The conservative Catholic columnist for The New York Times has some thoughts on how the new president represents and defines a kind of liberal Catholicism — and what that means:
Many emergent forces are changing liberalism’s relationship to religion — wokeness, secularization, even paganism. But the new president personally embodies none of them. Instead he has elevated his own liberal Catholicism to the center of our national life.
Calling a form of religion “liberal” can mean two different things: On the one hand, a theological liberalism, which seeks an evolution in doctrine to adapt to modern needs; on the other, support for policies and parties of the center-left. In practice, though, the two tend to be conjoined: The American Catholic Church as an institution is caught between the two political coalitions, but most prominent Catholic Democrats are liberals in theology and politics alike.
But more than a set of ideas, liberal Catholicism is a culture, recognizable in its institutions and tropes, its iconography and allusions — to Pope John XXIII and Jesuit universities, to the “seamless garment” of Catholic teaching and the “spirit” of the Second Vatican Council, to the works of Thomas Merton and hymns like “On Eagle’s Wings” (which Biden quoted in his victory speech).
And, of course, invocations of Pope Francis. A decade ago it was a commonplace to regard liberal Catholicism as a tradition in decline. Its period of maximal influence, the late 1960s and 1970s, had been an era of institutional crisis for the church, which gave way to the conservative pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Conservative Catholics felt that liberal ideas had been tried and failed, liberal Catholics felt that they had been suppressed.
But then Francis gave the liberal tendency new life, reopening controversies that conservatives assumed were closed and tilting the Vatican toward cooperation with the liberal establishment and away from associations with conservatism.
The papacy does not issue political endorsements, but there seems little doubt that many figures in Francis’ inner circle welcome a Biden presidency. When the American bishops’ statement on his inauguration included a stern critique of his position on abortion, there was apparent pushback from the Vatican and explicit pushback from the most Francis-aligned of the American cardinals. So the conservative Catholics who spent the election year arguing that Biden isn’t a Catholic in good standing find themselves (not for the first time) in tacit conflict with their pope.
…If you wanted to make a case for its prospects and potential influence, you would emphasize three distinctive liberal-Catholic qualities: an abiding institutionalism, in contrast to the pure dissolving individualism of so much American religion; an increasingly multiethnic character, which matches our increasingly diverse republic; and a fervent inclusivity, an anxiety that nobody should feel discriminated against or turned away.