Archive for May 5th, 2006

Why I Am Not a Conservative

Last weekend I was talking with my friend, Will Hoyt, who some of you will remember as the author of Into the Rose, a very finely rendered essay about the naturalist John Muir–who Will argued convincingly was a mystic–which appeared in the Spring 1995 issue of Caelum et Terra.

Talking with Will one on one is a rare treat. When he questions you it is with genuine interest, and he seldom replies with anything but another question until he is satisfied that he has left no loose ends, no stone unturned, and you have demonstrated intellectual consistency.

The word "interrogation" comes to mind, though it implies hostile intent, and Will has none.

I find that this scrutiny clarifies my thought, and Sunday was no exception.

Why, Will, who does not call himself a conservative, asked, do you deny being a conservative? Conservatives honor the family, locality, and the moral tradition. So do you.

Well, I responded, some conservatives do honor these things, and I have a great deal of affinity with certain kinds of conservatives. But conservatism also implies a faith in the market and a bias toward corporate interests.

True, he said, there is that baggage, but isn’t that just one manifestation of valuing private property, as you certainly do?

Yes, but I don’t consider it an absolute. Conservatives generally resist any judicial restraint by the State over property rights, and indeed believe the State to be an evil, even if a necessary one. I, as a Catholic, believe the State to be a natural good, and the existence of evil states no more negates
this than the existence of evil families proves that the Family itself is evil.

And, I added, "conservative", at least in an American context implies some sort of assent to American exceptionalism, the messianic belief that America is the Greatest Nation on Earth, the destined model for mankind, which I deny.

Well, then, if you are not a conservative, what are you then?

The only label I will claim, I answered is that of "Catholic radical".

And what do you mean by that?

Not, I said, the popular definition of "extremist" but rather the literal meaning, which comes from the Latin radix, "root." To be a Catholic radical is to believe in a social order rooted in the Catholic moral vision, what John Paul II called "a Civilization of Love".

But couldn’t a conservative make the same claim?

Perhaps, but it would be a highly unusual type of conservative who could do so with any consistency. Priority of labor over capital, of peace over nationalism, justice over profit, and a fundamental regard for human solidarity are Catholic principles rarely encountered among conservatives.

It was at this point that I experienced the sort of flash of insight that Will’s questioning often triggers.

I think, I said, that I am a Catholic radical because that is the way of theosis, the growth into the Image of God, what the West calls the Imitation of Christ.

Jesus Christ could not remotely be described as a conservative (or for that matter, a liberal).

He had absolutely no respect for mere human tradition or social convention. He had no interest in conserving the existing order.

Rather, He turned the world upside down and inside out, contradicting human wisdom and challenging human assumptions at every turn.

Even the events of His life defy human expectation and the conventions of the Jewish world into which He was born.

The expected Son of royal David, heir to the throne of Israel?

He is born, not in a palace, but in a barnyard.

Deliverer of His oppressed people?

He spends much of His childhood as a refugee, and is Himself sentenced to death by the occupying power.

King of the Jews?

His only crown was of thorn, the only homage received was the soldiers’ mockery, and the only time the title of "King" is given Him it is a joke, nailed to the instrument of His death.

And so on.

When the Son of God became the Son of Man and walked among us, the only word for Him, for His message, and for the saving grace he gave is "radical".

And that is good enough for me.

Daniel Nichols

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