In Praise of Conservatism

by Michael Sean Winters

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The past three days, I have been taking whacks at prominent Catholic conservatives in the U.S. So, today, I thought it only fitting to offer a bit of praise for conservative ideas.

I have recalled before a saying attributed to Maritain (I have never been able to find the exact quote) to the effect that we are born with either a conservative heart or a liberal heart, in any event, it is not something we can do much about. But, that if we wish to be truly wise, we must take the time to learn something about the kind of heart we were not born with. This strikes me as a fine example of prudential judgment.

It also explains why one of the most powerful and enjoyable reading experiences I have ever had was taking up Conor Cruise O’Brien’s biography of Edmund Burke, The Great Melody. I know none of us has time to read all the books we should or wish to, but if you have never read this volume, you really should. Burke was horrified by the prospect of tyranny in any form and, in his day, tyranny came from both left and right. He had a deep respect for the patterns of life, especially those of simple people. I suspect he would be appalled by some who call themselves conservatives today but fail to recognize in our spread eagle capitalism what Matthew Boudway has aptly termed “the great disruptor.” For American liberals, I think their willingness to equate equality with sameness, and then use it as a battering ram, has a similar disruptive and dangerous effect. Burke understood that disruptions always involve pain, and that the brunt of that pain is often visited upon the weakest in a society. There are heirs of the Jacobins today on both the left and the right, and they are both, similarly, inalert to the pain their ideological projects can inflict.

In our lifetime, a moment came when I think some of us in the progressive wing of the Church, and indeed the leaders of the Church, were inalert to the hurt felt by people when the Mass changed into the vernacular. I do not for a second think the switch was a mistake. It was overdue. But, the change was sudden and it touched on something very deep in people’s soul, maybe the deepest part of their soul, the manner of their worship. In retrospect, might it not have been better to make the change more gradually, or to make it less universal, permitting celebrations of the Tridentine rite? By forbidding it entirely, those who clung to the Tridentine rite not only felt unnerved, they felt ill-treated, and some of them turned that sentiment into an ideology. If change is experienced as something imposed, it is a predictable outcome for resentment to turn into opposition and into ideological opposition specifically. Surely, that is not a happy outcome for development in the liturgical life of the Church.

Conservatives of a Burkean type also have a deep suspicion of the very idea of progress. There is a strong Augustinian streak in them. Depending on my mood, I share that suspicion. It is stunning to me the way a type of liberal breezily casts aspersions on earlier times and cultures without so much as acknowledging the unique horrors we moderns have produced. Yes, the medieval period was a brutal time, but they did not incinerate a city as we did at Hiroshima. Yes, there were pogroms during throughout much of Western history, but Auschwitz is a modern crime. New technologies will ever and always increase our reach and our capacities, but they will not improve our morals.

A less horrifying, yet illustrative, example of progress proving itself to be its opposite was urban planning and architecture in the 1960s. Growing up, I watched the city of Hartford, Connecticut destroyed, its downtown neighborhoods leveled so that the urban planners could erect modern developments that were conceived without a human scale and turned downtown into a wasteland. Indeed, apart from the Phoenix Mutual Life building, all the other buildings constructed in that urban renewal were ugly and/or banal. Something similar happened in other cities. A good rule of thumb: Before destroying something, think twice.

Contemporary liberals are especially prone to let ideas of progress blind them, especially intellectuals and other elites. Pushing the envelope may get one published, it may produce better box office revenues at the movie theaters, but pushing the envelope in ways that assault a people’s values comes at a cost. I sympathize with those who worry about the effects of same-sex marriage, even though I do not share some of their more histrionic fears, especially when those fears are expressed in coarse or hateful ways. But, is it really hard to see why a married couple, who have found joy and meaning in their marriage and their family life, would be unsettled by the news that their child is gay? In the event, most parents get past that unsettling pretty quickly because their love for their child conquers whatever fears they entertain. If you have never had that kind of personal experience, but only listen to the talking heads, you will recognize that the professional advocates for same sex marriage, the people who get booked on cable news shows, do not speak about marriage the way most people experience marriage. For them, it is a battle in the culture wars. If, on the other hand, you take the time to speak to gay couples who are getting married, you recognize something different, that their decision is rooted in a desire for stability and legal recognition, not in proving a point, still less if defeating the “other side.” So, let us not label everyone who has qualms about changes in social mores a bigot but let us also not be afraid of social change without hearing from those who are actually embracing it.

For Catholics, there is no denying that there is an essentially conservative sensibility at the heart of our understanding of what it means to be the Church. We pray for the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church every time we recite the creed. At every Mass we are in communion with that one Church, and that communion not only stretches across the continents it stretches across the centuries. The history of the fifth century Church, or the fifteenth century Church, are both a part of salvation history and must be reverenced as such. We do not live in the fifteenth century, of course, and none of us should treat tradition as a set of chains. But, there is wisdom that came before us, wisdom inspired by the same Holy Spirit who is at work today in the Church and whose movements we can discern only by paying attention to the signs of the times, our times. But, it is not just a comfort, it is usually a challenge, to view our times cognizant of the wisdom of earlier Christians. Attention to the past breeds humility and usually insights.

There really has never been a strong Burkean conservative political party or even politician in America. The early writings of George Will, before he drifted towards American-style conservatism were Burkean. In some sense, and on some issues, many of Charles Krauthammer’s earlier work displayed a similar affinity. Most of American political discourse occurs within the liberal tradition, indeed, some of the most arch, and most dangerous, politicians are those who swim in libertarian waters, and we could devise a worse definition of libertarianism than to call it an extreme expression of liberal ideology without any concern for liberal sensibilities.

I am not a conservative, in either the Burkean or modern American sense of the word. I do not believe, with Burke, that society is organic, nor am I as hostile to innovation and experimentation in social relations as he was. But, I can say that my liberalism is happily tempered by reading thoughtful conservative writers and recognizing the legitimacy of their concerns, even if I do not, in the end, share their prescriptions. Certainly, some of the finest churchmen I know are deeply conservative, in the best sense of the word, and the Church, with deals with final things and foundational issues, should be skittish about overturning its practices and its precepts, skittish, but not allergic. In any event, all of us benefit from paying attention to the things a classic conservative pays attention to: the local over the universal, traditional cultural mores, nationhood, real circumstances instead of abstract ideologies, the limits of progress and, worse, the dangers of those who seek to level society in the name of progress. We benefit from reading Hamann and Herder and Vico, even if we do not end up sharing their verdict on the Enlightenment, or at least we benefit from Isaiah Berlin’s rummaging through their essays. And, finally, while liberal ideologues may have forgotten it, a liberal temperament encourages engagement with ideas we find contrary to our own. So, let’s not be afraid to criticize the ideas of those with whom we disagree, but let’s not dismiss an entire strain of important political and philosophic thought. Our country and our culture and our Church all benefit when there are thoughtful conservatives and thoughtful liberals doing their work, including the work of learning one from another.




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