May a good Catholic take the term "Liberalism" in good part and may he regard it creditable to be a Liberal? What harm, it may be urged, is there in the usage of these terms as long as there is no actual acceptance of the Liberal creed. Why should not Catholics use the terms with a good sense injected into them? Let us see if there be validity in this claim.
It is certain that the word "Liberalism" signifies in the present age something not entirely in accord with true Catholicity. It cannot be said that we describe the situation in exaggerated terms. It must be admitted that in the current acceptation of the word,Liberalism and Catholic Liberalism have been explicitly condemned by Pius IX. Leaving aside for the moment those who pretend to profess a certain Liberalism without wishing it to be known as such, there is no doubt that the Liberalist current in Europe and America is anti-Catholic and rationalistic. Pass the world in review; what is meant by the Liberal party in Belgium, in France, in Germany, in Holland, in Austria, in Italy, in the South American Republics? Are they not anticlerical, anti-Catholic? What is meant by their current language when they speak of the Liberal criterion: a Liberal atmosphere, Liberal thought, etc.? Look at the leaders of these parties both in Europe and America; do not ninety-nine per cent of them understand by Liberalism the application of a pure and mild rationalism, at least to social science? Do they not regard as their sole and most potent enemy what they contemptuously term "Clericalism", "Ultramontanism", and describe the Church as medieval, reactionary, the opponent of progress and the nurse of superstition? When then the term is so intimately associated with a Rationalism so radically opposed to the Church, how may Catholics use it with any hope of separating it from its current meaning?
In vain may some half dozen people imagine that they have given a different signification to a thing currently understood to bear the unmistakable stamp of anti-Catholicity. Beyond all dispute, common usage, the arbiter and judge of language, persists in regarding Liberalism as the implacable foe of Catholicity. In spite then of a thousand distinctions, exceptions and subtleties you cannot fashion for yourself alone a Liberalism which has nothing contrary to the Faith in the opinion of most people, nor can you call yourself Liberal in any sense without being classed with all the other Liberals of that great family of Liberalism such as the world understands it. The journal that seeks to be Catholic and at the same time has the name or reputation of Liberal becomes in the general opinion an ally of those who, under the Liberal banner, combat the Church in front and rear. Vainly will the editor of such a journal explain himself; his excuses and his explanations grow wearisome. To profess to be Catholic and yet subscribe himself Liberal is not the way to convince people of the sincerity of his profession. The editor of a journal purporting to be Catholic must be Catholic not only in the profession he makes, but in spirit and in truth. To assume to be Liberal and then to endeavor to appear Catholic is to belie his faith; and although in his own heart he may imagine that he is as Catholic as the Pope [as several Liberals vaunt themselves], there is not the least doubt that his influence on current ideas and the march of events is thrown in favor of the enemy; and, in spite of himself, he becomes a satellite forced to move in the general orbit described by Liberalism.
And all this comes of a foolish desire to be estimated Liberal. Insane illusion! The usage of the word Liberal makes the Catholic, who accepts it as his own, one with all that finds shelter in its ominous shadow. Rationalism is the toadstool that flourishes in its dark shades, and with Rationalism does such a journalist identify himself, thus placing himself in the ranks of the enemies of Jesus Christ!
Moreover there is little doubt that the readers of such journals are little prepared to distinguish the subtle limitations drawn by editors of this character between Liberalism and Liberalism. Most readers know the word in its common usage and class all things Liberal in a lump. When they see an ostensibly Catholic journal practically making common cause with the Liberal creed by sanctioning its name, they are easily led into the dangerous belief that Liberalism has some affinity with their faith, and, this once engrafted in their minds, they become ready adepts of Rationalism.
Let us illustrate. There is in our day a sect which calls itself "The Old Catholics." Suppose that we who are in the true sense of the word "old Catholics", "for our Catholicity dates from Calvary and the cenacle of Jerusalem" [which are proofs of its antiquity], suppose we should establish a journal with the equivalent title: Review of the Old Catholics. Could it be said that this title is a lie? No; for we are old Catholics in the best sense of the words. But could it not be properly objected that this is a false sounding title, in as much as it is in our day the cunning device of a schismatical sect? Certainly it would give occasion to well-informed Catholics to believe that we were a schismatic and to the schismatics, who style themselves "Old Catholics", occasion to welcome us as a new comrade in their rebellion against the Church. Why thus scandalize the faithful? But we use the word in a good sense so be it; but would it not be much better to altogether avoid the use of a term in so important a matter, which, under existing circumstances, is readily interpreted in a bad sense?
Now this is exactly the situation with those who consider the term Liberal-----reprobated by the Pope, inoffensive. Why should they take particular pains to employ a term requiring confusing explanations, and which cannot but excite suspicion and cause scandal? Why rank themselves, for the sake of a term, with the enemy, and carry his device-----if, at bottom, they are Catholic? But it may be said that words are of little importance-----why quibble in this way of the meaning of a term? We protest; words are of paramount importance, especially in our own day, when intellectual confusion so obscures fundamental truths in the modern mind. Words represent ideas. That is their value and their use. Modern error largely owes its success to its use of terms of an ambiguous character, or, rather, by injecting a meaning into its words which hitherto carried a different signification. Agnosticism and Positivism have thus retained a Christian phraseology without the Christian meaning. They speak of God and sanctity and holiness and duty and freedom, but they have eviscerated the Christian meaning. Still these terms pass current in the public mind with their former meaning, and so half disguise the fatalism and paganism of the agnostic and positivist schools. Socialism has adopted the terms "liberty", "equality", and "fraternity", as its watchwords, where in reality they mean "revolution", "destruction", and "despotism". Yet it deceives the simple by thus disguising its real intent.
So has it always been. All heresies have begun in verbal disputes and ended in sanguinary conflicts of ideas. St. Paul exhorts Timothy to be on his guard, not only against false science [oppositiones falsi nominis scientie] but also against profane novelties of words [profanas vocum novitates]. What would the Great Apostle of the nations say if, today, he saw Catholics decorating themselves with the title of Liberal, when that term stands in such violent and open antithesis to all that is Catholic? It is not merely a question of words, but of what words represent. It is a question of truth and salvation. No, you cannot be a Liberal Catholic; incompatibles cannot be reconciled. You cannot assume this reprobated name although you may be able by subtle sophisms to discover some secret way of reconciling it with your faith. Christian charity will not defend you, although you may repeatedly invoke it and would make it synonymous with the toleration of error. [Empasis added.] The first condition of charity is not to violate the truth, and charity cannot be the snare to surprise faith into the support of error. While we may admit the sincerity of those who are not Catholic, their error must always be held up to reprobation. We may pity them in their darkness, but we can never abet their error by ignoring it or tolerating it. Beyond dispute no Catholic can be consistently called Liberal.
Most, however, to be feared is not he who openly boasts his Liberalism, but who eschews the name and, vehemently denying it, is yet steeped to the lips in it and continually speaks and acts under its inspiration. And if such a man be a Catholic by profession all the more dangerous is he to the faith of others, for he is the hidden enemy sowing tares amidst the wheat.