American Conservatism and the Catholic Church
Caiazza, John, Modern Age
The relationship between the modern conservative movement and the Catholic Church in America is just now beginning to be understood. Despite evidence of a close relationship between Catholicism and conservatism, the Church is most often considered a liberal institution, while the Catholic Church in its official capacity denies that it has an inherent connection to any political party or ideology. Nevertheless, the connection between American conservatism and Catholicism is much closer than is usually realized, so much so that the Church is better understood as a conservative than as a liberal institution.
Catholic Origins of American Conservatism
One of the overlooked facts about the modern conservative movement is the irreplaceable part played by Catholics. (1) Indeed, it is almost possible to believe that the conservative movement in America was largely a Catholic thing, but this would be to overestimate the influence of Catholics. The conservative movement was not an explicit attempt of lay Catholics or the Church itself to manufacture a movement or arm to gain political influence for the Catholic Church. (This is in contrast to the Moral Majority, which was an explicit attempt to gain evangelical Protestantism a secular arm and direct political influence.) The Catholic Church in America, in contrast to the Church in Europe, has not allied itself officially with any political party or ideological movement, respecting the American separation of church and state. Further, Catholic influence tends to be more diffuse, representing the wide variety of political opinions held by its members.
The two outstanding representatives of Catholicism in the conservative movement, well-known to readers of this journal, are William F. Buckley and Russell Kirk, the founders of National Review and Modern Age, respectively. Buckley was a cradle Catholic who attended an English Catholic boarding school. He held a strongly traditional view of the Church and was an opponent of the vernacular Mass that resulted from the Second Vatican Council. (2) National Review often dealt directly with Catholic issues, most famously in attacking the encyclicals of Pope John XXIII but also in its criticisms of the neo-Marxist Catholic liberation theology emanating from Latin America. (3) Russell Kirk, whose book The Conservative Mind went through multiple printings, greatly encouraged a traditionalist form of conservative thought. He was a Catholic convert but had already established his conservative philosophy at the time he entered the Church. (4) While Buckley represents the influence of cradle Catholics whose religious beliefs made them sharply critical of political and social developments in America following World War II, Kirk represents the conservative Catholics who joined the Church for personal reasons of faith, certainly, but also because their conservatism was explicitly and strongly represented in the Catholic Church. The presence of a large number of cradle Catholics in the conservative movement and the tendency of conservatives to become Catholic converts raises the question: what is the nexus between Catholicism and conservatism?
There is a large overlap between Catholicism and conservatism, and five areas can be distinguished. First, there is the conservative respect for tradition, that is, the Burkean assumption that any social institution in place for a great length of time and serving many people well has a claim on us. The Catholic Church has contributed an essential and distinctive element to Western civilization in art, literature, music, theology, and philosophy, and--not least--in its spreading of the Christian gospel, which had a civilizing effect on the many peoples of Europe, including those originally thought of as "barbarians."
Second, there is a moral realism intrinsic to the Church's doctrines and practices that presupposes good and evil's actual reality and actual distinction. …