Complexities of Catholic politics

The mission statement of the Irish Rover, as found on its website, states as follows: that the mission of the Rover is “1. [To] defend the Faith and honorable traditions of this great university, and 2. [to] articulate conservative principles.”

Likewise, there is a sentence in the fine print in every Rover issue that “The Rover was established by Notre Dame students who desired a strong and organized conservative voice on campus with the primary purpose of keeping the University true to its founding mission as a Roman Catholic institution.”

Indeed, the importance of both Catholicism and conservatism to the mission of the Rover has been explicitly stated since 2003 when the paper began. The concept of “conservative Catholicism” can be found referenced in manner of socio-religious analyses of the current landscape.

Yet this relationship is rarely explicitly spelled out—why was it, exactly, that Notre Dame students found that having an organized conservative voice was so closely connected with maintaining Catholicity?

The terms are, of course, not synonymous. “Conservatism” does not have the same meaning as “orthodoxy” for the very reason that many political conservatives are, obviously, not orthodoxly Catholic; nor would it make sense to begin using a historically contingent term when we merely mean “in accord with Catholic teaching.”

Indeed, some (myself included) would note that much of what is proposed by many self-proclaimed conservatives seems difficult to square—and here I am well aware of the difficulties of expressing exactly what Catholic teaching is and what sort of force it has at any given time—with much Catholic social teaching. (Take, for example, the calls in Rerum Novarum for just wages, and its praise of unions.) And as one moves farther into the land of libertarianism, one discovers readers of Ayn Rand extolling the “virtue of selfishness,” believers in a free society without rules or limits whatsoever, and so on. And these things especially seem contrary to any Catholic view of the world.

To be clear: it is, in fact, pretty easy to see why orthodox Catholics often feel drawn to conservative principles and publications like the Rover. Conservatism is generally thought of as a counter to progressivism which, as commonly conceived, seems inimical to Catholicism in a quite significant way. (The first issue that jumps to mind is probably one which many readers thought of immediately; that of abortion, which is an absolute atrocity. And many other issues follow.) And progressivism seems to accompany secularism in a way which conservatism does not—at least, not to the same degree: a Pew Research survey noted that 70% of conservatives say that religion is “very important,” as opposed to 36% of those who identify as liberals.

Furthermore, in a world where conservatism generally is associated with a maintaining of traditional teaching, or belief, and progressivism as an ideology associated with improving upon old beliefs to usher in a new, (allegedly) brighter future, a faithful Catholic will, I think, identify in a religious way with the conservative view. As Catholics, we believe in unchanging truth as taught by the Magisterium since the beginning of the Church. And what we are inclined towards in our religious attitudes can no doubt carry over into our political ones—especially when the sphere of the religious is so often related to the sphere of the political. As an example: the Rover’s goal of “defend[ing] the Faith and honorable traditions of this great university” is difficult to read as a progressive statement, but pretty easy to read as a conservative one.

Much of this discussion, I assume, will be non-revelatory to many readers of the Rover. But it is important to continually think about the relationship between one’s political attitudes and one’s religious attitudes—especially when the relationship (as, for example, articulated in the Rover’s mission statement) is so often treated as self-evident or not treated at all. And this can be dangerous in a world where the definition of what conservatism actually is, is becoming much less clear. One can find countless arguments online and elsewhere as to whether Trump and his base are true embodiments of conservatism or not; as to whether the Republican party has become not-truly-conservative or no, and on and on. Declaring oneself a Catholic, and a conservative, can indicate some very loaded things, or very little at all.

Revisiting the question of conservatism—and whether it should be a term one associates with, and, if so, what it means—is therefore crucial in this time for all who consider themselves faithful Catholics. I myself do not proudly declare myself to be a conservative, but I am certain that many, if not most, of the readers of the Rover, do. And I hope that such discussions surrounding the issue advance article number three of the Rover mission statement: to “engage in collegial debate.”  

Lastly, in confusing discussions surrounding the messy world of politics, one must remember that one’s cause should not primarily be a political or a partisan one, lest other, more important things be overlooked. The Rover’s mission statement is one with a hierarchy, and at the top of the hierarchy is our faith. To be Catholic is to be Catholic before anything else.

James Rahner is a senior philosophy major. He is currently dreaming of a small Swedish bakery found by the shores of Lake Michigan. Contact him at