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The Church As the Last Defender of the Power of Human Reason


AP Photo/Michael Conroy

Father David Mary Engo of the Franciscan Brothers Minor of Fort Wayne, Ind., addresses a rally of supporters of a religious freedom bill at the Statehouse in Indianapolis, Monday, Feb. 9, 2015. The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on the bill later in the day. The Republican-sponsored proposal would prohibit any state laws that "substantially burden" a person's ability to follow his or her religious beliefs and extends the definition of a "person" to include religious institutions, businesses and associations. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

David Mills - published on 03/31/15

On same sex marriage, liberals reveal themselves as the real fundamentalists

One can be fundamentalist about fundamentalism, and morally conservative Christianity satisfies for many on the left the need for someone to hit that animates real fundamentalism. The kind of narrow, pinched, shrewish, intolerantly dogmatic mind supposedly common among traditional Christians is a mind found in people of every commitment, except maybe among the converts to westernized Buddhism. I think it’s more common on the left, especially the lifestyle left, than among traditional Christians, though people on the left can hide it better and they apply it to socially approved targets, like the conservative people of Indiana.

I started thinking about this when I stumbled upon some attacks on the alleged fundamentalism of Indianan Christians who supported the recent religious freedom law. The Huffington Post’s religion section featured several. It’s predictable and uninteresting.

One “top commenter” let loose: “I have a relative who is a fundamentalist. She’s missing the following; empathy, compassion, insight, critical thinking skills, and respect for anyone who doesn’t believe exactly as she does. She’s the most toxic, judgmental person I’ve ever met. I no longer speak with this woman and my life is the better for it.” She may be right about her relative, but she doesn’t sound much different.

Some of it was sad, like the poor man who wrote of growing up a closeted homosexual in a conservative Christian family. Even accounting for the use of the pejorative “fundamentalist” to mean “people who have religious reasons to disagree with me,” the fundamentalist spirit remains a problem. Christians can be vigilant and rigorous in enforcing the rules, and social ideals they confuse with the rules, but not so vigilant and rigorous in imitating the Savior who ate with tax collectors and prostitutes. The world is right to call us out on this.

Still, “fundamentalist” is not a charge we can ever escape. Our problem is only partly that we believe a revealed religion. It is also that Catholic moral teaching is so extensively and definitively worked out. We have answers, and reasons for the answers, and reasons for the reasons for the answers. This leaves little room for prudential relativism. We have to say “This is true” when people who once agreed with us can start muttering about two sides to every question, my truth and your truth, open questions, new understandings, and the like.

I would have thought this a point in Catholicism’s favor even if one rejected Catholicism and its conclusions. Catholicism now stands, pretty much alone, for the possibility of working out with assurance philosophical and moral truths. Most intellectual work proceeds on qualified grounds to limited conclusions on narrow matters. The causes, presumably, are humility, skepticism, and academic calculation (the smaller the claim, the less exposed you are). Few thinkers attempt comprehensive projects. Few offer the extensive prescription for the good life given in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Catholicism offers a grand humanist declaration of the power of the human mind. It exemplifies the Enlightenment ideal. It presents the older humanism of affirmation, not the modern humanism of negation and pessimism. The difference is summed up in G. K. Chesterton’s remarks on his friend H. G. Wells: “I think he thought that the object of opening the mind is simply opening the mind. Whereas I am incurably convinced that the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” The Catholic is the man eating a steak in a world of people sipping their dinner through straws.

More practically, this contrast appears in the debate over same-sex marriage. Catholic thinkers like Robert George, Ryan Anderson, and their peers work out in detail the nature of marriage, its relation to the physical sexes and to the begetting and raising of children, and the state’s role in recognizing and regulating it. They have a doctrinal commitment to marriage as the permanent union of a man and a woman, of course, but they still work out the question philosophically and present an argument the secular person can engage.

Those on the other side, with a few exceptions, present a simple dogmatic claim that acts as a solvent upon any developed philosophical argument. They declare marriage simply a matter of love or commitment, deny that physical sex matters at all, and insist that allowing people to marry someone of the same sex is an imperative of equality and justice. Generally absent is any consideration of the fundamental matters George and his peers explore.

We see the result. What had once, just a couple years ago, been a debate over extending the established pattern of marriage (two people legally bound together) to homosexual couples has now become a debate over extending it to “throuples” and other polyamorous groupings, and even to incestuous relations. These all play out logically the same-sex marriage advocates’ claims — whose solvent qualities dissolved even the good they claimed to be promoting.

A few marriage liberals have squawked in protest — revealingly few — but the only grounds they could have for objecting to the extension of their own principles is the serious reflection on marriage they’ve declined to do. They have to answer the difficult question of why only two people to a marriage? That will take careful thought. I can guess why they might avoid it, because trying to answer that question risks having to answer others, like whether the two must be of different sexes. Safer to avoid the whole thing.

This saves them from the charge of fundamentalism. Catholicism can’t escape the charge, because it can’t escape the burden of thought. And that, as I said, is a point in the Church’s favor. Chesterton laid out the need for careful thinking in his early book Heretics. In the book he writes about his contemporaries, men like Well, Shaw, Whistler, and Kipling, as “heretics”: people “whose philosophy is quite solid, quite coherent, and quite wrong.”

Given this clash of orthodoxies (as each person will describe his own philosophy), Chesterton says, “I revert to the doctrinal methods of the thirteenth century, inspired by the general hope of getting something done.” He then describes an argument in the street about a lamp-post that many people want to pull down. A monk, speaking in the manner of the Middle Ages, says “Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good—“ and is knocked down.

All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something.

And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.

For her efforts, the last institutional defender of the grand humanist belief in the power of human reason finds herself, and her Protestant allies, dismissed as incapable of thought. Catholic moral teaching, though deeply worked out, is “fundamentalist.” What the world opposes it will not name fairly. That’s one of the lessons of the Passion.

David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream, editorial director for Ethika Politika, and columnist for several Catholic publications. His latest book is Discovering Mary.Follow him @DavidMillsWrtng. This article was first published in Touchstone and is reprinted with permission of the author.

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