What Pope Francis Can Teach Conservatives

This past Monday, Pope Francis set conservatives tongues (of both a Catholic persuasion and otherwise) wagging with his strong words in a Monday morning homily against what he called an “adolescent progressivism” that seduces us into negotiating away our core values.

Today’s first reading was a passage from the Book of Maccabees. Francis focused on the perverted source of worldliness in this passage, which describes how the leaders of the people do not want Israel to be isolated from other nations, and so abandon their traditions to negotiate with the king.

So here we see leaders going to negotiate and they are excited about it. The pope says it is as though what they are saying is: “we are progressives; let’s follow progress like everyone else does.”  The Pope noted that this is the “spirit of adolescent progressivism” according to which “any move forward and any choice is better than remaining within the routine of fidelity,” Vatican Radio reports.


…Francis referred to the 20th century novel, “Master of the World” that focuses on “the spirit of worldliness that leads to apostasy.” Today it is thought that “we have to be like everyone else, we have to be more normal, like everyone else, with this adolescent progressivism.” And then “what follows is history:” “the death sentences, human sacrifices.”

“But you think that today there are no human sacrifices?” the Pope asked. “There are many, many. And there are laws that protect them.”

It is heartening to hear the Holy Father exhorting people to resist progressive badgering and to hold fast our higher principles.

Anyone in American politics who is familiar with the typical “long game” strategy of liberals knows how this plays out in purely secular terms, and how discouraging it can be. On certain pet issues — like health care, education, and gun control — liberals are fond of pointing out how “other countries” (especially European countries) operate, as if global uniformity is by itself sufficient reason for upending our own societal arrangements.

As a sidebar, it should be noted that they never do this for things like abortion (or, to borrow Pope Francis’ terminology, “human sacrifices”) and corporate tax rates, where American laws would have to move in a conservative direction in order to align more closely with Europe. At the same time, Democrats in DC and elsewhere make signing on to liberal policy initiatives the unalterable price of accomplishing any of the business of government. Peer pressure and holding their breath until they get their way — the Pope did well to characterize this brand of progressivism as “adolescent”.

However, there is a deeper lesson for conservatives to draw from this homily than a simple exhortation to stick to one’s guns and not simply to “go along to get along.” Pope Francis indirectly indicated the entire orientation that our political ideology should adopt.

The great writer and thinker Russell Kirk once famously proposed a list of “six canon of conservative thought.” At the top of the order he put: (1) Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience.

This holds true whether or not you believe in God or any sort of Higher Power. The entire premise of conservatism and libertarianism is founded upon the notion that all human beings have certain rights and certain dignities that exist higher than and independent of the power of the State. Government and the political process are meant to be the servants and guarantors of these rights, not the authors and masters of them. Or, to put it another way, government ought to be “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

When conservatives enter the political arena, we must not lose sight of the higher purposes which that arena is built to serve. If we fail to be mindful of the fact that our politics and our messaging is created to serve and enhance the freedom and well-being of whole, unique, individual human beings, each one of whom is possessed of hopes, dreams, and inherent dignity, then we are striving without purpose and without hope. We have then succumbed to the “spirit of worldliness” against which Pope Francis warns, a spirit that reduces human beings to cyphers, to faceless members of this or that voting bloc or special interest group. No matter how contentious, a political process that is self-referential — that sees in itself the raison d’etre of its own existence — is one that is doomed to creep in an ever more progressive direction.

That politics and the conservative ideology exist as the servants of free, unique human beings with inherent dignity is the attitude that ought to animate everything that we say and do in the public square.

From our core policy platforms all the way down to our negotiating strategies and our messaging, this knowledge, this faith ought to leave its stamp. We need to elect and maintain in office men and women who view their seats in Washington and the capitals of the several states as sacred trusts, and who will prudently guard and manage the power with which they have been entrusted. We need laws and policy proposals that treat human beings as human beings, and that don’t seem to privilege certain groups while leaving others feeling like they have been left out in the cold.

We need writers, pundits, activists, and media personalities who refuse to reduce a person’s entire identity to a pithy phrase like “drug user”, “food stamp recipient,” or” “low-info voter”, and who instead possess the ability to reach undecided or disenchanted voters and convince them that we truly value their existence simply for its own sake, and that we see them as fellow citizens who are capable of self-government and fully deserving of the respect owed to another human soul. To borrow a phrase from St. Paul, we need to be “all things to all men.”

A conservative ideology capable of winning elections and leading America in the 21st century will have at its heart a spirit that genuinely and convincingly insists to every American, “You, a human being endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, are worth fighting for, and that is why we do what we do!”