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Remembering the Past When Embracing the New
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
May 2018



Popular political portrayals, particularly in this era of social media, often fail to convey complicated and nuanced realities. These portrayals, themselves, are often shaped by our own biases and errors.

Common perception of Republicans, for example, is that they are “conservatives,” meaning they want to conserve the way things are or were and seek little or no change. The common perception of Democrats is that they are “progressives” or “liberals” that either want to push change for the sake of change or believe that change is inevitable and that it is best to jump aboard the change train rather than wait. Neither portrayal is completely accurate. For one thing, there are various opinions within each party and movement. In addition, both groups will swing and sway toward “progressing” or “conserving” depending on the political mood of their members or the country as a whole.

Right now, the country is in a mood for change, with both parties wrestling with their own push for radical change and something new. The Democrats are dealing with a movement from the Left, partially led by former supporters of Bernie Sanders, that seeks to push change and new programs that the establishment Democrats, usually seen as Clintonians, were accepting slowly or not at all.

Despite the reputation for being conservative, many Republicans have embraced Donald Trump, who has vowed to “drain the swamp” while sometimes proudly ignoring or eliminating programs, protocols, policies, and traditions that have existed for decades.

Even North Dakota, often touted as a conservative state, elected the “change” candidate for governor, Doug Burgum, over the establishment candidate Wayne Stenehjem in 2016. Governor Burgum has shown his penchant for the new over tradition from his TED style talks to his wearing of jeans on official business and from his relationship with the Republican legislature to his reputation for demanding “new” ideas from the state agencies.

“New” is the “new thing,” for both Democrats and Republicans.

Forward thinking is good. It is essential to having a dynamic and strong community, something necessary to protect and respect the life of every human person while fostering the common good. This is the primary task of government.

At the same time, we should not embrace something new just because it is new. As my now retired counterpart at the Wisconsin Catholic Conference used to say: “The status quo was put there by somebody for a reason.”
Our political leaders should start by asking why something is done a particular way before embracing a new way to do it. New is not always better, which is why we should be cautious about “new” as a campaign slogan or has a way of government.

C.S. Lewis called our contemporary society’s obsession with the new “chronological snobbery.” He defined it as: “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.” Lewis’ definition was too charitable in that it assumed that people reject something simply because it was “out of date” or not fashionable. Today, people actively make something out of date by forcing the rest of us to accept the new.

G.K. Chesterton, who often found fault in both the liberals and conservatives of his day, suggested the respect for tradition as a cure for Lewis would later call chronological snobbery. Tradition, he wrote, “means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors . . . It is the democracy of the dead.”

Note that Chesterton did not advocate giving the dead a veto or even a weighted vote over the opinions of the living. That is an error made by some reactionary “blood and soil” type of ideologues. It is also the erroneous stereotype with which advocates of change for change sake paint all conservatives. Their cries echo the naive enthusiasm of many teenagers.

Catholics can learn about a healthy approach to change and tradition by looking to our own social teaching as embodied in the Tradition. Pope Benedict XVI described the Church’s social doctrine “consistent and at the same time ever new.” It has a “dynamic faithfulness to a light received” but at the same time “illuminates with an unchanging light the new problems that are constantly emerging.” This, he wrote, “safeguards the permanent and historical character of the doctrinal ‘patrimony’ which . . . is part and parcel of the Church's ever-living Tradition.”

Unlike public policies, the Church’s social doctrine, in some respects, can never change. It can only “illumine” new issues. Nevertheless, that “rootedness” in sound principles can serve as a model to prevent us from blindly accepting the new just because it is new.