These days we hear a lot about whether a certain politician or position is “conservative.” But that label is often used with deliberate ambiguity. Just what is meant by conservatism? Here is an excerpt from The State in Catholic Thought by H.A. Rommen, who taught Politics at Georgetown University from 1953 until his death in 1967. This summer, Cluny Media will be publishing a new edition of this classic with a new Introduction by noted conservative commentator and professor Bruce P. Frohnen. Rommen’s masterpiece is a magisterial and sweeping analysis of Catholic political thought from Augustine to World War II. In this excerpt, Rommen offers this timeless description of “the Conservative Mind”:
When conservatives study politics, they study Aristotle and Thucydides, Tacitus and Plutarch because they are convinced that all external technological and social progress and all the machines of mass education do not change human nature. They fear the mass civilization, the jungles of our modern cities. They do not trust in the sovereignty of the masses; in the majority decision of these, one cannot trust. The masses are not masters of themselves; therefore to hand the government over to them would be the dissolution of culture and order. The masses have no dignity and therefore no gift of distinction; they are an easy prey of faithless and selfish demagogues who lead them into anarchy. These conservative thinkers take Aristotle’s definition of democracy literally; it is a degeneration of politeia.
This attitude loves the soil and the forests, the farms and the old small towns, the guilds of the Middle Ages. It is suspicious of the multimillionaires and the crowded industrial cities and the vast uniform masses of labor unions and the power of their bosses. It is distrustful of the many mass organizations before which the individual is not less impotent than he was earlier before the power of the absolute prince. It does not admire the machines and the machine-produced mass civilization, and its literature.
The conservative mind dislikes capitalism which denies that the absolute factory monarch has any social responsibility for the workers. To the conservative, capitalism has substituted for the master-servant relation, surrounded and permeated by mutual trust, loyalty, and responsibility, a cold labor contract supposedly regulating the sale of labor power between free individuals, but actually subjecting the laborer to a cruel and irresponsible rule of the profit motive of corporate money-power. The conservative mind spurns the egalitarian propositions of capitalism because it contends that capitalism, in spite of assumed democratic equality, produces by no means equality but a hideous economic hierarchy based on mere economic success without regard to moral values. It points out that democracy as the fertile soil of capitalism is only an illusory trapping for the inhuman tyranny of capital instead of the benevolent paternal rule of a monarch responsible to divine and natural law. Never has liberty existed more securely than under a pious king.
This attitude may produce a gentle cynicism, but it will never produce an agnostic; for it believes that Church and religion form an essential part of time and so share its honor. The Church is to the conservative mind the greatest conservative power. The Church is the continuous admonition that there are higher values than profits and material pleasure. The Church’s doctrine of original sin makes man aware of the precariousness of material progress, of the weakness of his nature; it shows the impossibility of the autonomy of the individual, and the futility of all attempts to surrender the public and moral order to the selfish free interests of free individuals. The Church, the protector of the family, stands high in the conservative mind because the latter values the family more than it does the liberty of the individual or the power of the state. If anyone tries to understand that this attitude is human and always partly justified, he will also better understand many antidemocratic and anti-liberalist utterances of a Gregory XVI, a Pius IX, a Taparelli. Though perhaps extreme in their expression, they form strains of thought that are a part of Catholic political philosophy, which is as conservative as it is liberal.
Image: That champion of Conservatism, Pope Leo XIII, public domain