"Conservatism" and Catholicism

Article excerpt

In college in the early '80s, as I studied the social tradition of the Roman Catholic Church, it was obvious how different this set of beliefs was from others represented on campus. There were a few hardcore "conservatives." Then there were the self-professed Marxists and "critical theorists," with their cigarette-stained fingers and angst-ridden scowls. A large number of students were "liberals," imbued, consciously or unconsciously, with Enlightenment-inspired philosophical liberalism of various stripes.

Currently one spends as much time worrying about Marxism as about being hit by a meteorite. On the other hand, "conservatism" and "liberalism" retain a simplifying allure for Catholics as for everyone else. If I focus primarily on the "conservative" end of this polarity, it is only because that label likely attracts far more doctrinally serious Catholics than the label "liberal." My main point is that Catholics need to find a framework for analyzing social and moral issues in their own tradition, without the co-opting influence of "liberal" or "conservative" agendas.

Consider, for instance, those conservatives who look to philosophical liberalism, even as many of its contemporary heirs affirm views about abortion, the novelties of the biotech playground, or, say, the redistribution of wealth that are unpalatable to many conservatives. Or look at conservatives of a libertarian bent, who exalt the free market, but apparently do not notice that the tired phrase "freedom of choice" is so efficacious in the realm of morality, at least in part because it capitalizes on our society's exaltation of economic freedom. NARAL Pro-Choice America (formerly the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League) is aware of this efficacy, which it insidiously exploits in billboard images that read, "Imagine a country without choice," and depict consumer goods such as an automotive stick-shift on which the options read "R," and a faucet with two handles, each of which reads "hot."

Some conservatives will celebrate the activity of a Toll Brothers home-building company as a legitimate expression of market forces, while others will lament the impact of sprawling suburbs on the culture and on existing local communities. And what to make of that exotic creature, the pro-choice Republican? One-half conservative? Three quarters? The question is ridiculous.

Some conservatives praise the moral vision of the Catholic Church's magisterium, but selectively under-emphasize its conflict with their free-market leanings. They may also neglect to recognize how philosophical liberalism historically defined itself partly in opposition to the Aristotelian social ontology transmitted by the church.

More often than not, the label "conservative" merely describes a conflicting set of ill-humored responses to whatever "liberals"-who have their own parallel problems of definition-happen to profess at the moment. Political rhetoric in this country is now the spectacle of two currents of political opinion, each providing a moving target for the other and each bearing a label that says little of the underlying reasons-if any-why the wearer has chosen it.

In contrast, Catholic social doctrine is one epiphenomenon of a rich philosophical and theological tradition on which the thought of Aquinas and Aristotle had a profound impact. …