Can a Catholic be a liberal? Print E-mail
Around the Diocese
Written by Kat Wagner, Catholic Herald Staff   
Thursday, Nov. 24, 2011 -- 12:00 AM
Dr. Peter Kreeft spoke to those who crowded the auditorium at the Bishop O’Connor Center in Madison November 18 on the topic “Can a Catholic Be a Liberal?” Catholic Herald photo/Kat Wagner

MADISON -- The question posed for the Knights of Divine Mercy’s annual fall lecture, “Can a Catholic be a liberal?” has no easy answer, said speaker Dr. Peter Kreeft at the Bishop O’Connor Catholic Pastoral Center November 18.

The philosophy professor and author spoke to a crowd that left only about 40 chairs unfilled in the 488-seat auditorium at the pastoral center, with a handful of attendees standing at the back. Many of the lecture’s attendees had also come earlier for a Holy Hour in the Bishop O’Donnell Chapel that included Eucharistic Adoration, opportunities for Confession, and vocal prayers such as the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. The Knights of Divine Mercy Schola led the nearly full chapel’s assembly in chant that ebbed and swelled in the candlelit space.

The evening was absolutely a success, said Patrick Delaney, acting director of the co-sponsoring Office of Evangelization and Catechesis. “First and foremost the lecture brought nearly 500 people together from around the diocese for Eucharistic Adoration, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. Secondly, all enjoyed hearing a lecture from a very clear-thinking and witty Catholic philosopher on an interesting topic.”

How to define the terms

In his lecture Kreeft worked his way, amid the occasional joke about Jesuits, politicians, or people in academia, through the posed question and the meaning of the terms used in it. Those definitions, he explained, could change the answer.

The first two terms he defined were “can” and “Catholic.” The first was simple: “can,” he said, in the context of the question, could be equated to “should.”

The word “Catholic” in modern parlance, however, generated three different definitions: first, anyone who calls himself a Catholic is a Catholic; second, one who believes the Catholic faith; and third, one who practices the Catholic faith. The first definition, though “especially useful in Washington and Jesuit Universities,” he joked, he discarded for the sake of the intention of the question. The third definition he also discarded, because “I never met anyone who does it perfectly; the last Catholic by that definition died on the cross.”

“So one who believes it, truly believes it,” Kreeft concluded. “But how much do you have to believe?”

A Catholic, for this question, must be one who believes that the Church speaks with the authority of Christ and that Jesus is who he says he is.

“Our argument for being Catholic is to be the whole deal,” he said. “To take half the deal is to say, ‘yeah, you gave me this mail but I’m not going to deliver it; I’m going to edit it first.’ If you call yourself a Catholic and you don’t practice it, you’re a sinner; if you call yourself a Catholic and don’t believe it, you’re a hypocrite.”

Getting into the wiggle room

Following this, then, Kreeft began to define the term “liberal.” This, however, led to a whole raft of possible definitions, the first few of which were clearly things a Catholic should be. By the definition of liberal as “generous and unselfish,” “in that sense, a Catholic not only can be a liberal but must be a liberal,” Kreeft said.

The same held true for the definition that a liberal is one who highly values liberty and freedom: “We have to, in one sense — we believe in free will,” he said.

The difficulty with a straight answer to the question, or where there is “wiggle room,” is when it comes to political liberty and the methods by which government policies are implemented. “Just like the 10 Commandments, God doesn’t give you particulars; he gives you generalities and then says, ‘Figure it out: you have a mind and heart — use them,’” Kreeft said.

In politics, however, there are so many confusions, many of which are driven by misunderstood words, such as the differences between liberty and license, between the tolerance of persons and that of ideas, and between the religion of faith and the religion of politics. These differences, as well as the deconstruction of language and the toxicity of theological liberalism and its subjectivism on values, on truth, and on religion itself, make choosing a particular platform or political party a difficult endeavor.

Kreeft made it clear that there are positions that a Catholic cannot take from the definition of “liberal” as the contemporary political “liberalism” that proposes moral relativism and thus permissiveness on fundamental issues such as abortion and homosexual “marriage” — regardless of political party.

“The answer is clearly ‘no,’” Delaney said. “With no little laughter from the audience Dr. Kreeft relegated this response to a ‘Duuuh’ category.”

But beyond that, there was much “wiggle room.” “Importantly, he also acknowledged that on many other political questions — which do not involve ethical absolutes of the natural moral law — there is plenty of room for prudential differences of opinion among Catholics and others,” Delaney said.

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