Quick Hits: ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ Catholics; harsh rhetoric and divisiveness

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jul 31, 2017

Readers occasionally complain about the use of the terms “liberal” and “conservative” to identify different perspectives within the Catholic Church. Although we use the terms ourselves sometimes, as a quick way to identify schools of thought, we acknowledge that it is risky, and generally misleading, to apply political categories to religious discussions. The danger of inaccuracy is compounded by the fact that American conservatives can trace their intellectual roots to the “liberal” tradition in European political thought.

Nevertheless there is an identifiable way of thinking that can be described accurately as “liberal religion.” Writing in Catholic World Report, Samuel Gregg reminds us that Blessed John Henry Newman spent most of his life battling against that way of thinking. Unfortunately, Gregg writes, “When reflecting upon Newman’s remarks, it’s hard not to notice how much of the Christian world in the West has drifted in the directions against which he warned.”

Newman’s work—particularly the justly famous “Biglietto Speech” that is the primary focus of Gregg’s essay—is at least as relevant to the problems of the Church today as it was in his own time. One longs (and prays) for a prominent prelate with some of Newman’s analytical and rhetorical skills, to continue the fight.


And while we’re on the subject of rhetoric,…

Father Raymond de Souza, who has already posted a withering response to the infamous Civilta Cattolica essay on the “ecumenism of hate,” has some interesting further reflections on the fact that the harsh tone of the Civilta essay reflects the rhetorical style of this pontificate. Although he speaks frequently about tolerance and compassion, and advises other bishops to avoid divisive topics, the Pontiff himself “has become somewhat famous for the fierceness of his rhetoric,” Father de Souza observes.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, Father de Souza continues. Our Lord used harsh rhetoric, particularly in his denunciation of the Pharisees but even in rebukes to his own disciples. While Francis has sometimes asked bishops to be moderate in tone, at other times he has encouraged them to practice parrhesia: unapologetic candor, especially in truth-telling. The important thing, Father de Souza concludes, is to recognize the line that separates parrhesia, which helps uncover the truth, from inflammatory language that merely aggravates divisions.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: claude-ccc2991 - Aug. 02, 2017 9:55 PM ET USA

    As rightly pointed out, rough-edged candor is sometimes necessary to truth-telling. However, it's always a good idea to self-monitor one's choice of words so as to distinguish between attacking the person and rationally critcizing his ideas. Unless you are the Second Person of the Trinity in human form who can read hearts, or you have obvious evidence of malice, one should stick to criticizing ideas. Failure to do this may be something Pope Francis takes to confession frequently. Pray for him.