Conservative: You’re Using It Wrong (Probably)

Yesterday’s radicals are today’s old farts. This is a loose quotation of something I read somewhere recently. It was to do with la bise, the French tradition of kissing each other on the cheek as a greeting. In the 1960s the student protestors promoted it as an instrument of social equalisation and hierarchical disintegration. Now a French provincial mayor is refusing to give la bise to her colleagues because, given its own conventions, it is sexist and time-wasting (with up to 73 colleagues to kiss each morning one can have some sympathy for her). The question looms: will yesterday’s radicals who championed it rush to its defence or conform to this new, emerging orthodoxy? Will they be conservatives or conformists?

Hang on! Aren’t “conservative” and “conformist” synonyms? Surely a conservative is one who does not like change and conforms to the status quo? The problem lies in the definition of conservative:

Averse to change or innovation and holding traditional values

In the modern context this seems a highly problematic, even obsolete, definition. For the status quo today is anything but traditional. Just look at the Conservative Party in the UK, traditionally referred to as the Tories. Toryism historically was concerned with social order, monarchist and high-church Anglican in its outlook. Today these principles have yielded to an almost exclusive concern, obsession even, with economics and a desire to win elections and, in between these ballots, to win opinion polls. L’affaire Brexit has brought into sharp relief the Conservative identity crisis. To be Conservative today, in a political sense, is not necessarily to hold “traditional values” at all.

Likewise, perhaps even more so, in a religious sense to be “conservative” is indeed to be averse to change of a certain type, but not necessarily to hold to tradition. Today’s Catholic conservatives are not the traditionalists. Today’s Catholic conservatives are those who, having championed the post-conciliar reforms (which they misleadingly equate to championing the Council), doggedly refuse to agree to any change away from them. Since so many of the reforms already enacted, and which they still advocate, have little real basis in the documents of the Council let alone in the tradition of the Church, what they seek to conserve is not the Council but a movement, a movement partly of their own creation.

Sadly for them, the world has changed and their movement has nothing in it to resist the waves of socio-political confusion that are sweeping the world. They have nothing of any weight to employ in arguing against Donald Trump, because his brand of populism and anti-establishment rhetoric is spookily akin to their own. They have nothing to offer by way of a Catholic perspective in the current issues of “gender identity” because their arguments are essentially secular, and transgenderism etc is the new secular orthodoxy. If the documents of Vatican II are, for the hardcore, merely starting points for an ongoing process of change, they can offer no resistance (if they even want to) but must allow themselves to be swept along by the tide of secular social evolution and revolution.

But to this “event theology” understanding of the Council they are wedded, and they will not change it. Anyone who argues against it, or advocates restoration of the many babies thrown out with the bathwater, is accused of “turning the clock back”, the only forbidden change. This accusation is a bit rich coming from those whose own clocks stopped decades ago. No matter, for example, that the liturgical reforms made in the name of the Council (though often explicitly against its letter) and intended to make accessible the liturgy to modern (ie 1960s) man saw an immediate exodus from the pews. This mass alienation (pardon the pun) was excused as a necessary price of establishing the new Vision, or was conveniently and unverifiably blamed on the very forces and Zeitgeist that the reforms were intended to address.

Of course, it is true that it is more than the liturgical reforms that led to the mass exodus from the pews, the seminaries and the convents. The liturgical reforms are arguably only the most immediately visible element of the wider reform agenda that was implemented. Yet without the liturgy that had been the rock of stability and Catholic identity throughout nearly two millennia of incredible social, political, economic and technological change, there was no safe place left for so many people to stand their ground and dispassionately assess the changes in society. With the liturgy having become less distinct from the world, and indeed often incorporating the worst of secular banalities in music, symbols and gestures, what was the point of the liturgy any more? If it is just another socially-contingent construct, then it could be embraced or forsaken according to taste.

Yet the new conservatives, as any reader of The Tablet will know, cling doggedly and defiantly to their post-conciliar vision of the Church, ever more shrill in shouting down those who dare to say that their emperor has no clothes.

Today “traditional values” in Catholicism are held not by the conservatives but by the radicals, most of whom are young and articulate, possessing the native impatience of the young for the cloying sentimentality of the aged. Yet, unlike the modern conservatives in the days of their own youth, today’s radicals are far more indulgent of their elders, far less totalitarian and dogmatic, disposed to “live and let live” in a way today’s conservatives never were.

Not conservatives, but young radicals (Diocese of Fréjus-Toulon)

It really does seem ridiculous now to employ the description conservative in Catholic circles. There are three predominant streams in contemporary Catholicism, in the West at least: the consensus Catholics, who will agree to almost anything if it is done in the name of the Church and keeps the peace; the status quo Catholics who adhere to the agenda of post-conciliar reform come what may; and the radical Catholics who look to the unchanging essence of the Faith in tradition as the key to the Council and the only hope for renewing the vigour of the Church.

Many will disagree with the line put forth above. Since this has not been published in Acta Apostolicae Sedis it does not claim to be part of the Church’s magisterium, and so one is entitled to disagree. Indeed I am haunted by the words of St John Chrysostom in a Christmas homily of his that we heard in Matins earlier this week: when you base your beliefs on your own ideas, perceive your danger. Maybe we should all meditate a little on the saint’s warning.

Happy New Year!

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  1. All excellent, except for the reference to Trump. There was an impossible choice in the last election, and authentic conservatives went for T because of reasonable concerns about HC. His judicial appointments have been excellent (prolife, profamily, proconstitution) and he is not a globalist, which carries with it frightening, bizarre consequences. The media despises him and distorts so much, but that in itself confirms that he is rattling the right cages. His nickname in orthodox circles is “Cyrus.”

    1. It seems you have missed my point about Trump, which was not about Trump per se, but about their inability to back up their emotional opposition to him with a coherent, reasoned argument that will not also backfire on themselves.

  2. The claims of a radical traditionalism engaging the young are themselves getting fairly dated now. The numbers game has not be working out for the “Spirit of Vatican II” conservatives, that is certainly true. But for all the noise about it, neither are there signs of explosive growth in the traditional camp. Maintaining numbers and mild growth is nothing to be sneezed at in the secularising West, but one can ask whether this is not simply re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. How many new converts are among these “rad trads”, or are attracted by them? (Or – since asking about missionary activity is a bit unfair given its near complete absence in Western Catholicism – do these young rad trads actually have large families, and do their children actually remain in the faith?)

    I would agree that (rad) trads will inherit the (Western) Church within a few decades. But that’s sort of by default, really: the rest of the (Western) Church will simply secularise and contracept itself out of existence. It does not as such indicate health and growth. Once the stagnant pool of cultural Christianity has finally evaporated, it is far from clear that these remnants will survive without such a pool to draw from.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m sympathetic to the cause… but I’m just not seeing the progress that has been promised.

      1. I wish this was true… What fraction of the population of say Reading would be even aware of the existence of the FSSP community in Reading? Well, in the first place, what fraction of them would even have a clue what the FSSP might be? For that matter, what fraction of Roman Catholics in Reading would know about either? Where is the actual socio-cultural and religious impact, how does it manifest itself?

        When I get out, I see primarily utilitarian, hedonist and naturalist apathism, with hatred for anything (in particular Christian) disturbing its circles. If I enter a Roman Catholic church while getting out, I see mostly naive and sentimental do-good-ism and universalist toleration too casual about its errors to be called heretic. Are the rad trads “better”? Sure, though frankly those are some really low-hanging fruit. Are the rad trads “everywhere”? Well, no, not really. If the (usus antiquior…) liturgy is going to save the world, then it sure is taking its sweet time.

        Remember that there are still Zoroastrians around. If the rad trads manage to turn the kamikaze dive of Christianity in the West into something like the Zoroastrians, then that sure is still a respectable result. But it is perhaps not exactly fulfilling Christ’s missionary aims…

      2. “What fraction of the population of say Reading would be even aware of the existence of the FSSP community in Reading?”

        In fairness, the UK is not exactly the best testbed for traditionalism. The culture, especially in the Church, works cross grain against it. Only in the last few years has the dam started to break, slightly, and mostly in NW England. The bishops have been almost entirely hostile or, at best, indifferent, and very few clergy exist who are even competent to celebrate the traditional sacraments (or even interested in doing so) exist. I hope for the best for what the ED societies are up to in Wirral, Preston, and Warrington, but they have a long, long ways to go.

        If we look at places like England where tradition struggles to get off the ground – and we must – we also can look at success stories in places like America, France, and Poland. In the Diocese of Arlington, for example, a staggering 1 in 4 parishes now regularly offer the TLM. Poland in the last few years has surged to over 200 regular TLM locations. Even that might not count as “explosive,” but on a certain level it is fairly impressive.

    1. I can only speak for my parish (Holy Rosary, Indianapolis) but we have many large families. Even the less than super-Traditionalist Catholic families tend to have larger families. My Mom’s family is 12 deep, 30 of us grandkids, and even with only 2/3 of us married, we have given our deceased grandparents 40 great grandchildren. A big chunk of those are families with 4+ kids.

    2. “But for all the noise about it, neither are there signs of explosive growth in the traditional camp. Maintaining numbers and mild growth is nothing to be sneezed at in the secularising West, but one can ask whether this is not simply re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”

      This is a fair point, made most recently by Roseanne Sullivan in her recent interview with Peter Kwasniewski – one which traditionalist advocates have to consider and respond to.

      It’s true there has been steady growth in traditional liturgy/praxis, but not really “explosive.”

      Firstly, I share your qualifier that even modest (and sustained!) growth in western society as it exists today is, indeed, no small feat by itself.

      Secondly, one must (as Kwasniewski notes) take note of the tremendous obstacles which hinder the growth of tradition within the Church. Even under Benedict XVI, toleration was uncommon in most episcopates, and actual encouragement and support was even rarer, as it remains so today. In a hierarchical church, that matters, and it matters quite a lot. Most Catholics will defer, even now, to what the Church is offering up, and will be wary of anything that comes across as marginal or fringe.

      I think there were some unreasonable hopes when Summorum was promulgated. Even in two countries where the TLM has had the most success – the U.S. and France – attendance is surely no more than 0.5-1% of all Sunday Masses in the U.S., and not above 3-5% in France – the latter being mainly a function of the utter and complete collapse in the diocesan priesthood more than the growth of the traditionalist clergy. In more than a few countries it remains a dead letter.

      For now, I think it is still early innings. We must recognize that tradition must grapple with the fact that its mysticism and beauty are uniquely enticing in a banal materialist Age of Hooper (or post-Hooper) while also being more difficult for people of post-modern formation to really engage. We could also do more to evangelize for it. In the long run, I do have a real optimism for the restoration and elaboration of tradition in the Church, but the “long run” in Catholic context is going to be much longer than I am going to be alive.

      1. I have this against Pope Benedict XVI, that he did not celebrate the Extraordinary Form in public.

      2. Richard, I appreciate your comments but I do not share your optimism.

        I think some of the recent growth in TLMs simply has to do with dioceses trying whatever it takes to get bums on pews. Offering a TLM really need not be any different to offering say a “youth mass” or a “biker’s mass” or whatever, all equal parts of the liturgical smorgasbord. As the old guard of priests and bishops – who oppose the reintroduction of what they have suppressed – disappears into retirement, I think TLMs may become a fairly “normal” attempt to stem the loss of participation.

        However, somehow the TLM is supposed to turn secular frogs back into Catholic princes and princesses. I don’t know how attractive the TLM really is to the YouTube generation, but this seems to me entirely unlikely. I think our secular contemporaries see quite clearly that becoming Catholic would be a restrictive, even painful, “lifestyle choice”. They simply do not want the Catholic life – and no matter how attractive the TLM might be as such, it advertises this unwanted “product”.

        I go to a Catholic mass because I have faith. I do not have faith because I go to a Catholic mass. I suspect it is likewise for the majority of modern people. (I also suspect the majority of people used to go to Catholic masses simply to see other members of the “tribe”. But that’s fading rapidly…) Most modern people lack faith, and so they won’t go to a Catholic mass, of whatever description.

        Why believe in Jesus Christ, when you have a partner, a job, a house, a supermarket, and the internet? Answer that riddle, and you will get people attend mass (TLM or whatever), again. Or wait for the world to take all that away, as it inevitably will at some point… Quite possibly we are all just too rich to fit through the eye of a needle.

      3. Hello Ingo,

        “Quite possibly we are all just too rich to fit through the eye of a needle.”

        We were warned that this might be so, weren’t we?

        “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matt 7:13-14)

        And that gate may well be much narrower than even many Catholics like to think.

        Look, even in the best countries, the numbers *are* small. Even here in the Washington DC area, where we have something like 15 Sunday TLM’s, I doubt the numbers come to more than 1% of all Mass-goers. Inside the Beltway the three TLM’s combined surely don’t exceed 600 people. There’s a certain barrier to entry for modern minds, even Catholic ones. The opposition and indifference of the hierarchy hurts a lot – again, don’t underestimate that – but we must soberly face the challenges at hand. We’re still a small niche.

        Still, I remember what it was like 15 years ago when i first discovered the Old Mass and all that went with it. In America, at least, there has been some very real progress. We should not lose sight of that. But we do have miles to go before we sleep.

    3. Have a look at France. I have spent 2 months there. Traditional Masses bursting at the seams. Large young families. I think it will take a while to embed in the UK, but the signs are there.

  3. “Yesterday’s radicals are today’s old farts.”

    Or as Dean Inge might have put it: “He who marries the spirit of the age will soon find himself the widower of the next.”

    You are so right about “conservatism”. though, Fr. It is a busted flush in both political and ecclesiastical senses. It has imbibed the the false notions of progress and time from the Enlightenment and is now just another form of liberalism for the better-spoken and privately-educated.

    In terms of time, it is the Cross which is the centre of history and all time flows toward it. Our Lord and His apostles have run the race before us and it is the purpose of a Christian to follow them, follow the Fathers of the Church and follow the Saints. It is they who are ahead of us, standing at the culmination of time and space, awaiting us at the eschaton, not we who have “progressed”, who have followed down a path which is leading away from the Cross to some unknown point in the material world’s “future” where “the end” will occur. Liturgically turning our back on the Cross was surely one of the most disastrous compromises with secular “progress” which has been made in the last 50 years.

    Only Tradition has a correct appreciation of time and history where truly our “future” lies in our “past”. Returning to the foot of the Cross was the main “ressourcement” demanded of the Church and which she most manifestly failed to do in those post-conciliar years.

    1. Liturgically turning our back on the Cross was surely one of the most disastrous compromises with secular “progress” which has been made in the last 50 years.

      An absolute and unequivocal Amen from me!

      As to Dean Inge, he put it so well because he was an English gentleman. I am an Australian oik, and my images like my vowels are sometimes a little coarse and unrefined.

  4. Great article! I often have had these unarticulated thoughts and you have laid them out nicely and with precision. I think most of the Catholic population in the USA is the consensus Catholics. But, they do not know or care about all the controversy/issues and just go to Mass on Sunday. If, just if, the traditional Mass was offered in their parish, and not ghettotized to some periphery parish or crack of dawn time or late in evening, it would attract more and more. I don’t see that happening and don’t know how to make it happen though.

    1. Salve! Sparking some debate is precisely one of my aims, so I am glad you are having another crack at it. As to whether my calling Tabletistas “conservatives” is “teasing”, well I couldn’t possibly comment!

  5. It’s perhaps not irrelevant to refer to Sir Robert Peel’s Tamworth Manifesto, which is where the term “conservative” comes from.

    There he pledged to “conserve what is good” (hence the term “conservatism”) whilst providing redress for proven [N.B.] grievances. Thus conservatism is explicitly committed to reform and change, though with a degree of scepticism: the case for change has to be proved, and weighed against the loss of actually existing good.

    In a sense, therefore, conservativism is a process, not a position, as you observe (and unlike the Toryism which it succeeded), but subtler than people realise.

    The snag arises in deciding what is “good” and therefore to be conserved. But conservatism is implicitly committed to the idea that there are good things and that they can be discerned (as a necessary preliminary to “conserving” then): to know what they are and how discerned, however, one has to look elsewhere.

    1. I quibble with only one thing: I do not think conservatism is “explicitly committed to reform and change”. Rather, it is consciously accepting that it may need to be done; but done only very carefully.


      1. We shall have to disagree on that point, at least as far as Peelite conservatism is concerned! The whole point of the Tamworth manifesto was to go beyond the position you describe, which in the context of 1830-1840s British politics might be characterised as pragmatic Toryism (and of course Peel was notably criticised by Newman for this shift; cf. the contemporary comment that Peel had caught the Whigs bathing and stolen their clothes).

        Peelite conservatism is pro-reform, provided certain conditions are met (the need for reform must be proved, and what is good must be “conserved”). There is caution, even scepticism (in the proper sense of that word), but reform there should (not just “must”) be. It differs from liberalism [as it came it be known at a slightly later date] in the matter of proportion.

        Liberalism applies the caution/scepticism to existing conditions, which have to prove themselves worthy of continuing (and accepts and even welcomes – unlike the revolutionary – that some things will pass this test), whilst seeing “progress” as largely (tho’ not entirely) benign.

        One might say that Peelite conservatism is 70% conserving and 30% reform, liberalism is 70% reform and 30% conserving.

        1. The problem lies in your reading the word in a secular political context, whereas I am applying it in an ecclesiastical context with its own given context and frame of reference. I am not sure Peel’s conservatism is quite relevant to the context in which I am using the word.



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