The Catholic Church has never taken the conservative tradition seriously, but it’s time it did

Easter is a time when politicians frequently “do God”. In an article in the Church Times, David Cameron urged Christians to be more “evangelical” about their faith and spoke warmly, if ambiguously, of his own. The charitable observer “believes all things, hopes all things”. But in dealing with the British political class, and with this Prime Minister, some scepticism is unfortunately in order. In any case, what Mr Cameron did not do was to justify conservatism, as such, to Christians. This timidity sells conservatives short. But so, arguably, has the Catholic Church.

Church leaders are wise to ignore political blandishments. But the Church has engaged with significant ideas, and challenged dangerous errors, in the political sphere from the earliest times to the modern era. Some analyses of political ideologies and systems have been especially notable. Both Rerum Novarum and Centesimus Annus engage vigorously with liberal capitalism. Quadragesimo Anno proposed an alternative to state socialism, emphasising the role of subsidiarity. Mit Brennender Sorge condemned Nazism and Divini Redemptoris flayed Communism. Yet among so many “-isms”, there is no reflective consideration of conservatism. Why?

One possible answer is that there is nothing worth considering. Is conservatism simply a slothful disposition, accompanied by a few ignorant prejudices against change? No, it isn’t. Whatever J S Mill may have thought, conservatives are not notably unsophisticated. Some of the cleverest people in Britain have been – and are – conservative intellectuals. Of Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, Lord Salisbury, Enoch Powell, Keith Joseph, Michael Oakeshott, Roger Scruton and Charles Moore much could be said, but not that they are dim.
A more important reason why the conservative tradition has not been taken seriously by the Church is that it is, indeed, essentially Anglo-Saxon, whereas Catholic thinkers are largely drawn from the Latin, or German, intellectual traditions. Serious conservative thinkers have also often not proclaimed themselves as such. Edmund Burke, whose Reflections on the Revolution in France really started the whole business off, insisted on calling himself a Whig not a Tory.

From Burke onwards, the English conservative tradition has incorporated important elements that the European Right has largely rejected. It has been liberal in economics and politics, rejecting collectivism and authoritarianism. It has not been confessional. Its tone has been sceptical, a reflection of its epistemology. While not essentially democratic, except by pragmatism, it has eschewed Right-wing populism, unlike the fascisant European Right.

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Since the Second Vatican Council, with just a short pause for reflection under Benedict XVI, the emphasis in Church pronouncements has been insistently on aggiornamento. The notion that what is established, inherited, second nature and bears the patina of venerable tradition, should be treasured in its own right is muffled with embarrassment. The Church’s view of tradition was never, of course, exactly Burke’s. Tradition for Catholics is the handing down of authentic Truth from apostolic times. Tradition for conservatives is the handing down of custom, whose value is relative.

Yet the psychological processes at work are similar. Without a conservative mentality in the pews, the churches would be emptier than they are. Arguably, the most consistently successful London Catholic Church, all things considered, is the London Oratory, which best embodies a recognisably conservative approach in both doctrine and style. This strategy makes sense, particularly in the confused scene left by the indefinite agony of Anglicanism. A whole stream of instinctively conservative British converts, of whom Newman is only the greatest, have come into the Catholic Church precisely because it refuses to change in deference to the whims of modernity.
Beyond the congruity of mentalities, there are also notable similarities between the positions that philosophical conservatives hold and those favoured by the Magisterium. There is the emphasis on respect for the individual human person, balanced by a gloomily realistic view of human nature, scarred by the consequence of Original Sin.

The concept of order is fundamental to both conservatives and Catholics. Friedrich Hayek would say that institutional order evolves through trial and error in a fashion analogous to evolution, while the Church regards order as reflecting Nature and its divine origin. But, in practice, the views are largely in harmony. There is the crucial role of private property as a guarantee against coercive government, as a stimulus to prudence, and as also reflecting a natural right. There is the importance, very much in line with subsidiarity, of maximising the autonomy of schools and other important local communities.

Finally, there is the central role of the institution of the family. The traditional family was always, for conservatives as for Catholics, seen as the building block of society. The Conservative Party leadership’s raucous promotion of same-sex marriage ended that. It remains to be seen whether conservatism with a large and a small “c” can be reconciled in the future, though clearly not under David Cameron, for whom conservatism alternates between an incomprehensible nuisance and an existential threat.

According to a Daily Telegraph headline, “Cameron puts God back into politics”. But God is never out of politics, and neither, despite the tactical calculations of Tory leaders, is the philosophy of conservatism. The conservative mind will remain a profound and powerful force, shaping events in whatever forum, party or institution it is to be found. That is why the Church should take it seriously.

Robin Harris is a former member of Margaret Thatcher’s Downing Street Policy Unit. He is the author of The Conservatives: A History (Bantam Press)

This article was first published in the print edition of The Catholic Herald (2/5/14)

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