It Does What it Says on the Label…but Read the Label.

Tom Krattenmaker in his column in USA Today (Monday, April 2) makes some interesting points but spoils it all with a superficial lumping together of all sorts of bedfellows under the catchall of fundamentalism. Why can’t otherwise sensible people begin to see how useless and destructive a label this has become through its excessive use?

“The polar ends of the religious spectrum — atheists on one hand, fundamentalists on the other — often eclipse the believers in the middle. Yet the faithful middle provides a compassionate and constructive form of faith that has much to offer our fractured world,” he writes.

“These are not the brightest times for religious moderates. Mainstream Episcopalians, Methodists, Catholics and the like, they’re being upstaged by the more aggressive actors at the polar ends of the spectrum. From Christian conservatives flies rhetoric that pays little heed to the inclusiveness, reasonable tones and subtlety of the ecumenical middle. And from anti-religion author Sam Harris and like-minded atheists comes the damning suggestion that moderates enable violent fundamentalism and that moderation, as Harris puts it, “is the result of not taking Scripture all that seriously.” 

He goes on then to say that “No doubt, the high-profile atheists have a legitimate point when they detail the destructive excesses of fundamentalism. Whether it’s the conservative Roman Catholic group Opus Dei and its practice of self-mortification, evangelical Christians who invoke martial language in their call to “reclaim America for Christ,” or fundamentalist Muslims who legitimize violence in the name of Allah, a tide of harsh, divisive faith seems to be rising around the world.”

This is, frankly, ridiculous. I have been a member of Opus Dei for over 40 years and I know it only as a thoroughly orthodox, mainstream and very moderate in all its exhortation and teaching. Krattenmaker mentions self-mortification, suggesting that this is a mark of extremism. Let us deal with that first. Christian practice obliges all followers of Christ to die to themselves in some way. That is what we mean by mortification (and it has to be “self-mortification” because deliberate mortification of others is in fact sinful). This is all on the basis of Christ’s own words. To mention just one instance, he told us quite clearly that unless a seed dies in the ground it cannot have life. Then there is the exhortation to take up the cross, and many more. Some members of Opus Dei – and other Catholics as well – choose to adopt one or two traditional practices which are relatively uncommon but are no more harmful to the body than the practice of moderate fasting which is the more common practice of Christians.  

Detractors of Opus Dei – Dan Brown at the top of the heap – have painted some very lurid pictures of mortification as something extremist. The Christian apostolic zeal and concern for evangelization of members of Opus Dei is similarly portrayed. Read all of the writings of its founder- in context – and look at the work it does throughout the world and I challenge you to find anything that is not 100 percent consistent with the teaching of Jesus Christ. Taking things out of context is the main source of difficulty here. Take some of the words of Christ himself out of their context, without the balance provided by all of his teaching, and you also be likely to judge them as extreme – like the bit about cutting off your hand if it causes scandal. 

Another source of difficulty is the denial by the some of personal freedom of expression to individual members of Opus Dei. The members of Opus Dei do not speak with one voice. When I write now as a response to Tom Krattenmaker  I do so personally. If some find me somewhat extremist then it is to me that the charge should be addressed. It is not fair to brand all of Opus Dei and paint it in the colours of my personal views.

Kratenmaker remarks that “Because of their good manners, the moderates’ voice has been relatively quiet, and their message has had a harder time breaking through. Unity? Inter-religious understanding? Peace? In a time of over-heated rhetoric from the extreme-opposite camps, it’s almost as though these are things for wimps.” The first sign of good manners in most conversations is the readiness to listen, and listen as carefully as you can. I would like to say that Tom seemed to be listening carefully but sadly I cannot.

– Michael Kirke

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