Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Roman Catholic Respectability Bought At The Price Of Liberalism

I recently had an email exchange that was partly about the idea that Catholicism is more appealing than Evangelicalism to people who are more educated. It's often suggested that converts to Catholicism are more educated than converts to Evangelicalism, that learning more about church history or some other subject leads people to Catholicism, that Catholicism is more intellectually respectable because it's more correct on philosophical, historical, and other matters, and so on. And Catholicism's alleged intellectual advantages in such contexts are often portrayed as evidence that the claims of traditional Catholicism are true, that conservative Catholicism has been vindicated. Really, though, something else is going on instead. During the course of my recent email discussion, I was reminded that many people are unaware of how liberal much of Roman Catholicism has become.

I'm not just referring to political liberalism, though that's part of it, but primarily liberalism in contexts like theology and the historicity of scripture. See here regarding how Catholicism has changed in various ways on a lot of issues, sometimes in a liberal direction. For some examples of recent Popes taking liberal positions on issues, see here. Raymond Brown was one of the most prominent Catholic Biblical scholars in recent decades. He wrote a book on the infancy narratives that's still widely regarded as the standard in the field. The view he argued for there was largely liberal. Here's a collection of posts I wrote in response to Brown. You can find discussions of other examples of liberalism in Catholicism in other posts in our archives (e.g., here).

Religious, moral, and political conservatives are often attracted to Catholicism because it's such a large and respected institution, with so much social standing, educational institutions that are highly regarded, associations with the arts, and other attributes they find appealing. But much of that has been purchased at the price of liberalism or purchased through some other problematic means. Would Catholicism retain its popularity, its associations with so many institutions, the amount of media coverage it gets, and so on if it were more consistently conservative and did substantially more to discipline its people for departing from those conservative standards? Surely not, as individuals like Raymond Brown and Joe Biden and their supporters illustrate. Catholicism often becomes more appealing by becoming overly involved in a culture and too much like the culture. That isn't all that's going on. There are some traits of Catholicism that distinguish it from the surrounding culture and move it in other directions than what I'm focused on here. But there's a large strand of cultural adaptation in Catholicism.

Steve Hays wrote a post more than a decade ago about the difference between seeing the church as a tabernacle and seeing it as a temple. That distinction has some relevance here.


  1. I think also by historical accident, Catholicism is seen as the "urban" Christianity while evangelicals are seen as the "rural" Christianity. This obviously is rooted in immigrants from Ireland, Italy etc... moving to large cities. And unfortunately, since other Protestant denominations went off the rails with liberalism, Catholicism would at least be superficially preferable.

  2. For supposedly such smart people, there does seem to be quite a bit of jumping to conclusions. In That Hideous Strength, its explained by someone in the shadowy organization to the main character that convincing the intellectuals and other elites is easy, its the lower-class that's difficult. The elites care about status, so they don't have any interest in going against the crowd, as that would ruin their status. The lower-class, having no status, don't have anything to gain or lose by going along with what the organization is propagating. Similar to how "journalists" will say how a case at the Supreme Court will affect how its viewed, and how its John Robert's court. The first should be irrelevant, the second is just false, but they want Roberts to think about his status during cases.

  3. Roman Catholic “Unity” is bought at the price of tolerating liberalism.

    Protestants who are considering conversion to Rome are so often confounded by the visible “unity” she professes. The visible unity is chiefly what people respect about the RCC. Yet, in reality Roman Catholicism is about as unified as the US Congress. In both cases, liberals and conservatives still profess allegiance to the same government, but they have completely different ideas about what that government exists to accomplish.

    Additionally, I think the academic accomplishments among Roman Catholic scholars, which bring “respectability” to the tradition, are simply linked to the volume of adherents. When you have 2 billion people, you are bound to have more scholars, and more scholarly work than smaller traditions. But volume does not = truth.

  4. Most evangelical converts seem attracted to Rome on the basis that Rome is less liberal. Its stronger on Homosexuality and abortion etc. I often wonder if these converts later realise that's a mirage.

    Take the current pope who thinks atheists can go to Heaven.

  5. Great points that need to be said over and over.