A Christian future for liberalism?

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The current geo-political turmoil, with Ukraine in the eye of the storm, is upsetting all kinds of certainties and semi-certainties. Many of these we may have been priding ourselves of possessing. One is the semi-certainty, held by perhaps a majority of Christians, that on the political spectrum their values were going to be better protected by the right as opposed to the left. This was so much so that in current discourse “the Christian right” itself became a political category.

Now, however, a great deal of rethinking has been forced on the lazy-minded categorizers. This has been forced on all who place value on religion itself, of any denomination or creed. A genuine orthodox Christian has no choice but to flee from the murderous political regime which until very recently was being seen as a defender of the faith. That title has now become as unworthy of Vladimir V. Putin as the title defensor fidei bestowed on Henry VIII by Pope Leo X in 1521 became. In the Islamic world the brutalities of Iran and Saudi Arabia, so-called defenders of the muslim faith, can only be an affront to its genuine adherents. The growing extremism of Narenda Modi’s regime must pain any peace-loving Hindu.

But the cleansing process does not end with the potential  it has for the purification of religions. It also shows signs of bringing the secular world back to its senses. Ezra Klein, a young liberal-minded columnist in the New York Times suggests that the exposure of the excesses of the right now gives liberalism itself an opportunity to bring itself back from the brink of disaster, a scenario outlined a few years ago by Patrick Deneen of Notre Dame in his book on the failure of liberalism. Its intolerances and narrow minded bigotry has been for years threatening what Klein sees as its true universal spirit.

In Klein’s reading, the anti-liberal right – where it was identifying itself as Christian – was never true to the Christian faith. In fact, in its true form it was something that they feared – as Vladimir V. Putin must now do. The liberal left, on the other hand, for the recent decades in which it has not adhered to universal principles has suffered by its separation from the belief of genuine Christians.

Klein explores all this in a recent long article in his newspaper. He does so partly in the context of what he describes as a moving and beautiful collection  of essays by Ukrainian writers on the country’s history and its troubled relationship with both Russia and the West.

In his article he echoes the famous opening epigram of L.P. Hartley’s novel, The Go-between – “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” He suggests that the trap which liberalism fell into was to marginalize all those who valued elements of tradition, their histories and their nations. To do so for him was a fatal flaw, betraying the universal spirit which should imbue true liberals.

“Liberalism”, he writes, “needs a healthier relationship to time. Can the past become a foreign country without those who still live there being turned into foreigners in their own land? If the future is to be unmapped, then how do we persuade those who fear it, or mistrust us, to agree to venture into its wilds?

“I suspect another way of asking the same question is this: Can the constant confrontation with our failures and deficiencies produce a culture that is generous and forgiving? Can it be concerned with those who feel not just left behind, as many in America do, but left out, as so many Ukrainians were for so long?”

Then he moves to suggest this daring answer.

“The answer to that — if there is an answer to that — may lie in the Christianity the anti-liberals feared, which too few in politics practice. What I, as an outsider to Christianity, (he is Jewish) have always found most beautiful about it is how strange it is. Here is a worldview built on a foundation of universal sin and insufficiency, an equality that bleeds out of the recognition that we are all broken, rather than that we must all be great. I’ve always envied the practice of confession, not least for its recognition that there will always be more to confess and so there must always be more opportunities to be forgiven.”

Some of this spirit, in secular form, can, he writes, be seen in the Ukrainian essays. “The tone is anything but triumphalist, with Russia having taken Crimea and the rest of Europe and the United States shrugging it off. The perspective is largely tragic, clear-eyed about the work that may go undone and the distance left to travel. But the writing is generous, too: suffused with love for country, honesty about an often bloody history, determination despite a disappointing present and, above all, a commitment to one another.”

He concludes by saying that there is much to learn from that merger of self-criticism and deep solidarity. Put in Christian terms he might have said that with humility and Charity, the world might well be saved. It would. It will.

Misreading the heart and head of Pope Francis

David Quinn is, like a lot of us, amazed to read and listen to reports that essentially pit Pope Francis against the teachings of his own church. Writing in Friday’s Irish Independent, he parses the words of the Pope and equates his papacy more with that of Pope John XXIII, seen by many as a “liberal”, than with that of his two predecessors.

But was John XXIII a liberal? He was a Vicar of Christ, faithful in every detail to his Master’s teaching and the Tradition of His Church – that is tradition with a capital “T”, which should not be confused with tradition with a small “t” – just as his successors were and just as Francis most emphatically is. Both of them, John XXIII and Francis, very clearly distinguish between the two. Nor is there any evidence to show that any of the three popes (the short reign of the fourth, John Paul I, we leave aside for the purposes of this consideration)  who occupied the Chair of Peter between these two were in thrall to tradition with a small “t” either.

Is there any word more corrupted by usage than the word “liberal”? If liberal were really understood to mean what it is supposed to mean we could avoid a  great deal of confusion.  We would have no difficulty in accepting the actions of those who wish to preserve traditions that are good as equally free – in other words liberal  – as the actions of those who are prepared to discard traditions which have passed their sell-by date. Christ was a liberal in the truest sense of the word and anyone who claims to follow him should also be a liberal. He is the very ground of freedom, he is its author. It is on this ground that all five popes who are now the focus of so much speculation stand.

David Quinn attributes a great deal of the confusion which is now rampant to the “wishful thinking” of the liberals. But these “liberals” seem to live in a world, a fantasy world, where the word liberal means in many cases the contrary of what it really means. It really signifies a kind of slavery to their own ideological perceptions of the truth. It must be said that conservatives are guilty of a similar distortion of language and end up enslaved to the act of conserving regardless of the value of what they might be conserving. The liberality of valuing a free and open discussion is not the same as a “liberality” of compelling the endorsement of change driven by one particular ideology or way of seeing this world or the next.

John XXIII, David Quinn writes, was happy enough to see various aspects of church life and teachings discussed openly and a new approach adopted in certain areas but he was in no way a radical who supported a radical transformation of the church’s essential message.

The public are receiving an extremely skewed version of Francis. They hear that he said he does not judge gay people who are “seeking God”, but they do not hear that in the very next breath he said the Catechism explains the church’s teaching on homosexuality very well.

Whenever he criticises people in the church who are “rigid” it is widely reported. But when he criticises the opposite tendency, it receives far less coverage.

In his speech closing the synod on the family last weekend in Rome, the Pope spoke of both tendencies.

 On the one hand, he spoke of “a temptation to hostile inflexibility” which is “the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called – today – ‘traditionalists’ and also of the intellectuals.”

Did he mean John Paul II by this? Did he mean Benedict XVI? No, he did not. After all, he recently presided over the canonisation of John Paul. Would he have presided over the canonisation of a man he believes was guilty of “hostile inflexibility”?

On the other hand, he spoke of, “The temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the ‘do-gooders,’ of the fearful, and also of the so-called ‘progressives and liberals.'”

David catalogues some of the positions held by the “liberals” who would see themselves as allies of Francis – or, more likely, see him as their ally. In doing so he shows how far removed many of them are from reality. The positions they hold are profoundly at variance with the teaching of the Church which has been so clearly preached in countless sermons by this pope, even in his short reign so far. David Quinn explains:

They don’t believe in the hierarchy. They don’t believe that the church is “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic”.

They don’t believe Jesus founded an ordained priesthood, even indirectly.

They don’t believe that the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ at the Consecration.

They don’t believe marriage is indissoluble, despite what Jesus taught. They don’t believe that marriage is by its very nature the sexual and emotional union of a man and a woman.

Some don’t even believe in the Incarnation. They don’t believe that Jesus rose literally and physically from the dead.

They dismiss all the miracles performed by Jesus and explain them away in purely naturalistic terms. (Question: if you believe God created the universe, isn’t it fairly trivial to then believe in the miracles of Jesus? After all, if God can create the universe, don’t you think he could turn water into wine, or multiply the loaves and fishes?)

Pope Francis is absolutely not a liberal in this sense. What he is simply trying to do is make the church’s message more convincing, that is, to present the Gospel of Jesus in a new way.

He knows that when many people think about the church’s teaching on relationships and sexuality, they think “harsh and judgmental”, even though you would be extremely hard pressed on any given Sunday to hear a priest preach about the family in a way that is even remotely harsh and judgmental.

You would also be hard pressed to find many people who even understand the church’s teaching on the family and why it thinks marriage is so important and why weakening that teaching, far from being an act of “mercy”, would in fact do a huge disservice to society.

The model for all Christians is Christ. The model for the Vicar of Christ on earth is, par excellence, the Good Shepherd. That model, preached explicitly by Christ, was lived in practice by him and that living example was recorded for us in a number of instances.

One was when he scandalized the Pharisees by dining with sinners – and we are not told that they were just considered to be sinners. He even dined with arrogant Pharisees. The scandal of the Pharisees many not be that far removed from the scandal of those shocked by the merciful words of Francis towards us in our struggles to live up to our faith.

Another was when he rescued the woman about to be stoned for adultery. In neither case did Christ say a sin was not a sin. In one he explained that he came to heal the sick, not the healthy. In the other, while he said “neither do I condemn you”, he also exhorted the woman to “go an sin no more”. He “welcomed” and loved all these people.

Pope Francis, in our time, is giving us all the living example of Christ. He is, as St. Catherine of Sienna said, “the sweet Christ on earth”. He is saying to us, “Go and do likewise.” He is giving us a great deal to think about – and for a bonus he has galvanised the attention of the world to the Word of God in a positive manner we have not seen since the early days of the pontificate of St. John Paul II.