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.
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 to describe.
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 Thomass 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 magazines 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.
Take, 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.
Fr. James V. Schall. " On Being Neither Liberal nor Conservative." IgnatiusInsight.com (May 5, 2005).
Reprinted with permission of IgnatiusInsight.com
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