Religious liberalism is a naturalist manifestation, an effort at emancipation from supernatural demands, especially those of a dogmatic kind. It found followers in all positive religions (including Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Islam), but it became widespread only in the 19th and 20th centuries. The phenomenon consists of an opposition between the natural and the supernatural; it stems from a desire to establish new relations between the two. In some cases, it endeavors to redefine the supernatural. When this rational ideal reaches its logical consequences, after being generated and developed in a subjective and individualistic manner, its manifestations are very diverse and seemingly contradictory. These include emancipation of the laity in the fervor of their rational adherence to the Church and their apostolic action (Catholic Liberalism); ecclesiastical liberalism; indifferentism; the rationalism of positivism; the subjectivism of fideism; the social engagement of the disciples of traditionalism; the sentimentality of the supporters of modernism.
Origins. Antiquity knew a degree of skepticism concerning Greek and Roman religions. In the early Christian Era, some individuals displayed a parallel tendency. During the medieval period, some laymen, such as the Ghibellines, on the borders of theocracy, affirmed a desire to emancipate themselves in political matters. Ecclesiastical liberalism appeared in the thought of marsilius of padua and others.
Contemporary religious liberalism, especially in western Europe, traces its origins more markedly to the renaissance. If the Renaissance did not reject the supernatural, it nevertheless produced, in men like machiavelli, a naturalistic mode of thought and action. Although focused especially on secular areas, it did not neglect religious phenomena, as the lives of erasmus and St. Thomas more demonstrate.
The Reformation, at the convergence of the preceding currents, developed religious liberalism and strengthened its fabric. By proclaiming the primacy of individual conscience and promoting adherence to an invisible church, luther clearly opened the way to free examination, even in religious matters. This remains true even though Luther's ardent faith seemed to correct what was overnaturalistic in his rationality and overinstinctive in his sentimentality. The individual conscience, which Luther extolled and believed to be moved by the Holy Spirit, did away with the guarantees that dogma, ecclesiastical discipline, and rites might otherwise supply.
Precise delineation of religious liberalism had to await the 18th-century enlightenment, with its strivings for liberty. The philosophy of the Enlightenment, which considered reason the noblest manifestation of human dignity, culminated in the Declaration of the Rights of Man (see enlightenment, philosophy of). Its champions had already expressed a desire for liberty. Political circumstances would lead to an even clearer emphasis that human dignity is found in liberty above all. Subjectivist German philosophies, such as that of Immanuel Kant, served to solidify this conviction.
All these currents merged in Hugues Félicité de lamennais. This publicist sought to establish harmony between God and liberty and thereby to adapt the Church to the contemporary world. His latent rationalism and subjectivism, however, favored the development of all types of religious liberalism. Although he engaged directly in Liberal Catholicism, he did not fail to influence the rationalistic tendencies of 19th-century liberalism. Liberal Catholicism, considered as a new humanism in thought and action, had very close affiliations with Modernism.
positivism led equally in the same direction. By endeavoring to impose knowledge at the behest of the external object, it approached Kantian subjectivism, which appeared to make knowledge something internal, something which emerged from itself.
Types. These diverse origins resulted in a great variety of forms of religious liberalism, some orthodox, some heterodox.
Liberal Catholicism can be classed among the former. Despite the encyclical Mirari vos (1832) of Gregory XVI, and other Roman decisions, some of its adepts consciously or unconsciously accepted modern liberties for themselves, so much so that their adversaries regarded them as heretics. The great majority, however, simply wished to help modernize the Church by this approach. They strongly favored emancipation of the laity in political affairs. This was generally true in France and Belgium; also in Italy, at least during certain periods of the Risorgimento. Some, like dÖllinger in Germany and Lord John acton in England, advocated autonomy for the laity in doctrinal matters.
Ecclesiastical liberalism, which was displayed especially in Belgium (1840) and Switzerland (1846), reproduced a tendency manifest at the Synod of Pistoia (1786), and partially realized in the civil constitution of the clergy (1792). It sought to introduce democracy into the ecclesiastical hierarchy by having candidates for the episcopacy elected, thereby compromising the rights of the Holy See in the nomination of bishops.
traditionalism, as advocated by Lamennais was an expression of religious liberalism in the doctrinal domain. It ended by regarding the Church and its teachings not as divine in origin but as one stage in historical evolution.
In its attempt to resolve more precisely the problem of faith, religious liberalism found expression in the theories of hermes, who considered the act of faith a naturalistic expression of reason and the heart.
Religious liberalism appeared elsewhere in the tendencies of fideism, which, in the manner of rosminiserbati, gioberti, and other disciples of ontologism, sought to follow the ideas of platonism and discover in faith an intuition, a purely supernatural manifestation inspired by a subjectivism disengaged from rational imperatives.
The subjectivism latent in fideism, and the relativism expressed in traditionalism led to indifferentism, which equated, more or less precisely, doctrines of the most diverse, even contradictory, kind, provided they were based on sincerity, the source of certitude and merit.
Enamored with modernity, some tried with more or less good will to impart to dogmas a "historical dimension" and a progressive development. In this class were mÖhler and others of the Tübingen school.
Others, such as Anton gÜnther, turned for inspiration to metaphysics, and derived an explanation of the Trinity and the Incarnation based on reason alone. strauss, renan, and others who were devoted to scriptural studies, applied to them positivistic and rationalistic methods and interpreted the sacred books of the Bible as the expression of myths or as merely human language.
Marc sangnier and others in France and Italy bore the banner of liberalism into the social domain, where they fought in the name of liberty for the political emancipation and predominance of the working class.
Certain Catholics in the U.S. advanced simultaneously into the terrain of doctrine and of action under the standard of liberty, and engaged in what they termed americanism. They admitted the activity of the Holy Spirit in souls, but in an individualistic, Lutheran manner. Seeking a new formula of Christian humanism, they attributed to the natural virtues an apostolic efficacy and fecundity superior to that of the supernatural virtues. Active virtues seemed to them better suited to modern times than the passive virtues they conceived to be generally taught in the Gospels.
These types of religious liberalism merged in Modernism, a more precise expression of rationalism. Over and above the reasoning intelligence, it admitted a sort of intuitive and sentimental knowledge which provoked the act of faith. This act, produced more or less by divine grace, was not understood as adherence to a dogma imposed from without, but as the acceptance of a religious truth due to immanent, rational, sentimental, or pragmatic factors. Dogma would, therefore, be described as the effusion of a thinking and emotive soul, and subject, even in its content, to evolution and variation. Modernism penetrated the moral and Biblical sciences, and spread to several countries, notably France, Italy, England, and Germany.
Rationalist tendencies in religious liberalism were equally evident in the thought of Louis sabatier, Paul sabatier, and other representatives of Protestant liberalism (see liberalism, theological). They were at work also in liberal Judaism and zionism. After abandoning faith in the divinity of Christ or the Mosaic Law, these intellectual directions moved into agnosticism.
Papal Condemnations. The Holy See condemned some types of religious liberalism. Its political tendencies were reprobated by Pius IX (quanta cura, syllabus of errors, 1864), and gregory xvi (Mirari vos, 1832). The latter Pope likewise attacked its rationalistic and fideistic inclinations (Dum acerbissimas, 1835), and its ecclesiastical ones (Quo graviora, 1833). Leo XIII opposed its activism (testem benevolentiae, 1899). Its Modernist trends merited from Pius X the severest condemnations of all (lamentabili and pascendi, 1907). Although the protagonists of these movements often protested that Rome did not enunciate their teachings exactly in its condemnations, the Holy See had discovered in all of them an essentially naturalist and rationalist tendency.
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