Why Conservatism Is Part of the Problem, Not Part of the Solution

The reaction to Archbishop Viganò’s revelations – at least in the United States – should give us heart: there are still bishops of orthodox faith who respect human rights and divine justice. Moreover, in spite of the almost daily bad news from Rome, we find dioceses in which vocations are on the rise; we even find some traditional religious communities flourishing. After decades of amnesia, sacred music is returning to cathedrals and parishes. Good news is not lacking if one looks for it.

Nevertheless, we can also still see a longstanding problem that slows down the pace of overdue reform and genuine renewal in the Church: the predominance of the basic stance of conservatism among bishops, priests, and faithful.

A conservative is one who wishes to conserve the good at hand, which means maintaining the status quo while correcting notorious deviations. But the conservative has no principled motivation to return to and recover what has been lost, for he has no compelling reason to see it as more precious, more valuable, than a constellation of goods that happens to exist right now. (“Are there religious sisters who wear a kind of uniform and a crucifix? Great! Let’s keep that going, for we don’t want to lose it. After all, something’s better than nothing.”) The lover of Tradition, on the other hand, has the mind of the fifth-century father of the Church, St. Vincent of Lerin. For Vincent, as for a host of fathers, doctors, and popes, Tradition as such is superior to novelty; novelty is to be distrusted, resisted with all one’s might. (“If nuns are not wearing full habits with veils, time to give them two alternatives: embrace the traditional attire, or return to the world.”)

Consequently, wherever traditional things have been lost, the traditionalist strives to restore them as fully as possible, whereas the conservative contents himself with preserving what is at hand – even if it may be mediocre in itself or was a novelty only a few years back. This helps explain the bizarre fact that, after so much bitter experience and so many irrefutable critiques, one still finds Catholic conservatives defending the Novus Ordo and popular church music. “These things are a few decades old, you know, and they’re what we’ve got right now, so we might as well conserve them!”

This is why conservatism, in the end, turns out to be a slower, less self-conscious version of liberalism. Liberalism takes as a principle that change is inherently good and, thus, that faster change is even better – as long as the change is in any direction away from tradition. Conservatism takes as its supposedly contrary principle that it is better to hold on to what one has than to give it up without a fight, but it fails to recognize the problem that, due to the prevailing liberalism, more and more good things are surrendered, undermined, and habitually ignored with each passing year, leaving less and less to conserve.

For these reasons, conservatism is liberalism in slow motion. What conservatives preserve, they preserve by force of custom and free choice, not by the firmness of a non-negotiable principle. As the truth fades away and people grow accustomed to its loss, the conservative has no ground to stand on; he wrings his hands while he watches beautiful things getting dismantled and sent away. (Sometimes it’s worse than that: the conservative will drive himself insane, zealously defending the same horrible novelties he would have decried only a few years before. We’ve seen this rubbery allegiance time and again. For example, it’s wrong to wash women’s feet at Mass on Holy Thursday – until the pope says it’s okay. Suddenly, out come the specious arguments to back it up, as if it had been true all along!) In contrast, adherence to Tradition goes beyond conservation of whatever minimal good is at hand, for it demands the love and honorable defense of an inheritance that is received and must not be squandered. And if part of this inheritance has been lost, the traditionalist knows that it must be restored with unstinting effort and in the face of all opposition.

Accordingly, traditionalists are and must be, by the nature of their allegiance to Tradition, reformers, in the same way that figures like St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila were reformers. Wherever a traditionalist sees a serious deviation from Tradition, he strives to reinstate what is venerable. “So what if we’ve had fifty years of vernacular Novus Ordo Masses, facing the people, with bad music? That’s nothing in comparison with well over 1,500 years of tradition. We must return to what is most richly and most perfectly Catholic.”

The problem comes down to this. If you do not understand Tradition, both as a formal principle and as material content, you cannot possibly see what is wrong with the status quo – you have no means of comparison, no proportionality. If you hold on to something not because of principle, but only out of sentimentality or habit, it will sooner or later be taken away from you. Indeed, you deserve to have it taken away. The inverse is also true: if you hold on to something because it is true and good and beautiful, it can never be taken away from your mind and heart, even if it may be suppressed in the world and you may suffer persecution. In due time, the Lord will raise it from the dead and give it a new life, contrary to all the predictions of the “experts.”

Because many of the “best” bishops today are merely conservatives and not lovers of tradition, they have little desire to recover, to restore, to hand down the inheritance in full. It seems to me that there are three reasons for this flaw: (1) they are not intimately acquainted with tradition, nor with how it has been lost; (2) they do not desire to know its worth, or even to inquire what kind of tragedy its loss might be; (3) they are content with the status quo, provided it be kept free from what they see as obvious excesses or distortions.

On this third point, major subjectivism enters in, because what is seen as a deviation will vary a great deal from one conservative to another. For instance, one conservative will see lay extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion and female altar servers as they truly are – an offensive break with unanimous Eastern and Western tradition going back to the earliest liturgical and canonical records available to us – while another may see such practices as mere administrative or bureaucratic decisions, with no serious repercussions. In this way, conservatives end up losing their influence because their lack of principled adherence to tradition leaves them splintered, tentative, and unwilling to draw any line in the sand. They wait…and watch…and lose Catholicism, year by year.

It is the argument of cowardice, or at the very least, a sad lack of imagination, to say: “It’s just not possible in this day and age to implement this or that reform” or “It’s been too long – we can’t recover that old belief or practice,” or “the best is enemy of the good, you know.” Yes, but the bad or the worst is also the enemy of the good; old things are continually being revived, such as the Hebrew language in Israel; and why are we putting limitations on ourselves and especially on God as to what is possible and what is impossible? Do we know what is possible until we try it or pray for it?

Every serious reform movement in the history of the Church has risen up against impossible odds and won by God’s grace. Every serious reform movement has based itself on past tradition that has been lost, obscured, or diluted. The victories we enjoy in the midst of this vale of tears will always be temporary, but they are not unreal for not being eternal, and they were purchased not without unbending faith, hope against hope, and the gritty charity that seeks the best and thrusts away evil.

If we do not fight for Tradition, we will end up fighting for yesterday’s status quo, which gets worse and worse with the passing of the godless decades of the post-Christian secular world – and, sad to say, of the numerous post-Christian clergy of the Church. That is why we have all experienced or known about parishes where things never seem to get much better, regardless of how well intentioned the new pastor may be. Out there in the mainstream world inhabited and fought over by liberals and conservatives, the “bar,” the standard of Catholicism, is always sinking, sometimes faster, sometimes slower. There is no upward force of tradition to prevent it from sinking into Gehenna.

Why is Divine Providence permitting this present catastrophic pontificate, with all the evils it has spawned or brought to light? I truly believe (to the extent that any of us can discern the mysterious ways of God) that He is issuing a stern wake-up call to serious Catholics everywhere: abandon the sinking ship of Vatican II Catholicism; abandon the fabricated liturgy of Paul VI; abandon a confused theology that wants to speak out of both sides of the mouth; abandon compromise with worldliness in morals; and return to the safe, spacious, and sustaining haven of Tradition – traditional doctrine as found in Sacred Scripture, dogmatic councils, and countless old catechisms; traditional morals as exemplified in the lives and exhortations of the saints; traditional theology as practiced by the Church fathers and doctors; and most importantly, traditional liturgy, stretching from before the time of St. Gregory the Great (d. 604) through St. Pius V (Quo Primum, 1570) and beyond, handed down and received as a precious inheritance, without any massive break or reconstruction according to the spirit of the age.

If this crisis is telling us anything, it is telling us this: stop pretending the Church can accommodate modernity and its panoply of errors, just as long as she window-dresses everything with pious language and vague appeals to a hermeneutic of continuity. Stop reassuring yourself that aggiornamento, contrary to the frequent admissions of its advocates and the plenteous ruination caused by their ideas, meant just an updating of incidentals and didn’t touch the essence of the Faith. Stop thinking you can serve two masters: “What concord hath Christ with Belial? Or what part hath the faithful with the unbeliever?” (2 Cor. 6:15).

In short: Give up the conservatism. If you are still a “John Paul II Catholic,” still a “Benedict XVI Catholic,” now is the acceptable time to become simply a Catholic, the kind of man of faith who would have been found in and recognized by every age, prior to our benighted postconciliar generation. Replace low-fat liberalism with the raw milk of Tradition. Begin the longed-for renewal of the Church by nourishing your soul on the feast God has been preparing for you for 2,000 years, “a feast of fat things, a feast of wine, of fat things full of marrow, of wine purified from the lees” (Is. 25:6). As for recent novelties, it seems best – indeed, it seems unavoidable – to let the dead bury the dead.

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