Friday, September 23, 2005

What is a conservative Catholic?

A couple of times, in a couple of places (i.e., in comments to other blogs and this one), I've asked what people really mean when they talk about "conservative" Catholics. Usually, in other blogs, I don't pose the question until the original post is stale and no one who cares to answer sees it, or simply no one cares to answer it, or I post it in this blog where, of course, my audience is quite limited. Nonetheless, I'm going to raise the question again, starting with a comment that I posted in a discussion about Bishop Finn last week in a blog by Todd, the fellow Kansas City blogger. The comment was a response to another comment by "Jeff," I believe:
"Conservatives"? That's a word I see thrown around a lot. (Also "Crunchy Con," the definition or origins of which I haven't the slightest idea of--please fill me in). Somewhere I've said this before (in a comment to Todd or Rocco or maybe at my own blog). A conservative position is doomed to fail in the Church (or for that matter in politics). We could make a good case that Bishop Boland as a "conservative," in that he mostly stayed-the-course from his predecessor, and the diocese suffered (not as badly as some, but it suffered). My hope is that Finn is no conservative; that he is a reactionary.

Another commenter, who I haven't engaged before, came back with this response:

"A conservative position is doomed to fail in the Church"

I do not know what your definition of concservative is, but I always took it as a way of conserving the truth handed down through the Apostles in TRADITION. Holding steadfast to the truth the Church has taught for over 2000 years. Truth that has remained unchanged and will until the end of time. Our Church is one of great and timeless beauty. If conservatives are holding on to the Church's teaching being loyal to Rome. I I do not see how thier position of obedience, loyalty, and submission would fail, and dissent and lack of mystery and going through the picking and choosing of what you will decide to believe would suceed. That just leads to confusion and argument. Perhaps our definitions are different, and if so I invite to say so.

I answered:
For Christe, I'm using the word "conservative" here with literal and current connotations; and NOT as a label for a substantive position in the same way you are, or the manner that someone like Russell Kirk (the late great post-New Deal synthesizer of what people now call "paleoconservative" or "traditional conservative" political thought, and a convert) might. As the word is thrown around these days in both political and ecclesiastical circles, it seems to mean generally keeping the status quo, slowing the rate of "progress" and approaching new ideas cautiously (but approaching them nonetheless). By conservative, I mean those who want to hold the line and tow the line wherever they happen to find that line. Elsewhere (I wish I could remember where) I described "conservative" in the current sense of the term as always being halfway between two points--a fixed point and another point that might be propounded at a given time (however far out that point might be). The "conservative" in this sense must define himself with reference to the present zeitgeist, even if he's defining himself in contrast to it. I've got more to say on this, but this is ultimately Todd's forum, not mine, so I'll save the rest for my own blog. But just so you know my perspective, I'm not a liberal or progressive; I'm a reactionary. However, I won't try to explain that because this comment is too long already.

In response extension of that, I'll start by reminding myself and anyone who happens to scroll down this far that "conservatism" is a socio-political concept that can only awkwardly be applied to ecclesiastical matters. One is typically not "conservative" or "progressive" in one's theology. As wiser men than I have pointed out, these two terms are commonly (and at least somewhat accurately) thought of as directions, without any referenced point to fixed Truth, as Christe suggests. In theology, which must be grounded in fixed Truth, one is either orthodox or heterodox.

That being said, when it comes to the governance and discipline of the church, the terms "conservative" and "progressive" could possibly have some currency. Before addressing how they're used or misused, I'll look at what they could mean, or mean to some people. In expansion of Christe's suggestion of "conservative" substance, I'll plagiarize the six characteristics of a conservative that were expounded by Russell Kirk in the opening of The Conservative Mind, an important book first published in 1953, written by the figure who, though not widely known, was perhaps the most important figure in moving "conservative" ideas from academic circles like the Southern Agrarians at Vanderbilt (i.e., Robert Penn Warren et al) to the rhetoric of Goldwater and Reagan:

1. Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems. . . . .

2. Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism and utilitarian aims of the most radical systems . . . .

3. Conviction that civilized society required orders and classes, as against the notion of a "classless" society" . . . .

4. Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked; separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all. . . .

5. Faith in prescription and distrust of "sophisters, calculators, and economists" who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs. . . .

6. Recognition that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress. Society must alter, for prudent change is the means of social preservation; but a statesman must take Proficence into his calculation, and a statesman's chief virtue, according to Plato and [Edmund] Burke [the Whig!], is prudence. . . .

(The Conservative Mind, 7th ed., pp 8-9). I think it's clear that these conservative socio-political principles fit within (or are complementary to) the religious "conservative" description offered by Christe, and I think if the Church had been governed by this principle over the last fifty years or so, She would be more externally healthy, and the West would be a more humane place to live.

However, as I observed above, I'm not sure that when most people talk about "conservative" clerics or laymen, we mean that they act on the above principles or their ecclesiastical equivalents. I think most people simply mean, as I sat forth above, folks that are interested in preserving the status quo. More on this at my next post, which will probably be tonight (my list of Saturday chores is quite long).

(oops, it's ember Saturday and I've already blown it).

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