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Religious liberalism is dead: it’s time to give it a decent burial

Faced with the drama of sin and death, the ‘Church of Nice’ simply doesn’t cut it

By on Monday, 2 June 2014

A Lego statue of Jesus at a church at Vasteras, Sweden (AP)

A Lego statue of Jesus at a church at Vasteras, Sweden (AP)

It is always nice to know that people can change their minds, or, to put it in a theologically more nuanced way, their beliefs can grow and develop. That is what seems to be happening in this article by the Rev Giles Fraser.

It is not my place to comment on the spiritual growth of Mr Fraser, you will be pleased to know, nor do I wish to speak about what is happening in Sweden, a country of which I know little. Rather, I would like to examine something more general. I have known many self-identified “liberal Catholics”. When I have asked them what this means, the answers have tended to be very vague, indeed, so vague as to be unmemorable. But one dear friend did say to me that his liberal Catholicism was just like my Catholicism, except without an emphasis on sin, death and law. Sin and death are the two things that Giles Fraser mentions; law, to my mind, is bound up with both of them; indeed, law is the absolute sticking point, as I will try to explain.

Blessed John Henry Newman said, in his famous Biglietto Speech that “Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion.” But divine revelation, backed up by experience, tells us that there are positive and absolute truths in religion. Those of us who commit sin, for example, know that there is always a price to be paid in sin, and no amount of talk or counselling can wash our sins away – only the Blood of Christ can do that.

Again, those of us who pray know that the transcendent God is not someone we question but who calls us into question: we did not make Him, He made us. Yet again, those of us who belong to the Church experience membership not just of a body of people, but membership of the Body of Christ. These are all objective realities, subjectively experienced, but underlying these objective realities is the concept of Law. God reveals Himself in nature as the foundation of all law, the foundation of the fact that there are certain structures in the world which are unyielding, to which we must adapt ourselves.

This seems to be the point of the Garden of Eden story in Genesis: and the sternest law of all is the law of death. We must all die – these is no way we can ever wriggle out of that one. It just has to be faced, and, thanks be to God, we can face it, through the grace of God.

The Biglietto Speech may well be the inspiration behind the happy words of Benedict XVI in his sermon to the conclave of 2005 on the dictatorship of relativism. Liberalism in religion, says Newman, is a doctrine, that is, it teaches as certain that nothing is certain. This is self-contradictory, and of course tells us why so many religious liberals are deeply intolerant people. But there is more to religious liberalism’s failure than this: its failure is seen most clearly in the way it simply cannot deal with truly awful questions, the sort of questions that we all face. The only way we can ever face suffering, death and sin is through the Cross of Christ. And yes, we want, and indeed need, sometimes to be told that we have done wrong.

Let me illustrate. At various times in the past I have been approached by non-Catholics who have wanted to speak to me about choices that they have made that have troubled them. And why did they come to me? Because they knew that as a Catholic priest I uphold the teaching that certain actions are intrinsic evils, wrong in all circumstances. They needed to hear that they had done wrong, because only that way could they then hear the next part: namely, that however evil our actions, God will forgive us when we repent. Those who abolish sin and law, and who exalt choice as the only good, also abolish repentance, forgiveness and redemption. They abolish too the love of God poured out for sinful humanity.

Giles Fraser is right. The Church of Nice simply doesn’t cut it. Look at Sweden. Religious liberalism is dead. Time to bury it.