Sunday Night Journal — January 24, 2010
This is another topic I that need to get out of the way before I can focus primarily on the memoir upon which I’ve embarked. It’s a bit of unfinished business from last year, and there will be at least one more installment, possibly two.
Back in April I was one of a group of people who received an email from my friend Daniel Nichols on the use of torture by the American government. A discussion followed, and soon, via attention to the approval of so-called “enhanced interrogation” by many conservatives, became focused on the nature of conservatism. Things became a bit testy, and a bit later the argument spilled over into a post (by Daniel) and comments on the Caelum et Terra blog. That discussion in turn became heated; I lost my temper and withdrew. Since then I’ve intended to revisit the topic at enough length to state my position clearly and then be done with it.
The email discussion of course is not publicly available, but the blog discussion is here. I mention the email only because I want to note that the antagonistic tone of the C&T exchange did not spring up as quickly as it appears to have done, but had already been established in the email discussion. One remark in particular had fired me up: the assertion that the term “conservative” is “an idol of the mind.” A debate with a Catholic man ceases to be friendly when someone suggests that he is in thrall to an idol.
Normally I just allow these teapot-tempests in the blogosphere to slip away and be forgotten. But I want to say more on this subject because, beyond the immediate provocations in those two exchanges, I’ve had a long-simmering resentment of the insinuation, discernible in this debate, that to be a conservative is to be less than fully Catholic.
It is certainly true that conservatism as a socio-political category, and a very broad one, encompasses all sorts of people who are not Catholic and have all sorts of ideas that are not Catholic. Some of these ideas are “not Catholic” only in the sense that the one who holds them arrived at his position by some other means than reasoning from Catholic principles. Some are “not Catholic” in the sense that they are in contradiction to Catholic principles, and of course there’s a danger that a Catholic conservative will be unduly influenced by these. Our political life today operates at a pretty high level of anger—dangerously high, I think—and in the heat of battle people tend to become reactionary and to accept ideas and behavior from their own side which they would condemn from the other. Obviously a Catholic has to be on guard against letting this tendency lead him astray. And there’s nothing wrong with challenging a Catholic conservative on some specific instance of this; in fact if the matter is serious one ought to do it. But the suggestion that merely to classify oneself as a conservative in itself compromises one’s fidelity to the Church is wrong, and rests on a misconception about conservatism.
For a Catholic to participate in any political activity at all involves some risk of absorbing views which are to some degree incompatible with the teachings of the Church, because it involve collaborating with people who hold those views. You have to make common cause with people who don’t share your fundamental principles, and you must be ready to defend your cause on the grounds that it promotes the common good in ways that are at least widely, if not universally, agreed upon, not on the grounds that the Church teaches it. If you aren’t prepared to deal with this, you really aren’t prepared to engage in politics in our society. To refuse the compromises inevitable in politics is a defensible position, though I don’t think the purist necessarily occupies higher moral ground than the participant. The tension between the two is always with us, and each helps keep the other from absurdity.
But I digress. I think the main point of contention here lies not in the matters of participation and contamination, but in a more basic disagreement about the nature of conservatism. What sort of thing is it? I don’t mean “what do conservatives believe?” but rather “to what category does conservatism itself belong?”
My opponents in the disagreement documented above seem to believe that it is, or at least intends to be, a systematic philosophy, which makes it a rival to the Church, which in turn makes a Catholic who is also a conservative less than fully faithful to the Church because, as we all know, a man cannot serve two masters. They also insist that it fails as a system, because it is full of contradictions and inconsistencies; it is not only a rival to the Church, but an incoherent one.
I have to say that the attempt to respond to this complaint reminded me of arguing with objectivists, in that in both cases there is an insistence that certain terms must be defined with absolute precision or be dismissed as meaningless. The statement that the word “conservative” does not have a very precise meaning is taken as an admission that it has no meaning at all.
But life is full of things which don’t lend themselves to precise definition, but yet exist, thereby making meaningful the words by which they are named. There are many such terms in the arts. Terms like “romantic” and “classical” cannot be defined in such a way that as to remove all doubt about whether or not any given work belongs to one of those categories, and there are others that are even more slippery—post-romantic, neo-classical, jazz. There are very few, if any, artists or individual works of art which fit perfectly into any of these categories, or which does not contain elements of both. Yet we continue to use these words because they serve a purpose in describing broad tendencies. If a critic describes one pianist’s playing as more romantic than another’s, everyone knows what he means; no one shouts Define your terms! And if he did, he would be laughed at, and deserve to be.
In answering the question “what sort of thing is conservatism?” these aesthetic terms provide the most useful analogy I’ve been able to come up with. Like them, the word “conservative” is more descriptive than prescriptive (as conservatives often note). Like them, it does not begin with a set of abstract principles. Like them, it is more understandable as a product of temperament and attitudes than as a book of rules. As Russell Kirk insisted, it is not an ideology, but rather the negation of ideology. It is a concrete human phenomenon, not an invented system. It has no necessary metaphysic, and one may be a conservative and an atheist, or a conservative and a Catholic. It is a loose alliance of people with broadly similar views about the management of worldly affairs.
I began to call myself a conservative thirty years or so ago because I kept noticing that my views on socio-political matters were very often in agreement with what people who called themselves conservatives believed. I studied no catechism and assented to no body of doctrine. I certainly never expected to agree with everyone who calls himself a conservative, and in fact did, and do, disagree frequently with many of them. But the areas of agreement were, and are, great enough that the label continues to fit me, more or less. When or if that ceases to be true, I’ll cease to accept the term for myself.
I judge conservative ideas by the light of the Catholic faith, and not vice versa. Certainly there are plenty of examples of people who seem to be doing the opposite, though I think one ought to be careful about drawing that conclusion, as it presumes knowledge of another’s mind and heart which is ordinarily not available to us. And it is important to recognize that no political faction can be identified with the Catholic faith (this seems so obvious to me as to hardly need stating, though I sometimes see evidence that it does). But I reject absolutely the charge that to call myself a conservative constitutes, in itself, a lapse or defect, conscious or unconscious, in my fidelity to the Church.