary claim, quite ridiculous from a secular humanist point of view or from the point of view of somebody who thinks that Christianity and secular humanism can be blended together.

But there it is.  If you cannot accept this amazing claim, you should go shopping for your butter and eggs at some other store.

*Image: Mound of Butter by Antoine Vollon, c. 1875-85 [National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.]

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David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America, Three Sexual Revolutions: Catholic, Protestant, Atheist, and most recently Atheistic Humanism, the Democratic Party, and the Catholic Church.