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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.

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