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:: Tuesday, June 17, 2003 ::

The Definition of a True Conservative:

The longer I have involved myself in dialogues, the clearer it is to me that there is a provincial nature to a lot of people. It is almost an instinctive need to not accept someone as they are but instead feel the instinctive need to dichotomize or "find a box" to stuff them into. Hence, in the Catholic arena, we cannot have simply "orthodox" and "heterodox" - the only real distinctions that are important anyway - but instead a continuing proliferation of divisions.

St. Paul angrily denounced those Corinthians whom had "strifes" among them - who claimed to be "of Paul", "of Apollos", or "of Cephas" (cf. 1 Cor. i,11-12). And the Apostle's response to this was "has Christ been divided up? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?" (1 Cor. i,13). If we believe that the Scriptures are sacred and the Word of God, and further, that the Word of God is not out of date, then this passage must have a meaning applicable to all times and places. For while Paul, Apollos, and Cephas are all dead, the problem Paul denounces in this passage is ever-ongoing.

Today in the Catholic arena of ideas, the divisions are not between Paul, Cephas, and Apollos, but instead "traditionalist", "conservative", and "progressivist." The same question could be asked today that Paul asked 2,000 years ago: "has Christ been divided up???" Based on the way different people try to factionalize things, it certainly seems that way.

Despite most reasonably-informed people understanding intuitively that there are limits to syllabus style statements, for some reason there is no hesitancy to try to apply such labels to others anyway.

Now obviously to some extent this is necessary --as one cannot have a conversation on issues without some degree of defining the terms utilized. Nonetheless, with most people, this approach is utilized far more than it is actually needed. And in doing this, the tendency towards a provincial outlook is always present which must be held in check lest authentic charity be sacrificed on the altar of an us and them mentality.

These kinds of problems persist among those who try to use political labels to describe theological, religious, or social issues.{1} For these are virtually always woefully inadequate but some people persist. It is particularly the case with those of a zenophobic bent who feel the need to justify themselves. In Our Lord's day there were the Pharisees who viewed themselves as "set apart" from others. (They viewed themselves as the true adhereres of the Law.)

While there were good Pharisees of course, there were also those who were not so good. Such were denounced many times in the Gospels by Our Lord - himself theologically a Pharisee of the School of Hillel.{2} Thus, while history has given us the term of "Pharisee" as being synonymous with hypocrisy, in truth this was because of the bad Pharisees who ruined it for everyone else. Likewise today we have terms like "traditionalist", "conservative", and "progressivist" which are in need of rescuing from the majority of their adherents who do them an injustice.

I have sought to do this with the term "Traditionalist" by making distinctions between Traditionalists (properly so-called) and "traditionalists" (falsely so-called). The reason for the quotes surrounding the latter one is because with the frauds I contest the veracity of the statement applying to them.{3} My approach is one way of dealing with this situation but by no means the only one.

Much as there are those who delude themselves into believing that they are "traditionalists" (i.e. the only *real* Catholics), there are those who claim to be "progressive" as if Catholicism is somehow anti-progress. And such people cast the distinctions as encompassing themselves as "pro-progress" -even to the expense of the essentials of the Faith- and "enlightened" while others who refuse to compromise on essentials are impugned as "neanderthal", "fundamentalist", "archconservative", or some other disparaging classification.

Caught between the two extremes (those who want to loose everything and those who want everything to remain bound) are those who are usually referred to as "conservatives". But as this term is so ridiculously misunderstood, I consider it a profound insult to have anyone apply this term to me or to my friends without quantification. Let us look at what the term "conservative" used to mean and the meaning that this expression needs to regain if there is to be any coherence with the past philosophically.

To most people today, "conservative" means what "liberal" meant fifty years ago. Further, what was meant by "conservative" fifty years ago is similar to what passes for today as "traditionalist." The problem is, what passes for today as "traditional" and what was coined as "conservative" fifty years ago are counterfeits of the historical Catholic outlook. I will get to this in a moment but first, consider the general trends of people who generally apply these terms to themselves.

We have those who because they follow every trend essentially seek change for its own sake (progressivists) and those who seek to resist any and all change under the illusion that "the Church never changes" (traditionalists). However, even prior to fifty years ago, the Church had both changed radically and also remained a bulwark of stability. Those who know this are able to be proactive in light of the circumstances of recent decades and not merely reactive. This is where the value of knowing history so that it is not repeated comes into play (cf. Santyana).

When it comes to Church history, the "traditionalists" are generally too short-sighted to realize this while the "progressivists" realize this but cannot make the distinction between essence and accidents, primary and ancillary elements if you will. Let me touch briefly on each of these for the benefit of the reader.

Another way of saying this is that the so-called "progressivists" cannot distinguish between the substance of a truth (essentials) and its application (accidents). They are continually mistakening an adjustment in application of a truth in the historical record (in accordance with the circumstances of the respective period) with a "reversal" or an "error that was later corrected."

Proceeding from that fundamental philosophical flaw, they then posit arguments for why the Church can (and they would argue, should) reverse herself on teachings that she has long taught as certain either in magisterial statements or via lex orandi lex credendi.{4} The "traditionalist" of course would not support such deviations. But that is not because they have any better understanding of the historical record - or of how to distinguish between substance and accidents - than the so-called "progressivists" do.

Indeed, the "traditionalist" usually has a worse trackrecord on historical matters. And they cannot generally distinguish between substance and accidents either; however, since they are not so quick to throw things out, they do not suffer as much from this myopia as the so-called "progressivists" do. To give hopefully a clear example of why what passes in many circles for "traditionalism" today is a counterfeit, consider the manner whereby Catholic apologists used to vary their polemic against the Orthodox and the Protestants.

With the Protestants, the approach often taken was one of the "unchangable Church" vs. "ever-changing Prot cults." Another way of saying this would be the "one unity of Catholics" vs. the "ever-desparate variations of Protestants." (With the Catholic apologists appealing to antiquity as a way of seeking to undermine the claims of the Protestants.) But with the Orthodox, the approach taken was diametrically opposite.

For in this contrast, it is the Catholic Church who would lose out in many areas of the "who is more ancient" contest. Unlike the Catholics, the Orthodox had not changed their liturgy, their predominent way of doing theology, their norms of sacramental administration, their view of Church government, etc. So a different approach was taken - one absolutely contradictory to what was done with the Protestants.

Now it was the Catholic Church who showed "vitality" in being able to "grow and develop" over the centuries while the Orthodox were "stagnant" and "arrested in development" theologically and in every other area where there was a divergence of viewpoints. And Latin scholars were not above trying to pass off late first and early second millennium novelties as "apostolic" over and against the Orthodox even when the latter's practice was in reality much more ancient. This is one of the fallacies of confessional scholarship methods.

For in this very same polemical approach, now appeals to antiquity by the Orthodox - the very *same* appeals made by Catholics against the Protestants btw - were tainted as antiquarian. The reason could not be more apparent: to legitimize every jot and tittle of Catholic orthopraxy no matter what.

Indeed it is so ironic to read some of the criticisms launched against the Orthodox by Catholic apologists a hundred years ago and how these same criticisms apply in spades to today's so-called "traditionalists." The late great Orthodox theologian Fr. Alexander Schmemann sounded remarkably like Catholic apologists of old when he criticized the "stagnant air" of the Orthodoxy of his day - basically early to late twentieth century Orthodoxy.

So in essence the Church's history shows at the same time both progress being made - sometimes rapidly so - but not in a random or uncritical way. Two threads of history used in different ways in apologetics in the so-called "good old days" of the Counter-reformation.

How do we explain both (i) the Church's ability to morph herself into every culture like the chamelion changes colours and (ii) her solidity in beliefs and principles being consistent over time??? The way my friends is by recognizing what "conservative" used to mean and what it must mean again. That is the purpose of this post and my proposed definition of the term "conservative."

Though the primary focus of the source I will draw from here is political, the same principle enunciated here over forty years ago applies to the areas of religion and social issues also. To quote from Senator Barry Morris Goldwater's essential work The Conscience of a Conservative:

[T]he question arises: Why have American people been unable to translate their views into appropriate political action? Why should the nation's underlying allegiance to Conservative principles have failed to produce corresponding deeds in Washington?

I do not blame my brethren in government, all of whom work hard and conscientiously at their jobs. I blame Conservatives—ourselves—myself. Our failure, as one Conservative writer has put it, is the failure of the Conservative demonstration.

Though we Conservatives are deeply persuaded that our society is ailing, and know that Conservatism holds the key to national salvation—and feel sure the country agrees with us—we seem unable to demonstrate the practical relevance of Conservative principles to the needs of the day. We sit by impotently while Congress seeks to improvise solutions to problems that are not the real problems facing the country, while the government attempts to assuage imagined concerns and ignores the real concerns and real needs of the people.

Perhaps we suffer from an over-sensitivity to the judgments of those who rule the mass communications media. We are daily consigned by "enlightened" commentators to political oblivion: Conservatism, we are told, is out-of-date. The charge is preposterous and we ought boldly to say so. The laws of God, and of nature, have no dateline. The principles on which the Conservative political position is based have been established by a process that has nothing to do with the social, economic and political landscape that changes from decade to decade and from century to century. These principles are derived from the nature of man, and from the truths that God has revealed about His creation.

Circumstances do change. So do the problems that are shaped by circumstances. But the principles that govern the solution of the problems do not. To suggest that the Conservative philosophy is out of date is akin to saying that the Golden Rule, or the Ten Commandments or Aristotle's Politics are out of date. The Conservative approach is nothing more or less than an attempt to apply the wisdom and experience and the revealed truths of the past to the problems of today. The challenge is not to find new or different truths, but to learn how to apply established truths to the problems of the contemporary world...

Conservatism is not an economic theory, though it has economic implications. The shoe is precisely on the other foot: it is Socialism that subordinates all other considerations to man's material well-being. It is Conservatism that puts material things in their proper place-that has a structured view of the human being and of human society, in which economics plays only a subsidiary role...

Conservatism, throughout history, has regarded man neither as a potential pawn of other men, nor as a part of a general collectivity in which the sacredness and the separate identity of individual human beings are ignored. Throughout history, true Conservatism has been at war equally with autocrats and with "democratic" Jacobins.

The true Conservative was sympathetic with the plight of the hapless peasant under the tyranny of the French monarchy. And he was equally revolted at the attempt to solve that problem by a mob tyranny that paraded under the banner of egalitarianism. The conscience of the Conservative is pricked by anyone who would debase the dignity of the individual human being. Today, therefore, he is at odds with dictators who rule by terror, and equally with those gentler collectivists who ask our permission to play God with the human race.

With this view of the nature of man, it is understandable that the Conservative looks upon politics as the art of achieving the maximum amount of freedom for individuals that is consistent with the maintenance of social order.

The Conservative is the first to understand that the practice of freedom requires the establishment of order: it is impossible for one man to be free if another is able to deny him the exercise of his freedom. But the Conservative also recognizes that the political power on which order is based is a self-aggrandizing force; that its appetite grows with eating. He knows that the utmost vigilance and care are required to keep political power within its proper bounds...

[F]or the American Conservative, there is no difficulty in identifying the day's overriding political challenge: it is to preserve and extend freedom. As he surveys the various attitudes and institutions and laws that currently prevail in America, many questions will occur to him, but the Conservative's first concern will always be: Are we maximizing freedom? [Senator Barry M. Goldwater: The Conscience of a Conservative pgs. 9-10,13-14 (c. 1960)]

I have presented the above text from one of the greatest intellectual influences of my youth for a reason. For in presenting the above, I have formulated a definition of "conservative" that I believe can be used and applied to myself and to many of my friends. Here is a definition of "conservatism" and one of "conservative."

Conservatism: An integrated philosophy encompassing religious, political, and social tenents which seeks to find ways of fruitfully applying the wisdom, experience, and revealed truths of the past to the problems of the contemporary world.

Conservative: Someone who advocates an integrated philosophy of seeking to find ways of fruitfully applying the wisdom, experience, and revealed truths of the past to the problems of the contemporary world - be they of a religious, political, or social nature.

There is nothing "preservationist" in these definitions, nothing that denotes finding new truths. It is solely in the realm of application and developing new insights from the wellstream of the accumulated wisdom and experience of the past. To a Catholic this would mean a ressourcement approach that took into account the entire well-stream of the Great Tradition and not simply small pieces of the greater whole (i.e. the High Middle Ages or the Counter-reformation period) or regurgitating uncritically the commentaries of earlier luminaries.

Conservatism is inherently ressourcement oriented. And I am ressourcement oriented. But there are no contemporary definitions of "conservative" --either in the political, social, or religious arenas-- that accurately summarizes the integrated philosophy that a Conservative must inherently have.

If such definitions as I have noted above can be agreed to, I would have no problem being called a "conservative" or having my philosophy labelled as "conservatism." But until that time, I do have a problem with it since what commonly passes for "conservative" or "conservatism" in either so-called "progressivist" or so-called "traditionalist" circles is a counterfeit conception. (To say nothing of the modern secularist (mis)definitions of the term.) But I digress...

[Update: I deleted one of the expository paragraphs from the above thread dealing with particular individuals that was no longer applicable. -ISM 10/10/05 3:45 pm]


{1} Not to mention even political ones.

{2} Others who had connections to the Pharisees were St. Paul, Nicodemus, and the rest of the Apostles.

{3} And the lowercase t is because they are concerned with superficial exteriors ala the Pharisees who "pay tithes on mind, and anise, and cummin, and have left undone the weightier matters of the Law, right judgment, mercy, and faith...blind guides who strain the gnat and swallow the camel" (Matt. xxiii,23-24).

{4} Such as women priests, homosexual "marriages", etc.

:: Shawn 5:47 PM [+] ::


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