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In a nutshell: Liberalism and Modernism

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 08, 2017

There are nearly as many definitions of Liberalism and Modernism as there are forms of propaganda in the wide world. As the Church uses these terms, however, they may be roughly defined as follows:

  • Liberalism: The belief that the human person is the ultimate source of freedom and goodness, and so must be emancipated not only from restrictive political and social systems but from the Church, religion and even God Himself. Thus liberalism is above all a spiritual rebellion that is almost inevitably combined with Modernism.
  • Modernism: The belief that human culture, as the lens through which reality is generally perceived, is actually determinative of truth, such that all convictions must be adapted to satisfy the values of contemporary culture. In practice, this will always be the dominant culture, that is, the fashionable culture of the elites who have the greatest power to form public opinion.

Perhaps the most obvious thing about the combination of these two terms is the following paradox: Once liberals begin to regard human emancipation in terms of Modernism, they necessarily embrace regulatory and even totalitarian political mechanisms to ensure that everyone is properly “liberated”. The State becomes the surrogate for God, but unlike God, the State does not respect human freedom.

While the term “modernist” is seldom used outside the worlds of the arts and theology (where the meanings can overlap but are not the same), the term “liberal” is broadly used across the board, as synonymous with “progressive”. This is noteworthy because the term progressive confirms the same inherent bias, that the latest ideas of our cultural elites always represent moral improvement over what has come before.

Leaving theory aside for a moment, we might well seek to recognize the invariable marks of the “liberal” or the “progressive” in the rough and tumble of contemporary debate, including socio-political discourse. The liberal:

  • Fails to oppose and often favors those actions which have historically been regarded as intrinsically evil (independently of culture and/or motive), and consistently ignores the personal, familial and societal tragedies which result from this categorical non-recognition;
  • Focuses instead on “social justice” (the quest for which is always prudential in character), and consistently elevates prudential decisions into a new set of absolutes, on the basis of which opponents can be condemned as bigoted or frightened;
  • Seeks to implement social improvement through public funding and governmental control, consistently proposing solutions which require little or no self-sacrifice, depending as they do on the resources of others, as acquired through taxation.

Since Liberalism and Modernism deliberately refuse what they consider to be restrictive habits of continual self-examination in order to participate more fully in the life of God—that is, they eschew a life predicated on grace—the practitioners of both will always display a marked tendency to be culture-bound.

Disclaimer: Nothing in this “nutshell” may be taken as proof that those who oppose liberals and/or modernists are always right. That depends, among other things, on the soundness of their own guiding ideas, the consistency with which they adhere to them, and their knowledge of the subject in question—not to mention their own openness to grace.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: feedback - Mar. 09, 2017 9:38 AM ET USA

    I see the label "progressive" frequently used by some politicians, and sometimes by churchmen, to promote concepts that are morally destructive or even suicidal to the society. A "progress" can be made in any direction: towards eternal Salvation, or towards damnation. But the term is always being used to suggest moral improvement over what has come before, while reality could be the exact opposite.