Ideology As Religion

by Thomas Stork

This article first appeared on and is reprinted here with permission.

For many years, whenever anyone would tell me that he was a conservative Catholic, I would generally reply, "No, don't say conservative, say orthodox. We're orthodox, not conservative." But just lately I have come to realize that I was wrong. Very many of those people who describe themselves as conservative Catholics are in fact conservative Catholics. That is, although to some extent they may be orthodox, their religious faith, to a greater or lesser degree, is a function of a socio-cultural ideology. It is not their primary loyalty. It is derivative.

Let me, at the outset, state that I will be describing ideal types in this article. That is, many of those who call themselves and are either conservative or liberal Catholics, are not perfectly so. In many cases they have an uneasy adherence to orthodoxy coexisting with their liberal or conservative cultural commitment. But by describing these ideal types - who by the way do really exist - we will be able to see the difference between a primarily religious orientation, which has cultural and even political implications, and a primarily socio-cultural orientation, which has religious implications.

To call oneself an orthodox Catholic is to see oneself from a theological and ecclesiastical perspective. For the opposite of orthodox is not liberal, it is heretical. There have been many heresies which have troubled the Church of God throughout her history, but today the major one which threatens the Church, and which indeed has captured many of her organs and members, is modernism. But the opposite of conservative is liberal. Neither of these terms has primary reference to theology or the Church.

There are in the United States today two different cultural camps, namely the Right and the Left, or conservatives and liberals. It is difficult to define precisely either of these two camps or to say what distinguishes them from each other. For among conservatives are those who favor and who detest democracy; who are religious and who are agnostic; who support a strong government and who want either decentralized authority or almost none at all. Some on the right criticize turning higher education into simply preparation for a job; others are trying their best to make the nation's colleges and universities into training schools for corporations, paid for either by government or parents or students themselves, but certainly not by the employer. Some support an interventionist foreign policy; some want America to look after herself first and not worry too much about the rest of the world. And among liberals the same kinds of divisions can be found. Some are religious; some fear and detest religion. Some favor strong central government; some oppose it, again either in the name of decentralized government or of anarchism. Even on so-called family issues, such as abortion and homosexuality, one can find people on either side of the divide who do not agree with their ideological brethren, although admittedly here the divide between liberal and conservative is sharper than on some issues.

But if this is so, how can we distinguish these two sides? Actually it is hard to do so with any precision. It is in many ways a matter of culture, almost of style. With whom do people feel comfortable, with whom do they identify? What buzz words do they use? Even what clothes do they wear and what foods do they eat?

Some of the distinctions between these two groups is founded on that old and noxious maxim that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Thus during the 1950s traditionalists and free market libertarians banded together to form the American conservative movement, based on little but a common hostility toward Communism and big government. But a principled and knowledgeable traditionalist ought to detest the free market as much as he does socialism, for both are alien and utopian systems which were foisted upon Western culture by the innovators of their time. Frank S. Meyer, widely held as one of the founders of this so-called conservative "fusionism," attempted to set forth seven ideas or principles to which American conservatives, by and large, adhered to, and which liberals, by and large, did not. Yet his very first one, "the existence of an objective moral order based upon ontological foundations," a belief I am in entire agreement with, hardly seems to justify many of the actual political positions commonly associated with conservatism. For example, people who recognize "the existence of an objective moral order" need hardly favor a free-market economy or a bellicose foreign policy that seems in fact to reject objective moral norms in favor of messianic American expansionism. The greatest upholder of "an objective moral order" throughout history has been the Catholic Church, but the Church by no means accepts many of the common presuppositions and tenets of American conservatism. I do not necessarily dispute the fact that many or even most of those who call themselves conservatives recognize an "objective moral order" - simply that the rest of their program and ideas do not logically follow from that recognition.

So even though the beliefs of liberals and conservatives sometimes overlap and neither forms a coherent whole, nevertheless these groups do exist. And, I will argue, the primary identification of many active Catholics in the United States is to one of these two groups, and their religion is, to that extent, simply a part of their ideological identification. That is, they are conservatives and thus conservative Catholics, or liberals, and thus liberal Catholics. They do not identify primarily in a theological manner. If they are at all orthodox, it is almost as an afterthought or accident.

The majority of conservatives, Meyer says, "hold theistic views." And the majority at least gives lip service to notions of absolute moral standards, which they often call "traditional morality" or even just simply "values." This is especially so in areas relating to sex and the family, although hardly at all in areas relating to economic justice or foreign affairs. In fact, many of the upholders of "traditional morality," hardly recognize that these latter are also spheres in which there are moral concerns.

Thus Catholics who are attracted by conservative rhetoric and uphold (as they should) absolute moral norms in relation to the family are naturally drawn to the conservative side in our socio-cultural debates and thus tend to identify with the conservative cause as a whole. Not well versed in Catholic social teaching or the history of the Church, and unable to distinguish between adherence to Catholic orthodoxy and adherence to a conservative movement that happens to overlap with orthodoxy on some points, they often become enthusiastic partisans of the conservative cause. They are religious; conservatives seem to be religious; therefore they are conservatives. Their religion gradually becomes a by-product of their commitment to conservatism, and conservatism becomes the standard by which they judge everything. Thus they are often puzzled and even shocked when they discover papal statements which contradict important elements of American conservative programs, particularly when these were issued by the popes of the early twentieth century, whom they have been taught to regard as more "conservative." So they may adopt various theories to explain away this dissonance, such as that the popes were overstepping the proper bounds of their teaching when they spoke to social and political issues, or that somehow the 1991 encyclical of John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, has changed two millennia of Catholic teaching. But the real difficulty here is that they are conservatives first and Catholics second.

Of course, a similar process occurs with Catholics who call themselves liberal. Like their conservative brethren, they are often attracted to the liberal cause by concerns which are entirely valid: a desire to help the poor, to promote peace, to end discrimination, all of which they recognize as in accord with Catholic teaching and tradition. And because it is liberals who generally promote such causes (or at least claim to), they become liberals and their religion becomes an adjunct of their liberal commitment. They too tend to drift away from the authentic standard of faith, and too often will oppose Catholic teaching on such subjects as abortion or the ordination of women because it conflicts with their fundamental adherence to liberalism. They are liberals first and Catholics second.

But with Catholics who are orthodox it is otherwise. They are happy to be docile to the Church's genuine teaching, to oppose abortion and the unfettered free market with equal gusto, not caring whether this fits in with either the conservative or the liberal position as long as it is faithful to Catholic teaching. Sometimes they may make alliances with conservatives, sometimes with liberals, but knowing all the time that they belong to neither camp. Their social, political and cultural positions result from their commitment to the Catholic faith. They do not use religion as a means of expressing either a conservative or liberal commitment or ideology.

The particular positions of both conservative and liberal Catholics can usually be predicted in advance. Are you a conservative Catholic? Then you probably are suspicious of labor unions, look with at least some measure of approval on free-market capitalism, and, of course, oppose legalized abortion. Are you a liberal Catholic? Then your positions are probably the opposite of these. But an orthodox Catholic often holds beliefs and positions that confound those who know nothing but the liberal/conservative charade. Thus an orthodox Catholic will obviously oppose all legalized abortion, but, if he is well-informed, will realize that papal teaching and Catholic tradition have never seen man's economic appetites as trustworthy guides to justice or even prosperity. Likewise an orthodox Catholic will confuse people by supporting strict adherence to Vatican guidelines on liturgical celebrations and perhaps even a widespread restoration of the Tridentine form of the Latin liturgy, at the same time as he speaks against corporate domination of the economy and warns that the policy of "my country right of wrong" originated in Hell.

Nor do I mean to suggest that for orthodox Catholics religion is something so unworldly as to have no implications in the real world. Far from it. If we read the encyclicals of the popes, not just John Paul II, but all of them, we will see men passionately concerned with this world, with the great political, economic and social questions of their times. But this papal concern flowed from the Faith, from the teaching of Jesus Christ, not from any ideological position. Their theology necessarily had implications for the life of the world. To follow the example of the popes and of Catholic tradition is to be an orthodox Catholic. This is what every Catholic should strive to be.

So now then, whenever someone tells me that he's a conservative Catholic, perhaps I'll reply, "Too bad. For myself, I try to be orthodox."