Burke for the Kirk

“To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.” So wrote Edmund Burke, the Anglo-Irish Protestant statesman whose Reflections on the Revolution in France is considered one of the finest political treatises of modern conservatism. Perhaps Burke’s sentiment seems overly simplistic—of course we will like things that are likeable. Yet it is also a thoroughly Catholic idea: Aquinas himself argues in Summa Theologiae II-II q. 26.9 that, “the better a thing is, and the more like to God, the more is it to be loved.” Perhaps, then, Burke can offer valuable wisdom not only for conservatives, but Catholics seeking political guidance.

Certainly, Burke’s relationship with the Catholic Church was complicated. Born in Dublin in 1729 to a Protestant father and a Catholic mother, he decided to follow his father’s religion. Yet he remained deeply sympathetic to the Church, so much so that his political enemies often accused him of being educated by the Jesuits (which, in eighteenth-century England, was a very different kind of insult than it would be in twenty-first century America!). Burke supported the Catholic Relief Act of 1793, which allowed various freedoms for Catholics, including the ability to practice law and run their own schools. “There can be no doubt that the rehabilitation of Catholicism was part of Burke’s intention,” notes Irish historian Conor Cruise O’Brien.

Burke’s affinity for Catholicism is present throughout his famous analysis on Revolutionary France, written in 1790 before things got particularly bloody. Somewhat amazingly for a politician in a country with a strong antipathy for the Catholic Church (“Remember, remember the fifth of November…”) he chastises the French for stealing church property, attacking clerics, and undermining ecclesial authority. More than that, his Reflections is in many respects a thoroughly Catholic political treatise, one we might learn from in our own distemperate times, as we try to articulate a coherent, faithfully Catholic political vision for America.

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Favor Tested Traditions

Unsurprisingly for a political theorist now identified with conservatism, Burke holds a high view of tradition, especially as it relates to social mores and morality. He declares: “We think that no discoveries are to be made in morality.” Such an opinion is in conformity with Catholic moral teaching, which is really the practice of applying ancient biblical and magisterial teachings to contemporary ethical questions. For example, the Church opposes surrogacy and in-vitro fertilization not because such things are explicitly condemned in the Bible or the Church Fathers (they’re not), but because they violate basic moral principles regarding the dignity of the human person and the proper ends of the sexual act. 

The role of tradition, however, goes still further, both for Burke and for Catholics. He explains: “When ancient opinions and rules of law are taken away, the loss cannot possibly be estimated. From that moment we have no compass to govern us; nor can we know distinctly to what port we steer.” This doesn’t mean that ideas and practices are worthy of emulation simply because they are old, but that there are many venerable things that have weathered the test of time and proved essential to human flourishing. For example, one might list the foundational, vital role of traditional marriage and family life—including the right to educate one’s children—a clearly articulated conception of sexual and gender identity, and the purpose of sex itself. 

Religion and Virtue

Burke also believes that religion is not some preferential accessory to good citizenship, but at the very heart of civic society. Again reminiscent of Aquinas, he asserts that “man is by his constitution a religious animal.” He presses still further: “We know, and what is better we feel inwardly, that religion is the basis of civil society, and the source of all good and of all comfort.” One simply cannot conceive of a flourishing society that does not both recognize the inescapable reality of religion, and draw its moral energy from the objective truths contained therein. Says Burke: “Church and state are ideas inseparable…and scarcely is the one ever mentioned without mentioning the other.” Moreover, in observing the French Revolution from across the English Channel, he perceptively notes that atheists can be just as “bigoted” and prone to zealotry in the pursuit of their secular dogmas as any religious extremist. 

Nor is any religion sufficient for the polis but one based on truth that inculcates real virtue. Otherwise, men will pursue their own selfish, self-destructive aims that undermine the health of the nation. “But what is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint.” And, in words that are reminiscent of the scholastic theologians, Burke recognizes that virtue develops only through trial. “Let it be remembered too, that virtue is never tried but by some difficulty, and some struggle.” As any good Catholic priest would tell you, it is in the very process of suffering that we flex our “virtue muscles” and are refined to realize our divine destinies.

Burke’s Take on Subsidiarity and Solidarity

Two principles guide the exercise of virtue in the Catholic political paradigm: subsidiarity and solidarity. Both find a hearty affirmation in Burke’s thinking. In regard to the former, we read: 

To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind. The interests of that portion of social arrangement is a trust in the hands of all those who compose it; and as none but bad men would justify it in abuse, none but traitors would barter it away for their own personal advantage.

“Little platoons” has become cliché in conservative circles, but the idea is a sound (and Catholic) one: our first responsibilities are to those in our immediate context, be they family, friends, neighbors, or our community. This flows from such Gospel parables as the Good Samaritan (who cares for the needy man right in front of him) and our Lord’s commendation of “love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matthew 22:39-40). Whether one is talking about religion or politics, the idea is the same: those closest to any need or problem are best suited to solve it. 

As for solidarity, Burke argues that the Christian politician seeks not to serve special interests or corporate elites, but all those under his care. He writes: 

The Christian statesmen of this land would indeed first provide for the multitude: because it is the multitude; and is therefore, as such, the first object in the ecclesiastical institution, and in all institutions. They have been taught, that the circumstances of the gospels being preached to the poor, was one of the great tests of its true mission.

Such a sentiment would perhaps surprise many liberals who tar conservatives as most concerned with protecting and perpetuating the status of the wealthy. Yet Burke, like the Church, believes that a truly conservative society is one that cares for the welfare of all its citizens, richest to poorest. Furthermore, Burke argues that all men have certain inalienable rights:

Men have a right to live by that rule; they have a right to justice; as between their fellows, whether their fellows are in politic function or in ordinary occupation. They have a right to the fruits of their industry; and to the means of making their industry fruitful. They have a right to the acquisitions of their parents; to the nourishment and improvement of their offspring; to instruction in life, and to consolation in death.

Burke’s conception of the ideal polis is thus one that is both thoroughly traditionalist in regard to religion and morality, but surprisingly expansive in its care for the marginalized and the protection of their rights. Here, too, the Catholic influence is perceptible, as the Church throughout her history has made strenuous efforts to relieve the sufferings of the poor. For example, historians estimate that most impoverished Englishmen received aid from the monasteries that King Henry VIII dissolved when he separated from the Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church has always possessed a unique talent for recognizing the truth and beauty in traditions outside its own. St. Paul quoted pagan poets and philosophers in his epistles. The Council of Nicaea appropriated Greek philosophical language in its definition of the Trinity. And St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologiae, consulted the thought of Greeks, Romans, Jews, and even Muslims. Edmund Burke, champion of Irish Catholics, should thus be no different. Inasmuch as his politics corresponds to Catholic teaching, the Anglo-Irish Protestant offers many valuable exhortations and cautions as we seek to navigate these strange political times. 

As Catholics contemplate their role in the American polis, Burke is worthy of our “kirk.”

[Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons]


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