Why I Am Not a Conservative or Liberal Catholic, & Why You Shouldn’t Be One, Either
The following is a response to a question no one in particular asked me, but which nevertheless seemed reasonable to answer. Many have addressed these issues at great length. Folks like Alisdair MacIntyre & Stanley Hauerwas & their many students are particularly noted for their treatments of how today in the West there are conservative liberals & liberal liberals, but few if any who are not liberal in their fundamental attitudes & doctrines. A recent & excellent discussion of this in light of the HHS mandate by Patrick Deneen of Front Porch Republic can be found here. Likewise, Servais Pinckaers helpfully distinguishes between conflicting ideas of “freedom” in his work on Christian ethics, & noted Balthasar scholar & banjo picker Rodney Howsare of St. Francis De Sales University has engaged me in many conversations on these & related topics. Whatever errors of fact or analysis follow should thus be blamed squarely on him.
The use of the labels “conservative” & “liberal” in front of “Catholic” has always bugged me. We are all liberals in today’s western world, as the political ideology of liberal democracy so dominates our sensibilities & ideas, religious included, that any attempt to claim otherwise is naive. The question is not whether you are a conservative or liberal Catholic, but whether you are a conservative liberal or a liberal liberal. Then you can add the “Catholic” part, but in so doing you will likely betray an ignorance of the nature of the terminology & its history. Whenever we speak of “conservative/liberal” we are privileging, usually without knowing it, the political assumptions & discourse of the 18th century & dragging everything, including our profession of religious faith, before the altar of social contracts, rights, & freedoms, an altar which does more to explain how we live in the modern world than any other, including the Catholic one. I don’t think this is an extreme claim, merely an obvious one. Many have made it before, & at far greater length (Hauerwas is particularly incisive & witty in his treatments; he did an interview with U.S. Catholic years ago that is worth tracking down for its blistering criticism). If that comes as news, you haven’t been paying attention to those writers who have critiqued liberalism from the perspective of traditional Christian accounts of anthropology, faith, ethics, & the social & political arrangements we pursue & endorse in the West. Not because these critics hate freedom or America or modernity, but because they know that freedom is first a theological, not a political, issue, & that making a mistake here leads to many more mistakes down the road. To put it provocatively in terms of ecclesiastical & doctrinal history & how these contribute to politics: As soon as you stop baptizing infants because they can’t make a free & knowledgeable profession of faith, you open the door to one day supporting Barack Obama as a Christian President. What that means will be indicated in what follows.
To repeat: It makes no real theological & ecclesial sense to speak of Catholics as either “conservative” or “liberal”, as these are terms dragged in from early modern political theory & fundamentally change the terms of our relationship with God, the Church, & the world if accepted without strong qualification. Rooted in a social contractarian view of social & political life, these terms imply certain anthropological doctrines that directly conflict with traditional Catholic teaching on the nature of human persons who bear the image of God & are called to live a life of self-giving love in the Church founded by Christ. For example, our political order assumes a certain view of liberty that we have come to honor without question. Free individuals freely accept the directives of the State as beneficial to their pursuit of happiness, or freely reject them in favor of others that are more respectful of freedom & its expected result, happiness. The burden is on the State to provide a system of arrangements the individual finds plausible & acceptable as honoring his status as a free man. The greatest threat to our freedom & happiness is other people, especially those who gather together under metaphysical banners & seek to deprive us of our freedom through the construction of some sort of theocracy. Happiness, we are told, requires choice & the power of self-determination, as we are first & foremost autonomous beings who need to get along with other autonomous beings, many of whom have conflicting ideas of what is needed to make us happy. Politics is thus about protection, civilization about defending ourselves against the claims of others.
Freedom is, therefore, prior to all social arrangements, & the only legitimate vocation each of us has. The need to preserve individual freedom is not only my highest right & obligation, but also the chief task of the State, if genuine happiness is to be possible for the many. “Obedience” then easily becomes something of a curse word, something the weak-minded or uninstructed may do, but which I, as a free man, must shun as a condition of my freedom. If I am to yield to anyone or anything in obedience to their claims or demands, it is only because I agree such obedience is personally beneficial, even if it may be inconvenient. I obey, then, only because I agree; obedience is conditional, & not that great a sacrifice.
I can sprinkle all sorts of religious words over this system in the hope of making it palatable to religious believers, but in all essentials this is an entirely secular account of reality, one that is hostile to the claims of Christianity, as it is rooted in a view of freedom that severs my natural ties to God & man & in a view of society that makes other people, especially institutions, a constant threat to my individual well-being. The more religiously-inflected versions of this construct will, for a time, & especially in societies like ours with a long religious past, maintain some semblance of peace with the church or religious authority. But as long as that religious authority maintains that freedom can never be experienced apart from love, divine & human, & that it is God alone, & not the State, that guarantees freedom, there will be no real peace between religion & the State. It may take considerable time for conflict to become visible, but the inherent logic of the social contract & its idea of freedom will eventually become clear. When it does, religious believers, having been trained in liberalism, will not be likely to see what’s really wrong, especially if they belong to an ecclesial tradition, like all forms of Protestantism, that long ago accepted an ecclesiology that mimics social contract language. “Church” becomes something you go to in this way of thinking, & something made up of people who have previously made up their mind that they can accept the life & doctrine of this-or-that particular institution. You may grow up in this institution, but you are never really part of it until you can freely & reasonably express your commitment to its life & doctrines. Thus, the baptism of infants & confirmation of 2nd graders (or infants in Eastern Rite churches) will appear the height of folly & superstition, as how can they affirm anything? They lack the rational capacities & the freedom necessary to say yes to the church, to the Creed, & even to God. Yes, Jesus blessed the children, but this clearly means something different than that they can receive sacraments efficaciously. Most Protestants, even those who maintain the tradition of infant baptism, have endorsed from their beginning what is essentially a baptized version of the modern social contract, with agreement in matters of doctrine & morals finally determining one’s ecclesial status. The Protestant church, then, is filled with individuals who have chosen their doctrines as true, & agree to meet with other like-minded individuals who have made the same choice. “Church” is the building where such meetings occur, & is in no way constitutive of one’s core identity or something to which we are called to submit to in obedience.
In this sense all Protestants are comfortable with modern liberalism, even if they identify themselves as theological or social conservatives. This can be true for Catholics, as well. Such believers are schizophrenic, & are the most likely to use the language of “conservative/liberal” when describing ecclesial identities. Such terms, however, are nonsensical from the perspective of the faith handed down to us from Christ & the Apostles. The traditional language of “orthodox/heterodox/schismatic/heretical” makes better theological sense when speaking of Christians, those people whose identity & loves should be seen in light of what St. Augustine called the City of God. “To what are your loves ordered?” might be the best way to think about what “type” of Christians we are. For the Christian whose loves are rightly ordered, obedience to the Church is not something we pledge only if & when we can agree with what that Church proposes regarding doctrine & morals. It is a habitus, something learned over time & grown into gradually & at times painfully. But to adopt the mindset of the “liberal Catholic” who adopts an essentially adversarial position against the institutional Church, & who has to consider & think through the Church’s teaching before he or she can give assent to that teaching, is as absurd as saying something like “I am a conservative Catholic because I agree with Church teaching on contraception & abortion & etc.” It is better to say that as a Catholic, I obey Christ & his Church because I am already free, because of who I am as a creature of God intended for the happiness of the Beatific Vision, because of the love that has redeemed me & is mediated through the sacramental life of the Church which is both mater et magistra. In other words, I trust Christ & his Church because it is through them together that I am able to understand anything at all about myself, other people, & the world we live in. And so, for example, I believe God is a Trinity of persons not because I worked through all the historical & theological data on my own, carefully studying all the alternatives in light of ideas & sensibilities common to my age, &, since my conclusions mesh with those of the Church, I can accept them; but because the Church has long insisted that only such an account of God makes any real sense of his revelation in Sacred Scripture & life in the Church, & because it is this profession of faith that has shown itself to be essential for a life of faith, hope, & love that transcends all the shifts of ideas & sensibilities we see throughout history. The lives of the saints demonstrate this again & again. For a Catholic it is, therefore, the “modernism” of a Thérèse, not that of a Rousseau or Locke, that should shape my vision & desire. My language should be shaped by her way of being modern, & by St. Maximilian Kolbe’s, Bl. John Paul II’s, & so on, & not by the political modernism that uses liberal & conservative as more than descriptive terms. Of course his requires great trust or faith, especially when that Church includes individuals, including leaders, who act very badly. But it is not their, or my, Church.
In other words, my freedom is always to be defined by my vocation to faith, hope, & love in the Church, not independently of it. No account of a social contract, & thus no account of freedom rooted in it, can be legitimately Catholic, even if we coat it with the term “conservative.” And so I will prescind from thinking of or describing myself as a conservative or liberal Catholic, since in so doing I am prescinding from thinking in the terms the Church has proposed as the basis of genuine freedom. And I will see my movement from the evangelical Protestantism I came to in my early 20′s to the Catholic Church over a decade later as a movement out of an ecclesiology that diminishes my freedom into one that preserves & expands it. I will also listen with what Flannery O’Connor called Christian skepticism when any politician invokes the Gospel to endorse his political program, & fellow Catholics bend over backwards to join him. President Obama is not too liberal for my taste, & his attempts to declaw the Catholic Church are not distasteful to me because I am conservative. He’s not liberal enough, in the fuller, Christian sense of the term, since his understanding of freedom & rights is incomplete. Besides, too many so-called conservatives are entirely too comfortable with much of what makes the culture of death such a threat to genuine freedom. But that’s a discussion for another day.
Rodney Howsare responded to this piece in an email, part of which I include here.
‘. . . One thing: towards the end you begin to touch on the paradoxical nature of freedom, but I think that needs to be made more prominent throughout. Chesterton is, of course, the master of this, especially in Orthodoxy. The really strict restrictions made at the beginning of Chrisitianity (e.g., the fine tuning at the Christological Councils) serve the purpose of liberating us, or providing the boundaries within which we are free. They are like the very strict chords a guitarist must learn if he is to have the freedom to play the guitar, or the very strict procedures a young tennis player must go through in order to have the freedom to play like Roger Federer. On the other hand, the little kid who is handed a guitar at age four and told to “have fun with this,” will precisely have no freedom to play it at all. So the paradox of Liberalism is that it will eventually have to force people to do everything by mandating everything because nobody has the freedom to do it themselves. We created a sexually libertarian society and then little boys get sued for sexual harrassment in elementary school. Or Hilary Clinton threatens “inferior countries” to embrace the Western view on LGBT issues, or have their aid cut off. Etc etc etc.’
Yes, GKC is excellent on freedom & its paradoxical nature, as another friend & Xavier colleague, Mike Lueken, noted in his response to this piece. And the Federer reference makes good sense, as well. I use exactly this point, along with learning to play an instrument, when I present Aristotle’s teaching on the virtues to my students. Excellence in sports & music results from talent & the hard work of disciplining it. The breathtaking shots from a Federer, Nadal, or Djokovic are possible only after hours & years of practice, of submission to coaching, of perfecting footwork, etc. Of following the rules, in other words. Let’s see what happens when the latest tennis prodigy says, “Screw this practicing, I’m questioning authority & doing it my way. I’ll hold the racket however I want.” The freedom to play excellently is thus possible only for those with a prior commitment to trust & obedience.
And keep in mind CS Lewis’s great line from The Abolition of Man: “We castrate, & bid the geldings be fruitful.” We make the pursuit of virtue impossible by reducing everything to subjective values & then by encouraging vice in the name of “freedom.” Then we huff & puff when people actually act in accordance with the mandated libertinism. The sexual revolution encourages the sexualization of even preteen girls, & we act surprised & oh-so-shocked when predatory males follow their basest instincts, now hallowed by the moral permissiveness endemic to a society dreamed up by Kinsey, Hefner, & other numerous adolescents. After virtue, indeed. Yet all is not lost, & we have to resist the prophets of doom who insist that the end is near because of same sex unions, contraceptive mandates, possibly 4 more years of a president who refuses to play nice. How could the resurrection faith allow pessimism the final word? As dark as it gets, we know who wins the war, even if the battles seem never-ending. I'll finish with an appropriate quote from Christopher Dawson, who points us to deeper truth of our profession of hope:
“The remaking of an old culture by the birth of a new hope was not the conscious aim of the Christians themselves. They tended, like St. Cyprian, to believe that the world was growing old, that the empire was irremediably pagan and that some world catastrophe was imminent. Nevertheless they lived in a spiritual atmosphere of hope, and this atmosphere gradually spread until the climate of the world was changed. The heartless, hopeless Rome which found its monstrous expression in the Colosseum and the gladiatorial games became the Rome of St. Leo and St. Gregory — a city which laid the foundations of a new world while its own world was falling in ruin around it. We see the same process at work in northern Europe during the Dark Ages. The men who converted the warrior peoples of the north and laid the foundations of medieval culture had no conception of the new world they were creating and no belief in the temporal future of civilization. But they were men of hope, as they were men of faith, and therefore their work endured for a thousand years and bore rich fruit in every field of cultural activity, as well as on its own religious level.”