“The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected."
– G.K. Chesterton, Illustrated London News, 4/19/24
Many problems accompany the political dichotomy of being a conservative or liberal, especially since these sides seem to have neither a universally accepted agenda on some pretty important moral issues nor a stable understanding of what it means to be conservative or liberal. Often, language becomes relativized in the political arena. Even more troubling is that this political language has infiltrated and created divisions in the Church. A rift among Catholics, particularly American Catholics, demonstrates this reality.
Many Catholics describe themselves as conservative or liberal in their standing with the Church. I have discovered this means different things to different people. I fear that this may lead to “Truth” and Catholicism being viewed on purely political lines. In other words “Truth” will be accepted based on its conformity to a political paradigm. Rather than faith informing our politics we have politics informing our faith. I personally find the conservative and liberal labels, at least in the more popular sense, very troublesome. (I am not trying to abolish use of these terms, but merely critique the nature and confusion of their widespread use.)
Besides the fact that very few people, if any, fully embody either side, modern notions of both terms stem from the enlightenment. The tradition of modern conservatism simply comes from a liberal individualism that happens to be more recent than the liberal individualism of modern liberalism. Possibly Nietzsche was the only true conservative, at least in his efforts, since he attempted to preserve a will to power and tradition of ethics, or lack thereof, that he perceived to be present in the pre-Socratic Greeks. Either way a problem exists on what exactly we mean by conservatism and what tradition we believe we are trying to conserve. When it comes down to it, both liberals and conservatives are both trying to conserve and change something. But to which end shall we decide which things change and which things remain the same?
We are not born with a proper intellectual formation. We must be formed. This requires a questioning curiosity, humble openness, desire for truth, and a responsibility to truth revealed. In the Catholic Tradition we need to give precedent to both the faith of the Church and her teaching authority. Particularly in the political realm we need to emphasis the social encyclicals and social reflection of the Church. Social Justice is one of the most effective and real ways for our faith to encounter culture. In the realm of reason we need to consider natural law and virtue ethics through systems put forth by thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, and those who have taken up the torch.
How do we construct a society that is oriented towards the Common Good while observing the individual good of each person? This question should move us to political action. However, our quest for “Truth” should not be limited by a political stance. Our insight may very well be represented by one. However, when there is no longer a common quest for “Truth” that transcends politics something fundamental has been lost and interaction rooted in “Love” is rendered void. We would begin divided on these issues a priori (before the fact) because this division occurs before dialogue. In effect, the vision of the Common Good is lost in translation, and we become like the Sophists of Ancient Greece. Rather we should seek “Truth” and fight for it regardless of which side of the political spectrum it happens to fall.