There is a large overlap between Catholicism and conservatism, and five areas can be distinguished. First, there is the conservative respect for tradition, that is, the Burkean assumption that any social institution in place for a great length of time and serving many people well has a claim on us. The Catholic Church has contributed an essential and distinctive element to Western civilization in art, literature, music, theology, and philosophy, and—not least—in its spreading of the Christian gospel, which had a civilizing effect on the many peoples of Europe, including those originally thought of as “barbarians.”
Second, there is a moral realism intrinsic to the Church’s doctrines and practices that presupposes good and evil’s actual reality and actual distinction. As the European world order collapsed during the twentieth century under the weight of total wars and totalitarian movements, good and evil were forsworn as ancient notions easily disposed of in the face of the onslaught of naked political power. The Catholic Church’s continued assertion that there exists an objective moral order thus seems salutary and providential.
Third, there was the policy of anti-Communism, which was especially noteworthy after World War II, when the Church supported centrist or mildly leftist political parties in Italy and France in opposition to Communist political parties that had many adherents. In America in the 1950s, figures such as Bishop Sheen and Cardinal Spellman vigorously opposed Communism; a disconcerting result of Vatican II was the Church’s change from a policy of anti-Communism effectively to one of anti-anti-Communism.
Fourth, the Catholic Church provides a primary example of an institution that survives in history not because it remains static, but because it changes slowly overtime, accommodating itself to new circumstances while retaining its essential identity. Thus the confusing effects of the Second Vatican Council have amounted to a seemingly radical change in the Church and sorely tested the faith of many Catholic conservatives. Alterations in the order of the Mass and the reversal of the anti-Communist policy have caused especially severe discord. – excerpted from “Catholicism and American Conservatism” in Modern Age.
Originally printed in the journal Modern Age as “Catholicism and American Conservatism.