Any school of philosophical thought suffers from popularity, and conservatism is no different. Ever since conservatism grew out of its remnant status about 35 or 40 years ago, it has been in a process of degradation that continues to this day. It has been victimized by its own success.
The conservatism that produced Ronald Reagan and that in large part dominated the old National Review magazine until somewhere along in the 1990s has been beset with what can only be called a liberal infection.
The conservatism of Edmund Burke has been quietly traded in by modern conservatism for the liberalism of John Stuart Mill, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke. The problem is aggravated by the fact that, due to almost universal philosophical illiteracy, most modern conservatives don't even know who these thinkers are.
Utilitarianism has replaced respect for custom and tradition. Raw libertarianism has replaced ordered liberty. Free market ideology has replaced a common sense economic liberty that once understood the difference between the empirical laws of economics and the normative obligations of a Christian culture.
The process has been helped along by conservative talk radio and now Fox News. People like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, right as they are on many issues, are now seen as the standard bearers for conservatism when, in fact, their political philosophies are at serious odds with the conservative tradition itself.
A large part of the problem with modern conservatism has to do with the fact that conservatives have forgotten their own tradition. Just look at the most popular conservative books (and weep). No movement that takes as its chief intellectual nourishment itself on people like Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and Bill O'Reilly deserves to be taken seriously.
This was not the case with the old conservatism. There were no popular conservative authors back in the conservative day, so we couldn't be corrupted by them. We had to resort to Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, Michael Oakeshott, and F. A. Hayek, and T. S. Eliot for our political nourishment. Even the conservative journalists were intellectuals, not former disc jockeys and beauty queens: Wilmore Kendall, Frank Burnham, Joseph Sobran, and William F. Buckley, Jr.
These were people who a) knew what they were talking about, and b) actually authored the books that they claimed to author.
Modern conservatives can see conservatism from their house.
I have a simple rule for any conservative who wants to learn better what conservatism is: Don't read any book by anyone claiming to be a conservative that purports to explain it who didn't actually write the book that bears their name.
That would eliminate just about every popular conservative author with the exception of Charles Krauthammer, a liberal-turned-conservative (what we used to call a "neoconservative") who only had to change half his political philosophy in order to fit in to the new modern "conservatism" that is only half conservative. And we'll make an exception for Ann Coulter, any of whose lapses from true conservatism are more than made up for in sheer wit.
Allan Bloom once famously divided the political public into right-wing liberals and left-wing liberals. Modern conservatism is right-wing liberalism.
And this is why so-called conservatives have a problem with Pope Francis: He has challenged the liberal element within their thinking that has developed during a 40 year-long gestational period and has now experienced a coming out like the monster in the movie "Alien."
Conservatism has traditionally fought for a proper balance between justice, order, and freedom; and a belief in an economy that is free, but still subordinate to these goals. They believed freedom was a means, not an end.
What modern conservatism has done is to subordinate every other aspect of political conservatism to one thing and one thing only: free market economics. Everything else is dispensable.
Marriage for example.
Just look at the number of "conservative" leaders who, as soon as the political winds changed, abandoned ship on conservatism's central cultural position. It's pretty sad.
You can take my culture, but don't mess with my free market economics.
Once upon a time, conservatives advocated ordered liberty—both as a political and an economic principle. They were never in favor of unrestricted market actions. Never.
What the current critics of Pope Francis who think they are conservatives need to do is take account of Russell Kirk, the author of the most influential and authoritative book on conservatism, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot (the Ur text of modern conservatism), and legendary defender of the free market, who writes in another book:
Sometimes, indeed, vociferous American devotees of "American capitalism" and the "American standard of living" do more mischief and benefit to their own cause, generating more heat than light, and substituting facile slogans for first principles ...
... We ought not to exaggerate the importance of our economic arguments or of our American economy. In many ways the free market economy of the United States is a good thing in itself; yet it is not the whole of life. No economy, however productive materially, could be a good thing if it were founded upon injustice, disorder, slavery, and dishonor. The slave-labor camps of the Soviet Union were efficient, after a fashion—but only because they took no reckoning of human lives or moral principles. Thus our American economy, though good in itself, is important not merely for its own sake: its real importance is the contribution it makes to our justice and order and freedom, our ability to live in dignity as truly human persons. Our "standard of living," though often enjoyable in itself, is not the be-all and end-all of life. Economic production is merely th e means to certain ends. One of those ends is the satisfaction of man's material wants. And there are other ends served by this means of economic production: the satisfaction of certain profound desires in human nature, such as the desire for fruitful work and sufficient leisure and hopeful competition, for one; and the maintenance of a decent society for another.Now take this view and the read what Pope Francis said again, and ask yourself where there is any contradiction between this and what the Pope said.
Modern conservatives have made a religion of the free market in a way traditional conservatives never would have done. The free market is not the sum and summation of conservatism; it is rather one principle to be balanced with others. As C. S. Lewis once said, "Second things suffer from being put first." This is what modern conservatives have done with economics.
Conservatism is not an ideology, it is a set of political first principles in constant tension. There's a big difference.