Features of conservative history III: the Catholic connection

The connection between anti-Catholicism and the Left, and between Catholicism and the Right, is obvious to anyone with even a superficial knowledge of the last three centuries of history.  In fact, there is–historically speaking–very little to keep us from defining liberalism as “the political movement that seeks the destruction of the Catholic Church” and conservatism as “the policical movement that defends the Catholic Church and her social power”.  True, there have been great Protestant conservatives, such as Burke and Coleridge, but they represent a minority sensibility among their religion, and their Protestantism often seems to be the least conservative thing about them.  One feels, for example, that Burke would have been a more consistent anti-revolutionary if he had opposed the Reformation and the “Glorious” revolution as well as the others.  On the other hand, a search for great Catholic liberals tends to demonstrate the incompatibility of the two things.  One could name figures like Montesquieu or Tocqueville, but they combined the two by been mild both in their politics (today, these two are mostly read by conservatives) and in their faith.  People who try to be militantly liberal and militantly Catholic generally find that they must make a choice–either to apostosize from the Church, like Lamennais, or to turn against liberalism on crucial points, like Maritain or Pope Paul VI.  The story of Pope Paul VI shows clearly why no Catholic can be a liberal.  Here was a pontiff desperate to appease the Left at all costs, who sacrificed the liturgy to their profane whims, who tolerated open apostasy and communism in the clergy, but the Left still wasn’t satisfied.  They demanded he sacrifice immutable Christian teachings, on sex and also on other subjects, and this was something no Pope could do.  One could also point to the stories of famous Catholic converts:  very often the move to Rome coincided with a political move to the Right.  Orestes Brownson and Richard John Neuhaus would be two American examples.  I can think of no case where conversion to Catholicism has moved anyone to the Left.

The Catholic Church is an inherently reactionary institution.  Impossible as it would seem to dispute it, some still feel compelled to try.  Time and again, I hear American Catholic bloggers whining about how the labels “conservative” or “liberal” don’t apply to the Church, that people only use these labels because they’re obsessed with politics and see it even when it isn’t there.  A quick answer to this complaint is that, if it’s arbitrary whether one calls the Church “liberal” or “conservative”, how does one explain the fact that everybody who does think the Church has a political posture describes it as conservative?  If the label were arbitrary, it could just as easily go the other way.

What Americans mean when they say Catholicism is neither liberal nor conservative is that it is neither Democratic nor Republican.  This is true enough, but it’s true because the Republican Party is not perfectly conservative, not because the Catholic Church isn’t.  To the extent that Republicans are classical liberals, the Church disagrees with them; to the extent they are true conservatives, they share the mind of the Church and will generally be accused of being Catholic theocrats.

People sometimes describe Catholic teachings as generally conservative, but with some concessions to liberalism or socialism.  The examples they give, however, prove that there are no concessions.  For example, one might say that the Church in the Middle Ages endorsed the feudal hierarchy on one hand while maintaining the “spiritual” equality of all people on the other hand, and that this represents some sort of compromise between hierarchy and egalitarianism.  In fact, the doctrine of spiritual equality made the Church perfectly aristocratic, not imperfectly so.  The aristocratic principle is that authority comes from traditionally-assigned social roles, not the competence of the individual or the will of the majority.  If one were to maintain that noblemen are inherently better people than commoners, this would be imperfect aristocratic belief.  It would mean that one had lost faith in the legitimacy of tradition and felt the need to switch one’s justification to one of competency; one declares that (miraculously) the best people and the hereditary nobility just happen to be the same bunch.  In the same way, the Nazis were imperfect racialists when they claimed superiority for the Aryan race.  A true racist wouldn’t feel the need to justify his ethnic loyalty by invoking some universal qualities that his race serves to promote.  Or consider what St. Augustine says in the Confessions:

And as in his soul there is one element which deliberates and aspires to dominion, and another element which is submissive and obedient, so in the bodily realm woman is made for man.  In mental power she has an equal capacity of rational intelligence, but by the sex of her body she is submissive to the masculine sex.  This is analogous to the way in which the impulse for action is subordinate to the rational mind”s prudent concern that the act is right.

Augustine is not compromising his patriarchism when he claims that women are as smart as men.  On the contrary, patriarchy demands that authority proceed from sexual symbolism rather than intelligence.  A man who claimed to rule his wife because of being smarter would be abandoning the traditional justifications for male headship.

Let us, then, admit what most people have sensed:  Rome is at an end of the political spectrum, not nowhere and not somewhere in the middle.

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