Conservatism as orthodoxy

What kind of conservatism is possible today? Conservatism was originally defense of accustomed ways, mostly because of the goods they fostered but in part simply because they were accustomed. Since the goods tradition promotes can be difficult to articulate—if things were otherwise the goods wouldn’t have to be embodied in tradition but could be taken straight—and since the opponents of tradition refuse to admit the reality and value of traditional goods, the impression grew up that conservatism is simply defense of existing habit as such. That impression is a distortion, however. The conservative preference for stability has always been subordinate to more ultimate concerns. “Conservative Stalinist” is indeed an oxymoron.

The fact conservatism has been concerned with both means and ends has made it vulnerable to changed circumstances. As time has passed, public institutions and ideals have become more and more permeated with egalitarian hedonism. The same spirit has crept into the attitudes and habits of the people, and even into institutions such as church and university that once stood for something very different. As a result, a preference for established institutions and habits no longer promotes traditional goods as it once did. Conservatism as it was no longer makes sense, and has to change.

But how should it change? The possibilities have been:

  • Emphasis on what is accustomed. Conservatism keeps its form while losing its soul, and becomes a simple preference for what is settled at present, whatever that may be. This view became incoherent when “what is settled” came to include things like “the American tradition of progressive reform” or “the quest for equality.” An emphasis on what is accustomed can therefore only be rhetorical today. The claim that “true conservatism” is allegiance to what is settled, so that a true conservative like Edmund Burke would cherish the 1964 Civil Rights Act if he were alive today, is a specialty of academically-oriented liberals who think conservatives should just shut up, and to some extent of their faux conservative running dogs.
  • Emphasis on goods conservatism is concerned to foster. On this understanding conservatism keeps its soul but becomes a form of radicalism. In radical times that’s hard to avoid, since in the absence of reliable settled understandings the alternative to radicalism becomes doing what you’re told by whoever happens to hold social power for the time being. The issue that divides various forms of conservatism, however, is just what goods to foster:
    • Mainstream conservatism is concerned to foster goods that motivated American institutions until their post-60s radicalization, and that still retain their hold on the American people. These include personal discipline and ambition, equal opportunity, economic prosperity, and national greatness, with decency of conduct and residual religiosity in the background. Neoconservatism is a sort of intellectualized version of this mainstream conservatism.
    • Other forms of American conservatism—the constitutionalist/patriot movement, for example—are concerned to foster goods that characterized earlier stages of American life. These include populism, local, family and individual independence, and conservative decentralized evangelical religion.
    • It seems that the foregoing forms of conservatism want to reverse the development of liberalism in American society and stabilize it at some point in the past. One wonders whether the effort makes sense, or whether America was founded from the beginning on a conception of self-defining equal freedom that cannot be stabilized and has inevitably swept away all other goods. The European New Right would take the objection a large step further, and say that universal equality is a necessary implication of Christianity itself, so that to go forward we would have to go back to pre-Christian pagan Europe. Which of these objections if any is well-founded, and is there something that escapes them or is all simply flux?
What follows from these considerations, I think, is that the most important issue for conservative thought today is less tactics or even strategy than orthodoxy. What complex of practice, thought and symbol can endure through changes and remain a standard for social life and political action? What can we accept wholeheartedly as true? Without some sort of Archimedian point on which to stand, judge and propose goals for American society it seems conservatives are forever doomed to complaining and foot-dragging, with never a chance to offer effective principled resistance or even articulate a way of life for themselves independent of the corruptions of the world around them. Conservatism no longer makes sense except as a term for orthodoxy that emphasizes its ties to the past and embodiment in tradition. The present, it seems, is not a time for politics as ordinarily understood but for truth and how to live it.
Posted by Jim Kalb at July 01, 2002 06:02 PM | Send

Would not the Archimedean reference point have to be an incarnation of the transcendent upon earth? And isn’t this incarnation Jesus Christ? So would not the present-day presence to us of Him have to be embodied in that earthly that institution which exists as the extension in space and time of God himself?

If the Roman Catholic Church is really a divine institution (with a human embodiment), then what else but this could be the reference point you are looking for?

Now, we are searching for specific intellectual and practical principles embodied in a concrete tradition, so one might ask how the latter can be found in an ecclesiastical body. I tell you that it is there, in the traditional teachings of the Popes and in the symbolic beauty of the Tridentine Liturgy, but has been eclipsed. The Roman Catholic tradition (hidden but avaliable to the devout searcher) of thought, practice, and symbol is the reference point we need because only She is the presence of the Logos on earth.

One may think that there is no such institution in existence, but then, there is no solution to the liberal scourge; without a God-ordained and governed institution embodying the Truth, there is no way of possessing a Archimedean lever, outside of but still in the world, with which to save the world. We will, instead, have liberals with no divine authority telling us what reality is and what the Church is and what God wants, that is, people who claim to know something they don’t know and to do something they can’t do.

The problem is that human error has defined the transcendent and its relation to the world, ever since the end of Christendom and the break of the West from the authority of the Catholic Church. But no one but God can define His Church and Her relationship with the state and the world, and no man is God but Christ, and no one speaks for Christ (definitively) other than His Holy Roman Catholic Church (although He can communicate His will to us in other ways). I don’t want anybody usurping Christ’s role, and I don’t want liberals encouraging me to usurp His role by defining my religion as “freedom of conscience”: Only the Roman Catholic Church has absolute freedom of conscience, because only She speaks for Christ, and obedience to any other mouthpiece precludes an authentic commitment to the real, living Christ—and a solution to liberal dilemma.

Therefore, to those brave souls who aspire to defeat the liberal juggernaut, I would say that without accepting the existence of a living, visible, unified, universal, hierarchical, concrete, corporal institution, with a body of theoretical, practical, and symbolic teachings and exampl, whose unity, holiness, universality, and apostolicity can be recognized by all “from the outside”, we will always be working in some sense from the inside of liberalism, as it were, and acting and thinking from within its demonic heart, not the heart of Christ. And this leads inevitably to either outright war or the Procrustean attempt by both Christians and non-Christians, both rulers and ruled, to make the message of the Gospel fit into the arbitrary categories of thought and practice of him who happens to be ruling both the state and one’s particular “church.”

Jim Kalb asks: What complex of practice, thought and symbol can endure through changes and remain a standard for social life and political action? What can we accept wholeheartedly as true?

If the Roman Catholic Church is not the answer, I would like someone to tell me what is. Only the Church claims to be the answer, so it behooves us to see if She is not a liar.


Posted by: Thomas on July 2, 2002 6:01 PM
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