On Liberal and Ultra-Conservative "Catholicism"

-Luke Wadel

[This page is in the process of revision.]

"We don't just want a Church that is right when we are right; we want a Church that is right when we are wrong."
I recommend that we pause here and reflect on this principle (quoted from somewhere in G.K. Chesterton's work). For this faith distinguishes orthodox Catholics from followers of new fringe Catholicisms: the Liberal and ultra-Conservative. These trust their own judgements and interpretations much more than they trust the Church's (that is, the popes') judgements and interpretations (except, most will grant, for ex cathedra teachings). Can we call these new positions "Catholic"? What should we make of them?

I have been asked, "Why bother with these new fringe Catholicisms when so few Catholic lay people or priests or bishops belong to these or care about them?" I bother because some are affected by them, and when they are, they are usually greatly affected for the worse. And even if these extreme groups are small in number, like any other small extreme group, they make themselves heard and do influence us through the publicity they get. I am sorry to give these publicity, but you may come up against them, and if you are Catholic, you have reason to be wary.

1. Definitions

I always hear, "how can you label us with these terms, as if our thoughts could be neatly put in a box? We are not even unified in our thoughts, but diversified. Do you not allow diversity?" There is indeed much diversity on both sides. And diversity sounds better than "contradictory," but logical distinctions must be made. Diversity is not contradictory or bad in good works, but it is in theology. To say that debates are a great side effect of theological disagreement will not gloss over the problem. Wounds cannot be healed unless they are examined and diagnosed. So there are divisions, but I'm not the one who made them. And who can assume they will heal on their own when everyone in these groups, acting like the heads of the Catholic body, pulls it in a different direction, or at least refuses to be directed by the head?

First, I would like to make clear what I do not include in my definitions of liberal and ultra-conservative Catholics. By liberal, I do not refer to things like preferences for guitars in Church choirs, or speculation about new or even novel theological ideas, or membership in Charismatic prayer groups or emphasis on social justice issues. By ultra-conservative, I do not refer to a mere preference for the Latin Mass or an embracing of fasting, or an emphasis of doctrines about hell.

I'll begin with some illustrative quotes. Fr. Bernard Marchal:

I fail to see why it would be absurd and contradictory to be both a Christian and a Communist. I will go further: I see no contradiction between being a Marxist and being a man who questions his faith and the ministry he has received from the hands of a bishop. I even dare ask myself and others this question: if Marxist analysis led me to atheism, would this evolution not in fact express the freedom of the movement of which I am a part, and would this freedom not be the freedom of the Gospel?

-from Ralph Martin, A Crisis of Truth, p. 92.

Another famous liberal, Charles Curran:

Contemporary theology has shifted its gaze from heaven to earth, from God to man, from the after life to the present life. Human existence and its meaning are the primary problems of contemporary theology. The world today is ageric - modern man is not a contemplator but a doer. Dogma and speculation for its own sake have very little appeal to man today... Life is the most important reality.
The pre-Vatican II [the traditional Catholic] concepts of life, authority and law in the Church do not reflect either the current theological understanding of the Church, or even the circumstances of life in modern secular society.

-Charles Curran, A New Look at Christian Morality, p. 1, 101.

Liberalism is of the Contemporary World, though the new "circumstances of modern secular society" seem to me to be mostly better technology and greater self-centeredness. As we might guess from Curran's words above, liberal sexual morality is that which typically allows or promotes masturbation (sex with oneself), practising homosexuality, sex before marriage, technology interfering with the physical and human flow of love in marriage, and abortion. Liberal Catholicism almost always involves a denial that God punishes, a denial of the truth of countless parts of the Bible, and above all a denial that any human authority should tell our consciences "thou shalt not." Frequently there is the notion that love should lead us not to make distinctions which might be felt to "label" anybody. Theo-logy is less concerned with the Theos, God, than it is with Humankind. It is like a recognition of the virtue of mercy with some sense of prudence and an acknowledgement of good and evil without an additional sense of justice. But "mercy without justice becomes tyranny" and so much can be destroyed. (Is it any surprise that the Vatican sometimes answers these attacks with excommunication from the Church?)

What I will call the ultra-conservative's position (1) is the suggestion that our popes after Pius XII are heretics. Some insist that they are therefore false claimants to the chair of St. Peter. If they are truly popes, the response of Catholic obedience is still not required unless ex cathedra statements are issued. To illustrate:

Q: Where is the true Church today? Is it with the official Catholic Church, as usual, or with the Protestants, as the Pope seems to say [where?], or with the so-called Traditionalists, as they [who?] say? A:... As for the official Catholic Church, it becomes more Protestant in belief and practice day by day. But the so-called Traditionalists are remarkable [sic] united (one), producing good fruits (holy), in the faith of all time throughout the world (catholic), with complete respect for the Pope's authority (apostolic). Therefore it is in the direction of the so-called Traditionalists that you must today look for the true Church of Christ.

-Bishop Richard Williamson, "Questions and Answers
on the Society of Saint Pius X", Verbum (December 1995)

2. Properly Called "Catholic"?

The question is, can we call these "Catholic"? So the issue is terminology, not political history, anthropology or anything else. To begin again with what a term does not mean, our definition of Catholicism cannot come from wishing or from an exclusively material historical analysis. That is, the fact that one's parents were Catholic does not mean that whatever the child believes is "Catholic," not even on a national scale, not even on an international scale. Nor can we say that Catholic means "nearly Catholic" or "somewhat Catholic." If some parts of it are contradicted or protested, this is called "Protestantism." For that is exactly what Protestantism means, and no one admits that Protestantism is Catholicism. If this is true, let us not forget about it. Nor let us suppose that "Catholic" may be reduced to the ancient Greek word "katholikos" which meant "universal" in any way, applicable to anything. That is, we cannot use the Greek as a basis to decide that the Catholic Church is therefore that Church which embraces a universe of creeds or contradictory theologies. No, we're talking about a Church, and not reinventing the language to suit anyone, so we want the existing definition of Catholic in its ecclesiastical sense.

To establish what "Catholic" does mean: The most ancient use of the word "Catholic" as applied to the Church is found in St. Ignatius of Antioch's Letter to the Smyrnaens, who succeeded St. Peter as bishop of Antioch (some time after Peter went to Rome). I'll quote the entire section, to give the context.

1. See that you all follow the bishop, as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and the presbytery as if it were the Apostles. And reverence the deacons as the command of God. Let no one do any of the things appertaining to the Church without the bishop. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the bishop, or by one whom he appoints.
2. Wherever the bishop appears let the congregation be present; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful either to baptise or to hold an "agape" [Mass] without the bishop; but whatever he approve, this is also pleasing to God, that everything which you do may be secure and valid.

Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, VIII (HUP)

The definition of "Catholic" that we can form from this is examined first from the liberal viewpoint, then from further analysis of the text, and finally from the ultra-conservative.

A liberal Catholic or other Protestant would like to use Ignatius' sentence about the "Catholic Church" to support their claim that they are truly "Catholic" like St. Ignatius' early Church. They argue that since Jesus is present to all people of good will regardless of creed, the phrase "the Catholic Church" must include far more than those who adopt Ignatius' orthodox faith creed, or ours today.

But let's look at the text. The "just as" must be considered. Just as the congregation goes after the bishop (being present to him), likewise the Catholic Church is that Church which goes after or follows Christ. So since to follow the bishop to follow Christ means first of all to accept his/His teachings in faith, it follows that the Catholic "Church" is said by Ignatius to be that Church which, as a rule, believes just those doctrines which Christ taught according to the college of bishops. And no college of bishops, in Ignatius' time nor in our time (nor in any time in between) have ever suggested the liberal notion of democratic or private authority in theology.

And this has always been the meaning, to our day. The authoritative hierarchy of bishops, who define Catholic in general, define it in detail as well.

So let the standard meaning of "Catholic" which has existed since the early second century (at least) not be imagined away just so that the liberal Catholics can maintain positions within the Church or satisfy familial expectations. The words "Catholic" and "liberal Catholic" are contradictory; to say otherwise is to fail to read or use the language as it is. The past documents shall not be rewritten to suit the liberals' nor anyone's tastes, nor shall we throw the existing meanings and conventions of language (such as the theological sense of "Catholic") into obscurity. Therefore, Let Protestants be called Protestants, then, if this is what they wish in fact to be, and let Catholics continue to be called Catholics without the insult of hearing that as such they embrace contradictory creeds.(2)

Turning to the ultra-conservatives, we find different reasons for denying authority. I'll have to rely more on my correspondence with them than on publications. Former member of the ultra-conservative "Society of St. Pius X" (SSPX) Pete Vere writes, "I will warn you of one thing...the SSPX along with many of these groups rarely leave a paper trail. They are in fact more extreme than their words, which could be used to pin them."(letter to the author, July 4, 1997)

My first encounter with an ultra-conservative apologist was with one Fr. Joseph Greenwell in August of 1991. Later, I enjoyed several secret meetings with a more formidable ultra-conservative apologist; I was made to promise him anonymity before he would speak with me. Conversations with such men are always to be officially secretive, and properly to be held partly in Church Latin.

The implied if denied operating premise in this church is that the codification of the Tridentine Latin liturgy in the 1500's was the beginning of the Church, and Vatican Council II was the end of the visible Church. For without the Tridentine Mass, it seems, there is no Roman Catholic Church. For if pressed about this lessening of the history of Catholic tradition, proponents shall posit that the Tridentine Liturgy was in fact the liturgy of the Church since the time of Christ:

Sixty-two Reasons why, in conscience, we cannot attend the New Mass... [which,] for the same reasons, we adhere faithfully to the traditional Mass (also known as Tridentine Mass, old Latin Mass...) [follow].
...25. Because we are faced with a dilemma: either we become Protestantized by worshipping with the New Mass, or else we preserve our Catholic Faith by adhering faithfully to the traditional Mass of All Time.

pub. St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary, Winona, MN.

On account of this excessive theology, popes from John XXIII to John Paul II are often said not to be the real popes: they are not Catholic, so they are not heads of the Catholic Church. Some ultra-conservatives, it must be mentioned, go only nearly this far, such as the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX).

On the one hand (as the SSPX believes) John Paul II is head of the One True Church, and whenever he talks or acts as such by, for instance, condemning priestesses or by condemning divorce laws in Ireland, then the SSPX heeds him and the liberals in the Church disregard him. But -- men can be walking contradictions -- whenever he talks or acts as a liberal by, for instance, promoting false ecumenism or religious liberty, then the liberals look up to him as their head, but since the very Catholic Faith is endangered, Catholics cannot follow him. So John Paul II is the head of the Catholic Church, but whenever he misuses -- consciously, or unconsciously -- his papal office to promote liberalism, his misuse of it makes him head of the liberals.

-Bishop Richard Williamson, "Questions and Answers
on the Society of Saint Pius X", Verbum (December 1995)

Moreover, they tell me, the visible Church now fully practises the heresy embracing all heresies (Modernism), as is seen by the espousal of religious liberty (again), the moving of the words "mystery of faith" in the new Mass, the deemphasis of the doctrine of hell in common preaching, and the disuse of Latin in the Mass. The "real pope," some of them say, remains so well hidden in this underground that no one, even the ulra-conservatives, know what his name is, nor where he is. Theologian Fr. Joseph Bisztyo, however, counts 18 claimants to the title.

Several essential documents have not been read. To be quite frank, the first are the Baltimore Catechism, Council of Trent, and Vatican I. For these insist that the Church is not only one, but most visibly united in doctrine and hierarchy until the end of time. The Church is the sacrament to the world, and the pope is always the visible head, supernaturally preserved from teaching false doctrine. Let the body not act against its head.

Then let them read the documents of Vatican Council II, and compare the Document on Religious Liberty with Cardinal Manning's Defence of the Syllabus of Errors of Pius IX. There shall be a rude awakening. When I showed Fr. Joseph Greenwell the document from Vatican II, I recall that he searched it, and searched it again, finally saying that he was unable to find any conclusive evidence of heresy, although I must believe that it was indeed intended! He said it was vague. When pressed for an identification of some vague sentences, he could complain only of the title of the document, "On Religious Liberty." Pius IX had condemned what was, in the late 19th century, called "religious liberty," but it meant quite a different thing. Fr. Greenwell had not good reason to condemn the Vatican Council; he was not reading and he was not alone.

Let these "conservatives" conserve Pope Pius XII's encyclical, Mediator Dei, wherein a pope that even they do not yet contest, speaks of having full authority to revise the liturgy to fit the needs of the day.(3) Let them also read the same pope speaking favorably of the use of peoples' mother tongues in the Liturgy as long as this transition were carried out under the direction and approval the pope.(4) Of course, neither he nor Vatican II documents anywhere suggest changing any of the unchangeable elements of the Mass; they each see change only in the changeable elements. And if the ultra-conservatives should continue to put forward that Quo Primum of Pius V bound the Church and her popes to perpetuity not to change the liturgy, let them read whom it was that Pius commanded: Patriarchs, Cardinals, and every level of lesser clergy. One pope does not have more authority than the others; every pope is supreme. So obviously, he was not forbidding later popes to make any revisions or allow other liturgies. Again, let Pope Pius XII's words not be ignored, for he presided before 1958! Even they will admit that Pius XII contradicted neither God, the Church itself, nor Pope Pius V.

While on the topic of the "New Mass," let us face the fact that there were real problems in the common reception of the Tridentine Latin Mass such as Pope Pius XII pondered. Pope Paul VI, introducing the "New Mass," spoke of a lethargy common to Catholics during the Mass from which we needed to be shaken awake by the Holy Spirit. He also spoke of the Church's responsibility to communicate herself to the world in all her glorious graces -the highest of which is obviously the Mass- in language that it could understand:

3. It is at such a moment as this that we get a better understanding of the value of historical tradition and the communion of the saints. This change will affect the ceremonies of the Mass. We shall become aware, perhaps with some feeling of annoyance, that the ceremonies at the altar are no longer being carried out with the same words and gestures to which we were accustomed--perhaps so much accustomed that we no longer took any notice of them. This change also touches the faithful. It is intended to interest each one of those present, to draw them out of their customary personal devotions or their usual torpor...

8. It is here that the greatest newness is going to be noticed, the newness of language. No longer Latin, but the spoken language will be the principal language of the Mass. The introduction of the vernacular will certainly be a great sacrifice for those who know the beauty, the power and the expressive sacrality of Latin. We are parting with the speech of the Christian centuries; we are becoming like profane intruders in the literary preserve of sacred utterance. We will lose a great part of that stupendous and incomparable artistic and spiritual thing, the Gregorian chant.

9. We have reason indeed for regret, reason almost for bewilderment. What can we put in the place of that language of the angels? We are giving up something of priceless worth. But why? What is more precious than these loftiest of our Church's values?

10. The answer will seem banal, prosaic. Yet it is a good answer, because it is human, because it is apostolic.

11. Understanding of prayer is worth more than the silken garments in which it is royally dressed. Participation by the people is worth more--particularly participation by modern people, so fond of plain language which is easily understood and converted into everyday speech...

12. If the divine Latin language kept us apart from the children, from youth, from the world of labor and of affairs, if it were a dark screen, not a clear window, would it be right for us fishers of souls to maintain it as the exclusive language of prayer and religious intercourse? What did St. Paul have to say about that? Read chapter 14 of the first letter to the Corinthians: "In Church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue" (I Corinthians 14:19).

-L'Osservatore Romano, December 4, 1969
From the electronic form at The Nazareth Library

Now then, as for the conservatives who say that the documents of Vatican II are misleadingly vague, let them point out first the vague passages, and then somehow show that the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, ch. 3 did not insist upon (1) the infallibiliy of previous Ecumenical Councils and (2) that Vatican II is to be understood in conformity with them and with the constant teaching of the papacy throughout history in all matters of faith and morals. Let them point out how Paul VI did not unify the entire history of doctrinal tradition with the present use to be made of Vatican II in the second paragraph of the council closing messages, and again in his last address to the Council.

Finally, let them point out just how the popes beginning with John XXIII could not be the real popes when the college of cardinals who elected them told the world that they were. Let them cease to base their arguments anymore upon this or that unnamable cardinal who claimed in secret (though never in writing!) that popes such as John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II were not the real popes.

It seems one will hear almost anything from these groups, so desperate are they to justify their schism. "It is the fault of the free-masons and modernists: The freemasons controlled the Vatican since the time of the election of John XXIII," I have heard. But were Popes Pius XI and Pius XII so stupid or careless, then, as to put the enemies of the Church into the college of cardinals? These, then, are the first popes they actually attack, and the first cardinals. "But they were threatened by violent heretics!" What, with their lives? Such cowardice never existed in these popes. "But a Vatican official confessed on his deathbed (in secret) that a cardinal left the conclave in 1958 for a couple of hours for unspecified reasons. And oh, there was something unusual about the smoke that went up from the room of the conclave one night during the decision of who the new pope would be." (The color of smoke is usually the first indication to the world that the pope has been elected, but the cardinals have the official say. A technical diffulty with the smoke must therefore be assumed; the cardinals certainly did not come out and lie about who they had just elected.)

For these reasons they justify schism and deny the visibility of the Church. I have heard all of these arguments directly from their own apologists.

3. Conclusion

The inability or unwillingness to read the pertinent documents has been discussed, and our two extremes have been found illiterate in theology, and anti-Catholic. While accounting for their limited popularity, this brings us to the question of whether either one is fittingly described as liberating or conservative.

From what, then, does "liberal Catholicism" liberate people? From essential aspects of Catholicism has it has been for two thousand years. Some might find this to be liberating, especially in moral issues, but it is an illusory liberation. The liberalism is conservative in the sense of conserving centuries-old Protestant methodology, but much less conservative for its rejection of Catholic Tradition from the first century.

Ultra-conservative Catholicism succeeds in conserving (as a rule if -thankfully- not in practice) about as great a block of history of theology as the liberals, i.e. the time from the mid 1500's to nearly the present. For the same reason, then, as that given in the preceding paragraph, these are similarly liberal and non-liberating.

Since the liberals support allowing everything from Marxism to drugs, please do your part to combat the movement by signing and sending "The Real Catholic Petition."

Elsewhere On the Web

For and Against Liberalism:

Click here for full lists.

On ultra-conservativism on the web:

Society of Pius V

  • Issue 1-6 of Fortes in Fide
  • Issue 3-3 of the same. (Both are zipped.)


  • Karl Keating's article, "Have We a Pope?".
  • A former ultra-conservative's case against the Society of St. Pius X.
  • Pete Vere, another survivor of this society, now president of the prestigious Una Voce, Canada. Mr. Vere has asked me to mention a problem related to our discussion. I quote:
    The SSPX, like any other questionable religious movement, speaks two radically different languages. Despite the somewhat reasoned arguments appearing in their publications, the spiritual direction they give their laity in private is much more rigorist and inflamatory -- in fact, it borders on moral jansenism. How ironic that the same pope who suppressed Modernism, Saint Pius X from whom the SSPX derive their name, is equally as famous for his suppression of Jansenism. It is truly unfortunate that Traditional Catholics loyal to the Holy See are often tainted with the outrageous semi-vacantism promulgated from the SSPX pulpit.

    -Pete Vere, letter to the author, Jan. 4, 1997.


    1. The meaning of "ultra-conservative" which I shall use seems to be fairly widespread, and not without reason. I am not arguing against those conservatives who seek to preserve the deposit of faith and morals including the essentials of the sacramental form of the Mass, nor even against those who prefer to attend the old Latin Mass of Pope Pius V. Some people call these latter "ultra-conservatives." But "ultra" means beyond or extreme, and so I am arguing with those whose devotion takes them beyond this conservativism to put themselves up against the authority of the pope himself in the name of Catholic tradition.

    2. It really does come down to exactly this. Look at how the Apostles' Creed itself is too much for the liberalism - a few Catholic doctrines must be removed:

    For example, consider this revised "Creed," which was actually used in the liturgy of the Eucharist in a Catholic parish:
    I believe in man, and in a world in which it is good to live for all mankind; and that it is our duty to create such a world. I believe in equal rights for all men, in love, in justice, brotherhood and peace. I must continually act out these beliefs....And I believe in the resurrection, whatever it may mean. Amen.

    Ralph Martin, A Crisis of Truth, p. 109.


    57. The Church has further used her right of control over liturgical observance to protect the purity of divine worship against abuse from dangerous and imprudent innovations introduced by private individuals and particular churches...
    58. It follows from this that the Sovereign Pontiff alone enjoys the right to recognize and establish any practice touching the worship of God, to introduce and approve new rites, as also to modify those he judges to require modification."

    -Pius XII, Mediator Dei, 57 and 58.


    60. The use of the Latin language, customary in a considerable portion of the Church, is a manifest and beautiful sign of unity, as well as an effective antidote for any corruption of doctrinal truth. In spite of this, the use of the mother tongue in connection with several of the rites may be of much advantage to the people. But the Apostolic See alone is empowered to grant this permission.

    -Pius XII, Mediator Dei, 60.

    I am happy to debate these positions with you, and I promise to be open to logical argment. Share your wisdom.

    Copyright 1997, Luke Wadel. Written permission of the author is required for copying, electronically or otherwise.

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