Friday, October 28, 2011

Why I Am Conservative. And Not Conservative.

Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,” and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ.” Has Christ been divided?

Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians

Then some Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” And He answered and said to them, “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?"

Gospel of Matthew

Is there any point in being a "conservative Catholic"? Do we "divide Christ" if we proclaim loyalty to a faction within the Church? If "conservative" means "orthodox", shouldn't an "orthodox Catholic" be a tautology? And if conservativism is something added to Catholicism, for instance a zeal for national traditions, is it extra-Christian and to be abhorred as a distraction?

How do we remember historical examples of hyphenated Christianities (so to speak)? The likes of muscular Christianity, and Christian socialism, and liberation theology? In retrospect, the companion term always seems like the more important of the two, and the Christianity like mere window-dressing.

And yet, I so often find (rightly or wrongly) that "Catholic" doesn't exhaustively describe my own worldview. There are things I am passionate about that (as far as I know) can't be rooted in the teaching of the Church; the defence of sentimentality and nostalgia and romanticism, for instance; a preference for rhymed poetry, and for films and books with a life-affirming message; politeness; chivalry; eccentricity; local colour; local accents and slang; a tenderness for monarchism.

But what are we to do with this term, "conservative"? Does it mean anything at all? As far as I can see, it has a bewildering range of meanings.

There are the people who call themselves conservative to indicate that they have been "mugged by reality"-- these are usually ex-liberals and ex-radicals. Once they had a rosy view of human nature, believing that society would blossom if only authority was relaxed and repression lifted. Now they know better, and place great weight upon the profit motive and tough policing and stern discipline in schools. They might well be strident atheists and scornful of all romantic ideas of patriotism and romantic love and childhood innocence.

There are the nationalists, who put the prestige of the home country above everything. For the sake of the fatherland, they may identify with a national religion, as seems to be happening in Russia today, when Orthodoxy has become a badge of revived Russian pride. But even moral codes often take a back seat to the defence or glorification of the flag, as with the defenders of torture in America.

There are the libertarian, anti-government conservatives. This type of conservative might well own a string of sex-shops and porn magazines, while smoking marijuana at all-night parties.

There is the "cultural standards" conservative, like the American critic Harold Bloom or his namesake Allen Bloom, writer of The Closing of the American Mind. They lament the decline of artistic and intellectual standards in Western society. They read Nietzsche, despise TV, probably hang around churches a lot without thinking religious considerations should impinge on their sex lives. They stopped being liberal when all the political correctness and multiculturalism began to seep into it.

In opposition to these anti-populists, there are the conservative populists who might be American talk show hosts or fans of Jeremy Clarkson. They consider themselves the voice of the people, dismiss poetry as boring, mock feminism, are passionate about their cars and their right to drive them as much as they like, are probably scathing about sex and violence on TV before the watershed ("I don't want my kids seeing this stuff!") but boast about watching it themselves.

There are the Tolkien-reading conservatives, who want to live in Middle-Earth and turn back the wheel of industrialism, go back to the land, restore monarchy, join a guild, and drink mead. (I am particularly sympathetic to these, in case I sound too facetious.)

There are the DH Lawrence conservatives, who want to turn back the wheel of industrialism, dance around the maypole, commune with nature, strip away the veneer of civilization, and liberate their bedroom urges to the fullest.

There are the "status quo" conservatives, like the Russian generals who made one last effort to save the Soviet Union in 1991.

There are the "steady as she goes" conservatives like Thomas Hobbes, who think social order is the most desirable of things, anarchy is always in danger of breaking out, and "whatever is, is right"-- better the devil you know.

And there are probably any number of others. But perhaps I have made my point.

And, despite all this, I call myself a conservative Catholic. Perhaps "traditionalist-romantic-sentimentalist-nostalgist-patriotic-idealistic-communitarian-agrarian-localist-monarchist Catholic" would be better.

But it takes longer to say.

1 comment:

  1. There is the same problem in Judaism. For observant Jews there is no Conservative Judaism. You either practice the rituals or you don't. There is something called 'Reform' Judaism; one wonders how they came to reform something given by God. [More often not they refer to the synagogues as "temples" which they are not, nor can be. The Temple was destroyed]. Then there are the Hasidim which are a sect from Poland, with superstitious practices, such as not trimming the hair.