“All You Need Is Love” is the title of a Beatles song from 1967. It can also serve as the title of America’s most influential Christian heresy of the post-World War II era: liberalism.
In the 19th century, Cardinal (now Saint) John Henry Newman defined religious liberalism as the idea that every Christian should be free to choose his own religious opinions; in other words, that Christianity has no authoritative doctrinal content. Doctrine doesn’t really matter. What truly counts is morality.
As long as you are a morally good person, it doesn’t matter whether you are a Catholic or a Protestant, or whether you are a Trinitarian or a Unitarian, or whether you believe in all the articles of the Nicene Creed or only some of them or none of them at all.
In his pre-Catholic days, Newman saw liberalism growing in Protestant England and even in his own Church of England. He regarded it as a logical result of the Protestant principle of “Private Judgment,” according to which every Christian is free – or rather required – to make his own interpretation of the Bible.
Newman also regarded English religious liberalism as a byproduct of Continental infidelity. French atheism, while not winning many outright converts in England, was indirectly undermining English Protestantism. In the long run, liberalism would lead to atheism. Religious liberalism was a kind of wayside inn on the high road from orthodox Christianity to atheism.
It was his fear of liberalism, as much as anything else, that led Newman, first, away from his early Evangelicalism to the Anglo-Catholicism of his Tractarian years; and later led him altogether out of the Church of England and into the Church of Rome. The entire journey from youthful Protestantism to mature Catholicism took about twenty years, from the mid-1820s to the mid-1840s, all of these years spent at Oxford.
During the last half-century or so, American liberal Protestants took the religious liberalism of Newman’s day one giant step further. Not only have they held that morality – not doctrine – is the essence of Christianity, but they have simplified this principle by adding that love of neighbor is the sum and substance of Christian morality.
At first glance, this seems a very plausible statement. After all, didn’t Jesus say that love of neighbor is one of the two great commandments (the other being love of God)? And in many following centuries haven’t countless Christian saints and teachers agreed with Jesus?
But there is a critical difference between the traditional Christian way of saying “Love your neighbor” and the modern liberal way. In the traditional way, “Love your neighbor” is a handy summing-up of all the more specific commandments, e.g., “Don’t commit murder” and “Don’t commit adultery” and “Don’t steal” and “Don’t tell lies.” In the modern liberal way, the “Love your neighbor” commandment trumps supposedly lesser commandments.
And thus in certain circumstances, the love-your-neighbor rule may require me, or at least allow me, to engage in acts of fornication, adultery, homosexual sodomy, murder (including abortion), lying, theft, etc.
For example, adultery, generally speaking, is a bad thing, producing more harm than good for everybody affected: the two spouses, the third party, and persons related to or connected with these three.
But if a married man says to himself, “Going to bed with my girlfriend will produce benefits for me, for my wife, for my girlfriend, and will not be harmful to anybody else.” And if he convinces himself, after a due amount of conscientious prayer and reflection, that all this is true, then he can conclude: “It is clear that I have a Christian duty to go to bed with that delicious young thing, my girlfriend.”
The locus classicus for this kind of reasoning is a book titled, Situation Ethics. It was written by Joseph Fletcher, an Episcopal priest who was a professor at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
His book became something of a theological best-seller, probably because, appearing as it did in the early days of the sexual revolution, it satisfied an urgent need: it taught how to reconcile sexual sin with Christianity. But it wasn’t sexual sins only that it justified. It could also serve to justify abortion and homosexual sodomy. Later in life Fletcher became an atheist – the logical endpoint that Newman had predicted
I met Fletcher briefly once, in 1968, at a cocktail party following a philosophical conference held at Catholic University in Washington DC. He struck me as an amiable old guy; a grandfatherly type; rather like I am today. I wonder if the publication of his book (1966) influenced creation of the Beatles’ song (1967).
This idea – that (redefined) love of neighbor is the sum and substance of Christianity – is not nearly as common in Catholic as in Protestant circles. But it’s far from absent. It’s found most among those Catholics tolerant of abortion and sympathetic to homosexuality.
For this tolerance is a way of being kind (= being Christian) to young women in difficulty, and this sympathy is a way of being kind (= being Christian) to persons who were “born that way.” This may be called the Biden-Pelosi idea of Catholicism.
For better or worse, Christianity is not simply a matter of moral goodness; it is also a matter of doctrine, as it has been since the time of the Apostles. If morality is the superstructure of Christianity, doctrine is its foundation. Do away with the foundation, or simply don’t take the trouble to keep it in good repair, and the structure will collapse.
This collapse won’t happen overnight. It will be gradual. And those who fail to keep up the foundations – whether they be Protestant ministers or Catholic bishops – will for the most part be amiable people, rather like Joseph Fletcher.
By the way, if you haven’t paid a visit to Detroit in recent years, you should make a point of doing so this summer. Detroit is a metaphor for much of our moral breakdown. America’s moral landscape is looking more and more like the physical landscape of Detroit.
You may also enjoy:
+Fr. Mark A. Pilon’s The Fruits of Soft Discipline
Michael Pakaluk’s How to Repay the Love of Christ