Magazine article The Spectator

In Rome This Week Conservatism Triumphed over Authoritarianism

Magazine article The Spectator

In Rome This Week Conservatism Triumphed over Authoritarianism

Article excerpt

Irrespective of whether it is right or wrong, or will be good or bad, the cardinals' choice of pope is an act of defiance unique in our time. We are encouraged to believe that the papal conclave was authoritarian. In reality, with its choice of Cardinal Ratzinger, it defied authority. Authority, in modern conditions, is invariably liberal. The power of that conclave was puny compared with the power of the world's grand newspapers, universities and swarms of officials in Brussels, the UN and the IMF. The power of those institutions exists all the time; that of a conclave just for a short time after a Pope's death. For once, authority was unable to impose the centrist candidate. It was as if the British Conservative party had elected Mr Redwood to lead it or Labour had chosen Mr Galloway.

It will be said that John Paul II appointed nearly all the cardinals who made the choice. They were therefore conservative. Therefore they were bound to elect a conservative pope. But electorates do not as a rule act in so literal a way. Only a few weeks before the conclave elected the conservative John Paul II in 1978, it had chosen the short-lived John Paul I whose election was not assumed to be that of a conservative.

Admittedly, it does not follow that a non-liberal appointed to high office remains a non-liberal. Eisenhower chose the emollient former California Earl Warren as Supreme Court Chief Justice because he assumed that Warren would not do much that was liberal about civil rights for southern blacks and about related matters. But Warren began the abolition of southern segregation. There are some offices which are so lofty that the people who appoint to them, no matter how lofty themselves, cannot control what the appointee then does. Those offices include American Chief Justices and Popes.

Liberals would deny that the great offices tend to go to their kind. They like to depict themselves as being in opposition to those who run the world. What of President George W. Bush? they would ask. But Mr Bush, when first seeking the Republican presidential nomination, did not campaign as the right-wing candidate. He campaigned as the 'compassionate conservative' - itself a phrase in which he defensively conceded that compassionate is what conservatives normally are not. Otherwise it would not be so important to precede the noun with the adjective. September 11 gave him a better chance of being re-elected as a right-winger than as compassionate. Safely re-elected, he is moving back to the centre like most presidents do, as, for example, Reagan did in his second term. They know that the centre is the place from where the history books tend to be written.

I share the liberal view about the malign consequences of John Paul II and the Roman Catholic Church in such matters as abortion, contraception and Aids in Africa. But I am not a Roman Catholic. I would hesitate to impose my own run-of-the-mill liberalism about such topics on a force so distant from it as the Roman Catholic Church. English Tories should understand. I realise that the Tory is often but Economic Man. But there must still be a residual Toryism shrinking from an arid world in which we were utilitarian and rational about what should be numinous. Otherwise we might just as well all be Blairites. …

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