Catholic and Conservative Without Contradiction

by Sal on January 13, 2009

in Politics,Religion

I have heard a lot over the years about how Catholics tend to be divided in their political beliefs between liberalism and conservatism.  Indeed, the Catholic electorate tends to swing back and forth between the Democrats and Republicans depending on the year.  It is widely assumed that being Catholic means that you are socially conservative yet fiscally liberal, or liberal in matters of social justice.  The American Bishops have helped to convey that belief in many of their writings.

I am both a devout Catholic and a committed Conservative, and I believe that there is no contradiction between the two.  Aside from the obvious synergies between American Conservatism and Catholicism in matters of morality, such as the common beliefs on abortion, same sex marriage, and euthanasia, which I share, Catholicism and Conservatism are completely compatible.

When I was a student in college, I took a course entitled “Catholic Social Thought,” primarily because I knew and enjoyed the professor who was teaching the class, and secondarily because I was interested in its content.  At the time, I fully expected the course to create a bit of an internal conflict between my political beliefs and my religious faith.  What surprised me was that throughout the course, I found that Conservative thought lines up perfectly with what is genuine Catholic Social Thought as taught through the official teachings of the Church (encyclicals) as opposed to just “implementation” statements put forth by various bishops, both in the United States and Rome.

Catholicism (and indeed Christianity in general) teaches social justice.  It teaches that we as human beings are called to love our fellow man, and to care for those in need.  Catholic Social Thought teaches the dignity of the human person at all stages in life, the importance of justice, and the caring for of the weak and vulnerable (those unable to care for themselves).  What Catholic Social Thought does not say is what structures should be in place to accomplish those goals.

One important Catholic Social Principle that is often not known by most people, and is rarely if ever spoken by the American Bishops, is the principle of Subsidiarity.  This principle states that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization that can be done by a smaller and and simpler organization.  The principle was first outlined by Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Rerum Novarum, considered to be the first major encyclical on Catholic Social Thought in the modern world, and was reiterated by Pope John Paul II in Centesimus Annus, in which he criticized the “social assistance state”.

This principle of Subsidiarity marries perfectly with Conservatism (as opposed to Libertarianism, which espouses an everyman-for-himself attitude).  Conservatism is not opposed to helping people.  In fact, it’s very premise of limited government exists because government gets in the way and does things inefficiently.  Look at any social program you want, and see how much of the actual tax money poured in is actually received by the recipients.  People who are poor and disadvantaged should be helped, but the state is a poor helper.  When one compares social programs created by the government with private charities and organizations (such as Catholic Charities), it is astounding to see how much more efficient charities are in actually providing assistance to those who need it.  This is because private charities are smaller, local, and less bureaucratic.

Charities receive much less money than they probably would otherwise due to the burdensome personal income taxes in this country.  Those who can afford it and would be willing are both taxed higher and given an excuse (well, my tax dollars pay for it, etc.)  This takes the sense of personal responsibility out of the concept of Christian charity.

The state creates a cycle of dependency which is an affront to the dignity of the human person.  People are kept down by virtue of the social programs that exist, creating an incentive to stay poor rather than to lift oneself out.  As a Conservative, I believe in everyone’s individual ability to succeed, and believe in lifting people out of their poverty rather than providing a check every month.

Government is a necessary evil because it performs a necessary functions required for social living.  Whatever government does impedes necessarily on individual freedom.  Sometimes, this is a good thing, but most of the time, it is an impediment.  The massive amount of regulations, rules, and “nanny’ policies that have been created are all degradations of individual personal freedom.  The oppressive tax code takes money from those who have earned it and inefficiently gives it to those who may need it but have not earned it, with no clear path to lift them out of their need on a permanent basis.  Government meddling in such things as health care and land purchasing has led to astronomical health care costs and an economy that is in trouble.  Individuals working together for the common good while at the same time working for their own self-interest (to feed their families, have a comfortable life, etc) generally leads to prosperity for most.  While some may fall through the cracks, it is up to the people in local communities, churches, charities, families, and as a last resort, even government, are responsible for lifting those people up and giving them the skills to make it on their own.

Government does have a role in this.  Government is responsible for removing barriers, for ensuring that all are treated equally, and are given the same equality of opportunity regardless of race, color, creed, socio-economic class, and gender.  Yet it is government today that keeps people down.  The government’s stubborn reliance on the municipality-based public school system keeps those who are poor in low-performing schools with no hope of escape.  It is government that tells minority students that they can’t make it on their own without assistance from the government, affirmative action, thus leading them to believe that the world is stacked against them.  Government today needs a conservative focus to promote the human individual, get government out of the way, and promote local, private  organizations to lift up those who are truly in need.

There is no contradiction between Catholicism and Conservatism.  The principles of Catholic Social Thought, when properly applied, while not preclude a role for government, does not envision the state as the primary source of Christian Charity.  Government programs are not charity at all, but rather social engineering experiments that have failed and continue to fail.  Rather, we as the Church, the People of God, are responsible for those in need, and are called to treat them with justice, lift them out of their poverty, and above all to treat them with the dignity inherent in the human person.

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January 14, 2009 at 1:15 pm

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Micha Elyi January 16, 2009 at 3:24 am

“There is no contradiction between Catholicism and Conservatism.”

That’s putting it too mildly. Christian personal morality requires conservatism. Anti-conservatism is anti-Catholic; there’s a reason why socialism has been opposed by the Church Universal on moral grounds. To flirt with liberalism of the modern sort (left-liberalism, to be distinguished from the classical liberalism in which one was generous with ones own money) is to place oneself in the near occasion of sin. Coveting thy neighbor’s goods then stealing them using Caesar’s taxing power as ones money-launderer is a strong temptation to today’s fashionable liberals.

“The principles of Catholic Social Thought, when properly applied, while not precluding a role for government, does not envision the state as the primary source of Christian Charity. Government programs are not charity at all…”

Yes, State charity is an impossibility. Thank you for pointing that out.

“Rather, we as the Church, the People of God, are responsible for those in need…”

So true. Left-liberal welfare statists desire to escape personal responsibility for those in need whom they encounter. To push someone in need off onto some State program is to push that person in need away from oneself. That is a deeply un-Christian behavior.

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Sal January 16, 2009 at 4:09 pm

The problem is that to a person who just looks at media portrayals, it seems intuitive that government helping the poor is charitable. When Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi talk about caring for the poor, they sound compassionate, and the media pushes the idea that government assistance is true compassion. In reality, as Micha points out, pushing someone into a state program is pushing them away from oneself. People also look at the Church’s sense of community and communion as a comparison to socialism or even Marxism, yet this is also a false comparison. The Community of Believers, as typified in the early Church, was separate from the state and it was a group of people, grounded in faith, who gave freely to aid those in need. This is true Christian charity.

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Ed January 16, 2009 at 10:01 am

Archbishop Chaput’s book ” Render unto Ceaser ” should be a manditory read for anyone who thinks they are Catholic. It makes me ill to see 1/2 of the Catholic church support a culture of death.

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Johnny Michael August 13, 2009 at 7:48 pm

I’m so glad I found your blog. I am trying to reconcile my conservative political activism with my blossoming Catholicism. Thanks, and I look forward to reading you regularly…

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Sal August 13, 2009 at 9:28 pm

I think there has been a tendency by some to think that Catholicism and Liberalism go together because of Jesus’ concern for the poor and the least among us. What a politically conservative Catholic needs to espouse is the same personal concern for the downtrodden that Christ had, from the unborn to those suffering from hunger and disease, and even those suffering from addiction.

What the Catholic Conservative objects to is the use of the state to impose tyranny in the name of false compassion. Statism always breeds corruption and tyranny, which is why our founding father’s espoused limited government. Rejecting the idea of big government does not abdicate us from our own personal responsibility for the poor, but rather increases the need for our own personal responsibility. Because the state cannot be relied upon, it is incumbent upon individuals, upon each one of us, to do the work of Christ and care for the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters. This is why I believe that Conservatism and Catholicism are completely compatible and in fact complimentary of each other.

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Johnny Michael August 13, 2009 at 10:18 pm

Yes, I like your way of putting it very much. What I love about the church is that of it’s “Subsidiarity,” to me meaning decentralization and democratization. The strength of the priest in his particular parish is very powerful and he’s only one step away from the lay or the parishioners. Also look at EWTN: If the shows can generate income to survive they go on; so in a sense it’s very “market” driven. Any time we can draw the power up instead of top-down is almost always an opportunity for personal–and–communal satisfaction. The State is a monster pretending to be a wet-nurse. It’s quite horrifying to see how far the current federal administration has gone in such a short time in threatening fundamental benevolent institutions like the church and its charities, etc and sovereign individuals. I am still challenged though, with defeating a foe but not hating him or her. Despite their actions most politicians are good-hearted and want the best for people, but as soon as they are invested with the power that government is they begin to rot; they become politically psychotic. Everything to them is an opportunity to “help.” And anyone who opposes them are crazy or evil or hate-mongers. We have had several tea-parties here in Orlando and the best one we had so far was a small gathering where anyone who wanted the mic got it. It was more sharing and witnessing than speech-a-fying. We are developing smaller decentralized parties, not the big rallies that politicians and celebrities exploit. We’ll keep you posted and thank God I found you guys!

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Danny Boy March 21, 2010 at 9:01 pm

Originally Posted By Johnny MichaelI’m so glad I found your blog. I am trying to reconcile my conservative political activism with my blossoming Catholicism. Thanks, and I look forward to reading you regularly…

I can’t agree more. I’ve been digging into the beliefs of Catholicism and I’m slowly converting from my original, life-long protestantism. But one of the biggest stumbling blocks has been the vocal leftist “Catholics” that I read about and see and hear on tv and the radio. My strong conservativism wasn’t meshing with what I was finding in the Catholic church. To find a blog like this–with that hilarious “Don’t make me come down there” Reagan button–is a breath of fresh air and couldn’t have come at a better time for me. Thanks so much for showing that Conservative thought isn’t limited to the Protestants!

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Tom March 21, 2010 at 9:19 pm

Gentlemen, thank you. As a latecomer to conservatism and a returning prodigal with regard to Mother Church over the last five years, you are a Godsend. I’ve been googling “conservative catholic” every so often for many months and have found little of substance until finding your blog.
From my (okay, retroactive from age 37 or so) boyhood idol WFB, Jr. through Scalia and Thomas up to, yes, Laura Ingraham and Hannity, I knew there was no mutual exclusivity between the two “faiths,” not to be too flip.
Why, then, do the American bishops so often side with the pagans (and that’s being kind). Has the Church hierarchy actually been infiltrated by communists? Would John Paul II put up with the constant playing of footsie with hardcore leftists? I’m thinking of his quiet directive to the American bishops during the “no nukes” 80s to let Reagan be Reagan. The rest is history. Would Benedict ever take steps to rein them in?

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Tony May 6, 2010 at 12:37 pm

Excellent website! For those of us in the military (active, former, and retired): http://www.catholicmil.org/

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Geraldine June 25, 2010 at 12:38 pm

I am confused by that statement. how do you suppose individuals uplift themselves without certain programs to get them started? Don’t forget there are conservatives institutions that are also designed to keep the poor people where they are. What then? Regardless of personal responsibility, there are the American Dream is no longer absolute but competitive, and a lot of the elites make sure they stay in power —both conservatives and liberals. I think we need programs and personal responsibility. Money corrupts and organized greed always defeats disorganized democracy. By the way I am catholic. @Micha Elyi -

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Hugh February 4, 2011 at 12:55 pm

I find this to be a breath of fresh air. I am currently going through RCIA to become a Catholic. I have found that there are alot of Liberals who are catholics. I am from Massachusetts one of the most Catholic states in the union. I can think of no better example than the state of Socialist western europe. They for the most part have adopted socialism, and how much better off are they spirtually? Has anyone seen the number of Christians in countries like France, England or Sweden. These people sadly have for the most part abandoned Christianity, and now bow to the almighty state there’s leftism run amuk. If you look at more conservative European contries like Poland they are still for the most part a very devout people, and after living under the jackboot of communism for 45 years they know the dangers of extreme left policies. No government should ever take the place of our lord.

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Josh July 19, 2011 at 6:34 pm

@Geraldine

seems to me that the money and the corrupting influence it has often end up residing within the government itself. Government programs do not, in general, promote the self reliance necessary to better ones life situations. A person one their own who must seek their own charity on a personal level generally has a much better outcome, mostly because they end up dealing with someone who not only personally cares about their situation, but has incentive to help them stand on their own. I take umbrage at mention of “catholic programs that help keep down the poor” with no supporting facts. Perhaps this poster should revisit the core tenets of the faith for a refresher course on the responsibilities of a christian towards the poor on a personal level.

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Ross September 20, 2011 at 11:01 am

Have never bumped into this site before, but it sounds good stuff.
May I introduce our expat conservative blog, and esp, for Catholics, its latest post.

http://rossrightangle.wordpress.com/2011/09/20/pope-for-bali-first-demand-straight-answers-from-these-moderate-muslim-students/

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Jack October 25, 2011 at 1:25 pm

@Josh – Perhaps you shouldn’t take umbrage at that statement since it was never made. She stated that there are “conservative institutions that are also designed to keep the poor people where they are.” Which is very much true in today’s day and age, with Koch style conservatives, most tax policy, lobbying, etc… is geared to the more financially stable few in this country.

I can’t say I disagree that charity would be better if left to the private charities to support the less fortunate in their troubled times, but I can completely disagree that the private charities have shown a propensity to accomplish this task. Especially in times like we have now (economically), the amount of needed charity far outweighs the amount available. The writer claims that this can be blamed on the burdening tax system, but history shows that private charity has rarely been able to accommodate needs.

That aside, the writer claims that the state is responsible for enabling the human “failure” through support and that if it was to discontinue, private charity would offer the support and the drive to become more ‘accomplished’. There’s nothing, absolutely nothing, which stands in the way of private charity now. If enough private charity was available, providing this support to the needy, and people were going out of their way to take care of their brothers and sisters, state provided assistance would dwindle (it’s a two way street). The problem is that private charity never actually made it to the game. And before the writer goes through the tax argument again, the Church is a tax shelter, any money a person donates to a charity (through a church or not) with receipt, can be written off in taxes. No Church should or would deny a donator the ability to claim a charity on taxes.

Also, Liberals are not at all opposed to private charity nor, as someone so invidiously stated, do they prefer it over actually getting involved with those in need. It’s been my observation that the opposite is quite often true. Those who are more socially liberal will tend to actually get involved with the person, going out of their way to provide assistance and comfort (with no strings attached). Whereas, those more conservative either avoid it all together or their charity is done to promote community standing, church standing, or even for tax purposes and there is very little face-time with those in need. Along with that, when the private charity is a religious establishment, it typically comes with the message of that religion, what does that do for a society that is predominately culturally mixed? Does that mean that to receive charity an atheist, Muslim, Jew, etc… is subject to preaching? It’s already this way with many religious charities or support groups.

I’m amused at how easily commenters and the writer categorize liberalism as a socialist, communist, or un-American. Most of you seem articulate, and intelligent, so why such limited thinking? Conservatism, Liberalism, Religious conviction or lack thereof are all what make this the country that it is and simple minded views such as “Leftist Commies”, shows very little regard for the fundamentals principles. I can just as easily claim that this article is nothing more than an excuse (validation) for the Conservative Catholics to yet still avoid any social responsibility while placing blame on the Liberal Left, and/or big government. A conservative catholic is no less blameless than a liberal catholic if both are looking for an excuse to blame the other for their own failures.

One line from the blog piece: “Government today needs a conservative focus to promote the human individual, get government out of the way, and promote local, private organizations to lift up those who are truly in need.”

I’d fix it by saying this: “People today need to focus on and promote the human individual, and support local, private organizations to lift up those who are in need, which in turn will eliminate needed government support.”

Note that I also removed the word “truly” form “truly in need”, because, as is usual with the judgmental human nature, it presumes to know who is, and who isn’t, in need based on their own personal perception.

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Humilis Vir December 6, 2011 at 8:07 pm

It seems as if you have failed to recognize what it means to be Catholic.

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Quandry May 21, 2012 at 3:16 pm

IS there such a thing as a (politically) conservative Catholic? Catholics, by their own teachings, must not be marxist or communist or socialist or whatever you care to name it, but they’ve failed.

I feel like President Reagan when he said, “I didn’t leave the Democrat party; the party left me.”

- Quandry

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