On Being Neither Liberal nor ConservativeREV. JAMES V. SCHALL, S.J.
The division of the world into "liberal" and "conservative" on every topic from politics to our taste in cuisine, clothes, or automobiles is one of the really restricting developments that has ever happened to us.
If we are
not what is considered popularly a "liberal," then we must, by some
convoluted logic, be a "conservative," or vice versa. No third or fourth
option is available as is usually the case in the real world. It has to be, we
are told, either this way or that.
Father James V. Schall, S.J.
Such a view makes things very simple,
I suppose. But it also reduces our minds to utter fuzziness. We are required to
define everything as either liberal or conservative even when the two allowable
terms of definition are not adequate to explain the reality that they are intended
Our political language is likewise amusingly confusing,
especially when used to describe theological issues or currents. When I am asked
whether I am a "liberal" or a "conservative," I reply that
I am a "Thomist." Needless to say, Thomas, who was once considered a
liberal Whig, is now considered a hopeless conservative, even though what he actually
held defies such simple categories. In Thomas's own methodology, the first
thing he did was precisely to define what is a liberal or what is a conservative.
He then explained why both, while containing some point of truth, were inadequate.
Yet, it is almost impossible to escape this system of "either conservative
or liberal," since whatever other category we use becomes merely grist for
the liberal/conservative dichotomy.
Is Pope Benedict XVI, for instance,
"liberal" or "conservative?" Or both? Or neither? As far as
I can tell, many think he was once "liberal," but, alas, he has become
"conservative," due perhaps to something in the Roman water. In TIME
magazine's edition on the election of the pope, Pope Benedict is depicted
as either "arch-conservative" or an "ardent conservative."
Andrew Sullivan, in the same journal, tells us that Pope Benedict is
"immune from reasoned inquiry," precisely the opposite of the truth.
Sullivan evidently thinks that anyone who does not agree with him is unreasonable.
Ratzinger himself says that he has not changed much over the years, but the world
has. This observation brings up the directional question, how has the "world"
itself changed? Is the change an improvement or a deformity? How can we tell if
something is a deviation or a development if we have no idea of what the thing
we are talking is in the first place?
Whether the notions of "liberal"
or "conservative" themselves are, in content, stable and definite concepts
or not is another — and not unimportant — matter. An economic liberal
of the nineteenth century is a conservative economist today, but the ideas are
roughly the same. The liberals of one age notoriously become the conservatives
of the next. But without some criterion of judgment both notions may indicate
mere change, not either decline or improvement.
coercion today seems to come from those called liberal/left, not from those called
conservatives, who are pretty "liberal" by comparison to self-designated
"liberals." But then social coercion has always been a trademark of
the left, which is overly anxious to improve things in this world, as, in their
view, there is no other world or no other way to accomplish any improvement. So
we find a certain impatience and restlessness in their agenda. The spiritual origins
of totalitarianism are often found in a certain impatience at the slowness of
the world to become what the ideologies tell us it ought to become.
for example, the word "primitive." All through the Reformation there
were Christians who wanted to return to the "primitive" Church as if
all that happened since the founding of the Faith was a deviation from some set
standard of practice that ought never to have developed or been further clarified.
Yet the word "primitive" can have a very different kind of meaning.
Tertullian (d. 225 A.D.), for instance, was concerned with heresies.
He wanted to find out what the various churches of his time (all Catholic, to
be sure) had in common. "Every family has to be traced back to its origins,"
Tertullian said. "That is why we can say that all these great churches constitute
that one original Church of the apostles; for it is from them that they all come.
They are all primitive, all apostolic, because they are all one.... The principle
on which these associations are based is common tradition by which they share
the same sacramental bond." So here we see that we should be neither liberal
or conservative, but "primitive," that is, we should know and preserve
what was handed down.
Take another set of oft-heard words — "radical"
or "revolutionary," for instance. Or take "dogmatic" or "reactionary."
The first thing we need to notice is that each of these words has something fluid
about it. What was once considered to be "liberal" can come to be called
"reactionary." How so? Take, for instance, the Muslim practice of having
four wives. In context, this precept should rather be stated, "having only
four wives." It was a "conservative" standard. For this limit was
originally conceived as a restriction — four, not ten or twenty. Who is more
"liberal," the man with four wives or the one with ten? In this context,
the really "radical" or "revolutionary" man is the one with
only one wife. He is the one defying the culture. Yet, in a society of widespread
divorce and infidelity, having only one wife is "conservative," if not
down right primitive or reactionary, except for the fact that primitives never
seem to have evolved the one wife theory. That came from Christianity, though
it was in the logic of marriage itself.
The reason the present pope is consistently called "conservative," or
"arch-conservative' has nothing to do with the normal use of these terms
or a fair understanding of his ideas. We might better call Benedict XVI a wild
"radical" or even a crypto-"revolutionary," because what he
stands for is not something that is constantly changing. His whole purpose in
the world as pope, in a way, is to be sure that what was presented in the beginning
is still presented in our own time, however it be depicted — liberal or conservative,
radical or reactionary. It is much more "liberal," that is freeing,
to hold the essence of the Decalogue than to deny it in the name of personal freedom.
The spiritual origins of totalitarianism are
often found in a certain impatience at the slowness of the world to become what
the ideologies tell us it ought to become.
That is to say, if most every one maintains that abortion, divorce,
homosexuality, and so on are all right, it is a truly brave and "radical"
view to think that they are not and to have reasons why they are not. After so
much argument or controversy, we have to decide where we stand. If we think that
the proper way to act is what was handed down to us, we are not "normal"
citizens of this culture for whom the Decalogue can be changed, even by a pope,
so they think. We go against such a view by holding that there are truths in every
time. We are "liberal" or "radical" or even "revolutionary"
over against the ingrained habits and established laws of our time, which do not
reflect abiding standards.
If we are what is classically called "orthodox,"
we are neither liberal or conservative as these terms are used today. We are wildly
radical and revolutionary. No one is radical as we are over against a culture
that has embodied these practices into its very soul. This is what Pope Ratzinger
meant by observing that it is the world, not he, that has changed. When Benedict
XVI is called a "conservative" or an "arch-conservative,"
he is in fact nothing of the sort. He is much more "radical" than the
wildest theory on the left or the right, however it be designated.
pope is ultimately judged by only one criterion, "did he keep the essence
of the faith in an articulate manner that was the same as that originally handed
down to him?" If he did not, what he has become is nothing more than a conformist
to our times in the values are used most to define liberal and conservative. If
he is beyond these things, as he is, he listens to another voice. This is the
root of our freedom — that this voice remains for us to hear.
is, in the end, something beyond liberal and conservative. That is the truth of
things according to which we have a criterion that is not constantly changing
between liberal and conservative and, in the meantime, one that means nothing
but what we want it to mean. Thus if we claim we are "neither liberal nor
conservative," we announce that there are criteria that exist outside of
our narrow way of thinking, categories that better define for us what we are and
ought to be.
Father James V. Schall, S.J. "On Being Neither Liberal nor Conservative."
IgnatiusInsight.com (May 5, 2005).
Reprinted with permission of IgnatiusInsight.com
Father James V. Schall, S.J., is emeritus Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University and the author of many books in the areas of social issues, spirituality and literature including The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical & Political Essays, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing; Roman Catholic Political Philosophy; The Order of Things; The Regensburg Lecture; The Life of the Mind: On the Joys and Travails of Thinking; Schall on Chesterton: Timely Essays on Timeless Paradoxes; Another Sort of Learning, Sum Total Of Human Happiness, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.
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