Conservative American Catholicism --- is there such a thing? There are, to be sure, men like Pat Buchanan, who are called such. But just what is Conservative American Catholicism? The best way to find out is to define each word separately, and then look at them together.
First, America. While those of us who were born and live in the United States use the word interchangeably with the name of our country, it should be remembered that Spanish-speakers refer to both continents bearing that name when they use this term. To this day, our use of “America” grates on them. Still, for the purposes of this article the standard U.S. usage will be followed; Canadians, who are certainly North Americans, refuse to use the title at all.
While both Latin Americans and Canadians are only too aware of what divides them from Americans, Europeans are not, generally. They may (and often do) resent the power and influence of the United States --- while happily gobbling McDonald’s foods, wearing blue jeans, imitating American customs seen on television, and rejecting their own religious, social, and moral traditions in favour of ersatz American practises. But, because of our similarities in physical appearance and dress, they do not realize what fundamentally separates us.
The most obvious are what have been called “race and space.” Both the Indians and the descendants of the African slaves (the former in a more psychological, the latter in a more material manner) have affected tremendously the descendants of European colonists and later immigrants in many, many ways. African cooking and music, for example, have had enormous repercussions upon all Americans. Then too, the Indian Wars, struggles for and against slavery, and continuing guilt (and efforts to suppress it) over both of these questions, continue to play a role in the national mind.
The enormous size of the United States also plays its part. What is basically a single culture extends for three thousand miles, over a terrain of incredible diversity. Fifty State governments and thousands of county, municipal, and other lesser authorities run day-to-day affairs according to many different patterns reflecting their individual histories. The Governors of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine are assisted by Governor’s Councils, who preside over appointments and pardons; the Governor of Connecticut maintains Foot Guards and Horse Guards, while his colleague of Rhode Island, alone of all State Chief Executives, appoints the County Sheriffs (everywhere else they are elected; in some States they are held to represent the State government, while elsewhere they are looked on as responsible to the county populace). Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Kentucky, and Virginia are called Commonwealths rather than States, and the first named shares with Delaware the appointment of “Prothonotaries” to preside over the courts and the notariate in their respective counties. Louisiana calls its counties “Parishes,” and maintains a variety of the Code Napoleon, as opposed to the English Common law prevailing in the other States. New Jersey’s counties are presided over by “Boards of Chosen Freeholders,” and the land, inheritance, and mineral laws in California, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona are based upon Spanish rather than English principles. The town of Glen Cove, New York, continues to be governed according to the Royal Charter granted by James II. Nebraska alone has a unicameral legislature, while the Assemblies of Pennsylvania, Maryland, South Carolina, and Virginia feature daily speaker’s parades, complete with maces (in the latter two cases, crowned relics from colonial times), as is done throughout the British Commonwealth. Some of the States still retain the ancient Court of Common Pleas, although most do not. In Connecticut, counties have degenerated to nothing more than lines on the map, without even Sheriffs (since 2000); in California, they are mighty fiefdoms, little less powerful than the State government itself --- even the invincible City of Los Angeles struggles for supremacy with the attendant County regime.
One could go on and on; but the point is that each American State differs from every other. This is true in ethnic makeup, as well. Some places, like Massachusetts, offer a grafting of a dizzying array of ethnic groups onto the descendants of the Puritan English. In my father’s relatively small home town of New Bedford, Massachusetts, the Catholic Church alone offers French-Canadian, Irish, German, Portuguese, Italian, and Polish parishes; add to this mix the Orthodox Greeks and Slavs of various varieties, as well as Arabs, Puerto Ricans, and Scandinavians, and you have quite a mixture. Even the blacks there are diverse --- Portuguese-speakers from the Cape Verdes, Southern Immigrants and their offspring, and descendants of the early African slaves brought to the area in the 17th century. In the major cities, the mix is far more complex. There are also long-established colonial-era groups, such as the Pennsylvania Germans, the Louisiana Cajuns, and the New Mexico Hispanos, whose settlement predates Independence, and who have to some degree maintained their languages and cultures in the face of immigration; they generally continue to play a part on the local scene.
Despite all of this diversity, however, there is also a tremendous conformity, an overarching national ethos, which is best understood as a sort of secular religion. As with all non-Christian religions, it has its foundational myths, its holy relics, its shrines, its demi-gods, and its dogmas. Central to it is a sort of worship of the nation and its institutions. Much of the power this faith derives comes from its ongoing ability to unify in the face of the diversity we have been exploring; it takes the place for Americans of a common faith and/or allegiance to a Sovereign and his dynasty.
To understand this religion, which we shall call Americanism, we must look first at its central myth, which is a kind of sacralised American history. In this reading, the Puritans who first settled New England were like the Patriarchs of the Old Testament and the Children of Israel. Fleeing the English Crown and its Catholically-tarnished Church, (analogous to the oppression of Pharaoh in the Old Testament), they made their Exodus across the Sea, arriving in the Promised Land. Here they had to deal with the Canaanites, who were of course the Indians. Thus far, the myth is like that of most exiled Calvinist peoples, such as the Ulster Scots of Ireland, the Afrikaaners of South Africa, and the Mormons of Utah.
But the story here becomes more elaborate; for unlike those peoples, the Americans received a New as well as an Old Covenant. The Founding Fathers (such as Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin) are like the Apostles, with the American Revolution itself playing the role of Passion and Resurrection. The Constitution, inspired by the Holy Ghost, is Scripture (along with the Declaration of Independence), and the formation of the government is thus an act of God Himself --- whomever or whatever He may be. Such places as Independence Hall in Philadelphia (wherein the Sacred Documents were signed), the Freedom Trail in Boston, and the White House, Capitol, Washington and Jefferson Monuments, and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., are Holy places, much like those in Rome, Jerusalem, or Mecca.
The Civil War becomes itself a redemptive act, whereby the sacred Union was saved by the heroism of a Saviour-figure, Abraham Lincoln (there is still a parallel Confederate tradition which was strong in the South until the 1970s, but it was sort of a dissenting sect, rather like Shiite versus Sunnite Muslims; its holders too venerated the Pilgrims, Washington, et al.).
So formed by God, the United States are the shining city on the hill, beacons of liberty for an oppressed and heathen world, and the last, best hope of Mankind. Here, belief in any other faith or none is fine, so long as such belief disagrees neither with the national mythos nor with the other doctrines of the tribe. Among these is the notion that conduct is more important than creed. But there are others. From the Calvinism of the Puritans came the idea that that those whom God has chosen for salvation (through no effort of their own) will be blessed by Him in this life; since we cannot know precisely who is among this elect, we must strive mightily to achieve wealth, to demonstrate our goodness. This is known as the Puritan work ethic. With time, this idea has been secularised and sublimated into the American mind, with certain concrete results: the acquisition of wealth is unconsciously sacramental; the poor are inherently stupid or wicked; and anything that is not obviously profitable --- the arts and humanities, for example --- are suspect of being unworthy of pursuit by “decent” people because “impractical.” (One unfortunate result of this has been to allow these areas to be monopolised in America to some degree by Marxists and/or Liberals; similar things have occurred in Europe and Latin America in recent decades for different reasons, to be sure. But the fact remains that Conservative academics and artists in those areas are both more numerous and better regarded than here).
Another jealously guarded dogma is that of equality. There is not, so the common belief runs, a class system in America. So pervasive is this idea that the word “classless,” which in Great Britain means egalitarian, in the United States simply means “vulgar.” An often quoted maxim is that “anyone can grow up to be President.” The fact that 40 to 60% of United States Senators are millionaires escapes notice. But in truth, the Upper Classes in America, unlike those in Europe, are invisible; as such they are also unapproachable. An important component of the leading elite here is bound up with entertainment, and it has been wryly observed that we now have three classes: the proles who watch T.V., the Middle Class who make it, and the elite who appear on it. But they are careful to dress like the proles, in order to give the impression that they are where they are simply by accident --- an accident which might happen to anyone. This view is an oversimplification, to be sure, but not without some validity.
The superiority of the Centre is yet another firmly held belief. In this view, anything which might be castigated as “out of the mainstream” or extreme is automatically discounted. Of course, few bother to consider just what those titles mean. Thus, on July 31, 2002, CNN hailed Hilary Rodham Clinton as a “Moderate;” given her views on various topics however, it was hard to tell how the news network arrived at that conclusion. Similarly, in the 2002 California gubernatorial race, Democratic Governor Gray Davis castigated his Republican opponent, Bill Simon, as “out of step with California.” But given Davis’ violent espousal of Gay marriage, despite the State populace voting for a bill forbidding it on a referendum, one hardly knows what he means. But so long as these statements are not examined in detail, they do tend to carry weight with voters.
But perhaps the most key of all these dogmas for our purpose is that of “Separation of Church and State.” While often bandied about today throughout the formerly Christian West (and progressively accruing particular popularity in Europe as the EU continues to emerge as an entirely secular super-state), it is a concept entirely unknown before the birth of the United States. In the rest of the world --- divided as it is between Muslim, Buddhist, and pagan nations --- it remains even to-day a novel, indeed, unnatural, concept, save in Communist China and North Korea. In those places, whatever the form of government, the local religious authorities continue to a greater or lesser degree to sanctify the State with their ceremonies and advice, while the State in its turn more or less subsidises them and pays at least lip service to their doctrines.
Perhaps the ironies involved in the situation are no better illustrated than in the current Pope’s permission to build a mosque in Rome. The previous attempt to do so, in 1930, featured the then King of Saudi Arabia’s request to Benito Mussolini for similar permission; the Duce replied that he would be happy to so, when the King authorised construction of a Catholic cathedral in Mecca. European attitudes have altered, while Muslim have not --- one can imagine the Saudi government’s reply to any such request today.
In any case, the notion that the religion of the people should have nothing to do with their government arose first in the United States, although the term “Separation of Church and State” appears nowhere in our Constitution. What DOES appear is a clause forbidding Congress to establish a single religion for the whole nation, and proscribing loss of civil rights to any American citizen because of his religious beliefs. The reason for this is simple: of the 13 original states, at independence seven of them in whole or in part recognised the Anglican as their official church, three the Congregational, and three no such establishment. Catholicism was illegal in ten of them. Thus the newly sovereign State authorities had no desire to allow Congress to intervene in what was seen as a local question; the alliance of France and Spain required that civil disabilities be lifted from the Catholics, while the activities of both Catholics and Jews on the rebel side seemed to require their being granted civil rights. The last State to do so (Connecticut) did not give up its established Church until 1833.
Nevertheless, although no specific form of Christianity was thereafter established in the European sense, it was held for a long time that the United States were in fact a “Christian” country (whatever that might mean). On February 29, 1892, the United States Supreme Court (of which more presently), in the case of Trinity Church vs. the United States, mentioned that “If we pass beyond these [mentioned legal] matters to a view of American life, as expressed by its laws, its business, its customs, and its society, we find everywhere a clear recognition of the same truth. Among other matters note the following: The form of oath universally prevailing, concluding with an appeal to the Almighty; the custom of opening sessions of all deliberative bodies and most conventions with prayer; the prefatory words of all wills, ‘In the name of God, amen;’ the laws respecting the observance of the Sabbath, with the general cessation of all secular business, and the closing of courts, legislatures, and other similar public assemblies on that day; the churches and church organizations which abound in every city, town, and hamlet; the multitude of charitable organizations existing everywhere under Christian auspices; the gigantic missionary associations, with general support, and aiming to establish Christian missions in every quarter of the globe.” On this basis, the Court declared that “These and many other matters which might be noticed, add a volume of unofficial declarations to the mass of organic utterances that this is a Christian nation.”
But commencing in 1948, the Supreme and/or lower Federal and State Courts systematically ruled as unconstitutional prayer in government schools (which was inevitably of a Protestant nature), blasphemy laws, Christmas pageants in schools, religious displays on public property, and so on. At present, there is an ongoing legal dispute as regards the words “Under God” in the pledge of allegiance, and the display of the Ten Commandments in courthouses and schools. On the part of the media, legal circles, and other such folk, it is considered that any mention of God in public life is an assault on the “wall of separation between Church and State.” Things have evolved to the point that in many major cities shop assistants can be fired for saying “Merry Christmas;” the term “Happy Holidays” being insisted upon.
But there is a tremendous difficulty here. The French sociologist, François Berger has noted that “Sweden is the least religious country on Earth, and India the most. The Americans are a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes.” The tremendous religious gap between the rulers and the ruled in the United States is thrown into high relief by such remnants of religiosity as the invocation of God in almost all the preambles of the State Constitutions (though not the Federal; interestingly enough, one of the major differences between the American and the Confederate constitutions was the latter’s similar invocation); the opening of all legislative sessions in both State and Federal capitols with prayer; and the commencement of Supreme Court daily business with the marshal of the court’s cry, “God Save the United States and this Honourable Court” (a cry repeated in appropriately amended form in most other courts).
It might be pointed out here too that various of the “Christian” sects which co-exist have each contributed their bit to the generic religious tone of the country, which is under attack --- a tone well-illustrated most recently, however by the “National Day of Prayer and Mourning” Service in the National (Anglican-Episcopal) Cathedral in Washington, D.C., presided over by the President, the Episcopalian Bishopess of the City, the Rev. Billy Graham, and other spiritual leaders. From the Anglicans, we have received a fondness for antiquated English in prayer, together with a certain style of hymnody and a focus of unity in intent rather than doctrine in prayer. From the Methodists comes the notion that an experience of Christ as Saviour (or even just a realisation of the existence of God) makes for a personal knowledge of one’s own salvation which cannot be voided by one’s behaviour. The Lutherans made Christmas and Easter respectable. The Unitarians taught us that all religions, however they might contradict each other dogmatically, are all really saying the same thing, whatever that might be, and that the quest for Truth is more important than finding it. Even the Catholics have contributed in small ways, allowing athletes of all persuasions to cross themselves before seeking a goal during a game. All of these motifs, of course, are accompanied by such patriotic songs as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” as sacred music. But against even this vague religiosity, the elites are sworn enemies.
The tension between these two sides will not be solved easily; but, the national religion does have a solution. As with any faith, there is a body which receives wisdom from on high and adjudicates doctrinal disputes. For us, this is the afore-mentioned Supreme Court. For a number of reasons, among Americans, what is legal is moral, and vice versa. Thus, the majority of Americans firmly believed that abortion was murder, until the Court decided in 1973 that it was a Constitutional right. This event reversed exactly the proportions between the pro- and anti-abortion forces. (Of course, while the Court’s dehumanising the foetus flew in the face of empirical science, it made some sense in law; the German position, where the foetus is a human being who just happens to be legally indefensible, while having some precedent in recent German history, and being at least biologically correct, might leave some doubt as to the inherent goodness of the constitutional arrangements there --- a doubt which we Americans need never fear). But just what principles this body of the wise bases its choices upon is no longer clear. When Judge Robert Bork was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Reagan in 1987, His Honour doomed his candidacy by declaring for “Original Intent,” the doctrine that what the writers of the Constitution meant by this or that clause ought to be consulted by Supreme Court Justices to-day in determining the constitutionality of any measure under consideration. When Mr. Justice Clarence Thomas was nominated to the Court by George Bush I in 1991, part of his price of admission was to swear that he did not believe in the classical “natural law.” So the decisions of the Supreme Court, like those of the Oracle at Delphi, come directly from the gods, with no intervening human source.
But the American religion faces the same problem as all others: the status of unbelievers. While it is obvious that the rest of the Western world is following our lead (as evidenced by the current Belgian government’s dominant party altering its name from “Social Christian” to “Social Humanist,” banning crucifixes from government schools, abolishing the Te Deum for the Royal Family, and enacting a euthanasia law so liberal it was protested by the Dutch --- no mean feat in itself), such imitation, although gratifying to the American ego, can never in itself suffice. While such self-hatred of their traditions on the part of Europeans doubtless amuses the non-European world, much more is required.
If a Frenchman, Italian, or Englishman is told that something is un-French, un-Italian, or un-English, he will reply simply that it is foreign. But “un-American” carries with it the same implications that “un-Christian” once did. It is in fact the greatest pejorative one can use in this country. This is logical; for if, as we constantly remind ourselves, we are indeed the “last best hope of mankind,” then it follows that all others are more or less beyond the pale, to the degree that they do not resemble us. It therefore becomes difficult for most Americans to care about foreign ways or customs, or to think of them in any sense as being more than inferior.
What is odd about this is that all of the governmental institutions we prize so highly have foreign roots; the panoply to which we referred earlier came to us primarily from British, but to a lesser degree from French, Spanish, and Dutch sources. This element of our history is passed over lightly, however; most Americans believe that their country is more or less auto-genetic. Mind you, this is not a conscious belief, and would vanish quickly with a little self-examination. But as the world’s last Empire, the United States do not have the introspection of the defeated, which plays such a large part in modern European discourse.
Nevertheless, as a great and broad-minded religion, while denouncing the infidel, Americanism welcomes converts. Our immigrants, despite historical lapses, are generally welcomed with open arms, so long as they adopt our mores. They may retain large portions of their ancestral faiths, so long as they accept the major tenets of our own. This has posed little problem for Protestants, Jews, or Buddhists. But for Catholics, and most recently, Orthodox, of their nature oriented toward a radically different view of life, this acceptance has cause major strains.
The next word we must define is “Conservative.” This is an extremely difficult one, because it means so much to so many. At base, it might be considered an impulse of personality, if it simply means a dislike of change. Ambrose Bierce, the witty and bitter American writer, defined the word thusly in his 1906 Devil’s Dictionary: “Conservative: a statesman who is enamoured of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.” Certainly, Conservative is, linguistically, bound up with preservation; but this is not an ideological notion. The last defenders of the Soviet Union were called “Kremlin Conservatives” by our media.
Erich von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, the Austrian political writer, much preferred to call himself a “man of the Right,” rather than a Conservative. Pointing out that “Conservative” as a party affiliation was restricted to the Protestant European nations (Great Britain, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Prussia), and that it meant preserving the often anti-Catholic establishments of those nations, he felt that it was a bad term for Catholic nations. K-L would add that “Right” in various European languages --- German, French, Italian, Spanish, etc., also meant “correct,” as well as “law.” Even in English, he concluded, we speak of “rights,” and could easily say, “Right is right.” But, nevertheless, we shall use the standard word.
But just what is Conservatism, in an ideological sense? Some would say that what differentiates the Conservative from the Liberal is a belief in the Fall of Adam --- that is, that Man cannot perfect himself by his own efforts. In Europe and Latin America, others, of a more historicist and less theological/philosophical turn of mind, would call Conservative those who to a greater or lesser degree reject the programme of either or both the Reformation and the French, 1848, Russian, and allied revolutions. This rejection ranges all the way from a call for restoration of the Monarchy and traditional religious and social arrangements, to a more “practical” attack on some aspect of the programme, such as secularisation of education or destruction of private property through excessive taxation.
This sort of Conservatism takes many forms, just as the revolutions it opposes do. In Austria and Central Europe, there is a longing for the Habsburgs; in France for the Bourbons, and in Spain the Carlists. Even the Latin American Conservatives, such as the late Pablo Antonio Cuadra y Cardenal in Nicaragua, long for restoration of the place of the Church in the life of the country, and reunion on some level or other with mother Spain or Portugal. From Kralik in Austria to De Maistre in France to Soloviev in Russia to Alaman in Mexico, there are any number of anti-Revolutionary authors and schools of thought.
On a less elevated level, there are various nostalgically-minded groups of folk in countries like Great Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, and Portugal made up of refugee colonists and their descendants who long for their respective nations’ days of Empire. There are re-enactment units of various vanished armies. For that matter, (in keeping the root meaning of “Conservative”) even certain European associations devoted to conservation of the environment, preservation of historic buildings, or performance of various folkloric events might be considered Conservative (although, in America, as with academics and artists, such folk are usually of the left).
But what of the United States? An easy answer is that what Americans call “Liberals,” Europeans and Latin Americans call “Socialists;” what the former name “Conservatives,” the Americans deem “Liberals,” (after the Manchester School); but what are called “Conservatives” in Europe and Latin America simply don’t exist as an organised body in the United States. Given that the most irreconcilable Loyalists to the Crown were exiled to Anglo-Canada and the Bahamas after the revolution which gave us independence (there to become the ideological --- and in many cases, biological --- ancestors of Conservatives in those two countries, which remain Monarchies), it might well be said that Conservatism in the United States can be called the right wing of our national Liberalism.
However true this is in a larger sense, there have of course ever since 1783, been factions which called themselves or were called by others, “Conservative.” It has been an article of Faith among such folk that the revolution itself was a Conservative thing; those who call it such would place it with the “Glorious” revolution of 1688, and the July revolution of 1830, as Conservative attempts to redress a political balance allegedly upset by reigning Kings. Although this is a disputable point, to say the least, it is at least interesting that the need is felt to cloak said revolutions in legality.
When the American War between the States broke out, although there were any number of other issues involved, the Southern rebels claimed to be Constitutional Conservatives, holding that they were rebelling against the Washington government for the same reasons their grandfathers had attacked the Royal government. Although economic self-interest was thus given ideological significance (as indeed it had been for their grandfathers) this was not a motive for their northern allies, the so-called “Copperheads.” These folk too urged an end to Federal attacks on the South, claiming that it was Lincoln’s government who were really revolutionary.
With the rise of big business after the Civil War, its proponents took the title “Conservative” in opposition to the forces of Labour, and later of Government, who wished to restrict their heretofore untrammelled liberty. This was of course the reverse of the situation in Europe and Latin America, where nobles and landowners banded together to resist the aspirations of the industrial bourgeoisie, sometimes making common cause with the socialist workers’ parties to do so. This is why limitations upon Capitalism and government social aid were traditionally a part of European right-wing parties’ programmes, although these did not go so far as nationalisation, so dear to the hearts of Marxists.
There the situation remained until the time of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (President 1933-1945), who, under the guise of rescuing the nation from the Great Depression, expanded the role of government in the United States to the enormous proportion it maintains to-day (or rather, who initiated the process of such expansion, which continues into our own time, receiving a new burst of vigour with every conflict the nation is involved in). It was partly in reaction to Roosevelt’s New Deal that an actual ideological Conservatism began to develop in the United States.
Its first stirrings were felt in the 1920s, and to some degree reflected disgust on the part of certain intellectuals with the Puritan underpinnings of American culture themselves. Such men as George Santayana, H.L. Mencken, Lucius Beebe, and H.P. Lovecraft, while having no religious faith of their own, were certainly displeased with what they found; at the same time that they rejected the philistinism American Calvinism had bred, they also refused to accept either Communism or Catholicism. In a nutshell, while skewering the evils they saw, they had no alternatives to them.}
On a more positive note, the New Humanists, such as Paul Elmer More and Irving Babbitt, sought to re-establish the national culture on the basis of “traditional” morals and ethics; for some in the movement, this meant Plato; for Babbitt and his closer disciples, it meant Buddha. Seeing this programme as too vague, certain members of the group turned to more substantial things, T.S. Eliot, for example, moving to Britain and declaring himself for Anglo-Catholicism and Royalism.
For those either left behind or of less academic bent, solutions somewhat closer to life were required. A group of poets at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University, a band of neo-Romantics called “the Fugitives,” turned their attention in the aftermath of the 1929 Depression to social and economic questions. Seeing the culprit in these areas to be the concentration of industrial and economic power in the North-East, they re-emerged as the “Southern Agrarians,” holding the agriculturally-based society which prevailed in their region prior to the Civil War to be much preferable to that which dominated the entire nation afterwards. They published a set of essays to this effect in 1930, entitled I’ll Take My Stand. A few years later, with English Catholic social theorists Hilaire Belloc and Douglas Jerrold, and like-minded decentralist and agrarian folk from the North, they issued Who Owns America.
At the same time, various American writers, such as Ross Hoffman, took inspiration from various European sources, for example Charles Maurras. All of these varying groups were invited by Seward Collins, initially a New Humanist, to write for his American Review, probably the foremost American Conservative journal of the 1930s. Like the nation itself, they were a disparate bunch; despite their best efforts, and those of more populist figures like the priest Fr. Charles Coughlin and Governor Huey Long of Louisiana, there was little real challenge to FDR’s monopoly of power. The opposition Republicans had little to offer by way of an alternative; the most ideologically committed among them, such as Senator Robert Taft, opposed not only Roosevelt’s domestic policy, but also the President’s deep desire to involve the country in World War II. They suffered a severe setback with Pearl Harbour, which made American entry into the War impossible to resist, and dissent from the government’s objectives tantamount to treason.
But the end of the War and the expansion of Communism into Eastern Europe and China gave American Conservatism a new lease on life. The defeat of Senator Taft’s anti-interventionist wing of the Republican Party and the accession of President Eisenhower to power forced Conservatives to articulate what, if anything, their principles were. Thus, the 1950’s saw two major occurrences: the publication of The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana, by Russell Kirk and the emergence of a magazine, The National Review, edited by William F. Buckley.
The events of the following decades --- the Black Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, the Hippie movement, and all of the other historical occurrences the nation shared up until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, resulted in the emergence of several different groups all claiming to be called “Conservative.”
The first of these are the so-called Libertarians. These folk, taking their cue from such figures as Tom Paine, see in government itself a definite evil which must be reined in. Ranging from near-anarchists to radical privatisers, they believe in reducing the role of government to foreign affairs, defence, and police services (some of the more radical would even remove the latter to the private sector). There would be no social welfare, no regulation of industry and agriculture, no public libraries; utilities and education would be entirely privatised. Many Libertarians further believe that there should be no government regulation of morality; abortion, adultery, drugs --- indeed, everything save murder and theft should be decriminalised. On this score, they would come into conflict with many other Conservatives. Some among the Libertarians question the legitimacy of the Federal government itself, holding that the States alone should remain; some few would break it down even further to the counties and cities.
On the other side of the spectrum are the so-called “New Right,” pioneered during the late 1970s by such figures as Richard Viguerie and Paul Weyrich. This group, made up to great degree of ethnic Catholics disaffected by the Democratic party’s stand on such things as abortion and homosexual rights, and fundamentalist Protestants, appealed to people who had long stood outside party politics as such and whose views were not philosophically articulated. Thanks to mass mailings and the like, the New Right folk were mobilised in 1980 to elect Ronald Reagan as President. Opposed to “big government” and the social changes initiated during the 1960s, the rank and the file of the New Right often found it easier to say what they were against than what they were for.
A number of former 60s radicals --- many of whom were Jewish --- had come to realize that the sorts of defence reductions in the face of the Soviet menace which had been favoured by many Democrats in general and President Jimmy Carter in particular also meant that American ability to defend Israel would suffer. Dubbed “Neocons,” these converts also discovered that Capitalism worked better than the Socialism they had espoused in their youth. Rather than the “tax and spend” solutions proffered by the Left, the Neocons became enamoured of “fiscal conservatism.” But as far as the legal emplacement of the social revolution which came to a head in the 70s, with its abortion, contraception, easy divorce, couples living together out of wedlock and the like, they were either neutral or more or less supportive. Typical among them are such worthies as Norman Podhoretz, David Horowitz, Irving Kristol, and Michael Novak.
The last group of the Conservative coalition we will examine are the so-called “Paleocons.” While sharing a similar vision of the ills afflicting society (they tend to very concerned with the social ills ignored by the Neocons), they are made up themselves of several interlocking factions. Anglo-American Conservatives, of the sort epitomised by the afore-mentioned Russell Kirk, speak much of restoring an “order” established by the Founding Fathers, and see both our Revolution and Civil War as being essentially Conservative occurrences, even as mentioned earlier. They tend to lay a great deal of store in the continuity of our institutions with the British, and to reverence such writers as Edmund Burke. The Southern Agrarians, such as M.E. Bradford, have survived; true to their roots, they emphasise, in addition to the social concerns and belief in “traditional” culture common to Paleocons, a belief in State and community autonomy, as well as a lingering affection for the Confederate cause. For both of these sets, what is important is a return to what they consider to be “good old American values.” Lastly, there are Catholics who are tied to the Church’s social teaching, and often one or more strands of European or Latin American Conservatism. Not surprisingly the Paleocons are probably the only set which would be recognised as Conservative overseas.
What bound these groups together (and allowed them to unite to the extent of putting Mr. Reagan in the White House) was Communism. The Soviet threat defined Conservatism just as surely as it did Liberalism. But what was surely their greatest joy, the fall of the Soviet Union, was also their defeat. For ever since, they have endeavoured to define themselves; this endeavour splintered the fragile coalition, and eight years of Bill Clinton solidified their loss of power. Today, those Conservatives more concerned with tradition and social questions are faced with a President who agrees with them to some degree --- but not to the extent of endangering his position. The alternative to this, of course, is more of a Clintonesque replacement. In a word, classical American Conservatism is both deeply divided and without a practical answer to the paradigm shift which has occurred in the country since the 1960s. Since the results of that shift --- diminished birth-rate, shattered families, functional illiteracy, and the like --- do not bode well for the long-term survival of the nation, this is a large problem. The knowledge that these things are worse in Europe provides small comfort.
Now, let us look at our last word: Catholic. In English, as in other languages, this word has also meant “universal,” and as late as the 20th century, one could still write of someone as having “catholic tastes.” So ignorant have we become, however, that many a fundamentalist Protestant can sincerely say, not out of malice but sheer lack of knowledge, that they are “Christian, not Catholic.”
Nevertheless, most non-Catholics in America mean by “Catholic” people who look to the Pope as their religious leader. As late as 1968, that was a fair definition. But today, “Catholic” has several different meanings. Obviously, there are indeed those who subscribe to all four of the Catholic Creeds and the defined dogmas flowing from them, and so accept the Pope as Visible Head of the Church. Some of these believe that the changes since Vatican II contradict to a greater or lesser degree the teachings contained in those Creeds and dogmas, and so withhold practical allegiance from the current Pontiff to that degree. Others insist that such contradictions are inherently impossible, and cleave to whatever comes from Rome, willy-nilly; often this leads them to into conflict with local bishops and pastors. The first group are called “Traditionalists,” and the second, “Conservatives.” Some of the former, most notably the Society of St. Pius X, founded by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, were declared by the Vatican to have brought excommunication upon themselves (an action which has been questioned by some Canon lawyers), and are called “schismatic” by the Roman authorities. Whether or not they are --- and one is reminded of the same authorities’ concern for the Eastern Orthodox, whose leadership do not recognise Papal authority over themselves at all --- their 1988 consecration of Bishops did encourage the Holy See to establish via an indult a place for religious orders, parish-type communities, and individuals to have access in a few places to traditional rites. While this is done in full communion with the Holy See, it should be remembered that most beneficiaries of the Indult passed through a period of rebellion against at least their local hierarchy. A third group, more amorphous than the first two, is made up of Catholics who pursue either a more strictly devotional life, such as members of the Legion of Mary, or who follow such activities as pro-life.
A second, and far more visible group, is made up of Bishops, priests, and prominent (often political) lay figures, which more or less reject Papal authority in everyday practice, while giving some lip service to it. These “Titularists,” as we might call them, often began their rebellion in 1968, when Paul VI issued Humanae vitae, his encyclical renewing the Church’s age-old ban against artificial contraception. Predictably rejected by several national hierarchies and tacitly ignored by almost the rest of the clergy, it was also openly rejected by political “Conservative” William F. Buckley; of course, he had earlier rejected the social teachings of John XXIII. In any case, ecclesiastically speaking, by 2002, the Holy See had only so much authority in American dioceses as the local bishop was willing to give it; in most cases, that was very little. One prominent Cardinal even openly denies Transubstantiation. The lay equivalent was of course was the whole flock of “Catholic” politicians (epitomised by Senator Edward Kennedy, brother of the late John F.) who are “personally” opposed to abortion, but happily vote for it, and praise it as part of “women’s rights.” Both sets, of course, are devoted to what St. Pius X called “Modernism.” Alas, this crew, clerical and lay, is the example of “Catholic” most familiar to Americans. The fact that the situation is the same in Europe is little comfort.
There is, however, a third group, made possible through the lack of catechesis and the misinformation provided by the second faction, and larger than either it or the first. This is made up of folk who call themselves Catholic without knowing what the word means. Their size may be gauged by two statistics: one is that only 30% (according to a Gallup poll) of U.S. Catholics believe in Transubstantiation (certainly the most distinctive of the Church’s doctrines); the second is that while folk calling themselves “Catholic” are, according to the census the largest single religious group in the country, those calling themselves ex-Catholic are the second. The Titularists are not making more Liberal Catholics, they are making non-Catholics. What makes this fact even crueller is that large numbers of Hispanics, the largest growing group in the birth-starved United States, are losing their faith through ignorance of it, combined with heavy evangelisation by Protestants and other sects such as the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Worse yet, through American funding and the use of such converts, inroads are being made by these groups in Latin America itself.
But the problem of Titularism is an old one in the United States, even though its coupling with Modernism in the latter half of the 20th century made it especially dangerous. Apart from old established enclaves in Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Missouri, Texas, California, Arizona, Florida, and New Mexico, Catholicism in the United States is an immigrant Faith. However, John Carroll, the first Catholic Bishop of Baltimore (appointed in 1789) favoured vernacular Masses, election of Bishops, and limitation of Papal authority in the United States; luckily this tendency was tamped down by the French émigré clergy who largely staffed the Church in America after the Revolution in their homeland. But starting with the Potato Famine in the 1840s, droves of Irish came over to America. Desirous of being accepted by mainstream Americans (who cruelly discriminated against them in such episodes as the Know-Nothing Riots), they tried as much as they could to accept the dogmas of the American faith, while retaining as well their Catholicism.
This was an experiment fraught with peril. Two factions emerged among the Irish-American clergy in the 19th century. The “Americanists,” led by Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore and Archbishop Ireland of St. Paul, who held that the Church in the United States, because of the country’s unique culture, freedom, and so on not only must be different from that in the rest of the world, but should be seen as a prototype for the rest of the Church, even as the States must be so seen for the entire globe. There could be no question of attempting to convert such a paradisiacal nation. In response, the “Ultramontanes,” led by Archbishops Corrigan of New York and McQuaid of Rochester, replied that the American Church was and must be an integral part of the Universal Church, and that the United States must be converted. The eminent convert Orestes Brownson added his voice to theirs, and declared in his essay, Catholicity Necessary for Popular Liberty, that conversion to the Faith was absolutely essential if the States were to survive as a free nation.
Complicating matters further was the influx after the Civil War of large numbers of non-English-speaking Catholics --- French-Canadians, Germans, Poles, Italians, and many more. In a hostile, Protestant environment, the leadership of these groups --- both clerical and lay --- believed in the necessity of preserving their native cultures in order to safeguard their religion. Every such ethnic group had as a saying some variant of the French-Canadian maxim, Qui perd sa langue, perd sa foi --- “Who loses his language, loses his Faith.” Ethnic parishes were formed in cities and towns which received these newcomers; but they soon came into friction with many of the largely but not exclusively Americanist bishops under whom they lived. The fact that the Emperor of Austria and the King of Bavaria poured millions of dollars into the American Church (and would continue to do so until 1914) was largely ignored by many of the very Irish bishops who benefited from this largesse (which is practically forgotten to-day). The immigrants were an embarrassment, and must be assimilated. This attitude led to the 1890s Cahenslyite controversy with the German Catholics, and the 1920s Sentinelle affair with the French-Canadians --- both of which were more or less quietly settled; it also brought about schism for certain Polish, Lithuanian, and Ruthenian groups, for which Archbishop Ireland was directly responsible. In the end, Pope Leo XIII condemned the heresy of Americanism in 1896; but as the Americanist prelates denied that they held such heresy, and the Pope did not pursue the matter, things stood as they were.
But they did not improve; two key things did occur: after World War II, the Vatican became financially dependent on the American Church, and Modernism met and married Americanism. The result was the Titularism of to-day, which dominates the American Church and affects the rest of Catholicism around the world. Its most recent development has been the growth of a homosexual sub-culture among the clergy, which at the time of writing, although daily exposed more clearly, still appears almost supreme in this country. In the 19th century, the Catholic clergy put the national flag in our sanctuaries to show that they were good Americans; this practise has been universally adopted by clerics of all faiths, substituting their own denominational flag for that of the Vatican which the priests also inserted. After Vatican II, the Church in America created specific Mass propers for Independence Day and Thanksgiving (the latter is particularly ironic, given that holiday’s Puritan origins). This, then, is Catholicism in the United States.
It only remains for us now to tie these three words together --- American, Conservative, and Catholic. Although “Conservative,” as we have noticed, does apply to one faction --- the “Pope can do no wrong” set, we shall use it here to apply to all the three sorts of orthodox Catholicism in this country, although many would object to its usage in this fashion.
In Europe and Latin America, Conservative Catholics tend to identify with a particular political faction. French CCs will often be Monarchist, and often favour the Legitimist over the Orleanist claimant. The Carlists in Spain are also CC, although some of the Conservatives there support Juan Carlos’ position, perhaps more than that King does himself. In Austria and all the lands of the old Monarchy, the Habsburgs still claim loyalty, and have even regained some amongst Paneuropa and other such minded folk in Italy and Germany. The House of Savoy was always regarded, because of its theft of the Papal States, with some suspicion by the most Conservative Catholics there; but the piety of Umberto II rallied a number of them to his dynasty; still others support the Bourbons of Naples and Parma, and the Habsburgs of Modena and Tuscany. Polish Catholic Conservatives look both to their own elective Monarchy, and to the pre-World War II National Democrats of Roman Dmowski. The heir to the Portuguese throne, Dom Duarte, claims the whole-hearted support of his nation’s CC’s, while Brazilian members of the tribe look both or either to Lusofonia and/or a restoration of their own Empire --- the former cause attracts Eurasian Catholics in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Burma, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Hispano-America and the Philippines look, as mentioned earlier, to Hispanidad, while CC French-Canadians have their own tradition of la Survivance, connected to French Royalism and latterly to Maurras. So it goes in every Catholic nation. In Protestant northern Europe, such folk tend to support their subsisting Monarchies, while wishing to substitute the Catholic for the State Church (retaining its establishment intact).
In the face of American power and the “progress” of society, many, if not most, of these aspirations might be dismissed as pipe dreams. What is important about them, however, is that they represent local variations of the same notion: a Catholic State, wherein Christ is recognised by the civil authorities as King, the laws of the land reflect that fact, and the Church is assisted in her mission rescuing of souls from eternal damnation. If this goal seems difficult in to-day’s world, it must have seemed far more so when the Apostles set off to evangelise the Roman Empire and the rest of the world. What is important is that Conservative, or better, orthodox Catholics have in each of those nations a pattern from which to work; they are indeed trying to restore something which once existed.
But for the American Catholic of this stripe, things are more difficult. Even were it possible, a restoration of constitutional, political, and social conditions to their status in 1933, or 1912, or 1860, or 1774, or whenever a given American Conservative might locate utopia, is not enough. The spiritual void which has ruined us will not be fixed by voting out abortion, abolishing the New Deal, closing the Federal Reserve Bank, restoring State Sovereignty and the Constitution, or even by Crowning a King. For our problem is religious, and there can be no solution to the American dilemma without the nation’s conversion to Catholicism --- even as Orestes Brownson declared. It was so with the decadent Roman Empire and the barbarian tribes which infested her; conversion brought about the transformation of both into Christendom, as a by-product of the Salvation of the individual. So it will be, if our country is to continue for a long period, with these United States. But even as the Romans and barbarians were turned by this process into something quite different, so would we be.
Such ideas have not been unknown here. In the 1950s, the journal Integrity called for a thorough conversion of the country, as did Triumph in the 1960s. But both were decidedly minority voices. In the latter journal, it is telling that the editors were all men who had spent a great deal of time in Italy, Spain, or France. The notion of an integrally Catholic state and culture remained foreign to those whose horizons extended no further than our borders.
All of which brings us back to Pat Buchanan. Politically speaking, Pat might well be considered the best example of American Conservative Catholicism. Religiously, he is strictly orthodox, and a Latin Mass goer. In political terms, he is a strict constitutionalist --- constantly calling for limits to the government’s power. He is also an isolationist, denouncing America’s imperial expansion as a means of spreading misery abroad and destroying freedom at home. Continually, as do most American Conservative Catholics, he invokes the Founding Fathers and American tradition, up till recently apparently not noticing that there might be a conflict.
But in a recent interview with Latin Mass magazine, he did acknowledge that the roots of our decline might very well lie with our foundation in heresy, and that “good old American” values might be severely deficient. One hopes that he will continue along this path; he could do a lot.
What, then, are we left with? For the orthodox Catholic in America, true patriotism cannot mean, as it can for the Conservative non-Catholic, simply waving the flag and calling for “the Constitution and sound money.” Despite the buckets of blood poured out by martyred missionaries, and by lay Catholics in this nation’s wars, we are in reality strangers here. Two things, then, are necessary; that we realise, despite the blood-price we have paid, that we American Catholics are like our brothers in India and Japan; and that as with them, our love for our country can only really be displayed in attempting to convert her to the truth---which can save her as a country as surely as it can save her individual citizens eternally. Unlike our brethren in Europe and Latin America, we do not have too much of a glorious past from which to draw inspiration; but that may be a strength as well as a weakness.