Liberal Catholicism

A friend recently said to me, I presume you regard yourself as a liberal Catholic. In response, I asked myself what kind of Catholic I am, and what is liberal? I came into the church 25 years ago at mid-life, without previous religious faith, practice or upbringing. My parents had been secular anthropologists who studied the religions of others, preferably at a distance of space and time, but did not engage questions of faith themselves. I was raised with books and plays and music, but strictly without religion. Open-minded, intellectual and suspicious of anything mystical, I was confident and in control, I thought, of my life.

Then, when I was on vacation with my husband and children in Jamaica, our car hit an embankment and rolled over, and the life of our 3-year-old daughter, Natasha, flowed out into a steamy ditch. Facing an abyss more terrible than my worst imaginings, I began to sense bonds that stretched across it, bonds between Natasha and me that could not be broken by the fact of separation. Fact faded into fog, while love gained the solid strength of thick, elastic bands.

Two years later, when my son was exploring religion, I walked through the door of a Catholic church. Despite my ignorance, I was moved both to weep and wonder. The liturgy stretched my horizons and revealed a worldview where love was indeed stronger than death. Peering through darkness, I dared to hope that I would meet Natasha again one day. Several months later, I came across a program called Investigating Catholicism at the University of Chicago’s campus ministry center. I joined the church’s process for the Christian initiation of adults and began to learn the meaning of church teachings and practices.


Following baptism I enrolled at Catholic Theological Union in Chicagomy faith seeking understanding, as St. Anselm put it. At C.T.U. I learned that doctrinal propositions, which comprised official Catholic teaching from the Council of Trent until Vatican II, were the opposite of liberal: a series of conclusions recorded in manuals without regard for their historical evolution. Vatican II recognized that the Bible, dogma and ritual had histories and questioned the nature of revelation. In his Theology of Revelation Gabriel Moran describes revelation as process rather than proposition. He uses the interchange between two people as a model for God’s self-communication to the listener. According to Moran, revelation emerges from history without fanfare, At a later stage there was truth and meaning in experience which was simply not there previously.

This describes precisely my experience with Natasha’s death and also innumerable moments afterward, in liturgy or amid routine tasks. No interruption of the flow of events, no flashing lights, no thunderbolts, but experience simply opening to reveal significance, like wood breaking open to reveal its complex grain and time-honoring rings. But personal experience inevitably has a social context, conditioned by culture, by the social and communal experience of past and presentI learned that from my parents. Though I share Vatican II’s sacred reverence for the dignity of conscience and its freedom of choice, I am suspicious of my prying rationality, and even that rationality is not as independent as I might like to think.

Authority, Absolutes and Metaphors

I welcome doctrine as heritage, a solid fortress or protective ring around a legacy that comes from the apostolic church. Today, local communities are sources for doctrinal initiatives as well as the traditional teaching church, the magisterium. I believe that evolving doctrine can mediate some dimension of my proper relationship to God, as my subjective understanding dialogues with a social one.

I don’t expect the church to be democratic. A tradition that seeks to preserve a truth is not a town meeting, and a method of governance that aims to equalize power will not necessarily be able to connect with an object of faith. When civic entities are infused with a sense of the sacred, both go astray, as in the civic religion that sanctifies the nation and keeps God on our side, whatever we do. I welcome the recent increase in accountability and transparency in U.S. parishes, but many examples of sects and cults show how easily the sacred can be steered off course by a trend or charismatic leader.

Both the authority of the center and the many varied peripheries are necessary for the ongoing dialectic between the teaching church and all the peoples of God. The center holds while the diverse jewels of creation spin with centrifugal force against its gravity. As these forces struggle, it is tempting for individuals to cloak themselves in the prestige of the center. Thus I have the greatest respect for Catholics, lay or religious, who do not claim the privilege of their roles: sisters in everyday dress, priests who do not call themselves father, invisible saints in all kinds of missions who work from the inside, practicing love and becoming the message others preach.

Though I, like everyone, live in a cultural and historical cocoon that relativizes my experience and attitudes, I value the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection as an absolute. In this sense my Catholicism is not liberal and certainly not post-modern, though I owe to deconstruction the foregrounding of that cocoon with all its layers of gender, class and culture. I believe that it does matter how I live, that better and worse are real categories with ultimate significance. The tradition calls this significance heaven and hell, the one a banquet where all tears are wiped away, the other a lake of fire. Both metaphors can be understood as aspects of present or of future.

Life is paradise, and we are all in paradise, but we refuse to see it, says Father Zossima’s elder brother in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. The elder brother, dying of consumption at age 17, turns from freethinking to faith, becoming radiant and joyful as his health declines. If we would, he continues, we should have heaven on earth the next day. His views are closest to those of John’s Gospel, where abundant life is possible here and now. The brother says he would like to be the servant of his servants, recognizing that everyone is really responsible to all men for all men and for everything. He prays to the birds to forgive him.

Stumbling on Guilt

Here the stumbling block of the modern age trips me up: guilt. If we are all responsible to all for all, won’t we be paralyzed by guilt? The consciousness of sin can lead to an idea of God as bad parent or enforcer. But people who learn to love are close to God and can accept responsibility to all, for all, confident of God’s forgiveness. Seeing the beauty of the creator in the creation, they can beg forgiveness of the birds.

What is hell? asks Father Zossima. I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love. I experienced that hell, at least in part, after Natasha died. Grief stained affection with anger, and I had to remind myself to care for my living children. Casting about for relief before I had ever read the Bible, I came across this saying of Jesus in Alan Watts’s book The Wisdom of Insecurity, Unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abides alone, but if it die, it brings forth much fruit (John 12:24). That passage planted a seed in me, sown in tears, and it took its time to break open in dark, cold ground.

When I was preparing to enter the church, it seemed that the world I lived in had slipped out from under my feet to an extreme of individualism and ascendance of rights over responsibilities, while I stood still. Around me I saw an escalating emphasis on personal choice, war as a solution to conflict and moneymaking as the ultimate goal. Democratic freedom did not mean abortion rights to the founding fathers, nor did it to my politically liberal parents, I recalled. Since Natasha’s death, I had lost a fetus to routine amniocentesis, and I had read about people aborting babies for reasons of gender. Maybe life had become too cheap.

I remembered another trip to Jamaica before our accident, when we had passed a truck careening in the opposite direction along a narrow road. A few seconds later I heard a crash and turned my head to see the truck rear up like a horse and slam down on its side. Later we learned that the truck had fallen on and killed a man crossing the road. When Natasha died, this scene returned to me, layering itself over our accident like a transparency. Life did indeed seem cheap, and death random. I needed to step back and reassess popular, liberal positions on social issues. I needed to recognize the limits of my consciousness and my dependence on God.

Meandering Home

Over the eight years of my conversion and study at C.T.U., ordinary life diluted mourning. Like Zion’s captives returning home, my mouth was filled with laughter, (Ps 126:2), and I learned again to love my husband and children. After my second daughter, Erica, was born, I had to admit that this life would not have been possible without the other death. Good could come from evil, and my choice played no role. The truth of existence contained both, and that reality provided a ground for my being, larger than I could comprehend and more substantive than fact.

I am still open-minded and continue to ask liberal questions about faith, morals and social issues, but I have learned I am not in control of my life. In the Catholic tradition of both/and, I rely on well-conserved teachings as well as my conscience. I still wonder and wander along the path, sometimes as lost as the exiles in Babylon and sometimes meandering home, sometimes weeping and sometimes singing, but I never cease to hope that the seeds I sowed in tears will one day yield a harvest that I will reap, rejoicing.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

The war, the horror, the death and devastation have not disrupted my life in any meaningful way.
Matt Malone, S.J.February 18, 2020
James B. Donovan closely followed the spy trial of Francis Gary Powers, an American U-2 pilot shot down over the Soviet Union in May 1960, and was interviewed by America.
L. C. McHugh, S.J.February 18, 2020
Bartosz Bielenia in Boze Cialo (“Corpus Christi”) (IMDB)
“Corpus Christi” is not a critique of Catholicism, though; it may not even be a deliberately Catholic film, writes film critic John Anderson.
John AndersonFebruary 18, 2020
While some parts of your life are dark, they are not beyond God’s ability to bring light into them. There is always hope, there is always the promise of new life, and suffering is never the last word.
James Martin, S.J.February 18, 2020