Editor’s note: The author is using the term ‘liberal’ in the old-fashioned sense of liberalism, of one who accepts certain principles such as the primacy of the individual, freedom without restrictions, determining for oneself what is true and what is false, etc. — not in the contemporary American political sense of ‘liberal’ vs. ‘conservative.’
N LIBERAL CHRISTIANITY, dogmas first lose their concrete incarnational sense, and then their spiritual sense, and finally their moral sense, until only the symbolic, psychological, or postcard/holiday sense remains.
For example, take Christmas or Easter. At first, Christmas is the solemn celebration of the Incarnation of the Word and the beginning of man’s redemption by God. (Fortunately, it has never ceased to be exactly this solemn celebration in the Catholic Church, at least wherever her members have remained faithful to her unchanging and unchangeable teaching and the worship that gives expression to it.)
When this sublime ontological doctrine suffers desuetude or attack, then Christmas comes to mean “an affirmation of the goodness of human life in the eyes of God,” or some such insipid thing. Then, when even this is regarded as too overtly doctrinal, too much of a truth claim, Christmas becomes a maudlin exhortation to “love all men” and “tolerate all differences.” But not even this depraved moral lesson can last; finally, Christmas can be little more than a meaningless occasion for distributing carnal goods accompanied by vague Hallmark sentiments.
The very same progression is observable regarding Easter; and indeed, every single widely known doctrine of the Church has undergone a similar process of devaluation. Protestantism strikes at the dogmatic meaning; rationalism at the spiritual meaning; liberal democracy at the moral meaning. One after another these axe-blows fell, chopping the Creed of Christians into a incoherent menage of gilded platitudes.
IN THE HISTORY OF CHRISTIANITY, we see a broad trend: at first, believers are focused on God, who alone is their hope and salvation; then, on themselves as rational beings who can know the truth; thereafter, on themselves as free agents who can choose their way in life; lastly, on themselves as emotional narcomaniacs. God, reason, will, passion. When each new stage arrives, the former one is jettisoned. It is a descent from the apex mentis, the still point of the soul touching eternity and infinity, to lower and lower levels of the soul—discursive reasoning, freedom of choice, concupiscence.
In keeping with this trend, it is possible to discern the lineaments of the two churches—the true Church of Christ, having its concrete existence in the Catholic Church, and an anti-Church, which represents and does the gruntwork for the anti-Christ, the anti-Word (to use the language of Karol Wojtyla). The profound difference between these two can be gleaned by considering a list of things that are found to be regularly associated with each:
THE CHURCH: a serious view of the sacraments as efficacious actions of Christ; recourse to acts of penance and the sacrament of penance; worship of the most holy Eucharist; emphasis on devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary; obedience to the Pope; an attitude of adoration, quietude, and humility in prayer; monasticism; support of celibacy and the male clergy; large families; natural and teleological view of sexuality and its place in human life, with traditional roles for the sexes; high and rich cultural history (e.g., in music and architecture); liturgical majesty and reverence; vehement hatred of heresy and schism; perception of the deep differences between Catholics and all others who call themselves Christians; willingness to fight for and even die in defense of the truths of the faith (like the peasants of the Vendée); knowledge and support of the whole system of papal bulls, decrees, encyclicals, and Church councils with their clear statements of doctrine to be embraced by every Christian throughout the world; the assumptions behind missionary work and the ultimate fruit sought from this work, viz., the expansion of the one true Church from east to west; the very idea of the necessity of converting to the Catholic faith for salvation; the belief that outside of the Church there is no salvation (extra ecclesiam nulla salus); a holistic understanding of the union of man’s soul and body. Most telling, of course, will be the devout worship of the Eucharist in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass worthily offered.
THE ANTI-CHURCH: here, the community worships the community; penance is downplayed or forgotten; the Eucharist is a “love-feast” that affords an occasion for people to be friendly with one another; sermons are typically on “love and forgiveness,” without any reference to faith or morals; there is widespread ignorance of Church teaching, contempt for or indifference to papal decrees, agitation for radical changes in doctrine and practice; one finds various mutations of feminism, and a tacit approval or vociferous defense of contraception, abortion, and homosexuality; there is the mushy nouveau muzak, a complete severance of present liturgical art from the past, distrust of and even attacks against traditional forms of piety and devotion; the liturgies are “spontaneous” and informal feel-good gatherings; an accomodating attitude is extended towards “separated brethren,” downplaying or even denying the importance of any differences in doctrine or practice between Catholics and other Christians (after all, everyone is trying to do their best, and that’s basically good and pleasing to God); heresy and schism are cruel or intolerant ideas, martyrdom is an emotional aberration or the result of unfortunate nervous excitement (for there could be no reason not to compromise a little bit when the government tells you to do so); religious life and monasticism are irrelevant carryovers from a dark age; premarital sex is not only normal and unobjectionable but de rigeur; the serious purpose of life is not working out our salvation in fear and trembling by penance and recourse to the sacraments and constant prayer, but rather, enjoying all the good things of this world with a clean conscience according to our technologically bolstered appetites. And one could throw an uncritical acceptance of the historical-critical method and its application to the infallible and inerrant Word of God into the mix.
THESE TWO CONSTELLATIONS of ideas, these two churches (to speak truthfully), can never “dialogue” with one another, let alone be reconciled. They are fundamentally opposed in every possible way, as they hold contradictory views of the most basic and significant things. Tell me how there can be common ground here? There is none—not even belief in God or in Christ or in the Church, since the very meaning of these terms (the “doxy”), as well as how this meaning will be unfolded into action (the “praxy”), is fleshed out in radically different ways by the one and the other.
In fact, only for the Catholic Church do orthodoxy and orthopraxy really matter, since the anti-Church denies that there is, at bottom, anything per se heterodox or heteroprax, except perhaps racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism. If the anti-Church is willing to defend homosexuality and fornication, for example, is there any meaningful way in which we can say that it follows the obvious teaching of Sacred Scripture and the immutable tradition of the Church? If the anti-Church so far departs from these sources of true doctrine as to contradict them outright, not only would dialogue be impossible, it should be shunned like the plague.
It is no wonder that the Fathers of the Church continually repeat, with a solemnity we hardly understand anymore, that communication with heretics and schismatics is an abomination, an act loathed by God. When one reads the Fathers, one realizes how much more keenly aware they were of the danger of and the damage caused by disunity, the rupturing of faith, the presumptuous rejection of sacred truth. They hated and execrated heresy and schism; they fought tirelessly against heretics and schismatics, laboring, praying, preaching, doing everything they could to win them or their duped victims back to the Church of Christ.
In contemporary times, particularly after the Second Vatican Council, we have completely lost touch with this central strain in the thought of the Fathers and Doctors. Indeed it can be said, without exaggeration, that one of the most important concerns to all Christians, from the founding of the Church up till the middle of the 20th century, was identifying, fighting, refuting, and pacifying heresy and schism. This has been a definitive element of the Christian faith; take it away and you destroy the very notion of liberating truth, of the Church as Christ’s spotless bride, of a depositum fidei, of a sacred inheritance, of the continuity of doctrine from the Apostles down to the present day.