Elsewhere: Liberal Christianity

Christianity is a moving target. What were serious sins at one time are now simply lifestyle choices. Every Christian community in 1930 strongly opposed contraception. Today it is no more sinful than taking a vitamin. Divorce, homosexual acts, killing your children in the womb – no problem for many. The bottom line is that you only need to be a “good person.” Well, not really even that as God will surely show you mercy. You were created after all for this party we call life. Anything goes and you can settle the score with the man upstairs later.

At least this seems to be the view of many (not all) in various Protestant communities. NONE OF THIS is true for the Catholic Church and its faithful. Truth is not relative to the individual nor does it change over time. What is true is true for everyone and what was true 2,000 years ago remains true. We take a lot of grief for our inflexible doctrine.

A good Protestant case-in-point is the Episcopal community. Where they were once more traditional Christians in teaching and practice, today they are quite “modern.” For the most part they look the same, but under that veneer a lot has been gutted.

Ross Douthat wrote an excellent op-ed for (of all places, “hell’s bible”) the New York Times. In it, he looks at the march of liberalism and its effects on their community. It is not a pretty picture.

IN 1998, John Shelby Spong, then the reliably controversial Episcopal bishop of Newark, published a book entitled “Why Christianity Must Change or Die.” Spong was a uniquely radical figure – during his career, he dismissed almost every element of traditional Christian faith as so much superstition – but most recent leaders of the Episcopal Church have shared his premise. Thus their church has spent the last several decades changing and then changing some more, from a sedate pillar of the WASP establishment into one of the most self-consciously progressive Christian bodies in the United States.

As a result, today the Episcopal Church looks roughly how Roman Catholicism would look if Pope Benedict XVI suddenly adopted every reform ever urged on the Vatican by liberal pundits and theologians. It still has priests and bishops, altars and stained-glass windows. But it is flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.

Yet instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace. Last week, while the church’s House of Bishops was approving a rite to bless same-sex unions, Episcopalian church attendance figures for 2000-10 circulated in the religion blogosphere. They showed something between a decline and a collapse: In the last decade, average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase.

This decline is the latest chapter in a story dating to the 1960s. The trends unleashed in that era – not only the sexual revolution, but also consumerism and materialism, multiculturalism and relativism – threw all of American Christianity into crisis, and ushered in decades of debate over how to keep the nation’s churches relevant and vital.

Traditional believers, both Protestant and Catholic, have not necessarily thrived in this environment. The most successful Christian bodies have often been politically conservative but theologically shallow, preaching a gospel of health and wealth rather than the full New Testament message.

But if conservative Christianity has often been compromised, liberal Christianity has simply collapsed. Practically every denomination – Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian – that has tried to adapt itself to contemporary liberal values has seen an Episcopal-style plunge in church attendance. Within the Catholic Church, too, the most progressive-minded religious orders have often failed to generate the vocations necessary to sustain themselves.

Both religious and secular liberals have been loath to recognize this crisis. Leaders of liberal churches have alternated between a Monty Python-esque “it’s just a flesh wound!” bravado and a weird self-righteousness about their looming extinction. (In a 2006 interview, the Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop explained that her communion’s members valued “the stewardship of the earth” too highly to reproduce themselves.)

Liberal commentators, meanwhile, consistently hail these forms of Christianity as a model for the future without reckoning with their decline. Few of the outraged critiques of the Vatican’s investigation of progressive nuns mentioned the fact that Rome had intervened because otherwise the orders in question were likely to disappear in a generation. Fewer still noted the consequences of this eclipse: Because progressive Catholicism has failed to inspire a new generation of sisters, Catholic hospitals across the country are passing into the hands of more bottom-line-focused administrators, with inevitable consequences for how they serve the poor.

As the article mentions, we Catholics have our liberals too (a better word is probably “progressives”). To be clear, I am referring to those Catholics who do not accept the infallible teaching of the Church and long for a day that it will be more “open-minded” like the Episcopalians. Fortunately, that day will never come. Unlike Protestant communities, the true Church founded by our Lord:

  1. …is not a democracy; there is no voting on matters of faith and morals.
  2. …is guided by the Magisterium – our pope (His Vicar, the successor to Peter) and bishops (successors to the Apostles) in communion with him – who preserve the Christian faith as revealed by God. Very rarely, they (infallibly) clarify the faith if necessary.
  3. …is protected against the gates of hell until the end of time.

My own mainline Protestant denomination evolved over time, much as the Episcopalians have. I woke-up one day to find myself in a Christian community that was increasingly separating itself from the faith. By God’s grace I was led by the Holy Spirit to His true Holy Church. I often thank God for that, as do many of us converts generally.

Read Ross’ whole article at the NYT: Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?

Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture, says the LORD.

Therefore, thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, against the shepherds who shepherd my people: You have scattered my sheep and driven them away. You have not cared for them, but I will take care to punish your evil deeds.

I myself will gather the remnant of my flock from all the lands to which I have driven them and bring them back to their meadow; there they shall increase and multiply.

I will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them so that they need no longer fear and tremble; and none shall be missing, says the LORD.

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