Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig examines in some detail conservatism and the forces that drive conservatives to many of the positions they take on political and religious issues.
She makes some very interesting points. One of these points is that no matter how much you try to return to the past you can’t really help but be modern. The very act of thinking about rejecting modernity is itself a modern act. In liturgy, for example, the desire to return to the Latin liturgy is a modern idea. The early liturgies were in Latin not because of any reason traditionalists might put forth, but because that was the language of the time, just as in the East the language was Greek.
Another example is climate change. Earlier peoples might have ignored the issue because they knew nothing about it. They did not have some special gnosis or revelation that caused them to reject the findings of science, which did not then exist.
A number of things that traditionalists value today seem to be based on a limited knowledge of the world and how it works. There is some danger in adhering to a world view based on the past. Do we really want to go back to a cosmology of Genesis where a firmament separates the waters from the heavens? Do we want to return to earlier notions of slavery, the status of women, or even notions of sin being ascribed to people who experience misfortune or illness?
Bruenig notes that freshman Senator Joni Ernst, in her response to the State of the Union Address, speaks longingly of her childhood when people worked hard for what they had. Apparently poverty was a value then, and today we don’t work hard for what we have. Bruenig further points out, “Conservatives can claim a deep attachment to the America of their grandparents while trying to dismantle labor unions and social security, mainstays of the era they profess to love.”
Progressives tend to see conservative tactics in politics and religion as duplicitous, opportunistic or malicious. Yet there is an internal tension within conservatism which seems to produce so many contradictions.
Contrast the conservative approach with that of Pope Francis, who is now completing his second year in office. Bruenig illustrates the clever and compelling way in which Francis has approached tradition and modernity. He is neither conservative nor progressive, but he has adopted an approach that uses dialogue which values tradition and yet moves the conversation forward.
Bruenig provides a few examples. The as yet unwritten encyclical on the environment has caused conservatives to suggest that Francis sounds like an adherent of a pagan green religion. He speaks of Sister Earth and Mother Earth. Yet this is the language of St. Francis in his “Canticle of the Sun.” According to Bruenig, Francis knows that his language also evokes current ecological terminology. She sees this, however, as a sign of his genius, not of incompetence. “Capturing the essence of Catholic tradition in conversation via modern thought makes his theology accessible.”
Francis does the same thing on questions of economic justice. He uses modern language like income redistribution and necessary cooperation between the private sector and civil society. Again, conservatives call him Marxist or socialist. Yet Francis is using modern language to tap into traditional church teachings on social justice.
I have to agree with Bruenig that the approach of Francis is far superior to that of the conservatives. She comments that “Francis’ dialogical approach yields new riches at every turn.” He even uses the words of St. Augustine to advocate for modern art and music within the churches.
It is truly the work of the Holy Spirit that has provided the church with Pope Francis who is uniquely suited to guide us through the current milieu. He continues to show us how through dialogue we can value tradition and yet move beyond it.