Liberalism and LCWR

Is Liberalism dead? Ross Douthat comments here on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the decline of liberal Christianity. It’s a speculative piece which highlights the chasm that now exists within all forms of liberal Christianity and historic Christianity. I’ve written on the subject a few months ago here. This divide yawns not only within the Catholic Church, but within most of the Protestant denominations as well.

It’s a divide between those who view Christianity as a human, historical construct which may (and must) adapt itself to the current trends within society, and those who believe the Christian religion is revealed by God for the salvation of the world through his Son Jesus Christ–and that this is an eternal and immutable gospel which only changes and adapts in minor and superficial ways.

In many ways the term ‘Liberal’ is a misnomer, for what we call ‘Liberalism’ is really better termed ‘Progressivism’ or ‘modernism’. These terms are more precise because the belief in the beatitude of progress is at the heart of liberal religion and the classic term for this many headed heresy is ‘modernism’.

We should be clear, the problem with the Catholic sisters who are in revolt is that they are modernist. Too many of them have abandoned what we might call ‘the old, old story’–the story of mankind’s creation by a loving God, his fall from grace, the curse of original sin and the redemption of the world by Our Lord Jesus Christ. They’ve substituted social work, causes for justice and peace and now a wacky new age spirituality which many of them wish would take them ‘beyond Church and beyond Jesus’. Their keynote speaker was Barbara Marx Hubbard–a new age thinker who promotes ‘conscious evolution.’

I have commented before on this sickness within Christianity. There are many theories about what the ‘smoke of Satan’ in the church might be. I believe it is this: the insidious fumes of modernism–which dilutes the supernatural, doubts Sacred Scripture, denies the efficacy of the sacraments and denigrates the authority of Christ in his Church. The paradox of the present situation, as Douthat points out, is that the very agenda of liberal Christianity would not be possible without the ‘old, old story’.

The trendy sisters of today were grounded in the old time religion of supernatural and saving Catholicism. Their spirituality and understanding of the faith was rooted in the need for salvation, the forgiveness of sins and Christ’s saving work. They were brought up on a diet of prayer and humility and sacrifice and service that grew out of a traditional Christian religion.

Like other protesters they have departed from the old way, but without the old way they would have no way. Like Protestants who’s identity is caught up with the fact that they are NOT Catholic, the modernist sisters only seem to have an identity when they are in protest against the ‘old patriarchal Catholic Church.’ Their protest gives them purpose. Once that rebellious rage diminishes their identity diminishes, and if they have nothing to live for other than that protest movement how will they attract new vocations?

The irony is that they now work hard for the poor and to promote peace and justice, and they do so from a background of real Christianity. However, can they continue their work without that real Christianity? Can their good work with the poor and their advocacy for peace and justice stand without religion? Of course it can. That’s why young women quite rightly look at them and say, “If I want to be a social worker or a care giver or a school teacher I can do that without being a nun thank you very much.” What the modernist sisters have done therefore, is to put themselves out of a job.

That’s why other young women (like the Nashville Dominicans, the Sisters of the Renewal, Poor Clares and Sisters of Life) who want to follow Christ through a religious calling are donning traditional habits and learning how to pray again and are returning to full blown, unapologetic Catholicism. They are saying, “You can teach and do social work without the Catholic faith–but not for long. We want to be fully Catholic, fully professed sisters and fully involved in Christ’s work with the poor, the uneducated and the needy.

A few years ago the Vatican launched an investigation into the seminaries in the United States. Very quietly and efficiently the powers that be went through and asked questions, got answers and tried to clean things up. They tried to root out theological modernism and the endemic croneyism and the ‘pink mafia’. Now the seminaries are starting to fill up again. Maybe, just maybe the present purification of the women’s orders will eventually have the same effect.

If it does not, then the women’s orders that have gone the way of modernism will either die out or cease to be Catholic.


Sin and the Synod
FaithWorks! for Lent – 2
A Married Priest on Married Priests
Welcoming Gays: How Do I Do That?
  • Jack

    Dear Father

    I think that part of the reason that these sisters dropped the ‘old time religion’ for progressivism is the almost augustinian attitude of some of the old timers; I have met Trad Catholics (both online and in the real world) who make the Pharisees look exceptionally kind, loving and virtuous in comparison. A modernist Catholic lady who I know was scared stiff by the teaching sisters at school 70 years ago and was told that sneezing during Mass was a mortal sin, until BL. John Paul II reformed the Code of Cannon law being illegitimate was considered an impediment to ordination and even one was dispensed (by entering religious life for example) he could not be made Cannon of a Cathedral or an Abbot; and a girl in the same situation was ineligible to become a Mother Superior.

    Now I’ve only given a few examples but can you see why people who were scared out their wits as children; or when begging for help when undergoing incredible suffering were callously told to ‘offer it up’ by people who possessed the zeal of a Witch Hunter, but who had not a drop of Caritas in their bodies allied themselves with the rebellion of the 1960’s? In their minds the cultural rebellion offered affirmation, love and the idea that they no longer had to be afraid whereas ‘old time religion’ was associated with empty ritual, impersonal disdain and a judgementalism that puts Calvin to shame.

    My biggest worry is that much of what we see as “a return to Orthodoxy” is, below the surface; a return to the type of scenes we see in the film “Doubt” where a school kid trying to get the attention of a teaching sister by tugging on the sleeve of her habit is subjected to such severe discipline by the headmistress (also a teaching sister) that one would think that he had been caught red handed, sacrificing Virgins to the Devil. If so then (at most) this revival of Orthodoxy will last a few decades before it fizzles out as people are unable to bear the unbiblical burdens that such Puritanism demands

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Sure, and Catholics didn’t have a monopoly on negative, self righteous, legalistic religious types. I was brought up in Evangelical Fundamentalism and we had our share. However, we had more who were ordinary nice folks and some who were real, gentle saints of God. I suspect it was the same with Catholics, and have spoken to enough cradle Catholics who remember the old days with fond nostalgia.

  • Jill

    Thank you for this post Father. I feel away from the Church for a few years and in my conversion back for a long time I struggled with many of these issues – I’m Catholic BUT. Finally after a lot of prayer, particularly to Mary, and a wise priest in confession, I am Catholic. No buts. Sometimes I don’t understand things or have questions, but ultimately I have faith, as Mary did, that God is leading this Church through the Holy Spirit and that I am most free through my obedience and submission to her.

  • James

    With all due respect, I think you are plain wrong. The assertion that progressive (you use this term interchangeably with liberal and modernist which is problematic, but I’m not interested in arguing semantics) religious bodies are declining in numbers is because they have abandoned traditionalism and subscribed to modernism/secularism/relativism/liberalism etc. First, to assume that you or your interpretation of Tradition or more conservative interpretation of scripture is the gold standard is plain pride and hubris. Second, any look at religious surveys in the US show that conservative denominations have experienced decline. Even though the Roman Church in America can hide behind positive growth, that growth is the result of immigration, not converts. Also. 1 in 10 Americans are Recovering Roman Catholics, which is a telling thing.

    Let us take a look at parishes, since in the end, the true work of the Body of Christ is done in community parishes and not from the top-down. In truth, the churches that are the healthiest and most viable are those that embrace a tradition of social justice and have an inclusive and open door to women and members of the LGBTQ community. For example, Anglo-Catholic Churches in the Episcopal Church have embraced a progressive attitude with regards to women and LGBTQ rights as well as strong and active outreach to the poor. They do this not in spite of Tradition (as you imply) but because Tradition not only supports it, it demands it. Because of this, these parishes are doing well in a modern world.

    In closing, I would beg the Vatican, the Bishops of the Roman Church, and anyone in a position of power in Rome that if they desire to assert more control and leadership in the lives of people that are part of not only their flock, but those outside (since the Vatican and Roman Bishops have the ability to project their authority beyond the lives of the members of the Roman Church) they must consider the integrity of their own leadership. People look at Roman Bishops, Cardinals, and the Pope as dangerous and hypocritical because of their mismanaging of the abuse scandal. Though some token reforms and token mea culpas have been given, people still view the Roman Magesterium with distrust. The Magesterium has shown that it is more interested in protecting itself over children, balking in the face of investigation, and will use everything in its power to distract the public from the scandal (this includes introducing new language into the Liturgy and the LCWR scandal). The public cannot and will not trust the Vatican until serious reforms are made, and people are held accountable, including if necessary that the Magesterium turn over Priests and Bishops to law enforcement if they abused anyone, and Bishops resigning or being defrocked if they were involved in the cover-up. The integrity of the leadership has been compromised. And so, before they can start accusing others of doctrinal faults, they should “pull the log out of their own eye.”

  • spudnik

    I once read a statement by a Wiccan priest describing Satanists as “Christian fundamentalists.” At first I thought that he must have been smoking his breakfast, but upon reflection I realized he was right, and it’s the same phenomenon Douthat and Fr. Dwight describe. These people only have an identity insofar as they oppose Christianity. I also find it noteworthy that those who hate the Church and hope for its demise are rooting for the LCWR.

  • Anil Wang

    Jack, Sin exists. This side of heaven there will not be a paradise according to Jesus (Mark 14:7).

    I’m sure that there are and were horror stories in the past since priests are not all saints and even with saints, more than a few had caustic personalities. But liberalism has made it far worse. Look no further than the sex abuse crisis and which areas were the hardest hit.

    And although some people have lost the faith and were treated cruelly in the past, how many people have given up Catholicism and abandoned to the consequences of sin (broken marriages, out of wedlock babies, absent fathers, abortion, ….) due to liberalism.

    Look at the numbers. It’s not even close.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    I doubt if you’re Catholic. Your mis-use of the terminology indicates a lack of understanding of the Catholic Church. It sounds like you’re just re-hashing stuff you read in a paper somewhere.

  • James

    I am Catholic, just not a Roman Catholic. One does not need to be Roman to be Catholic. I understand the language I use, I understand what I am saying, even if you do not believe me.

    Even though I grew up Roman Catholic, I left the Roman Church because I felt the leadership largely abandoned its mission and its integrity in particular due to its involvement in funding and organizing political campaigns that sought to strip members of the LGBTQ community of their rights.

  • Marya

    Jill, you have put that wonderfully. In describing your transition from “I am Catholic, BUT” to “I am Catholic,” you’ve succinctly captured my transition over the past 10 years, and I’m sure that many others feel the same.

    As far as the teaching sisters who could scare you stiff, I experienced a few of those, and for a while, they dominated my memories of Catholic school. Now, I feel sad for them, in that their faith seemed to bring them so little joy, and I prefer to remember the loving sisters.

  • Plow

    Fr. – This is the best summary of this issue I’ve seen. You nailed it! Let us pray that, through the intercession of our Blessed Mother, the Sisters and all those who have fallen into the heresy of modernism will be given the graces needed to recognize the truths taught by Holy Mother Church.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    “I am Catholic, just not a Roman Catholic. One does not need to be Roman to be Catholic.”

    You’re mistaken. You can be a Christian without being Roman Catholic, but you can’t be Catholic. That’s because ‘Catholic’ means universal and there is only one universal Christian ecclesial group–the Roman Catholic Church.

  • wineinthewater


    Fr. specifically makes a distinction between liberalism and modernism You might benefit from a more attentive re-reading.

    Beyond that, your narrative simply doesn’t align with reality. You do the same thing you accuse Fr. of, mixing the terms. Conservative, orthodox and traditional are often used interchangeably, but they are not synonyms. The numbers in the CofC and Episcopal corners of the Anglican Communion (those who have embraced the values you extol) are not just on a downward trajectory, they are, in some cases, in a free-fall. This is not a characteristic of a thriving community. The numbers of Roman Catholics in the US may be depending on immigration, but that is a much different reality than the contraction seen by the Episcopal Church.

    And the state of the gross numbers is something much different than the point Fr. L was making about numbers. The membership of Roman Catholic Church is a mix of ideologies, from rad-trad to hyper-progressive. Fr.’s point was specifically one of vocations. Those dioceses and orders that have valued orthodoxy and tradition are seeing their vocation swell (there are even dioceses in this country where “vocation crisis” means there isn’t enough room for all the seminarians). Those that have embraced the path you extol have seen their vocation dwindle and even dry up.

    Social Justice is an integral part of Christianity. But when it is given priority and prestige over all other parts of Christianity, the theology becomes unbalanced and other truths are sacrificed in the service of that truth.

  • savvy


    You are confusing politics with theology. The sacraments point to the eternal son of God and are of an objective nature. They are the same for everyone. You adapt to them. Forcing them to adapt to you is not inclusive. It’s arrogantly exclusive.

  • Jack

    I wasn’t trying to excuse the wacky sisters but trying to get my fellow Orthodox Catholics to (a) understand WHY all the crazyness happened and (b) to recognise the dangerous mindset that I find so often in so called Orthodox or Traditionalist Catholics and (c) what they can do to avoid a return to wacky liberalism. However If you still didn’t get it, here they are.

    a) Support your fellow Catholic when he is in distress and see what you can do to alliviate it; rather than blitely say “offer it up”, your intentions may be good but it comes across as cold, sanctimonious and indifferent
    b) Assume the best in everyone and don’t go spouting off about other people’s intentions when you have no idea what they are e.g. its possible that Fr. crazy liturgy is not maliciously deforming the liturgy but received poor formation in seminary
    c) When blowhards like Michael Voris who do the above disdaindfully refer to the so called Church of Nice, think to yourself I’d like to belong to the Church of barely human, not the Church of unbiblical puritanism
    d) If you go to the Extraordinary Form DO NOT think for a moment that you are a better Catholic because you do, or that the EF is a Better Mass than the Ordinary Form, to be honest I’m sick to death of Trads who treat Cardinal Ontivanti’s document as sacred writ or who treat Orthodox Catholics who go to the OF as lepers or like the Priests of the ICRS refer to the OF as the Nervous Disorder.

  • Richard

    The church has endured far worse in her 2,000 years and with God’s hand always upon her, this too shall pass. Good mention on the conservative groups of sisters. You know, the groups the MSM hate.

  • Elise

    Jack: Mgr Felix-Antoine Dupanloup, a famous figure of the Catholic Church in France in the 19th century, who played an important role in the outcome of Vatican I, was an illegitimate child. That did not keep him from becoming bishop of Orléans.

  • Sid

    Re Episcopal Churches in the US: “……..In the last decade, average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase.”

    July 16, 2012 article:

  • FWKen

    The Episcopal Church has lost about one-third of it’s membership since 1976. In the past decade, it had lost 23% of it’s average Sunday attendance. The only diocese showing any growth it’s South Carolina, which adamantly opposes same-sex marriage.

  • Reluctant Liberal

    Chesterton was an Anglo-Catholic before he was a Roman Catholic.

  • Reluctant Liberal

    Defining your ideological opponents by the ways in which they’re different from you does not mean that they define themselves in that way. Desmond Tutu is a liberal, and I don’t think it can be claimed he’s defining himself based on how he disagrees with the Catholic Church.


    you guys are all missing the point.

    Ms Marx Hubbard is a new ager who is selling tapes on line to help you evolve to a “higher power” next December. She is not merely into progressive politics or even futurism: She is in Art Bell territory (and indeed has been a guest on the popular conspiracy radio show “coast to coast”).

    Excuse my sarcasm, but I’d prefer they hear a speech by a good, honest Atheist than a delusional being like Ms. Hubbard. They have a reality problem, not a religious one….

  • Qualis Rex

    Hello Father,

    As a Traditional Catholic born long after Vatican II, I applaud your use of “progressive” or “modernist” as opposed to “liberal”, since we cannot map 1-to-1 the current concept of political liberalism to what we are seeing in the church. In fact, there are a great many political neo-conservatives that feel very much at home in progressive/modernist “catholic” parishes. Why? Because of course these parishes are very protestant in look, feel and overall atmosphere. I have found that Neo-Cons are often very suspicious, if not outright resentful of the Tridentine liturgy since it is in Latin and thus “foreign” and “un-American” (i.e. something that should be swept away as it makes good Americans who happen to be Catholic look disloyal). All that being said, the LCWR does have huge support within liberal politics; simply for the fact that liberal politics shuns ANY religious interference (or even representation) that challenges their utopian view of society. In that regard, the LCWR has the perfect ally…and a very strong/organized/visible one.

  • SteveD

    The Church is not called ‘Roman Catholic’ (nonsensical anyway) and never has been, this was a title invented by Anglicans because they claimed that their, new, church was also catholic. We are the Catholic Church.

  • SteveD

    Barbara Marx Hubbard’s ‘conscious evolution’ is no more or less than the philosophy put forward by Hitler (who sought to create the conditions that would give birth to the Aryan superman) or by Stalin ( who sought to lay the grounds for the New Socialist Man to emerge). She is talking about selective breeding.

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  • Bill

    Honestly, the bogeyman of “the bad old days” and hair shirt wearing nuns is WAY overblown and is used as a club to maintain leftist dissent in the church.

    The most Pharisaical Catholics I’ve ever meant were the biggest proponents of modernism. I lived in a particularly left wing New York State diocese.

  • Theophilus

    Is it really possible to make such a strong distinction between so-called modernism/liberalism and so-called orthodox faith? The “old old story” is just as much an historical and cultural construct as any other story, limited by the thought-forms and world-vew in which it is expressed. Vatican II saw the need to recognise how particular traditions had distorted or obscured the Tradition and how we should be faithful to Tradition in terms of the time in which we live (aggiornamento), otherwise the Church becomes a museum. Revelation may be given once and for all time, but our interpretations of it (which is all we can know) need constantly to grow and develop. Needless to say this is a very difficult task: what is Tradition? what is interpretation? But if we do not engage in it we cannot true to the living God and not to do so displays a strange absence of faith in the living God: people are constantly replacing God with their idols of the Church, orthodoxy, the magisterium etc.
    It would be charitable if Catholics were able to recognise that we are all, in our different ways, trying to make sense of interpretations of Tradition and maybe trust the Gamaliel principle that God will make all things clear: until then why should be as vehemently dismissive of fellow-searchers as I am afraid self-styled orthodox religious people so often are?

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    He who marries the spirit of the age will soon be a widow

  • Theophilus

    That rather trite response shows exactly what I am talking about. It is not a matter of marrying the spirit of the age, rather trying to distinguish what is truly of God from every time-bound expression of it, but doing so from the perspective of the age one inhabits (since one can never stand anywhere else) – recognising what is good in that, while also not allowing oneself to be bound by it any more than by any other age. The so-called spirit of the age often enough has recalled Christians to the truths of their own gospel. Marrying the spirit of a past age, while refusing to acknowledge that that is what one is doing, will presumably lead even more quickly to widowhood.

  • Qualis Rex

    Theophilus – the flaw in your argument is the whole concept of “recognizing what is good” varies from person to person, doesn’t it? Too many people have gotten away with recognizing “what is good” and discarding everything else as inconvenient, irrelevant, archaic etc. This is the main problem with the LCWR; they have set themselves to become the arbitors (arbitrixes?) of what the church stands for, and all of it based on a very unfounded and erroneous interpretation of Vatican II.

  • V

    Frankly, I think this modernist “new wave” has roots in the church well before Vatican II. It comes out of “New Thought”, Blavatski, and, of course, Rousseau. One can, however take it even further. Ironically, the traditionalist of traditionalists, St. Augustine, was a neo-platonist, and there is a good deal of platonism in the progressivism which gives some of the better read a sense of tradition. Of course, they also border (and sometimes even fall into) Manacheeism,and/ or the philosophy of the muslim apostate philosopher who pushed the notion of two “truths” instead of one. Modernism is just the same old Satan’s smoke that’s always been wafting around the the sub-altars of the Universal Church.

    Their ultimate enemy is Thomas Aquinas, who took reality as it is and declared it made good, by God himself. They claim that they say the same thing, while everything they do screams otherwise. The only thing new about it is that sophistry always dresses in modern drag, picking up the popular causes and decrying itself new and radical. In that guise they collect certain popular saints or individual popular truths and turn them into idols. (Various protestantisms do the same thing, only using different truths.) Without the laborious reason and finely honed distinctions of Aquinas, they trudge with their gold-plated ideals straight to hell while ignoring the consequences of their actions in the wider world.

    It is not fear that “inspired” these apostates. It is laziness on the part of many the teachers, who did not teach the full teaching of the Magisterium. They relied on misleading short cuts and intimidation to get the short term work done, while neglecting the cultivation of souls and the fullness of Truth. In some cases, it is also those picking and choosing what they like and dropping those aspects of Truth that were unpopular in politics or public life.

    Vatican II was designed to adress this, but the very truths it sought to re-emphasise for the benefit of the polity were the very ideals that were dipped in gold and idolized by the new generation. So they wandered off, following their golden calf while forgetting the fullness of Truth.

    Plainclothes nuns worshiping the goddess, while feeding the poor is what we get out of that.
    It’s the new radical, the same as the old radical. We just don’t have the stones to call them heretics anymore.

    A big part of that is for good reason. St. Dominic did more to quell the Albigencians than the King of France and his bloodshed ever did. They don’t (usually) actively speak out against the bedrock truths of the Church, simply the obvious conclusions of that Truth. The SPPX spoke out actively against certain parts of the Church’s bedrock, and thus were expelled. It is easy to feel that the conservatives are being unfairly punnished, but in truth, they are clearer about what they believe. Those who are not, may yet be still persuaded home.

    I sympathise greatly with those who were seduced by the smoke of the so-called “New Thought”. Though it looks greatly compassionate on it’s surface, it is simply to avoid comprihending reality to be Good and God to be entirely merciful. For if we are perfectable on earth, is is because God would not love or even enflesh as a broken vessel. If God sends some secret messages of special holiness for a select few, is is because he does not love All of us. They do not even know enough to see the horifying consequences of their own “compassionate” beliefs.

  • Sister Faylei

    Why do you think that sisters (or priests or lay people for that matter) who do social work or call for justice and peace have abandoned the faith? How do you see inside their hearts? I am a sister who does not do social work, as that is not part of the mission of our congregation. But sisters are a diverse lot, to be sure, as are priests. Also like priests, some of us are inevitably more faithful than others. And like priests, whether we are conservative or liberal or in between, all of us without exception are sinners and dependent on the grace and mercy of God. As far as I can tell, none of the many sisters I know — no matter what their ministry — have given up the “old, old story” of the saving love of our incarnate God manifested in the Paschal Mystery.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    I’m not against sisters doing social work. I’m against the sisters who replace the gospel with social work and who endorse non Christian spiritualities and deny the doctrines and morals taught by our Church.

  • Qualis Rex

    Hello Sister,

    I was glad to hear you stand up for your belief in the ‘old, old story” and that no one you know in your order has given it up. You don’t know me, and have no reason to believe me here, but my aunt and about half of the nuns I know from her order would not/do not have that in common with you. Belief in the need for a savior has become to “absolutist” for them, and is relegated to “just another path”, shared equally with Wicca, Zen Buddhism, many new-age novelties etc. The sisters in the order who still adhere to Catholic dogma are often sneered at as “sister stick-in-the-mud” for not going along with the fads of the other more vocal/powerful ones who support such nonsense. I sincerely hope none of this rings true for you or your order.

    One final point: I have noticed the tendency for many orders to claim to “speak for the poor” when on paper they are indeed penniless, but in practice have a 1 BDR apt, a living stipend, a car and any other creature comfort most poor cannot afford. Simply “lobbying” for the poor, i.e. in healthcare reform has replaced real work with the poor. Contrast this with a Traditional order, such as the Missionaries of Charity who not only physically work for the poor, but live AS the poor.

  • Matteo

    Is it too ironic that the work of the nuns is what makes me want to come back to the Catholic faith? I want to be a Catholic again not because it’s the better church or I think it’s “the” church but because the tradition is so rich and fu of diverse voices of people who love Jesus.

  • Jason

    First, to assume that you or your interpretation of Tradition or more conservative interpretation of scripture is the gold standard is plain pride and hubris.

    it is not pride and hubris, if it is in truth the true interpretation of scripture, the meaning with which it was imbued with from its meaning. The problem seems to be more that people with your attitude believe that there was no such thing to begin with, that it is every person’s interpretation for themselves, there is no true, unwavering meaning – there is no truth – in scripture. Or that there is but because you do not like the meaning you want to supplant it with something of your own devising, something to suit your own fancy.

    “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desire”

  • Jason

    That should have been “imbued with from its beginning” rather than meaning.