There is a certain irony about so called Liberal Catholics’ impatience with the liberal Pope Francis (Magazine 21 Oct). They complain that the Pope’s reform programme is “rapidly becoming overdue.” In the 19th century, John Henry Newman predicted that the emerging choice for Christians in Europe would be between “liberalism and its antidote Catholicism.” He stressed repeatedly that liberalism is the most dangerous enemy of the Catholic faith. Yet now we have liberal Catholics!
Newman wrote: “The tendency of the age is towards liberalism. But truly, religion must be based on authority of some kind – not upon sentimentality. It is the church which is the only legitimate guarantor of religious truth. The liberals know this and are in every possible manner trying to break it up.”
If Newman thought there was a pervasive mood of sentimentality in his day, he should see us now. In our touchy-feely age, feelings rule. No one asks us what we think, but only how we feel. The television reporter enquires, “How did you feel when your mother was burned to death when your house caught fire and you discovered you’d lost everything?” And the awful thing is that the emphasis on feelings homogenises every experience into an equal seriousness – or rather a lack of seriousness: “How did you feel when you scored that winning goal?” or “How did you feel when you won that Bafta?” Well, we know how she felt – because she was emoting all over the place.
The trouble with feelings, especially in the all-important important subject of religion, is that they have no connection with truth. In fact, in the multifaith culture promoted by our liberal diversity-mongers, it is thought indecent to speak of truth in the matter of religion. Instead, it is regarded as enough to be sincere. But sincere about what?
Newman outlined what he called “the Principle of Liberalism” and it is, “…that truth and falsehood in religion are but matters of opinion; that one doctrine is as good as another; that the Governor of the world does not intend that we should gain the truth; that there is no truth; that we are not more acceptable to God by believing this man than by believing that one; that no one is answerable for his opinions; that they are a matter of necessity or accident; that it is enough if we sincerely hold what we profess; that our merit lies in seeking, not in possessing; that it is a duty to follow what seems to us true; that it may be a gain to succeed, but can be no harm to fail; that we may take up and lay down opinions at pleasure; that we may safely trust to ourselves in matters of Faith and need no other guide.”
In our times we might say that the pervading cultural spirit or atmosphere is a sort of decadent Romanticism or narcissism. When it comes to evaluating any experience, it is all a case of enquiring how it makes us feel. But I can produce desired feelings in myself by taking a pill. As Aldous Huxley demonstrated in 1954 in The Doors of Perception, he could simulate the profoundest mystical experiences by taking mescalin or LSD. But the foundation of genuine mystical experience is truth. Huxley’s psychological experiments into hallucinated pharmacology produced only a counterfeit spirituality.
In our weak-kneed culture of sentimentality, we have no place for truth. People regularly speak of “my truth” and “your truth.” But unless there are objective truths, the word “truth” can have no meaning. In its entire history, until comparatively recently, the Church understood this. And, when I last looked, The Catholic Truth Society – founded by Cardinal Herbert Vaughan in 1868 – is still going strong. And it has not changed it title into The Catholic Feelings Club.
Our touchy-feely times have no room for dogma or true doctrine. “Dogmatic” is now a dirty word. And, if doctrine is mentioned at all, it is only with a negative connotation, as in “indoctrination.” But Catholics need to be indoctrinated today more than ever. Some specific, objective truths have to be put into us. The Catholic faith rests upon the revealed historical truths concerning what God has really and actually accomplished in Christ and upon the definite moral truths which this revelation prescribes as our response.
As Newman saw, liberalism is the disease for which Catholic truth is the cure. Use of the word “liberal” should be confined to that party which talks a lot about proportional representation.