Sunday, September 13, 2009

Benedict & Kirk: On Ideology


In his recent encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI writes:

Today the picture of development has many overlapping layers. The actors and the causes in both underdevelopment and development are manifold, the faults and the merits are differentiated. This fact should prompt us to liberate ourselves from ideologies, which often oversimplify reality in artificial ways, and it should lead us to examine objectively the full human dimension of the problems. (Section 22)

I do not think Benedict is here advocating the "moderation" of the politically lazy or cowardly, who cannot be spared the time or risk involved in choosing sides in difficult questions. No, I think Benedict is advocating a level of nuance and sophistication in our political and economic dealings that surpasses the slogans and phrases that typically characterize our political discourse: progress, change, limited government. As if any of those were sufficient to apply to all situations, in all times and places. And yet, that is what most political ideologues try to do.

On reading the above passage, I was struck by how well Benedict's admonition harmonizes with the writings of another thinker, Russell Kirk (1918-1994). In the the forward to the 7th edition of The Conservative Mind, he writes:

The conservative abhors all forms of ideology. An abstract rigorous set of political dogmata: that is ideology, a "political religion," promising the Terrestrial Paradise to the faithful; and ordinarily that paradise is to be taken by storm. (xv)

An overzealous conservative might be tempted to claim that Benedict is here alluding to Kirk. I highly doubt it. But that need not rule out the possibility of some unknown intellectual connection. Two men as well-read and thoughtful as Benedict and Kirk are likely to have vastly overlapping libraries. Indeed, the most obvious intellectual tradition shared by these two is their Catholic faith. Icons point beyond themselves; idols point only to themselves. Ideologies that oversimplify to the point of losing touch with reality have become idols. Benedict and Kirk, and like-minded Christian intellectuals, recognize this.

One final thought, a disclaimer of sorts. Some might object to my favorable comparison between the Holy Father and the father of modern American conservativism. Am I suggesting that all good Catholics must be conservatives? Hardly. One of my rabbis in the world of conservative thought explained, "I naturally shy away from the term conservative because it has become an ideology of its own in the culture at large." (Which is why many self-identified conservatives have criticized the neocons as being ideologues of the very kind Kirk warned about.) However, insofar as the writings of conservatives such as Russell Kirk harmonize with the teachings of the Church - and I think they do fairly well - I have no qualms about commending them.

Special thanks go out to Maggie Perry and Daniel R. Suhr for their assistance on this post.
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