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Liberal Catholicism

Letter to the Editor | Sunday, April 26, 2009

“We believe in one holy, Catholic and apostolic Church” (Nicene Creed). What does “Catholic” mean? And what does it mean when we say “Catholic Church?”

The Greek word “katholikos” means “universal” (thus making the term “Roman Catholic” not only an oxymoron but also a mix of Latin and Greek). The term was first used after the Christian Church got used to being called Christian. The reality of it is that Christian was meant to be an insult. The Greeks and Jews used it to call the believers “followers of Christ,” pointing out that they didn’t worship the Greek gods nor did they follow the normal Jewish customs. After a while, the believers took pride in this term. When the leadership of the Church (viz Paul and Peter in Acts) allowed Gentiles into their ranks, they earned the distinction of being “universal.” Fast forward a few centuries. The Church gets the distinction of Roman after Great Schism. It becomes a matter of Rome versus Constantinople. Hence, we end up with Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic.

Within the last few centuries, the Catholic Church has distinguished itself in as a conservative way as possible. Trent and Vatican I established the Church in a reactionary light. Then, in the 20th century, figures such as Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day step into the picture, both of them “leftists.” Then, after the reactions of Trent and Vatican I, Vatican II comes along and establishes many liberal policies for the Church. Pope John Paul II then preaches his doctrine of solidarity and we have Mother Theresa of Calcutta. Over the course of 50 years, the big figures of the Church become some of the most liberal figures in the world. Thus, the term “universal” truly becomes applicable. On one hand we have such conservative figures as Cardinal Ratzinger, and on the other hand, we have people like Dorothy Day. In the Catholic Tradition one can be anarchist, Republican, Democratic, socialist, capitalist or libertarian.

So here’s where it becomes applicable. In the news recently and in Viewpoint articles, Notre Dame has received a lot of flack for allowing President Obama to speak at our Commencement. Some proclaim that this is against our Catholic identity. But, truth be told, it seems as though not only is taking a leftist stance within Catholic tradition, but there are, in fact, great examples for it.

Levi Checketts


Stanford Hall

April 24