One thing about the 2016 election that I am especially grateful for is how it caused principled conservatives to do some soul searching. Faced with a candidate who was neither principled nor—let’s be honest—all that conservative, they could not help but question how far they would extend their allegiance. Some, I presume, even questioned their allegiance to conservatism altogether. This sort of unease seems to have been especially present among many committed and orthodox Catholics. I, for one, have constantly returned to this question: “Can a Catholic be a conservative?” The answer, I think, is yes—but it must be a qualified conservatism.
The recently deceased Michael Novak, a former U.S. Ambassador whom I had the pleasure of meeting briefly in his own home, was a devout Catholic and self-described political conservative. He was perhaps most well-known for his book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, which is said to have influenced Pope John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus. The title of Ambassador Novak’s book was very carefully chosen. Capitalism, he thought, could not be properly understood through the lens of “economics” only. Understanding capitalism, in his view, required looking at it through the lenses of morality (spirit) and politics (democratic) as well. These three categories—the moral, the political and the economic—are useful for contextualizing and articulating the “qualified conservatism” that, in my view, Catholics may embrace.
Conservatives are often championed on the right as being persons of traditional morals and “strong values.” On the left, they are often derided as moralists seeking to impose “their morality” (and religion) on others. Both generalizations are inaccurate, because each gives the impression that all conservatives have morality as a central focus. I wish this were true, but it seems this is not the case. This is evidenced above all in the abandonment by many conservatives of the natural moral law—at least as regards its role in civil society.
Moral questions about which there can be legitimate debate may, as they say, be “left up to the states.” But governments may never sanction clear violations of the natural moral law (i.e., intrinsically evil acts). This claim seems to be consistent with Russell Kirk’s first “canon of conservative thought”, namely, “[b]elief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience” (Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Elliot). Yet, many conservatives today are abandoning this argument in favor of so-called constitutional “originalism” or “textualism.” For Catholics, that is not a tenable position to take up. We must accept the supremacy of the natural moral law within civil society. Such things are “self-evident” and precede the organization of a society. If we fail to accept them, we will undoubtedly see the breakdown of our political system.
Speaking of our political system, what are we to make of it as Catholic Americans? In an endorsement blurb for Marc D. Guerra’s book, Christians as Political Animals: Taking the Measure of Modernity and Modern Democracy, political science professor Daniel J. Mahoney points out that Guerra challenges one of today’s “regnant orthodoxies”, namely, the idea that “democracy is the political correlate of Christianity.” I lean toward agreeing with Guerra on this point, and think that such an idea is probably more of a prudential assessment than it is a theological Truth. Moreover, I believe it may very well be the case that there is no political correlate to Christianity. Thus, I think that we, too, ought to be cautious about this way of thinking regarding our democratic republic—lest we succumb to an exaggerated nationalism (as some conservatives do), and reduce Christianity to “a humanitarian moral message,” while elevating politics to the status of a religion (Mahoney, et al.).
That being said, I also think there are many potential benefits to society being organized as a democratic republic. Not least among them that the people—provided they remain virtuous and diligent—have the power to restrain government overreach and encroachment upon their rights. I am afraid, however, that the rise of President Trump reveals that many conservatives are putting the people’s ability to do so in jeopardy. They have done this by downplaying the need for the rule of law—in which, as Pope John Paul II claimed, “the law is sovereign, and not the arbitrary will of individuals” (Centesiumus Annus, 44). As the Federalist writer, Ben Domenech, said in a lecture at the Action Institute prior to the 2016 election: “If the president is to be an autocrat, let him be our kind of autocrat, his [Donald Trump’s] supporters say.” Domenech’s words are an overgeneralization, but they nonetheless serve to reveal a very real threat that this “conservative” trend poses to our freedoms. We would do well to reject his trend and instead embrace the actually conservative position of respect for checks and balances and the separation of powers.
Conservative thinking also poses a real threat to our freedoms—in much the same way as just mentioned—when it unqualifiedly defends, among other things, big business, unfettered “free” markets and the endless “progress” of technology…which brings me to my next point.
My previous statement may give the impression that I am opposed to free markets. In fact, however, I would probably describe myself as a free-market thinker. But this need not mean equating myself with the most passionate defenders of big business, cronyism and technological “progress.” Regarding big business, I would say this: that economic freedom—and thus, wealth at all levels of society—would begin to erode in the presence of a big businesses economy seems, to my mind, obvious. For, there is much truth in the famous saying that “money is power.” As businesses grow larger and larger, and acquire more and more revenue, they simultaneously gain more power to exert their influence to crush smaller competitors. The idea that virtually no government intervention should be allowed in such cases seems suspect—especially when big businesses are able to do this by their being, as the saying goes, “in bed” with the government.
As Catholics who call ourselves conservative, we would do well to adopt a more critical approach toward an unqualifiedly “free,” big business economy, as well as one that thrives on endless technological “advancements.” Perhaps this would mean adopting something more akin to a Chestertonian or Kirkian vision, though admittedly I do not know enough about their thinking in this regard. It seems evident to me, though, that the poor will suffer if the biggest creators of jobs in our country (i.e., small and medium-sized enterprises) are crushed under the weight of big businesses. It also seems clear that a society that praises the “progress” of technology in such things as nuclear weaponry, in vitro fertilization and human cloning (to name a few) has inflicted a great injustice upon its citizens and many people throughout the world. As Catholic conservatives, these are things we simply cannot rest content with, even if they deviate from current American, conservative orthodoxy.
If you are a conservative Catholic who is now wondering, “Where do I go from here?”, my answer to you is simple: be Catholic. If that means not being a conservative, then so be it. But I don’t think that it has to mean that.