Liberty and Authority: Toward a Catholic Conservatism

We’ve learned by now to apply a certain hermeneutic to the Holy Father’s proclamations, and that includes one given to a congress of Catholic lawmakers in Rome in late August:

As long as the contribution of the Church to the great questions of society in our time can be put into discussion,” he said, “it is vital that your commitment be constantly pervaded by her moral and social teachings, in order to build a more humane and just society.

The laws that you promulgate and apply ought to build bridges between different political perspectives: even when they respond to precise ends ordered to the promotion of greater care for the defenseless and the marginalized, especially the many who are constrained to leave their countries; and when they are in order to favor a correct human and natural ecology.

Of course, nothing he says is untrue. But, like any proponent of “Seamless Garment” theology, there’s a serious question here—namely, To what extent?

Church authorities have traditionally limited themselves to providing a moral framework in which Catholic politicians will work. They’ll stress the sanctity of life, the dignity of the worker, the vital importance of the natural family, the sacred right to private property, etc., But they’ll leave it to political authorities to decide how to apply them if there’s a question of degree.

Take abortion, for example. Abortion is wrong, full stop. Whether the child is one day in the womb or nine months, whether one baby is killed or ten million, it’s categorically evil. Likewise, marriage, which is properly defined as being between one man and one woman. Any other combination—two men, two women, three men and eight women—is simply erroneous.

That’s just not the case with the environment and immigration. The Church has traditionally left it to lawmakers to apply those basic moral frameworks in good conscience. And there’s no doubt that all Catholic lawmakers (let alone lay people) do understand the importance of conservation and mercy toward the stranger. No one’s saying we should dump toxic sludge into the ocean and then chuck Syrian refugees into it. The Pope’s clearly suggesting that we need to do more: more environmental regulation and more open borders.

That’s his right, of course, but we’re not obligated to agree. Certainly, in terms of immigration there’s a robustly Catholic case to be made that Europe’s borders are too porous already. St. Thomas Aquinas himself was more Trumpian than Trump in his immigration policy:

The reason for this was that if foreigners were allowed to meddle with the affairs of a nation as soon as they settled down in its midst, many dangers might occur, since the foreigners not yet having the common good firmly at heart might attempt something hurtful to the people.

Again, that’s simply another moral framework in which Catholics must consider policymaking. It’s not that the truth lies in the middle. It lies, rather, in the intersection of both truths—of charity and common sense.

But that only deepens the need for Catholics to engage thoughtfully in Church teaching as they survey the political landscape. Tim Stanley, a columnist for the London Telegraph and contributing editor to the Catholic Herald (where I’m honored to work), has written a rousing call-to-arms for just that purpose. “Catholics not only have a right to try to transform society,” Tim writes; “we have a divine mandate”:

We are constantly told, sometimes by clerics, that we should keep our opinions to ourselves—that we should erect a wall between our faith and our politics. But Jesus did not die quietly or behind closed doors. The Church did not spread his message through private coffee mornings. And the Christian commandment to love our fellow man does not stop at being charitable.

I urge you to read the whole thing. He touches on many crucial ills in our society that we tend to neglect: out-of-wedlock births, gender dysphoria, pornography, depression, and so on. He does it from the position of an orthodox Catholic, generally sympathetic to Britain’s Tories yet also “sick and tired” of blind partisanship.

But, again, take it with a grain of salt. There’s more than one way of being a Catholic in politics. Tim is, for instance, a professed Christian democrat. Christian democracy has many detractors among the faithful, including the immortal Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, who pointed out in the February 1974 issue of Triumph:

Democracy, for instance, which became morally bankrupt with the murder of Socrates and only reappeared with Rousseau and Robespierre, is neither Catholic nor American. Neither the hemlock cup nor the guillotine is a Christian sacred symbol; and, as Charles A. Beard pointed out, the Founding Fathers loathed democracy more than original sin.

That our country should be governed by laws (albeit ones grounded in Christian principles) and not men—managers working constantly to bring about a more “Christian” society, with the police readily at hand to enforce their edicts—is convincing. That we must provide for the least among us is no more or less true than the fact that planned economies inevitably fail. This is the harmony of charity and common sense.

How do we go about this? Why, by thinking outside the merely political.

There wouldn’t even be an apparent need for economic planning if we strengthened the traditional charitable structures in our society. We wouldn’t, for instance, need so much the way of social security and old-age pensions if we had large, close-knit families supporting their elders. And we wouldn’t need welfare—which by its nature fosters a culture of dependence—if more men tithed at Mass and paid their dues to fraternal organizations like the Knights of Columbus.

Notice that Catholic social teaching is always a matter of “killing two birds with one stone.” Our societal as well as our economic woes stem from the breakdown of these traditional institutions. And the reliance on government—whether the secularist progressive’s or the Christian democrat’s—is only a Band-Aid solution.

Of course, none of this is original thinking. It’s the basic formulation of American conservatism. The early conservatives, who (like EVKL) gathered around National Review, had a simple vision: big government isn’t the solution to our social, economic, cultural, and political crises, because small government isn’t their cause. The trend toward statism is counter-productive, not because humans are naturally good and wise, but (again) because the state is a poor substitute for those institutions faltering in our society: the family, church, universities, and so on.

Now, obviously, that’s not the case with American conservatism today. Far too many conservatives—perhaps even most of them—have begun fetishizing liberty. A healthy skepticism toward government has given way to an unhealthy belief in man’s goodness and wisdom. They’ve effectively become libertarians.

Of course, it was Russell Kirk who embodied the perfect balance of anti-statism and anti-libertarianism. On the one hand, he was a firm believer in free markets

Economically and morally, a competitive system is nothing to be ashamed of. On the contrary, it provides for human wants, and respects human freedom, far better than any vague scheme of reliance solely upon altruism, or any system of forced labor. In essence, it is not competition which is ruthless; rather, it is the lack of competition that makes a society ruthless; because in a competitive economy people work voluntarily for decent rewards, while in a non-competitive economy a few harsh masters employ the stick to get the world’s work done.

On the other, he urged conservatives to “reject the embrace” of “political zealots” who “instruct us that ‘the test of the market is the whole of political economy and of morals,” and who “assure us that great corporations can do no wrong.”

All men are Fallen: private citizens, politicians, and CEOs alike. No one institution—be it the government or the marketplace—can be “all things to all men.” The only one that might—the Church—has in her wisdom seen fit to delegate power to the others. She neither asks nor wants to be the sole authority in politics or economics.

So it seems to me that our best option is to fall back on the wisdom of our conservative forebears. Let man be governed by laws, but also subject to the authority of traditional institutions. We should learn virtue from the Church and support her works of corporal mercy. We should honor our father and mother by obeying them in our youth and caring for them in their old age. We should understand marriage as a sacred commitment of one man and one woman for life: the sole legitimate context for sex and, in turn, child-rearing. We should banish our natural ignorance with classical learning, whose gifts are discipline, wisdom, and humility.

Human society is a grand symphony, with each individual and each institution indispensable to the whole concert. We can lean on one section or another—the government, say, or the markets—but we’ll be poorer for it. No, more than that: we’ll be incomplete.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is Russell Kirk in his library. (Photo credit: Imaginative Conservative)

Michael Warren Davis

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Michael Warren Davis is U.S. Commissioning Editor for Catholic Herald. His work has appeared in The Spectator and The Salisbury Review, among others.

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