Conservationism and Conservatives

Victor Meirelles (1832–1903), "The First Mass in Brazil"
Victor Meirelles (1832–1903), "The First Mass in Brazil" (photo: Register Files)

"The Mass is the most beautiful thing this side of Heaven."
—Fr. Frederick Faber

The essence of conservatism is the desire to conserve something.

Whether it's traditional Christian morality or the rainforests, we are all driven to conserve what we are most passionate about.

This is true, even if a lot of people don't naturally see themselves as 'conservative'.

It makes sense therefore to ask what Catholics are 'conservative' about. What does the Church wish to conserve?

In the secular world, the government might protect a terrible building simply because it’s a good example of a noted school of architecture — something therefore worthy of preservation.

Similarly, it is often the case that merely because a thing is old, one can want to see it preserved for reason of antiquity alone. The world was scandalized, for example, by the Taliban’s pulverizing of two sixth-century Buddha statues at Bamiyan in 2001.

If there were some treasure of similar antiquity under threat in the West, surely the United Nations would rush to protect it or designate it as a world heritage monument?

The heart of the Traditional Latin Mass is such a treasure. It goes back at least as far as the days of St. Ambrose. We know that, because he wrote down the words of the Roman Canon in his famous fourth-century work De Sacramentis.

That’s more than 1,600 years of continuous use — a conceptual and devotional architecture being handed on lovingly, from generation to generation. If only the Roman Canon were some pagan statue; just think how the secular powers would compete with one another to demand its safeguarding and protection.

Which leads me on to environmental conservationism in general. We should all be concerned about our environment. It’s an act of responsibility to promote the idea of stewardship over something held in trust, something that doesn’t belong to us. We inherit something. We lovingly look after it. We hand it on.

(The Latin for this concept of ‘handing on/handing over’ is trādĕre. Our Blessed Lord was handed over to the Romans in Gethsemane — from which we get betrayed. Divine Revelation was handed on to us through the Apostles — from which we get Tradition).

But what is more important from God's point of view: the earth, or the Church? If the principle of the prudent stewardship of earthly resources is so important — and it is — how much more important is it to steward prudently that thing which Christ identifies with Himself?

We must challenge ourselves to expand the concept of conservation from the environment and other things — which in any case will all pass away — to include conservation of the inestimable treasure of the traditional Catholic liturgy — which is in essence timeless.

As human beings, we have been made with an in-built sense to reverence that which is ancient — and the more ancient the thing, the greater the spontaneous sense of reverence generated.

We need only to apply this sense of awe to that which is proper to us as Catholics.

Surely, there are few things more convincing in the work of evangelization than the unashamed reverence of that which, in the West, best manifests the antiquity of the Church’s earthly pilgrimage: the Traditional Latin Mass.

We have something at our disposal that effortlessly appeals to people's sense of veneration for that which is ancient.

Is much of the focus on environmentalism simply evidence that nature abhors a vacuum — that our innate yearning to conserve and hand on what has been received is a yearning that has not been adequately nourished?

Conservation of the secular environment, yes! But never at the expense of our most fundamental obligation: to conserve for posterity our religious and spiritual environment — which just like the earth, does not belong to us to exploit or neglect. Just like the earth, the liturgy is merely entrusted to us to steward in humility, to ‘hand on’ to the next generation.