Project Canterbury

Liberal Catholicism and the Modern World

Edited by Frank Gavin

Milwaukee: Morehouse, 1933.


PROGRESS always involves reclamation. It may seem rather paradoxical but it is none the less true that every constructive forward movement necessarily involves reconstructing the past. There can, of course, be no movement that concerns human actions, thoughts, or ideals, that actually appears like a mushroom, and has not deep roots in the soil. Practically every progressive step forward that mankind has ever made meant revaluation of the steps mankind had already taken. The future is built out of the past. And as one stands poised between what has been and what is to be, he selects stones from what-has-been in order to build the fabric of what-ought-to-be. The greater the step forward the more essential the reconsideration of the roads already traveled, and the steps already taken.

As the group of papers on Liberal Catholicism and the Modern World was being constructed there arose not a little questioning in regard to the title: Why Liberal if Catholic? Why Catholic if Liberal?

First of all, it must be noted that names do matter. As the famous Betsy Prig once remarked to Sairey Gamp--who has been described by a charming literary critic as the "most famous woman who never existed"--"Give it a name, Sairey." We are under the same necessity. To give anything its proper name is to make it intelligible: to make it intelligible means to be able to use it. Modern advertising has fully understood this matter of names. The wisdom of our homely proverb conveys the same truth: "Give a dog a bad name," etc.

Why then this apparently ill-assorted combination of "Liberal" and "Catholic"? We have chosen Liberal and Catholic because these words most fitly describe our aim. If one could set off in a few words the quality of progressive Anglo-Catholicism today the result might be stated succinctly: to preserve the best of the past in the light of the best of the present so as to build for the best future. The best of the past was a twofold thing, with reference to the full tradition of Christianity. It might be described in different ways. It might be said to be the nice balance between authority and freedom, the proper equilibrium between the given and the received, the fruitful interaction between God on the one hand and man on the other, or a like series of similar balances. If anyone tries to sort out the apparent chaos some such organizing principle becomes imperatively necessary. To construe Christianity as either altogether "given," but not received; or as "divine," but not at all human--would be as typically warped and distorted a view as to say of it that it was altogether human and not at all divine, or entirely conceived of man and in no sense given by God.

In its fulness Christianity has always had two poles--God and Man. Any interpretation of it which neglects either of these foci becomes so provincial and inadequate as to be untrue. God has given us a revelation of Himself--complete and perfect in that culminating point which is our Lord's Incarnation, but at the same time ever-developing and ever freshly-perceived from the point of view of mankind who received it. Human reason (as Hooker, that stalwart Anglo-Catholic of the Reformation epoch, so crushingly argued) is one of the means--valid, real, and trustworthy--of man's insight into God. Whatever we have learned of truth, both from the tradition of the Church and from the adventures of human thought, is all of a piece, since man's knowledge of truth derives from Him who is all truth, who has destined truth to be known of man. Reason, as well as faith, must be vindicated as having its own place in the scheme of God's will for man.

In the Early Church there was a great deal of controversy regarding Gnosticism. The wrangling back and forth, and the sharp emotions engendered and released by polemic, suffused the term with a bad connotation. One of the most distinguished of the early Church writers, St. Clement of Alexandria, set himself to the task of reclaiming the term from the heretics' use of it. He was not content to let so good a word be waived by the Church; he was unwilling to let it be yielded up as a true description and proper name for the blundering blindness of contemporary heresy. Stalwart and trenchantly he did doughty battle with the war cry: "The true Catholic is the true Gnostic."

This incident of the past sheds some light on the present. Now the word "Liberal" is a good term. It connotes freedom, adventure, independence, and that dignified quality of the human spirit by which it affirms its hostility to all enslavements, tyrannies, blindnesses, errors, and falsehoods. That it has been used here and there in a way which practically denies its own meaning--by narrow-minded and prejudiced folk whose attitude in practice belies their professions of principle, or by those whose very vagueness and inconclusiveness of conviction deny the reality of a truth worth the seeking, and of a passion for the search worth self-denial--is beyond all question. Why should so noble an outlook, so fine a spirit as it denotes, be yielded up by nerveless fingers when the claims of the Anglo-Catholic to it are justifiable, nay, already justified?

The word "Catholic" likewise has its own peculiar connotation. Here the battle has been already fought. Those representatives of the largest Christian communion in the world who have arrogated to themselves the sole use of this word in fact constitute the largest Christian sect. It is hard to detect in modern Roman Catholicism the evidence of a truly Catholic awareness or sensitiveness. Since the Reformation, Roman Catholicism has acted far more like a sect than like the Catholic Church. Here incessant preoccupation with the task of building their own fences, with promoting their own ecclesiastical policies, with advancing the interests of the hierarchic corporation, tell the story far more clearly in terms of what they have failed even to want to do and be, than any grandiose claims and theory that Roman Catholics may advance. Anglo-Catholicism has reclaimed the title "Catholic." It has vindicated its title. Whatever its many failures, it has more clearly seen than any branch of the Catholic Church something of what is implied by the "Catholic" spirit.

Now it is up to us to determine whether or not this new stage of the Catholic Revival, as the movement enters upon its second century, is to be content to stay in the lines already laid by its immediate past, or to seek to explore the fuller implications of the Catholicism which under God we have been called to share and proclaim. As of old, God said to Moses: "Speak to the children of Israel that they may go forward," so now His same words come to us. We are as yet but dimly aware of the full implications of Catholicism. In part we have begun to see that there is a Catholicism and a Catholic ideal which is as true to the past as it is potent for the future. It is a Catholicism which believes in spiritual maturity. It is uncontaminated by the heresy which says that man is entirely depraved and corrupt until he has received the light of faith. It is unencumbered with such views of God as make Him either a celestial magician, a universal Deus ex machina, or a "cosmic bellhop" (to borrow Dr. Fosdick's phrase). It believes in authority with all its soul, but the acceptance of authority is but a means to an otherwise unattainable freedom.

Man has, of course, a chart in the business of life to enable him to spot dangers to the right and to the left. Where our fathers have gone before us and found the way they have marked the road, or rather have blazed a trail. But in the vast vistas of the infinite universe of God--either of truth, or of aspiration, or of achievement--there are still uncharted territories. Every Catholic accepts with the gratitude of a full heart the verdict of Catholic corporate experience. He has, as it were, without him the Catholic tradition; yet it is not solely objective. He has besides within him the divine endowment of reason and the passion for truth. Yet the very criterion of this subjective faculty is the world of objective fact. Faith--as from God and as responded to by man--and reason, as reflecting God and seeking to think His thoughts after Him, are the two ways whereby God and man find each other. Reason pertains to the whole span of human activity, no less than faith. The Gospel speaks to both, to illuminate each and to strengthen them. The task, then, of the modern Catholic is, first of all, to thank God for His revelations to mankind mediated through human reason. As he believes that all truth derives from God, his second task becomes that of coordination and explanation and assimilation. He is actuated toward this endeavor by the conviction that Catholicism pertains not only to all men everywhere, but to every several activity, aspect, and relationship of every man anywhere. There can of necessity be no limit to the vigorous interest and deep concern of the Catholic with aught that concerns man.

In these papers it will be noticed that several subjects claim attention which attempt to show the growing realization of this fact. We begin inductively with the facts of faith and are proceeding to address our attention to its sources in revelation and reason, and their mutual relationship. Catholicism has its intimate bearings on ethics, its deep bond with history, its task of propagation in education, and to achieve the latter its upholders must seek to reinterpret human personality. Catholicism in practice is realism in action. It is a realism which recognizes the environment to which man must adjust himself. The Utmost Real in that environment is God. The principles, then, of the ascetic, prayer, and worshipful life are essential with reference to Catholic behavior. Catholicism has a mission. It is a ministry to men as individuals and to men in society. It is perhaps in the exposition of this latter point that these papers may show what may seem to be a significant over-emphasis--on the Church and Society and the need of a Catholic sociology. The concern of the full tradition of Catholicism is yet not only with the good and true but it also comprises within the span of its sympathies the beautiful: it relates to literature, art, architecture, and music as symbolic expressions of the fact that the Eternally Good must be expressed as well by the beautiful. Inasmuch as the Christian Church today is in a condition of disunity, and mankind as a whole only partially acquainted with Catholicism, these conditions constitute in fact a challenge to Liberal Catholicism. We must needs turn our attention to Church relations, and to the missionary field. In the light of our present stock-taking as to resources and opportunities we find ourselves members of a communion to which the name Anglican has been applied.

It is our peculiar privilege as Anglicans to set forward and bear witness to a Catholicism that is not imperialistic but free; and to a liberalism that has its living roots in the congenial atmosphere of a vital tradition. The least inadequate way in which to describe the ideal adumbrated, nay, proclaimed by the fact of our position is by these two words: Liberal Catholic.


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