A Catholic Understanding
Published on June 22, 2011 By lulapilgrim In Politics

The following article written by Dr. Arthur M. Hippler is from "The Wanderer" newspaper dated September 18, 2003.

It is perhaps somewhat of a cliché  that Catholic social teaching is "neither conservative nor liberal."  And yet as one surveys the papal encyclicals of the last century or so, one is struck by the fact that "liberalism" is almost always under criticism, while no such corresponding criticism attaches to the word "conservatism".  Why is this, and how do the Popes understand these words?

In our day, “liberalism” implies an emphasis on government power for the alleviation of the disadvantaged, with a corresponding de-emphasis or outright rejection of traditional forms of religion and morality. “Conservatism” on the other hand, covers a multitude of opinions opposed to contemporary liberalism, even opinions antagonistic to each other. (For example, libertarians who oppose “big government” and Chamber of Commerce types who like government assistance for business, may both be labeled “conservatives”). Conservatism, in other words, is described as a reaction to liberalism.

For the Popes, liberalism is first a theological position, then political. Liberalism begins as a rejection of the Church and her authority, both spiritual and temporal. As Leo XIII explains, the “followers of liberalism deny the existence of any divine authority to which obedience is due, and proclaim that every man is the law to himself” (Libertas, n. 15.). As a means to this rejection, the liberal denies the divine basis of the moral law, substituting in its place a “theory of rights,” whether natural (Locke) or merely positive (Hobbes).

In the political order, religious participation in social life is suppressed or excluded in the name of  “religious liberty.”  By this principle, schools, hospitals, and other charitable institutions were taken from the Church and managed solely by the state. As Leo XIII observed at the beginning of Rerum Novarum, “the ancient workingmen’s guilds were abolished in the last century, and no other protective organization took their place. Public institutions and the laws set aside the traditional religion. Hence, by degrees it has come to pass that workingmen have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hard heartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition.” (n. 3).

This is the first stage of liberalism, often called “classical liberalism”. Cast off from the care of religious institutions that protected them, the poor and the working classes are at the mercy of a political order dominated by an upper class that has grown rich by liquidating the Church. As a reaction against these injustices comes the second stage: socialism, or in its more extreme form, Communism.

The socialist is a liberal too, for he rejects Church authority and the divine basis of the moral law, even more vociferously than the classical liberal. As Pius XI explained, “Let all remember that Liberalism is the father of this Socialism that is pervading morality and culture and Bolshevism will be its heir” (Quadragesimo Anno, n. 12.). But the socialist solution   to the injustice of plutocracy is putting all ownership in the hands of the benevolent state, now governed by revolutionary leaders.

It is this latter stage of liberalism that we identify as liberalism, and conservatism, commonly so called as classical liberalism. What does the modern conservative wish to “conserve”?---limited government, an understanding of rights from John Locke, and maybe a form of civil religion that allows God’s name on coinage and government buildings. He certainly does not wish to conserve the theological and political patrimony of the Catholic Church that engendered the civilization in which he lives.

In this brief overview, we can see why the Church condemns liberalism, but says little about  “conservatism”. The doctrines we call “conservative” and “liberal” are,  from the Church’s perspective, variations of liberalism.   

Indeed the Church in her teaching and practice is perhaps the only truly conservative institution left in the modern world, which helps explain why she is so despised, and why her enemies are so eager for her to change.




on Jun 22, 2011

I hope you all find it OK that I posted this in the politics forum.


on Jun 22, 2011

It is political.

on Jun 23, 2011

I find it rather interesting that both Blacks and Hispanics, ethnic groups who's culture is based strongly around religion, are normally associated with Democrats and/or Liberals considering not only is this party related to the slave owners of the past but also tends to be very much against religion in general even when it comes to your right to freedom of religion. In a world where the Gov't runs and controls nearly everything in your society, there is no way freedom of religion could ever work.

on Jun 28, 2011

In a world where the Gov't runs and controls nearly everything in your society, there is no way freedom of religion could ever work.

This is the crux of the matter. The more the government, the less the freedom, especially religious freedom. We are seeing the growing assault on religious freedoms around the world, not only in Communist countries, or in Muslim countries, but in Western, secular ones that are increasingly marginalizing Christianity.