Friday, September 10, 2010

Conservatism is Not Enough

Is Conservatism enough? Is it enough to restore America? Naturally, most Conservatives would say yes. Conservatives, no doubt, have made vital contributions to the free market, national security, private property rights, and limited government. However, this contribution is mostly within the realm of ideas. American democracy needs more than good ideas to sustain itself; it needs good people.

If there was anything that Christianity demonstrated to the world, it is that man cannot be saved nor reformed on ideas alone. Greek philosophy, as noble as it was in discerning truths about God, the soul and democracy, failed to improve the morals of the people in the fifth century, B.C. As a result, the high achievements of Greek civilization did not last. Instead, the Greek Empire fell for the same reasons why all empires and nations fall...from moral decay. The greatness of Greece eventually gave way to the Roman Empire.

True redemption involves the renewal, not only of the intellect, but of the will and heart. As St. John the Evangelist said, “While the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17) It was the initiation into the person of Christ, that is, the Mysteries of the Faith, the Liturgy and the Sacraments, that redeemed and civilized humanity. Suffering was given meaning, pleasure was given perspective, manual labor ennobled, and the lowly were raised up. As one nineteenth century priest said, the Gospel appealed to the totality of man; under divine grace, every aspect of life was impacted and renewed. As valuable as Conservatism is, it can only be adapted to a portion of our lives; many times leaving personal morality unreformed.

James Cardinal Gibbons (a nineteenth century Fulton Sheen) wrote a book in 1889 called, Our Christian Heritage. Part of this book was dedicated to the critique of Greek and pagan philosophy. He explains why the Greek and Roman philosophers failed to produce good men. This historic lesson is instructive because the Founding Fathers of America took for granted that the Constitution was made for a Christian people; that is, for people who are morally upright.

Cardinal Gibbons' critique on Greek and pagan philosophy should be of interest to both Christians and Conservatives. After all, the limitations of Greek philosophy can be applied to Conservatism for similar reasons. Chief among those reasons is that ideas alone do not make good people. It is not enough that people are educated; in order for freedom, democracy and civilization to endure, they must be morally good.

Quotes from James Cardinal Gibbons, Our Christian Heritage:

“Philosophers ‘might’ have been able to check immorality. Some of them, indeed, guided by the light of reason, inculcated beautiful and sublime moral maxims; but many causes that rendered their influence for the good were scarcely perceptible among the people. Their audience was generally composed of a narrow circle of literary men.

They had no well-defined and uniform moral code; and they were often vague and contradictory in their ethical teaching. They suggested no adequate incentives to the practice of virtue. They never employed the greatest argument of the Apostle St. Paul for morality: This is the will of God and for your sanctification.”

Greek Philosophers: The Weakness of Their Morality (This also speaks to the insufficiency of Conservatism).

1. No divine model held up to them
2. No uniform criterion for right and wrong
3. Motives presented were weak and insufficient
4. No sanction was appended to their moral law
5. Teachers were limited in sphere of action which was inconsistent
with their ethical instruction. The best of them were stained by some
gross vice.

The superiority of Christian Morality:

“Example of Christ is the foundation of Christian morality. There is not a single principle of the natural law; there is not a healthy moral precept of the [pagan] sages or legislators, or any commandment of the Decalogue; that is not engrafted in the evangelical code. The Christian religion appropriates all that is good, preserving the gold and eliminating the dross.”

Catholics should be confident, therefore, that the remedy the Church offers is not only perfectly adapted to human nature, but there is no aspect of human existence which is beyond her reach. The aid of social or political ideologies- as good as they are -are partial and temporary. Only the Church, the extension of Christ's Incarnation, applies the remedy which is whole and permanent. She not only gives the light of truth to the mind, but she empowers the will to be morally good. As such, self-governance and limited government will become a real viable option.