(Cross-posted from Vox Nova).
I have to admit, I hate these two words in current American discourse. I keep thinking of Inigo Montoya in Princess Bride when he says: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." And it's true, these terms have become catchall slogans to identify party allegiances rather than any underlying philosophy.
For Catholicism is essentially conservative, in the true sense of the word. We start from the obedience of faith, meaning the "full submission of intellect and will to the God who reveals" (Dei Verbum). We believe in the single sacred deposit of the word of God, the memory of Christ, entrusted to the Church. Our wisdom is inherited. Some things the Church knows for sure (and applies the technical term, infallible), while other things, though less certain, still require religious assent. And even when there is development of doctrine, the Church moves like a glacier, always ensuring there is appropriate continuity with the past. So, yes, this is conservative in the sense that we value the importance of tradition and stress the truth of the core teachings on faith and morals, irrespective of culture, society, circumstance.
But this is not conservatism as many (most?) on the right in America today define it. Let me list three aspects of modern "conservatism" that goes against the approach I have outlined above.
First, the radical individualism and utilitarian ethic that underpins laissez-faire capitalism is not conservative, but "liberal" in the true sense of the word. Real conservatism stresses the paramount importance of the common good, the commonweal.
Second, the nationalism that pervades much of the American right-wing movement also springs from the modern liberal tradition. It creates a pseudo-religion based on the nation, and violates the Catholic principle that all human beings are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Moreover, it takes a militaristic turn in the US that is frequently not in harmony with the memory of Christ.
Third, the function of law should be to protect the common good, not the prevention of vice and the promotion of virtue. Private morality is not an appropriate subject for the force of law, and yet many on the American right would disagree.
The Catholic approach is not ideological, in the sense that the modern "liberal" and "conservative" movements are ideological. I am rather fond of Cardinal Dulles's simple definition of prudential judgment as "the application of Catholic doctrine to changing concrete circumstances." That suggests a fundamentally empirical rather than an ideological approach. It means taking the principles we believe in and applying them to practical problems. What a breath of fresh air that would be?