On No Longer Being a “Conservative”

American Catholics engaged in political philosophy have frequently held the view that Catholicism does not fit neatly into either of the United States’ political parties or ideologies. Neither the Republican party nor the Democrat party, neither the conservative camp nor the liberal progressives, hold, as a whole, views that are holistically congenial to the Catholic worldview (I under stand that neither conservative and republican, nor democrat and liberal/progressive, are synonymous terms, but they do often align and, for the purposes of this post, I will treat them as such. Also, when I talk about “conservatism,” I’m talking about today’s popular conceptions of the term).

I have tried rather earnestly to take up a political philosophy that comes from my intellectual commitments as a Catholic. When asked about my political affiliations, I used to say either that I was an independent, or: “I’m not a republican, and I’m definitely not a democrat.” My thoughts on liberalism/conservatism were quite similar. I appreciated certain tenets of each ideology, while not entirely conforming to either. However, I certainly had a preference of one over the other, and I suppose my view would have been: “I’m not exactly a conservative, but I’m definitely not a liberal.”

Now, I’m definitely not a liberal, and I’m definitely not a conservative–largely because I’m sick of the things conservative Catholics are willing to overlook.

Consider a blog post today on CatholicVote.org, titled, “Was Jesus a Socialist?” In it, Stephen Kokx provides his thoughts on a discussion between Notre Dame theology professor Dr. Candida Moss and political commentator Bill O’Reilly, both Catholics. The discussion began when Dr. Moss wrote a critical review of O’Reilly’s recent book, Killing Jesus. In her review, Dr. Moss points out that “the basic argument of the book is that Jesus died because he interfered with the taxation-heavy Roman revenue stream. The reason the Jews eagerly anticipated the Messiah, writes O’Reilly, is, ‘When that moment arrives, Rome will be defeated and their lives will be free of taxation and want.'” She further writes, “The most striking part of O’Reilly’s biography is what is left out… The single most consistent social teaching in the New Testament is that Christians must support the poor, widows, and orphans, but this hardly gets a mention in Killing Jesus.”

O’Reilly later hosted Dr. Moss on his TV show to debate these criticisms. On the show, O’Reilly doesn’t deny Dr. Moss’s claims about his book. Rather, he contests Dr. Moss’s claims about the substance of Jesus’ message. Kokx provides a caricatured version of the show’s discussion:

If you watched the video, you noticed that when Moss argues that all rich folks need to give away all their possessions, O’Reilly rightly reminded her that Jesus himself “hung out” with rich guys – guys like Lazarus and Joseph of Arimathea. It’s not the most theologically-insightful point, but it’s still important. It proves that Jesus didn’t tell every rich person he encountered to sell everything they own.

Here, I will not take up in length Kokx’s characterization of Moss’s claims. He makes the same mistakes that other Catholic bloggers frequently make.  Nor will I take up Kokx’s interpretation and characterization of Catholic Social Teaching. For the sake of this post, I will assume that he is correct in assuming that Dr. Moss thinks Jesus is a socialist (she doesn’t). I will also assume the, thus far undisputed, claim that Bill O’Reilly thinks that freedom from taxation and want is more central to Jesus’ message than care for the poor.

The remarkable thing is that Kokx only criticizes one side of the argument. He vehemently disputes Dr. Moss’s “socialist Jesus” claims. On the other hand, Kokx writes that O’Reilly is “no theologian, and some of what he says is a bit off the mark, but O’Reilly’s Catholic school upbringing has provided him with a pretty good understanding of the faith.” Kokx essentially admits believing that the Catholic faith teaches that “the reason the Jews eagerly anticipated the Messiah… is, ‘When that moment arrives, Rome will be defeated and their lives will be free of taxation and want.'”

Even assuming that Kokx doesn’t think this, Kokx does represent a common trend among conservative Catholics, the belief that saying “Jesus is a socialist” is much more insidious than saying “Jesus is a free-market capitalist.” These Catholics will do all they can to contest Dr. Moss’s claims, but they are quite willing to pass over the more problematic aspects of O’Reilly’s views.

This is a dangerous place for Catholics to tread. Catholics do not readily fit into either political ideologies–liberalism or conservatism. For a time, however, Catholicism has fit more readily into conservatism than liberalism (this has not always been the case). Thus, Catholics seeking orthodoxy in this country have come to align themselves with conservative and Republican groups, their views of Catholicism becoming intertwined with their views of conservatism. Now, for many Catholics these views are, in many ways, indistinguishable with the result that the “orthodox Catholicism” held by many looks, in fact, much more Republican than Catholic. If this weren’t the case, Catholic bloggers would be just as (if not more) upset with O’Reilly as they are with Dr. Moss.

It seems to me that Dr. Moss may be trying to pull apart these ideologies that have been intertwined for the past couple of decades. I’m starting to find that Catholicism is much less Republican than I thought it was. I’m Catholic, so in my eyes, O’Reilly doesn’t get a pass on his questionable views. Calling Jesus a socialist may be problematic, but I find the claim that Jesus cares more about freedom from taxation than care for the poor to be much more repulsive.

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2 Comments

  1. The other issue I had with that interview was a historical one. O’Reilly says he wrote this book himself with the help of a researcher and that he wrote it as a historical book not theological (a point he kept using in the interview when he had no other defense, didn’t work). If he is claiming to be a historical writer, then he missed a few key things. First of all, if you have anything to do with history and historical research, you should know what ‘anachronistic’ means; it’s a basic term. Secondly, unless you have the most concrete evidence in the world and firsthand witnesses, you should understand that your theory may or may not be right and that everyone will debate its validity. O’Reilly didn’t even seem open to the idea that he might be wrong, even on small points.

    Am I saying Dr. Moss was 100% right? No, but she sure was much more accurate than O’Reilly.

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  2. I was a convert to Catholi-kissem and stayed with it for 9 years until a highly-righteous Deacon with a dress on – – O.K., it was a robe – – – told me in a church council meeting that he was not going to tolerate any of my “Liberal Nonsense” in “His” church. Haven’t darkened the Holy doors again since then.

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