Are we liberals?


Often, when issues such as the ordination of women or gay and lesbian rights are discussed, the term 'liberal' is casually applied to those who support such issues, and often unthinkingly accepted by those supporters themselves. Rowan Williams is currently being routinely referred to in the press as a 'liberal'. I cannot speak for Rowan Williams, but as one who does not consider himself a liberal in either theology or politics I feel that those of us who would claim to be in the tradition of sacramental socialism should be very wary of adopting or being labelled with the 'liberal' tag.

Although the liberal tradition has been important in areas such as civil rights and individual freedoms, it also has serious deficiencies in both its theological and political manifestations, particularly in its emphasis on the individual.

Theologically, liberals often claim to be 'radical' and yet it is they who too often abandon the rootedness of tradition in their determination to make the faith 'relevant' for today, or wish to so 'reinterpret' the faith that it becomes unrecognisable. Often it is secular society and opinion that become the motive force for theological change. An emphasis on the freedom of belief and opinion of the individual can take precedence over the tradition of the corporate Body of Christ.

Politically, liberalism has evidently failed economically in its neo-liberal guise but even the more social liberals, who would be equally critical of a rampant free-market, fail to recognise the weakness of their own position - they exhibit the typical liberal optimistic faith in smooth human progress; that the present unjust political, economic and social conditions can be reformed out of existence, with as little conflict and upheaval as possible. In doing so they too often ignore the social context of the free individual - issues of gender, race, sexuality, class and power - and the inevitable conflict which results.

While, of course, welcoming the liberal insistence upon being open to and willing to listen to the opinions of others, we who would see ourselves as belonging to the Catholic Left should draw our strength and inspiration from the fact that we hold a 'traditional', orthodox Catholic faith. It is our orthodox theology which leads to our radical politics. Far from pushing a secularly derived 'liberal agenda', we are merely pushing our Catholic faith to its logical and inevitable conclusion. The ordination of women, then, is not merely the result of the adoption of secular models of 'rights' (as if anyone has the 'right' to be a priest) and 'equality' into the Church (which is where many liberals are working from), important as these are, but is the inevitable result of our orthodox incarnational and sacramental faith; one which elevates and completes our secular models. Similarly, it is this faith which leads us to proclaim a revolutionary socialist political position - one which is intent on turning the world upside down.

So while we have, and will have, many allies from the liberal camp in our struggles for justice, we must be wary that we do not garner the label. Our position is one of radical or subversive orthodoxy, and our battle is just as much against those who would claim the 'orthodox' postion for themselves while failing to recognise its radical implications. As Dorothy Day proclaimed, ' When it comes to the Catholic church, I go to the right as far as I can go. But when it comes to labor, pacifism and civil rights then I go as far as I can to the left.'

While we may argue over the details of this, surely we cannot deny the spirit ?

Regards,
Michael
Kilkenny, Ireland


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