According to some circles, in order to be a consistent conservative, you really need to be a Roman Catholic. Darryl Hart challenges that notion.
Ever since I have lived, moved, and had my being in conservative circles, I have encountered an unspoken ambivalence about Protestantism. (Truth in advertising: I am a Reformed Protestant, Calvinist for the church-history challenged; worse, I belong to the pint-sized Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Proceed with appropriate grains of salt.) At my first program with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, I met a female undergraduate from a conservative liberal arts college who told me she was Pentecostal but on her way to converting to Roman Catholicism. Why? “To be a consistent conservative is to be Catholic.” An initial lesson in the corridors of intellectual conservatism was that I, as a Protestant, was an inconsistent conservative.
[The essay defies summary or excerpting, so continue reading. Read the comments too. Then come back and discuss.]
My thoughts: First of all, this has to depend on the definition of “conservative,” there being many different kinds of conservatism, just as there are many things a person might want to conserve. If you want to conserve a medieval-like society with its authorities and hierarchies and an older version of Christianity, then, yes, you might favor Roman Catholicism.
But if your version of conservatism is like that of the Front Porch Republic, where Dr. Hart is having his discussion, we have something different. The slogan there is “Place. Limits. Liberty.” I suppose Catholics might have an advantage on the importance of place with their sense of “sacred space,” though Protestants can hold something similar. But “Limits”? A key concept is decentralized authorities. Surely a theology that emphasizes the church as the local congregation would promote this version of conservatism more than one that sees the church as a global empire centered in an absolute ruler in Rome. And “Liberty”? One can trace the concept of modern political liberty right back to the Reformation, a concept generally opposed by the collectivist, authoritarian structure of Roman Catholicism.
I do think Roman Catholic thinkers have addressed political and social issues at a greater level of sophistication than is common among Protestants. But if it isn’t too liberal to look at evidence, the claim of some Roman Catholics to embody the one true Conservatism must surely be tempered by the actual political beliefs of its followers. Catholics are an important part of the base of the Democratic party just as conservative Protestants are an important part of the base of the Republican party.
Also, is it even healthy for a theological tradition to be identified with a particular political ideology?