Prompted by an article that appeared some time ago on “Conservatism and Traditionalism,” I found myself musing on some of the essential differences between Christian conservatives and traditional Catholics, particularly in these dark times of ours, both in the State and in the Church. I am writing with the American situation in mind, but there may be elements of this reflection that admit of application to other countries of the West.
For the conservative (whether Catholic or evangelical), the solution or restoration begins with the Declaration and the Constitution, with the reclaiming of the public sphere. We are Americans, and our government system gives us the tools to solve our problems. The fundamental thing is action. The enemy is taking the ground because we are not fighting, not voting, not pressing our cause through thick and thin.
The central organizing concept for the conservative is American citizenship. It is around this axis that all other aspects of life and action revolve.
Discipleship is understood as engagement with the world. All other things are judged according to how they fit or seem to fit with this goal.
Evangelization is understood as going out into the street and bringing a certain message to people. It means ecumenical and interreligious outreach to make common cause, looking for strength in numbers—often, as a consequence, grouped around a lowest common denominator. (“You’re heterosexual and believe that marriage has something to do with children? Fantastic! Let’s join forces.”)
For a conservative, the liturgy is a means, one means among many. It is a useful tool. One does not concern oneself much with it, or the manner of its offering, whether or not it has suffered damage at the hands of clumsy repairmen, how it is expressive and formative, and if it could be more or less pleasing to God or even displeasing to Him. It is part of a toolkit we have been given by the authorities, and we make use of it to support the cause. Ours is not to reason why; if it’s good enough for the authorities, it’s good enough for me.
For the traditional Catholic, the solution or restoration is centered on the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. It must begin with the recovery of the sacred liturgy, “the font and apex of the Church’s life and mission,” and with it, the contemplative orientation of life as a whole. The fundamental thing is prayer, public and personal. The enemy is winning because we have been lazy, contemptuous, irreverent, and worldly, when we should have been seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness (Mt 6:33). “We have here no abiding city, but we seek one that is to come” (Heb 13:14).
The central organizing concept is our citizenship in heaven (see Phil 3:20). We know that our spiritual identity as members of the Body of Christ makes continual demands of us in this world—we are, after all, pilgrims working out our salvation here and now, as we travel and travail. At the same time, however, our heavenly rebirth and destiny decisively subordinate and relativize everything worldly, because our own salvation and that of the whole human race depends on God’s grace and our spiritual bond with Him. This, therefore, is what has to come first and receive our best focus and energy, or else everything else will fall apart and even turn against us. We will be in danger of manicuring the lawn and painting the shutters while family relationships deteriorate indoors.
Discipleship means, above all, entering into the prayer of Christ and the Church through the sacred liturgy, integrally received, reverently celebrated, fully lived. Evangelization is understood as building a city on a hill, putting the light on top of the bushel basket, and letting the beauty of Christian life exercise an attractive force of its own. It means prioritizing the affairs of our own house, adhering to the fullness of the faith and settling for no internal compromises, and accepting—in a time of growing infidelity and persecution—a process of social marginalization that also brings about purification.
Can conservatives and traditionalists work together? In one sense, it’s obvious that they have to try. There is, after all, some wisdom in making a common cause against the enemy, in spite of a lack of total agreement. But it won’t be easy, because there is a lack of clear agreement about the very nature of the crisis we are facing and, consequently, the response called for. Indeed, there is alarming evidence that many conservatives, who tend to think on the procedural plane of politics and economics, do not even recognize the deeper spiritual, liturgical, and metaphysical crisis, and get impatient with those who point in that direction. One is reminded of members of the hierarchy who say that issues like immigration, unemployment, climate control, or loneliness among senior citizens are the great challenges of our age. One wonders whether the sense of the supernatural survives at all.
It is so easy for our priorities to get shuffled and out of order, from the best of motives as well as the worst. We can start to feel as if we will lose everything if we lose our government, our place in society, our semi-Christian culture, our Western civilization—or, for that matter, our clean air and clean water. We have put all our eggs in a worldly basket, and the basket’s being taken away. Let’s face it: the “free world” is in a state of freefall, as rulers and citizens welcome with open arms the demons of the seven capital sins. The public square, which was already full of mendacity, rancor, avarice, and incredible obtuseness, is gearing up for full-scale persecution of Catholics, Christians, believers, sane men. Why is all of this being permitted to happen before our very eyes?
Why did the Lord permit the Jews to be carried off in captivity to Babylon, their temple in Jerusalem destroyed, their lives ruined and wrecked, their future utterly bleak, as if He had abandoned them? He was always going to save them—but not before they had been thoroughly purged of their vices and converted from the depths of their souls. They had to get over being their own king and awaken to a longing for the Messiah. Salvation history “rhymes” and we are at one of those rhyming moments. The same captivity is being allowed to befall us, for much the same reason, and with much the same purpose.
The Lord is telling us something that we have been ignoring in our distracted rushing around as well as in our satisfied indolence.
Be still, and know that I am God. I am your Creator and Ruler. I am your merciful Savior—and I demand your entire mind and heart because I am merciful and you need me. I am a consuming fire. I am the Judge of the living and the dead. I have put you on this earth for a short time, to know, love, and serve me.
“You have looked for more, and behold it became less, and you brought it home, and I blowed it away: why, saith the Lord of hosts? Because my house is desolate, and you make haste every man to his own house” (Hag 1:9).
Put first things first, and I will give you everything else that you need. Put second things first, and I will take away from you both the second things and the first, because you deserve neither of them. My servant Augustine said: The sinner is not worthy of the bread he eats. Do you grasp this difficult truth?
Another of my servants, Benedict, said: Put nothing before the work of God, that is, the worship of my Holy Name. Get your temple in order—offer me due sacrifice, the praise of pure hearts and holy lips—and I will visit you again with my fruitfulness, and you will flourish once more in the lands and in the cities.
Benedict Constable is the nom de plume of a noteworthy traditional Catholic scholar and author.