Mark Dooley is an Irish philosopher and journalist.
Dominating political and cultural debate in 2013 will be the contentious issue of gay marriage. On the one side, you have a self-confident liberal lobby supported, ironically, by the Conservatives. Opposing them is the silent majority supported by real conservatives, including certain members of the Christian clergy.
Lest we forget, the whole point of conservatism is to conserve. This does not mean that customs, traditions and institutions cannot be reformed. But it does mean that reform must always be carried out, to cite Edmund Burke, ‘as if in the presence of canonized forefathers’. For what we have received from our forebears is not ours to do with as we please, but is a sacred bequest.
It seems to me that many within the British Conservative Party have forgotten this basic principle of conservatism. In so doing, have they not forfeited their right to call themselves 'conservatives'?
Real conservatives oppose liberals, not out of prejudice, intolerance or bigotry, but out of a concern for absent generations – both for those who went before us, and for those who are yet to come. They follow Burke in believing that ‘a spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper’, and that ‘people will not look forward to posterity who never look back to their ancestors’.
Now, you might expect to find true conservatives in the ranks of the Christian clergy. Even there, however, the 'spirit of innovation' has taken hold. While this is obvious in the liberal wing of the Anglican Communion, it is also a significant feature of contemporary Catholicism. Fear of the liberal lobby has resulted in many Catholic clerics adopting a craven silence in respect of moral matters that are of the deepest concern to their congregations. Instead of robustly defending their values, and the institutions that surround them, they seek to be inclusive and empathetic. This, they mistakenly believe, will earn them respect from their cultural enemies.
Pope Benedict XVI is not one of those intimidated clerics. During a recent address at the Vatican, the Pope took aim at the postmodern notion that identity is not given but constructed. Yesterday, he argued, people ‘deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves’. And by denying our nature, he implied, we lose all capacity to choose what is best for us.
The Pope is the archetypal conservative because he has a profound appreciation for our cultural and moral patrimony. He is not opposed to gay marriage because he is ‘homophobic’ – an insult issued by those who wish to shut down debate. He is opposed to it because he understands that, like all institutions that have passed the test of time, marriage contains an internal logic that resists innovation.
Still, the Pope is also correct when he argues that in a moral wasteland so sceptical of Christian teaching, Catholic clerics cannot solely rely on the Catechism. They must deploy a ‘reasoned defence of marriage as a natural institution’. This demands that they supplement their own theological instruction with powerful conservative arguments from the likes of Edmund Burke. It is the internal logic of marriage that needs to be considered if the debates over gay marriage are to be anything better than a caricature of reasoning.