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On Being Neither Liberal nor Conservative   

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.

The division of the world into "liberal" and "conservative" on every topic from politics to our taste in cuisine, clothes, or automobiles is one of the really restricting developments that has ever happened to us.

If we are not what is considered popularly a "liberal," then we must, by some convoluted logic, be a "conservative," or vice versa. No third or fourth option is available as is usually the case in the real world. It has to be, we are told, either this way or that.

Such a view makes things very simple, I suppose. But it also reduces our minds to utter fuzziness. We are required to define everything as either liberal or conservative even when the two allowable terms of definition are not adequate to explain the reality that they are intended to describe.

Our political language is likewise amusingly confusing, especially when used to describe theological issues or currents. When I am asked whether I am a "liberal" or a "conservative," I reply that I am a "Thomist." Needless to say, Thomas, who was once considered a liberal Whig, is now considered a hopeless conservative, even though what he actually held defies such simple categories. In Thomas’s own methodology, the first thing he did was precisely to define what is a liberal or what is a conservative. He then explained why both, while containing some point of truth, were inadequate. Yet, it is almost impossible to escape this system of "either conservative or liberal," since whatever other category we use becomes merely grist for the liberal/conservative dichotomy.

Is Pope Benedict XVI, for instance, "liberal" or "conservative?" Or both? Or neither? As far as I can tell, many think he was once "liberal," but, alas, he has become "conservative," due perhaps to something in the Roman water. In TIME magazine’s edition on the election of the pope, Pope Benedict is depicted as either "arch-conservative" or an "ardent conservative."

Andrew Sullivan, in the same journal, tells us that Pope Benedict is "immune from reasoned inquiry," precisely the opposite of the truth. Sullivan evidently thinks that anyone who does not agree with him is unreasonable. Ratzinger himself says that he has not changed much over the years, but the world has. This observation brings up the directional question, how has the "world" itself changed? Is the change an improvement or a deformity? How can we tell if something is a deviation or a development if we have no idea of what the thing we are talking is in the first place?

Whether the notions of "liberal" or "conservative" themselves are, in content, stable and definite concepts or not is another — and not unimportant — matter. An economic liberal of the nineteenth century is a conservative economist today, but the ideas are roughly the same. The liberals of one age notoriously become the conservatives of the next. But without some criterion of judgment both notions may indicate mere change, not either decline or improvement.


The spiritual origins of totalitarianism are often found in a certain impatience at the slowness of the world to become what the ideologies tell us it ought to become.

Most social coercion today seems to come from those called liberal/left, not from those called conservatives, who are pretty "liberal" by comparison to self-designated "liberals." But then social coercion has always been a trademark of the left, which is overly anxious to improve things in this world, as, in their view, there is no other world or no other way to accomplish any improvement. So we find a certain impatience and restlessness in their agenda. The spiritual origins of totalitarianism are often found in a certain impatience at the slowness of the world to become what the ideologies tell us it ought to become.

Take, for example, the word "primitive." All through the Reformation there were Christians who wanted to return to the "primitive" Church as if all that happened since the founding of the Faith was a deviation from some set standard of practice that ought never to have developed or been further clarified. Yet the word "primitive" can have a very different kind of meaning.

Tertullian (d. 225 A.D.), for instance, was concerned with heresies. He wanted to find out what the various churches of his time (all Catholic, to be sure) had in common. "Every family has to be traced back to its origins," Tertullian said. "That is why we can say that all these great churches constitute that one original Church of the apostles; for it is from them that they all come. They are all primitive, all apostolic, because they are all one.... The principle on which these associations are based is common tradition by which they share the same sacramental bond." So here we see that we should be neither liberal or conservative, but "primitive," that is, we should know and preserve what was handed down.

Take another set of oft-heard words — "radical" or "revolutionary," for instance. Or take "dogmatic" or "reactionary." The first thing we need to notice is that each of these words has something fluid about it. What was once considered to be "liberal" can come to be called "reactionary." How so? Take, for instance, the Muslim practice of having four wives. In context, this precept should rather be stated, "having only four wives." It was a "conservative" standard. For this limit was originally conceived as a restriction — four, not ten or twenty. Who is more "liberal," the man with four wives or the one with ten? In this context, the really "radical" or "revolutionary" man is the one with only one wife. He is the one defying the culture. Yet, in a society of widespread divorce and infidelity, having only one wife is "conservative," if not down right primitive or reactionary, except for the fact that primitives never seem to have evolved the one wife theory. That came from Christianity, though it was in the logic of marriage itself.

The reason the present pope is consistently called "conservative," or "arch-conservative’ has nothing to do with the normal use of these terms or a fair understanding of his ideas. We might better call Benedict XVI a wild "radical" or even a crypto-"revolutionary," because what he stands for is not something that is constantly changing. His whole purpose in the world as pope, in a way, is to be sure that what was presented in the beginning is still presented in our own time, however it be depicted — liberal or conservative, radical or reactionary. It is much more "liberal," that is freeing, to hold the essence of the Decalogue than to deny it in the name of personal freedom.

That is to say, if most every one maintains that abortion, divorce, homosexuality, and so on are all right, it is a truly brave and "radical" view to think that they are not and to have reasons why they are not. After so much argument or controversy, we have to decide where we stand. If we think that the proper way to act is what was handed down to us, we are not "normal" citizens of this culture for whom the Decalogue can be changed, even by a pope, so they think. We go against such a view by holding that there are truths in every time. We are "liberal" or "radical" or even "revolutionary" over against the ingrained habits and established laws of our time, which do not reflect abiding standards.

If we are what is classically called "orthodox," we are neither liberal or conservative as these terms are used today. We are wildly radical and revolutionary. No one is radical as we are over against a culture that has embodied these practices into its very soul. This is what Pope Ratzinger meant by observing that it is the world, not he, that has changed. When Benedict XVI is called a "conservative" or an "arch-conservative," he is in fact nothing of the sort. He is much more "radical" than the wildest theory on the left or the right, however it be designated.

Any pope is ultimately judged by only one criterion, "did he keep the essence of the faith in an articulate manner that was the same as that originally handed down to him?" If he did not, what he has become is nothing more than a conformist to our times in the values are used most to define liberal and conservative. If he is beyond these things, as he is, he listens to another voice. This is the root of our freedom — that this voice remains for us to hear.

There is, in the end, something beyond liberal and conservative. That is the truth of things according to which we have a criterion that is not constantly changing between liberal and conservative and, in the meantime, one that means nothing but what we want it to mean. Thus if we claim we are "neither liberal nor conservative," we announce that there are criteria that exist outside of our narrow way of thinking, categories that better define for us what we are and ought to be.


Fr. James V. Schall. " On Being Neither Liberal nor Conservative." (May 5, 2005).

Reprinted with permission of


James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University and the author of numerous books in the areas of social issues, spirituality and literature including Roman Catholic Political Philosophy, Another Sort of Learning, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.

Read more of his essays on his website.

Copyright © 2005 Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.



Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved