Ultra Vires: Quandaries For Catholics And Conservatives

[The following essay, which first appeared at the old Palace Of Reason in April 2003, is being reposted by special request. Having reviewed it, I find it germane to many of the conflicts within both the Church and the American conservative movement at this time. — FWP]

April 21, 2003

In its unique way, the Catholic Church, to which I adhere, represents the greatest of the conflicts in American conservative politics today. Conversely, the conservative experience in America, especially as informed by its legal attitudes toward personal virtue, is a near-perfect mirror for a special malady that afflicts the Church in our time.

Michele Catalano recently bemoaned a common complaint: Catholic Guilt, a major legacy of much misguided indoctrination applied to young and defenseless Catholics, mainly in parochial schools. Stripped of its subtleties, Catholic Guilt is what comes of the inculcation of the notion that one is supposed to suffer in this world to earn one’s place in the next. Suffering here is meant to include not merely pain, fatigue, and discomfort, but also the renunciation, voluntary or otherwise, of the pleasures offered us by the world.

Contrast this idea with another, presented here by the great Christian apologist C. S. Lewis, through his devil-protagonist Screwtape:

He [God] has a bourgeois mind. He has filled His world full of pleasures. There are things for humans to do all day long without His minding in the least — sleeping, washing, eating, drinking, making love, playing, praying, working. Everything has to be twisted before it’s any use to us. We fight under cruel disadvantages. Nothing is naturally on our side. [from The Screwtape Letters, of course]

To your Curmudgeon, the truth of Lewis’s view seems self-evident. The opposing view, from which Catholic Guilt germinates, was enough to distance me from the Church for a long time. Moreover, a review of the Gospels reveals that Christ Himself demanded none of the renunciations and self-abnegations at the heart of Catholic Guilt.

The number of Catholics who have left the Church for this reason is incalculable. Not many return.

But even a lapsed Catholic, determined to remove the Church entirely from his life, can find himself afflicted with Catholic Guilt. A growth whose roots strike that deeply into one’s early childhood can be hard to expunge.

Guilt as a tool of control has obvious attractions. Once nurtured, it functions automatically. An external authority aware of its contours can use it for a wide variety of purposes. In that regard, it’s more potent and flexible than either the sense of right and wrong or the assumption of personal obligations.

Ayn Rand had one of her most loathsome villains soliloquize about the control possibilities inherent in guilt in a truly piercing fashion:

“Did you really think that we want those laws to be observed?” said Dr. Ferris. “We want them broken. You’d better get it straight that it’s not a bunch of boy scouts you’re up against — then you’ll know that this is not the age for beautiful gestures. We’re after power and we mean it. You fellows were pikers, but we know the real trick, and you’d better get wise to it. There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What’s there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can be neither observed nor enforced nor objectively interpreted — and you create a nation of law-breakers — and then you cash in on guilt. Now that’s the system, Mr. Rearden, that’s the game, and once you understand it, you’ll be much easier to deal with.” [from Atlas Shrugged]

Because guilt is a perpetual negative presence in the mind, it can also engender negative consequences. One always attempts to escape from a sense of guilt. When guilt attaches to a specific act, one can atone and win absolution, at least in theory. When the guilt is formless and free-floating — the unarticulated conviction that to allow oneself to feel pleasure or to live for one’s own purposes is inherently wrong and marks one as unworthy of eternal life — no escape is possible, except into the abandonment of the institution inflicting the guilt, or psychosis.

Given its most important practical effect — driving genuinely good people away from the Church to God knows where — Catholic Guilt must be regarded as a disaster: for the Catholic Church; for Christianity, of which Catholicism is the largest sect; and for those who would otherwise have remained in the fold to partake of all the truly positive and life-enhancing things the Church has to offer.

But enough about that. Let’s move to a topic of wider interest: conservative guilt, an underappreciated and largely undiscussed brake on the growth of American conservatism today.

About a year ago, a gentleman named Will Wilkinson wrote the following about “lifestyle-conservatives” (with particular application to their attitudes toward recreational sex) as cited by Professor Glenn Reynolds, the much-beloved InstaPundit:

What people are interested in is a sense of identity. If a party grates against our sense of the kind of person we’d like to be, then we don’t want anything to do with it.

So, if the the alternative to being an uptight, sanctimonious, moralistic asshole is to be a Democrat, then we’ll want to be Democrats — even if we do end up getting shafted by Taxman. And I think that’s the way a whole lot of folks in my demo (BoBo Gen-X) see it. To large swaths of the public mind, choosing to put a gargoyle like John Ashcroft in charge of norm enforcement is like choosing to put Michael Moore in charge of the Fed.

This, and Professor Reynolds’s response, germinated a Curmudgeonly reflection on conservative identity-politics (not the most frequently discussed topic on the political Right), and some tentative conclusions about the sociodynamics of American conservatism. Those conclusions have become broader and stronger since that article — and they center on guilt.

To be brief, an awful lot of easygoing conservative types, who see nothing wrong with various kinds of pleasurable self-indulgence as long as they don’t produce harms or costs for uninvolved others, mouth a coercive-moralistic line so that they’ll be approved and accepted by the most rigid, humorless bluenoses in the conservative community. They feel themselves to be unworthy to some degree, because they’re insincere about their allegiance to such crusades as the War On Drugs, the condemnation of recreational sex and sex-for-hire, and other traditional strictures on the pleasures of the world and the flesh.

It’s possible that this is the worst retardant influence on conservative politics in our time. It certainly costs us the interest of most young Americans, who want neither to be deprived of life’s pleasures nor to be seen trying to deprive their contemporaries of them. And it is entirely a cultural phenomenon.

It’s laudable to exalt the virtues of work, of dedication, of the striving for excellence in oneself and one’s creations. This is a feature of America’s “enterprise culture,” the living filament that lights her commercial republic and makes its achievements the envy of the world. But there is no necessary connection between that set of attitudes and the notion that one must renounce the pleasures of life, even if indulgence subtracts from the time available for productive enterprise, worship, or what-have-you.

Yet lifestyle-conservatives, especially the religiously inclined, would like the two threads to be inextricably intertwined. They treat their anti-hedonic preferences as the heart of the conservative worldview. And a great many conservatives who are far less puritanically oriented pay them lip service.

The reasons are guilt and the desire for acceptance, a perfect mirror to the phenomenon of Catholic Guilt. The major difference between them is that Catholic Guilt is nurtured in young children by terrifying authority figures, while conservative guilt is an adult phenomenon kept vital by the supercilious disdain of lifestyle-conservatives.

Combating conservative guilt is as important for achieving a rational, majority conservatism — a conservatism that, pace Lord Acton, regards liberty as the highest political end, and intrudes upon it no more than necessary to maintain public order — as combating Catholic Guilt is for maintaining the vitality of the Church.

There are no miracle cures for unfounded guilt. The sufferer must satisfy himself that there’s no fundamental requirement that he carry that burden. The best that can be done for him is to point him at primary sources:

  • For the Catholic, the Gospels;
  • For the conservative, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.

Primary sources are important because they are grants of authority. Christ’s teachings as set forth in the Gospels are the source and foundation of all Christian belief. A cleric that overlays them with his own preferences or ambitions, going beyond what Christ proclaimed as the obligations of the seeker after eternal life, betrays His mission among men and sins grievously against the innocent soul. Similarly, the Declaration and Constitution are the foundations of the American Republic. The lifestyle-conservative who seeks to efface the philosophy of the Declaration, or to usurp more power than was granted by the Constitution, traduces our whole experiment in freedom. Both of these are clear cases of ultra vires, the unjustified usurpation of power beyond that which was legitimately granted, the form treason most often takes within the corridors of power.

If the guilt-ridden Catholic or conservative can be brought to that realization, then, as with Winston Smith’s “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two equals four,” all else follows.

From that point forward, the matter is in his hands.