The Synthesis of All Heresies

“Trent, can you respond to what this Catholic said online? It’s just really confusing.”

Normally, I don’t like to nitpick other Catholics, even if I don’t agree with their approach toward sharing our faith. I don’t want to spend time arguing about matters Catholics are free to disagree about, especially since Scripture condemns this kind of quarreling and infighting. St. Paul said,“Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God. . . . Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding”(Rom. 14:10,19)

But sometimes fellow believers can confuse the faithful, and when this happens, they must be corrected. Paul even makes this point at the end of his letter to the Romans when he says,“Take note of those who create dissensions and difficulties, in opposition to the doctrine which you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by fair and flattering words they deceive the hearts of the simple-minded”(16:19-21). He also encouraged Timothy to“convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings”(2 Tim. 4:2-3).

And though Catholics of any theological leaning can distort the Faith, people usually reach out to me for help when it comes to dissecting the confusion of liberal Catholicism. Maybe it’s a Catholic author who says Catholics would really respect women by not outlawing abortion. Or maybe it’s a well-known Catholic priest who says that it’s okay to have “gay pride.” These public figures don’t outright say, “The Church is wrong on abortion and homosexuality,” but they do something worse . . . their actions sow seeds of doubt that cause some people to reject the Church’s teachings in the name of liberal values like “inclusivity.”

So what is liberal Catholicism?

It’s difficult to define “liberal Catholicism” because the term liberal has different meanings.

One way to answer the question is to see how liberal Catholics describe themselves.National Catholic Reporter executive editor Heidi Schlumpf gives this description of liberal (or, as she says, “progressive”) Catholics:

They are the gray-haired old-timers at church reform organizations and parishes. They are the young Catholics taking their first theology course at a Catholic college or university—and the theologians teaching those classes. They are the retired priests, sisters, and even some bishops who have spent their lives working for social justice. They are Women’s March marchers, Green New Deal supporters, and Black Lives Matter protesters across generations.

I’m glad Heidi Schlumpf offers this fairly accurate illustration, because if I did, it would be dismissed as a caricature. I’ll focus on the promotion of values that are directly antithetical to the Catholic faith, such as the promotion of abortion, sodomy, and anti-supernaturalism in biblical exegesis. I’ll also be criticizing their claims that Catholic social teaching is identical to or even requires alliances with leftist organizations like Black Lives Matter (BLM) and so-called “women’s rights” organizations.

But before I continue, I should distinguish liberal Catholics from far-left Catholics, or those who openly and unapologetically reject Church teaching on issues like abortion, marriage, and the male priesthood. The central focus of this book is on Catholics who publicly affirm the teachings of the Church but undermine those teachings in their words and deeds.

So when it comes to homosexuality, for example, I won’t be spending much time on dissenting priests like Fr. Bryan Massingale who say the Church’s teaching on homosexuality is false. Instead, I will be focusing on priests like Fr. James Martin who claim to uphold the Church’s teaching on the morality of homosexual acts but then say things that create a cognitive dissonance within people and make them more likely to reject the teaching, such as that there is nothing scandalous about someone in a so-called gay “marriage” teaching at a Catholic school.

Or when it comes to abortion, it’s obvious that Catholics for Choice rejects the Church’s teaching, so I won’t be engaging that group’s arguments. But other Catholics, like Emily Reimer-Barry or Stephen Millies, may say they accept Church teaching on abortion, but their opposition to laws that protect unborn children sows confusion over the teaching.

Second, I should distinguish “liberal Catholics” who confuse the faithful on important teachings from Catholics who simply have more liberal politics. I know Catholics who work tirelessly to make abortion illegal and restore the proper civic definition of marriage but also support government solutions to poverty I find well-intentioned but ultimately ineffective.

And that’s okay.

As long as someone affirms what the Church teaches, rejects what the Church opposes, and allows for disagreement on matters the Church has no teaching on, I generally have no qualms with him. But I do have qualms with the liberal Catholics who ignore what is obligatory, celebrate what is evil, and dogmatize what can be a matter of reasonable disagreement.

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Apr 17th 2024 Trent Horn

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