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From the Notebooks

Conservatism is the response to the liberal's efforts to replace God. More particularly, conservatism is the attempt to push the immutable truths–the human condition, natural law, the rule of law, objective morality–back into the public sphere, in opposition to the myriad of liberal schemes to replace the immutable truths.

This does not mean, incidentally, that a person must be religious in order to be a conservative, even though orthodox Christianity (with its bedrock belief in immutable truth) is a natural supplier of conservatives. A man might arrive at immutable truths through his studies. The person with a knowledge of history, for instance, begins to see certain human traits consistently rise to the surface, such as the trait of sinfulness and man's tendency to do evil unless something else pulls him up past such base desires. The student of literature begins to see the same types of lessons that take shape in the works of great writers like Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare, writers who tell their stories with penetrating analysis of the human condition. Conservatism has had, and will continue to have, many sound thinkers who are not believers.

Conservatism also, incidentally, entails a certain amount of humility. Although conservatism has had its share of arrogant individuals, most conservatives have an in innate sense of humility that is born of an awareness, whether cognizant or not, of the existence of immutable truths. Even the laissez-fare economist Friedrich Hayek, a conservative hardly known for his religious beliefs, pointed out that the “fundamental attitude of true individualism [i.e., the type of conservatism propounded by Hayek's school] is one of humility toward the processes by which mankind has achieved things which have not been designed or understood by any individual and are indeed greater than individual minds.”

It is not far-fetched to assert that conservatism begins with five simple truths:

(1) There is a personal God. Not a mere clockmaker deity who started the world, then ran off to take care of other things and forgot about us, but a personal God who cares about what happens here.

(2) This God is perfect and, because perfection cannot evolve since, by definition, it is fully actualized, He does not change.

(3) Because God does not change, neither do His laws. This includes the laws that are intimately tied up with His creation and accordingly were, in effect, “enacted” by Him. These laws govern the workings of the universe, including the creatures made in His image–us.

(4) Because we are His creatures, it is our obligation to discern, obey and apply those laws in all spheres of our existence, whether the application is the liturgy for Sunday worship or how to treat others in the marketplace.

(5) Earthly conditions are constantly changing, so God's laws must be applied to new situations all the time, and this means the laws must be applied differently. The laws themselves don't change, but they must be adapted to fit changing circumstances.

This breakdown, of course, is too simple and, ultimately, inadequate. The non-believing conservative, for instance, would “jump in” at step three and discern the immutable laws but not ascribe them to a creator. It also doesn't account for believing liberals: those individuals who accept all five premises, but consistently come down on the opposite side of political debates.

Notwithstanding the shortcomings of the five-step summary, conservatism's crux is the attempt to link God's immutability, including His laws, to society's mutations.

Conservatives have frequently turned to the Catholic Church because only the Church is able to handle this crux. Society's mutations are a whirling mess. Every social or political issue implicates, at some level, every major area of study: science, history, philosophy, theology, literature, psychology, sociology, hermeneutics, archaeology–the list with its sub-lists could go on for an entire page. No one can accumulate all the past wisdom and keep on top of the accruing wisdom. Only the Church, the Catholic believes, with its 2,000-year continuity, legion of scholars, humble but wise bishops, an authoritative leader in the Pope and, most importantly of all, its divine sanction (Mt. 16:18) and the guidance of the Holy Spirit can reach definitive conclusions. And only the Church, with its numerous followers, solid history, hierarchy and refusal to rush to any conclusions can command the universal respect necessary to put its theoretical conclusions into effective practice. Authority, tradition, deliberateness: It's a natural fit for the conservative.