Is the Roman Catholic Church Liberal?

by Joseph Eliot
Many Catholics consider themselves politically liberal.

Many Catholics consider themselves politically liberal.

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While not overtly political, the Roman Catholic Church takes a number of strong moral positions on social issues. Many of these positions would be considered politically conservative -- relying on values associated with traditional social institutions -- as opposed to politically liberal. While there are different interpretations of Catholicism, just as there are various interpretations of conservatism and liberalism, the Catholic Church remains among the oldest and most traditional of institutions, making it relatively conservative.

Condemnation of Liberalism

The Catholic Church has publicly condemned liberalism on several occasions. By granting people the right to determine their moral and social order, liberalism places people above God, thereby denying one of Catholicism's central tenets. By placing people in place of God, God is effectively denied. These beliefs have led to strongly worded renunciations of such liberal movements as rationalism and naturalism, such as in the 1870 Constitution "De Fide" of the Vatican Council.

Social Positions

Several positions held by the church go against the traditional definition of liberalism. For example, the church's staunch ban on abortion and contraception contravene the liberal notion that a woman has the right to make choices about her body. Similarly, the church's rejection of female priests runs against a liberal tradition of gender equality, in which men and women share the same rights. The Catholic Church's proscription on pre-marital and homosexual sex also runs contrary to the liberal belief in the right of the individual to determine his own sexual morality. The church's ban on embryonic stem cell research is also based on life as beginning at conception; a belief liberals do not necessarily share.

Social Justice

Catholicism does have a strong commitment to social justice, which calls upon Catholics to work to alleviate societal inequalities. The social justice movement is not inherently liberal or conservative. However, promoting social justice often requires the reform of traditional social institutions -- an activity more closely identified with liberalism than with conservatism, which places greater emphasis on personal responsibility. So, while Catholicism still can't be said to be liberal, it does have at least one distinctly liberal tendency.

Liberal Catholicism

While the Catholic Church may not be liberal, that does not mean that Catholics cannot themselves be liberals. Some liberal Catholic groups, such as the American Catholic Council, advocate for the church to take a more progressive position on social issues. However, progressive voices have traditionally been unwelcome in the Catholic Church. In 2011, the Archbishop of Detroit threatened priests who attended a meeting of the American Catholic Council with defrocking; a church spokesman stated that the group was guilty of "serious liturgical abuses."

About the Author

Based in New York City, Joseph Eliot has been a writer since 2007. He holds a master's degree in journalism, with a focus on cultural reporting.

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