The Catholic Thing
HOME        ARCHIVES        IN THE NEWS        COMMENTARY        NOTABLE        DONATE
Against Conservatism Print E-mail
By David Warren   
Saturday, 01 June 2013

Editor’s Note: Yesterday’s column by Austin Ruse on Margaret Leo of McLean must have touched a chord with many of you because it has been sent around and viewed more than most columns we publish. If you haven’t read that inspiring story, please go back and do so. It’s not often we come into contact with someone who may be a contemporary saint. And a young girl at that! And please let’s also finish off this fund drive for our Fifth Anniversary with a bang. We had a big day yesterday financially as well, we’re only about $500 from our goal now, which means only a few more gifts to take us into the next five years – and an even greater five years – of The Catholic Thing. So do your part and click on the Donate button to make your tax-deductible contribution to this great work. – Robert Royal 


Before I begin today’s lay sermon, and to allay panic, let me confess that I am what I’m against. That is to say, some kind of conservative. It wouldn’t matter if I tried to deny it, for one has no control over the use of words in public speech, and only microscopic influence. Those who know and read me would still take me for some kind of “conservative,” in something like the current sense.

Please don’t ask me to define it, for it cannot be coherently defined. This should be obvious. The conservative must want to “conserve” something, yet there is precious little the typical conservative doesn’t want to change.

That which he would conserve tends to be some surviving artifact of the Enlightenment; the United States Constitution for instance. When it comes to conserving something anciently time-out-of-mind – the institution of marriage, for instance – people who have been plausibly presenting themselves as “conservatives” start abandoning ship.

This is among the reasons I have myself fallen back on the term, “reactionary” – to keep my distance from fair-weather friends, and proclaim my allegiance to something not status quo, but now, status quo ante. This may alarm, or amuse some people. Let it.

A hundred years ago, or rather, up to the end of the last century, I used the word “Tory” to distinguish from “conservative.” But it has become incomprehensible to others, even in my (formerly) British North American milieux. In the fuller North American context, my term was “Loyalist,” as opposed to “Patriot” – but again, what one was Loyal to has, except for a monarchical symbol, ceased to be.

“Jacobite” is perhaps worth mentioning in the British historical context. For sure, I’d be one of those. It is another dated term, however – to my mind, too recent if anything – and really the position is royalist Catholic, and with Thomas More against Henry VIII. (This was my position even as an Anglican. The only thing changed is, I’m now with the Armada.)

Do you think force was rightly used, to suppress the Donatists in the fourth century? Against the Cathars in the thirteenth? Should the Thirty Years’ War have been won? (Well, perhaps it was, in the longer view of history, which is not yet available to us.)

It is in considering such hypotheticals and counterfactuals that, I think, the deeper politics are formed. For what use are political principles that apply in only one generation? As one ages, and if one becomes better acquainted with the sweep of events, those principles are at least better tested. A deeper politics requires a deeper history.

And it is that, much more than headline disagreement on any specific issue, which makes me less and less comfortable with the term “conservative” for my current faction.


        A Lost Cause: Flight of King James II after the Battle of the Boyne
A.C. Gow, 1880

Conversely, I find “conservative” used more and more as the catch-all label. This is brought home to me even while I write this, for on quickly checking email I find that a Scottish correspondent is unselfconsciously using the term in a perfectly small-c American way to describe his own political outlook – and even to distinguish it from what he discerns as the outlook prevailing in the Conservative Party of the United Kingdom in which he resides.

Or put this another way: U.S. conservatism has joined Coca-Cola among your country’s most successful exports, and now enjoys brand identification not only among the (formerly) remote Caledonian hill tribes, but as I have noticed from other reading – in Kazakhstan, on the southern African veldt, up the Amazon, and behind the bamboo curtain in China.

Yet what makes it different from another fizzy drink? And why should a Christian want it supersized? And what difference would it make if the whole world were drinking, say, Republican Coke instead of Democrat Pepsi?

My apologies here to Republican Pepsi drinkers, and Democrats on Coke; it was just my urgent need for a simile. What I’m trying to convey is the vagueness of any position that can be branded “conservative,” or if you will, the presence in it of anything much besides sugar and water. For the term means nothing out of a context and, depending on that, can be applied with equal facility to everyone from Pat Robertson to Leonid I. Brezhnev, late secretary-general of the Central Committee of the CPSU.

This very inclusivity makes it, or ought to make it, worrying to the Christian. With whom or with what are we identifying?

I do not ask this abstractly. From long experience, I have discovered the consequences of being left in a bottle with libertarian, agnostic, or atheist “conservatives” – and even, perhaps especially, “social conservatives” who come to their opinions by a route proceeding more from Darwin than Jesus.

To generalize: we are of more use to them than they are to us, as we discover the moment the topic swivels, and one of us goes under the bus. That is when we suddenly discover that inclusivity is not the virtue we took it for, when we pledged allegiance to our common cause; and that all allies are allies of convenience. Friends require deeper things in common, including that deeper history.

Currently, the “same sex marriage” topic brings this point home most poignantly. Without naming names, because there are too many, I read one “conservative” pundit after another making his peace with “contemporary lifestyles” (there were older and ruder expressions for this), and ask myself what I was doing hanging out with these people.

“We need to accept gay marriage for the sake of the larger cause.” That, so far as I am able to plumb, is the argument from one after another making a sacrifice of his loosely held “principles” to the fast-held expediency of winning the next election. And what I least enjoy is the moralizing tone, when the fast-held principled types get barked for standing inconveniently in their way.

So that I’m inclined to reply, “What larger cause would that be, Pontius?”

 

David Warren
 is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist with the Ottawa Citizen. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: 
http://davidwarrenonline.com/
 
 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (24)Add Comment
0
...
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, June 01, 2013
Among the famous aphorisms of Justice Holmes is that "historic continuity with the past is not a duty, it is only a necessity.”

Pascal was of the same mind, “Custom creates the whole of equity, for the simple reason that it is accepted. It is the mystical foundation of its authority; whoever carries it back to first principles destroys it... The art of opposition and of revolution is to unsettle established customs, sounding them even to their source, to point out their want of authority and justice. We must, it is said, get back to the natural and fundamental laws of the State, which an unjust custom has abolished. It is a game certain to result in the loss of all; nothing will be just on the balance.”
0
...
written by Athanasius, June 01, 2013
These are interesting times we live in. The people who call themselves liberals are most illiberal when it comes to real liberty and tolerating dissent. About the only thing they really are liberal about is sexual activity, but a better word for their views their is perverted, or perhaps barbaric. Neither are they progressive as they fancy themselves to be. They really want good old fashioned dictatorship, just so long as they are the dictators. The people they claim to represent are just useful pawns for their control-freak personas.

Then there are the libertarians, who only seem to care about there being no government. They too seem to be not bothered by a perverted trend in sexuality so long as the government is not involved. Like Cain, they are not their brother's keeper.

By my reckoning, the conservative tent does have some vague tendencies that David mentions. There are fiscal conservatives, who want economic freedom but who also seem not to care about sexual morality. Why not have prostitution and pornography as long as the market is functioning properly and taxes are low? And there are Xenophobes in the conservative tent, who don't want to welcome immigrants. These folks are all justice and no mercy.

As for me, I do want to conserve the vision of the American Founders. It is not perfect, but I think it is the best format to date for allowing ordered liberty. The key is that for this type of government to succeed, the people need to be virtuous. And virtue only comes from a certain type of religious belief. This would be a belief in a God who is just, loving, and rational. Atheism just leads to survival of the fittest. Irrational theism leads to charlatans who make up the rules as they go along. but rational theism gives us a standard by which to measure the goodness of a person or course of action.

Obviously, Catholicism is rational. I believe Judiasm and many forms of Protestantism are as well. Statism, which is most definitely a religion, isn't that rational. Of course, we all believe that Catholicism is true, and in the America we knew growing up, we could freely state our case in the public square. We still can, but it is a little more dangerous today than yesterday. But ours is a faith worth defending, because ours is a God worth living (and dying) for.

So, call me a conservative. What I want to conserve is a nation that allows me to freely proclaim the truth of Jesus Christ and his one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

0
...
written by Ray, June 01, 2013
Great squib!!! At one time we could have just used the word Catholic as our descriptor. Sad that is not true today.
0
...
written by Brad Miner, June 01, 2013
I'd rather like Jacobite were it not so close to Jacobin.
0
...
written by Meyrat, June 01, 2013
While I appreciate the concern for the questionable meaning of modern conservatism, this essay meanders far too much. Despite his irritation with what conservatism has become, the writer does not really present a clear alternative. One can assume the writer advocates something more specifically "Catholic." If so, the writer would do well to explain what that looks like.

Like so many other movements and institutions in the modern age, Catholics suffer from an identity crisis. Post-Vatican II clergy in the United States thought the church should exhibit inclusiveness and tolerance in place of education and faithfulness. Now, many Catholics veer away from church teachings and adopt heresies without even knowing it. Former Catholics make up the second largest denomination in the United States. The writer shudders at a group of so-called conservatives advocating gay marriage or senseless consumerism; should he not redirect this concern to Catholics who assume the same positions in direct violation to the Church and the gospel?

Instead, he wanders through sundry moments history and vaguely relates those movements to now. Maybe Chesterton could pull that off, but not Mr. Warren. This progression of thought will not work for anyone, and too many educated Catholics will often rattle off their arguments this way. This has the consequence of muddying the issues and discrediting the Catholic position. Therefore, let's strive for old intellectual virtues that Catholics used to have: clarity, relevance, and depth. Leave the desultory ramblings to the false conservatives and liberals.
0
...
written by Lord Jowls, June 01, 2013
I disagree with Meyrat that the writer has not explained himself. I think that the terms Tory, reactionary, Loyalist and Jacobite give us a pretty fair idea of the man's position, at least within the confines of an essay of this dimension.

Mr. Warren reminds me of Chesterton's remark that all conservatives do is try to conserve the latest revolution. They are on the right side of a wheel that is rolling left, or more aptly, that is rolling into a pit.
0
...
written by Ron Moffat, June 01, 2013
All I can say is, amen, brother! It has dawned on me over the last year or so that Republicans aren't really conservative; they are being swayed by popular opinion and becoming less distinguishable from the left by the day. It seems politics has overcome any kind of principle.
0
...
written by David Warren, June 01, 2013
That's me for sure, as "Meyrat" observes: meandering, & not nearly as good as G.K. Chesterton. Perhaps that's why he missed my point: that the term "conservative" is insubstantial; that a Catholic political position is philosophical before it is pragmatic, & requires full acknowledgement of twenty centuries. More, for we absorbed, criticized, & transformed the political thinking of Plato & Aristotle, Stoics, Epicureans, etc.

These columns are confined to 1,000 words. Had I a few more thousand I would have got round to mentioning that "conservatism" works better as an instinct than a prescription, & so I thank Michael Paterson-Seymour for supplying this necessary point so sharply.
0
...
written by Ken Tremendous, June 01, 2013
This is a thoughtful piece Mr. Warren. This is the fundamental dilemma of US "conservatives". They have no idea what it is they are trying to conserve. This cannot by the way be "the free market" since the market itself is a fundamentally destabilizing and thus profoundly un-conservative force.

My fundamental problem with you (and I'd add the last piece you wrote as well) is that you equate "Catholic worldview" with "reactionary."

And reactionary is not a philosophy of human beings and how they ought to live and how society ought to be ordered. It's fundamentally a philosophy of history. As the progressive thinks things are always getting better with time and struggle, the reactionary cannot be shaken from his belief that history is a story of almost unarrested punctuated decline.

But neither progressives nor their reactionary antipodes are expressing the Biblical faith or a coherent Catholic worldview. Both views are however as you remind us easily attachable to central points of Catholic teaching.

The truth is Mr. Warren, beyond believing that Jesus will return and bring to fulfillment the full glow of Easter, the Church has no philosophy of history.

Catholicism is not a reactionary faith!
0
...
written by JLM, June 01, 2013
We need the Social Kingship of Christ. It would be helpful for us to refamiliarize ourselves with Immortale Dei and Quas Primas.
0
...
written by Howard, June 01, 2013
I agree that "conservative" is a problematic term -- not so much from the etymology as from the inconsistency of its usage. On the other hand, "reactionary" doesn't exactly work, either. My dad is pretty much a reactionary; half of what he says is intended to shock whoever is in earshot. My basic beliefs, though, are not a "reaction" to those with whom I disagree.

I've tried "traditionalist", but in Catholic circles that is a loaded word. I can understand someone who thinks that the Novus Ordo is like putting ketchup on steak, but I can go no further than that. A good priest can feed his flock through the Novus Ordo, and a crummy priest can starve them on the EF. That is not my fight.

I'm still looking for a good term.
0
...
written by spudnik, June 01, 2013
We've been confusing social and economic issues in our alliances of convenience. A person can be socially conservative and economically liberal (i.e. leftist) or vice versa. Social conservatives have thrown in their lot with economic conservatives (i.e. economic Darwinists), some of whom care nothing for moral issues or even see them as a hindrance. (Liberals have been suckered into supporting the growth of the size and power of the federal government thinking it would protect the little guy from big business, but it is doing the opposite.)

The Gospel transcends political categories conditioned by history and culture. Evangelicals and faithful Catholics have been suckered, in the name of the culture war, into supporting one of the two faces of the permanent government whose god is mammon and whose creed is force. Republicans and Democrats disagree on how to divide up the economic pie but they agree that money is paramount. Polls suggest the public agrees. This is not a Christian nation; it is a materialist, consumerist and hedonist nation with a veneer of Christianity. This is not 1776; it is Rome late 1st century B.C. We need to learn again how to relate to Caesar.
0
...
written by Ray, June 01, 2013
For my part, I try daily to relate better to Christ, the Pope and the Magisterium. If I'm even a little more successful at this goal, they can call me what ever they want. Ad hominem attacks against Catholics seems to be the order of the day in America. So let us be the best Catholics we can be and disregard the names we use about ourselves or the enemy uses against us.
0
...
written by Angel, June 01, 2013
“We need to accept gay marriage for the sake of the larger cause.”

For the sake of the "larger base" supporters. Because the society as a whole has become "base".

And when I say "base," I'm using the adjective form of "base": mean - vile - low - ignoble - sordid - scurvy
0
...
written by Mico Razon, June 01, 2013
So you asked the question, What exactly are we trying to conserve? If you believe that Western/European civilization is the civilization created by Christians, then what we want to conserve are the values of that civilization.

This was the view of Hilaire Belloc, who said "Europe is the Faith and the Faith is Europe." This is also the thesis of Thomas Woods's book How The Catholic Church Built Western Civilization.
0
...
written by Howard, June 01, 2013
@Ray: That is useless advice -- not because it is wrong, but because trying to be better Catholics is something we all know we should be doing. We should also remember to breathe at least once every few minutes. We are not all called to be hermits or contemplatives, so those of us who are still in the world need to give serious thought as to what exactly living out the Gospel will mean in our daily lives and how we can explain that to the people around us.
0
...
written by ,Ray, June 01, 2013
@Howard: If you live your life the way our Church prescribes, that will be your explanation. Pray daily, learn more about your faith, give freely of your time and talent, and learn how to spread the faith(mainly by how you are living your life). If you feel the need to argue/explain yourself be my guest. Example speaks louder than words. The majority of folks in your milieu know more about you from how you live your life, than by words and concepts you relate to them. St. Francis was a fairly simple living Catholic, not a philosopher or theologian. He taught by example. His rhetoric was always at a minimum, but his example was always his method of teaching. I may have a simple approach; yet, your absence of consensus on a simple thing is worrisome.
0
...
written by markrite, June 02, 2013
What an erudite and well-informed bunch blogs here in reaction to what was posted by David Warren. I would actually go so far as to call it formidable. And Athanasius is brilliant in his reactive blog to the said topic. I myself have often pondered how being "conservative," and how the term has been ratcheted downward in its pandering to the always present "mob" mentality, especially extant today in the U.K. under the Conservative party, as evolved by, among others, David Cameron,results in the heavily pressured tendency to buy into "gay marriage." These types, which really prosper under and endlessly regurgitate the latest talking points of the gayreich left, who we could call "R.I.N.O."'S, incessantly prattle on and on about the "necessity" to arrive at a modus vivendi with gaydom, and do so even as we reflect that they, the "gays," don't constitute more than about 2% of the population! Why bother when they even from a purely pragmatic point of view don't amount to more than a hill of beans? It's the GLAAD echo chamber that makes their real numbers that would "matter" a matter of really, LOL. aND god bless all, markrite
0
...
written by Julius A, June 02, 2013
Good, at last some of my fellow Catholics are beginning to see beyond "conservatism" like our should-be allies the White nationalists have.
0
...
written by David l, June 02, 2013
The state has no business in the issue of marriage, if the church is against gay then thats a religious issue ' not an issue concerning the state .. anyone against gay marriage needs to think more about why we as Christians should keep the state out of marriage ! Both republicans and democrats believe that the state should define marriage
0
...
written by markrite, June 03, 2013
So, David I, your post somewhat confuses me; if the state, any state, ALIGNS itself with the Catholic Church in the "issue" of gay marriage, and OFFICIALLY opposes it, will not recognize it, even respects the wish of the majority vote in OUTLAWING it, ala Prop. 8 in California, isn't the "issue" of gay marriage NOW an issue "concerning the state?" And just WHY should we as Christians keep "the state out of marriage"? Doesn't the state, any state, BUTTRESS the teachings of Judeo-Christianity re gay marriage, which could be a good thing, by OUTLAWING gay marriage? Finally, it's not BOTH republicans and democrats who believe "that the state should define marriage," it's ONLY the demoncrats who believe that. For that appears to be what they've done by OFFICIALLY adding the goal of legitimizing gay marriage nationally to the demoncratic plank, as they did last year, 2012, remember, it was election year. So, what exactly is your "troll goal" by posting this comment? Just asking.
0
...
written by BradW, June 03, 2013
Horrible essay, regardless of the topic.
0
...
written by John McCarthy, June 04, 2013
To me, David Warren's wonderfully provocative essay, as well as the thoughtful commentary that followed it, reveals one central truth, namely, that none of us want to stand alone, that all of us tend to want to be part of some larger group whether that group be named 'conservative,' or some other moniker.

But to me there is no, and never will be a wholly satisfactory answer to this search a single one or two word description of the 'party' or 'group' which aptly sums up where we stand...

If any one word could suffice, I'd like to think it would be 'catholic,' but clearly that too does not suffice.

Bottom-line, there is no satisfactory answer to the quest that David Warren has presented to us.
0
...
written by Leonard Jenkins, June 04, 2013
This is a thoughtful ideas! The gay is a religious issue. But the marriage is not a business of the state. I think christians should keep the state leave the marriage issue.



Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters


busy
 

Other Articles By This Author

CONTACT US FOR ADVERTISERS ABOUT US
Banner
Banner
Banner
Banner
Banner
Banner
Banner
Banner