Liberalism, Conservatism, and Catholicism


We all talk about liberalism and conservatism, and about liberal and conservative Catholics, but what does it mean?

Some say it doesn’t mean much at all. They say these are labels attached to arbitrary and even contradictory collections of positions. Liberals say they want lots of freedom and lots of regulations. Conservatives say they want a small frugal government and a big expensive military. Worse, the two sides trade positions without telling anyone or explaining the move. Free speech used to be liberal, now it’s conservative. Staying out of other countries’ business used to be conservative, now it’s liberal—except when it’s not.

The relation between liberal and conservative tendencies in politics and in religion is even more unsettled. People accept that there’s a connection, at least in some cases, but don’t agree when, where, or what. Views on the topic get mixed up with substantive disagreements: I live my faith, in politics as in everything else, but don’t see how you can favor X and call yourself Christian. Or to the contrary, I hold my religious views for deep spiritual reasons, so they’re not the same as my politics, while you see God, politics, and everything else through the same partisan lens. At times the claims become a bit surprising, perhaps intentionally so: I’m libertarian or socialist, or support abortion and gay marriage, because I’m Catholic.

The word “ideological” provides a kind of clarity by indicating that a label applies to the other guy but not you. Mrs. A says the Pope’s views reflect Peronist or socialist ideology. Dr. B replies that the Pope’s views come out of the Gospel, and free market fanatics and global warming deniers are the real ideologues. Pulling rank often plays a part in this kind of exchange: I’m an expert, so my views are complex, subtle, and hard to categorize. You aren’t, so yours reflect a crude secularist or theocratic ideology. They’re a collection of slogans from Fox News, or Democratic National Committee talking points.

In spite of such complexities, confusions, and contradictions, the enduring and pervasive use of the terms by almost everyone seems to demonstrate that they mean something, and their political meaning is connected to their religious meaning. But how? Everybody has a view on the topic, so I’ll put mine forward so people can consider it along with all the others.

One’s view of liberalism and conservatism depends on his view of modern society and indeed the human world in general. Mine is that liberalism—or progressivism, which is pretty much the same thing today—is the leading tendency in modern political life, and draws its power and ultimately its content from an attempt to advance the modern aspiration toward clear, comprehensive, and effective system.

That attempt can be seen in the modern state, modern natural science, and modern methods of economic organization. In politics it has settled, after detours into fascism and other violently extreme tendencies, on an attempt to re-engineer social life as a system that maximizes equal individual preference satisfaction, consistent with its own coherence, stability, and effectiveness.

That project has immense appeal under modern conditions. It can plausibly claim to give everyone the best deal practically possible, and at the same time to justify the power of those who dominate characteristically modern institutions like business corporations and expert bureaucracies. After all, without a unified overall system based on rational institutions like global markets and transnational bureaucracies, how could overall efficiency, equity, and stability be secured? How could stubborn popular prejudices be suppressed and kept from affecting social relations? And how could all people be made full and equal participants in the life of society? (The latter goals, it should be noted, are hard to distinguish from the dissolution of all serious social relationships other than market and bureaucratic ones.)

Religious liberalism as it is now can be viewed as the attempt to spiritualize the progressive project. It therefore downplays revelation and the transcendent, instead emphasizing improvements (judged by liberal standards) in the social and economic sphere. So it treats distinctions and restrictions as hateful and oppressive when they relate to institutions, like family or cultural and religious community, that interfere with the free action of global markets and transnational bureaucracies. The resulting suppression of particular connections in favor of a functionally integrated global system is thus idealized as love and inclusiveness; and subsidiarity, which is based on particular connections, gives way in social thinking to solidarity, to be perfected through a unified world order. True religion then becomes a matter of supporting open borders, the United Nations, ecumenism, the battle against discrimination, and comprehensive state social benefits and protections.

A problem with the tendency, as many have noted, is that total integration of man into a global economic system makes him less than he is. He loses sex, family, and culture, and becomes most fundamentally an employee, client, consumer, and hobbyist. An aspect of particular interest to Catholics is that the tendency leads to the total absorption of religion into secular progressivism. It makes religion relevant to the secular world by turning it into a restatement of that world’s public aspirations, with nothing of its own to offer. The result, of course, is that it becomes inconsequential. There’s no serious reason to bother with it.

Conservatism is resistance to such tendencies. As such, it can take many forms depending on which tendencies are resisted. Libertarians resist bureaucratic supervision and control. Social conservatives resist the assault on family, communal, and religious connections. Patriotic conservatives resist the subordination of national independence and identity to transnational institutions. And neoconservatives, who hold a fundamentally liberal view but sense that pure liberalism can’t be self-sustaining, just want to restrain the development of liberalism to keep it from becoming self-destructive.

All such tendencies get reflected in various forms of religious conservatism, a tendency chiefly defined by attachment to the particularities that make one religion distinct from others. So evangelicals and Latin Mass goers, at least in America, are often nationalist and strongly capitalist in their views, while John Paul II Catholics, who favor basic aspects of the post-Vatican II liberalizing movement in the Church but don’t like it when it goes too far, have often allied themselves with political neoconservatives. Such combinations often strike observers as rather uneasy, but they reflect a disposition to resist several aspects of liberalism, and for that reason can usually be given somewhat reasoned prudential justifications.

The problem, of course, is that if current trends are fundamentally inhuman and leading us to disaster, more is needed than a consciousness that something has gone wrong and a selection of issues on which to oppose what is called progress. But what?

We are told that “when prophecy shall fail, the people shall be scattered abroad.” What is lacking in conservatism, then, is the prophetic element. Liberalism has an overarching vision that has made it coherent through changes and given it victory after victory. Conservatism in contrast keeps arising in new forms as new developments provoke opposition. It always plays defense, and often ends by defending last year’s liberal innovation against further developments. The result is that it has gotten and can get nowhere.

So those drawn by the conservative perception that modern tendencies leave out essential elements of life and the world, need more than a vision of what they don’t like. If they want to get anywhere they must be guided above all by a vision of what they love. But then they will be less conservative than progressive, although with a vision of progress radically different from the liberal one. For Catholics, of course, that vision at its best will be an integrally Catholic one.

James Kalb


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).