Friday, May 18, 2007

Are Catholics Liberal or Conservative?

(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?


T. Morrison said...

When you combine church & state, is the state elevated or is the church corrupted?

Applying political catch words like 'L' and 'C' to Catholic theology merely underscores the creeping politicization of the American church since the prolife movement decided to cast its lot with the Republican party and drag everyone else along kicking and screaming. The strident voices of this 'New Evangelization' have discarded the literal definitions of Daniel Webster in favor of the 'new revised' definitions of Atwater/Rove which we now see broadly applied to fellow Catholics, the clergy and even to theology. Not only is this a corruption of language but of the Faith as well.

Conservative = Moral
Liberal = Immoral

Simple Logic for Simple Minds

SMA said...

I think we need to be careful when using the words conservative and liberal. Context determines the meaning here. One must differentiate between theological and American political conservatism. Certainly the post here has solid insight on theological conservatism. However, the word conservative in relation to theology does not mean the same thing in relation to American politics. With that being said there are some legitimate points in the rest of this original post.

Many in the “right wing” are strongly nationalistic, which is not very conservative. The reason I say this is that in order to be a political conservative one must be wishing to conserve the ideas of America’s founding fathers. Anyone wishing to divert from the founding fathers of the country are necessarily liberal in their politics. The establishment of the senate is great proof that the founding fathers desire a balance of power between individual states and the national government.

To forward the conversation I believe in most cases we need not look back to what Catholic positions are but take a closer look at what political conservatives are promoting. Historically, political conservatives promote lower taxes; emphasize local government, a strong military and a pro life stance. All of these stances are aligned with Catholic teaching. For this reason we can safely, albeit generally, say that political conservatives side with Catholic conservatives.

Granted, the definition of conservative in modern politics is incessantly under attack. We now have politicians like Rudy Giuliani claiming to be conservatives. Or as Rudy puts it, I’m an economic conservative and social liberal.

So what is a liberal? By simple logic a liberal is someone who does not wish to conserve prior beliefs. This is obviously not along Catholic thinking. Catholics believe in a God that judges, Catholics believe in a singular truth, morality and authority. Liberals by nature believe in pluralism, ethics over morals, and individualism over authority. A liberal believes peace is defined by the absence of violence. A Catholic believes peace is living in correct order; correct order meaning God first. As insignificant as this difference can seem; combined with life issues, it is all I need to align myself with the political conservative / Republican Party.

Is the Republican Party my religion? Of course not. Due to the current political structure I believe as a Catholic my efforts and energy are best utilized trying to make sure the Republican Party adheres to true conservatism and does not give in to politicians ready to redefine conservatism (Giuliani). Either way, we need to recognize the difference in a conservative Catholic and a conservative politician. After all, America was developed by Protestants and not Catholics; we shouldn’t be surprised if all policies do not parallel.

Morning's Minion said...

"...political conservatives promote lower taxes; emphasize local government, a strong military and a pro life stance. All of these stances are aligned with Catholic teaching."

The only item on this list fully aligned with Catholic teaching is the pro-life principle. Subsidiarity can indeed be invoked to defend a strong local government (but that would depend on circumstances). But lower taxes and a strong military-- the best I can say is that support for these propositions is not incompatible with Catholicism, but there is no way (especially a strong military) that they are aligned with Catholic teaching. In fact, the Church condemns arms races and the arms trade vociferously.

SMA said...

I do admit the military reference was my weakest. My connection here was in consideration of political sovereignty and defense of a nation. Military power can certainly be perverted.

However, lower taxes fall in line with the principle you rightly pointed out in connection to stronger local governments, subsidiarianism. The reason I state this is that one can normally find a link between higher taxes and increases in social programs. Although the intent of these programs is normally to help in some way the actual result is a government playing the role churches and other local organizations used to participate in a more active way. Granted, I wouldn’t claim either side of the isle has been good at putting an end to spending on these programs.

Antonio Manetti said...

To focus on 'lower taxes' is to insist that the tail ought to wag the dog. Not to mention the fact that the benefits from reduced taxes accrue to the wealthiest.

If anything, we ought to be raising taxes, especially on the wealthiest, if only to pay for the ill-conceived war in Iraq.

With regard to the war, the only thing at stake for most Americans is the possibility that their "Support the Troops" sticker may acratch the finish on their new car. This willingless to inflict suffering and death on others, while being unwilling to accept consequence or sacrifice, compounds the immorality.