A truly draconian law in the offing

Montgomery Clift in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film on the inviolable seal of Confession, “I Confess”.

At the very heart of freedom is freedom of religion – and at the very heart of religious freedom is freedom of conscience.

The Irish Government has just published a piece of draft legislation which places a time bomb in this very heart, and if the legislation is enacted it will blow a people’s freedom to smithereens.

Is that first assertion too much? No. Every freedom which has been won for mankind, by mankind, over millennia of our history shows that where freedom was truly won it was won essentially in the context of a freedom of religion and the right to freedom and integrity of personal conscience. Freedoms won by forces hostile to religion – the freedoms won by the French Revolution, the freedoms won by the Russian revolution, the Chinese revolution – have invariably ended in tyranny and have never succeeded in establishing authentic freedom until they have recognised the need for freedom of religion and conscience.

In contrast with the tyrannies which emanated from those struggles for freedom you have the greatest freedom of all, that won by Christians through centuries of persecution by the slave-owning and humanly deluded powers of the ancient world. In more modern times you have the great freedom won by the enslaved races of the 18th and 19th centuries, a struggle driven above all by a Christian consciousness of injustice. Accepted, history is more nuanced than this, but nevertheless the core truth is undeniable. Without recognition of the inviolability of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience, the pursuit of freedom will be fatally flawed and will promise only tyranny.

The Irish government, seeking to deal with the problem of protecting children from abuse by adults, has now gone down this very path. In its proposed legislation it not only ignores freedom of religion and conscience but directly denies it head-on. It is promising to penalise and imprison any Catholic priest who does not report to the relevant secular authorities a sinful act for which a penitent sinner seeks the forgiveness of God as promised to him, as he believes, by the teaching of Jesus Christ. This is not stated explicitly in the draft but will be the inevitable outcome if the legislation is enacted.

Ominously the Irish Times reports today, “The Department of Justice was unable to confirm last night whether priests will be legally obliged to report serious offences against children to gardaí (police) that are disclosed during Confession.” That is a lame and disingenuous kicking to touch. This issue has been in focus for several months now and a number of government ministers have gone on record saying that the so-called sacred seal of confession no longer stands as a legal entity. Justice Minister Alan Shatter confirmed the mandatory reporting requirement would apply to priests hearing confession. Some priests have already proclaimed their defiance in defence of the freedom of conscience of those who come to them as penitents.

In this proposed legislation the State has effectively invaded a sacred realm of the religion of Christians and has countermanded that power which Christian believers understand to have been given by Christ when he said, “whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven; whose sins you shall retain they are retained.”  What the State does not recognise in this whole matter is that while the same act may be both a sin and a crime, these two things have to be resolved in separate ways and in separate fora. A Catholic person accused, convicted and condemned to death for murder, innocent or not, may go to Confession before his execution. The priest who hears that confession might, by revealing all he had been told by the penitent, redeem that person’s reputation. Even to achieve that justice, he may not do so. The two realms are absolutely separate and the priest’s silence about what was confessed must also be absolute.

By invading this realm of conscience in this way the Irish State has now taken away the freedom of a sinner to get the absolution promised by God because it has radically changed the terms and conditions for that absolution – that is, the secrecy given to the act of confession by the wisdom and teaching of the Catholic Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit as that sinner’s religious faith leads him to believe.

Let there be no doubt about it. This is a draconian law, posturing as a necessary law under the shadow of the crimes of child abuse with which Irish society, among others, has been plagued for over 40 or 50 years. It is also a bad law, penally hostile to the practice of the religious faith of the majority of the citizens of Ireland. The fact that a draconian executive is not running the country – although some might dispute that – is irrelevant. For nearly 300 years the Roman Empire had penal laws against Christians in place. For most of that time Christians were free to practice their religion but periodically the executive power of the time deemed that they were bad citizens by practising their faith and moved murderously against them. The pattern has been repeated many times throughout history whenever and wherever laws of this type came into being. Ireland beware.

The poverty of a life lived under an illusion

Christopher Hitchens

Atheism is in decline, according to George Weigel. Really? Well, he reported last month from the Ethics and Public Policy Centre at which he is a Senior Fellow, that their global number is now 137 million , showing a steady drop over the past decade. His figures came from the International Bulletin of Missionary Research and seemed fairly reliable. However, I still found myself a little sceptical until I read and reflected on an interview in the Daily Telegraph last week. This was both poignant and terrifying. Mick Brown, one of the Telegraph’s veteran interviewers had gone to Washington to meet the one of the arch-priests of the New Atheism, Christopher Hitchens.

As most people who know of Hitchens are already sadly aware, he has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Hitchens put it rather starkly to Brown, telling him that the cancer is now at stage four. ‘And the thing to note about stage four is that there is no stage five.’ He has been told that of 1,000 men of his age and in his condition, half could expect to be dead within a year.

What was poignant about all this is fairly obvious: a man in love with life, and man surrounded by admiring friends who enjoy his wit, intelligence and superb powers of expression, now considers that he has made his last journey – to a place he calls “Tumourville”.

What was terrifying was less obvious and lurked in the shadows at the back of the mind for days until gradually it overwhelmed the poignancy with the full force of Mr. Kurtz’s dying words in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, “The horror, the horror”. This is surely one of the reasons for the decline in atheism. There is no suggestion here that Christopher Hitchens has on his conscience the catalogue of crimes against humanity which Mr. Kurtz – or Col. Kurtz, if you are working to the text provided by Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now – had. What exactly it was that Kurtz saw in those dying moments which drove those terrible words from his heart and soul is open to interpretation, but it is hard not to have that same sense of horror at the prospect of someone departing on his final journey while thinking that he is coming to a full stop – while in fact he is not.

The poverty of a life lived under the illusion induced by a fallacy of reason – that just because you cannot prove something according to the rules of what we call science, then it is not true – is a dreadful condition. The bleakness of that life makes the prospect of atheism for the vast majority of ordinary mortals too much to bear. T.S. Eliot reminded us that “Humankind cannot bear very much reality”. The reality he was referring to was, we know, a limited reality. Eliot knew the full picture and knew that this was where the heart of peace was. But it is this limited reality which Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett et al. are proposing to us as the be-all and the end-all of our existence. Humankind is clearly not buying it.

Brown tells us that Hitchens has faced his illness with great courage.  He has, and it is admirable. But as far as death is concerned courage does not enter into it. There is nothing for him to be afraid of beyond a full stop. But mankind from time immemorial, and by the looks of it from the statistics Weigel puts before us, for all time to come, as long as common sense prevails, knows in his heart of hearts that there is no full stop. How, one wonders, does the evidence of history and nature not make the atheists ponder their judgements on all this? Does every natural phenomenon we find in the world around us, and in every species of being in that world, not point to some purpose related to the destiny of that being? How then could this one universal phenomenon of belief in a first mover and an afterlife – which all of human history records in one form or another, and modern man still exhibits in overwhelming numbers, – be so meaningless? It makes no sense.

Brown tells us that talking with Hitchens about this, “you sense not only an anger with the institutions, teaching and practices of religion, but also an exasperation and bemusement with the very fact of belief. Put simply, he just doesn’t get it.”

“’With religion, try as I may, I can’t think myself into the viewpoint of the faithful. I can’t think what it would be like to believe that somebody had died for my sins, for example. I don’t get it at all.’ So it is that people’s experiences of faith will always be ‘delusions’; the consolations they may derive from it always ‘false’ ones.” But one feels that part of the problem is that what might be a consolation for others would be nothing of the kind to Hitchens. Boredom, he admits is his great enemy.

Brown and he discuss another notable – and late – atheist and his fear of death, the poet Philip Larkin. “‘What Larkin was saying was, you bloody fools; that’s exactly what I’m afraid of – annihilation.’ He pauses. ‘It is a disagreeable thought.’

“’However, put the contrary case. You get tapped on the shoulder, but guess what? The party’s going on for ever; you have to stay. And not only that, but you have to have a good time – the boss says so.’ He gives a slight shudder. ‘Anything eternal is probably intolerable.’”

Brown asked him if he thought he had been a good person? ‘No, not particularly. Not as the world counts these things, because the world expects, for that definition to apply, a good deal of selflessness. And while no one scores very high on that, I score lower than most. I don’t do much living for others, I really don’t.’

That is, perhaps, the real crunch. The prospect of eternity in that state of mind or soul is intolerable. And that is where “the horror, the horror” really bites.

While the medical prognosis for Christopher Hitchens is grim, there is one glimmer of hope and one that has no small suggestion of irony in it. Shortly after his diagnosis he was asked if he would be willing to take part in an experiment looking for a cure for cancer through genome sequencing. It is complicated but early this year he got news that there is a genetic mutation expressed by the tumour for which there already exists a drug. Chemotherapy is now underway making use of this information.

The ironic part of this is that one of the doctors taking an active interest in Hitchens’s treatment is Francis Collins, a pioneer of the Human Genome Research Institute. Collins is an evangelical Christian, the author of a bestselling book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. ‘It is a rather wonderful relationship,’ Hitchens told Brown. ‘I won’t say he doesn’t pray for me, because I think he probably does; but he doesn’t discuss it with me.’ Perhaps all this will prove to be something beyond irony.

Moving On

We have got to move on from here. The Church in the 16th century took the bull of corruption and abuse by the horns and moved on to the Catholic Reformation. It must do the same now. Another tranche of documents – 10,000 pages of them – are in the headlines in the US this week, detailing more records of abuse. Mind you not all 10,000 pages will be disturbing. Some of them record complaints about the long hair-styles or Elvis-style sideburns of some of the clergy of the time. But some of them are indeed disturbing. This time they come from the files of the diocese of San Diego, California. Good. Read then, beat our breasts sincerely and contritely – but then move to do what we should have been doing when these ugly heinous crimes were being committed. We are not doing a service to anyone, least of all the victims of abuse, by just continuing to beat our breasts. If the corruption within the Church in the early modern age was the occasion of driving good men out of the Church, the corruptions of our own age have had no less drastic consequences. It is time to address these consequences.

Moving on is not the same as forgetting. We must never forget what has happened – we cannot, in fact, ever forget it. It is and always will be part of us. It is part of our fallen condition, the effects of which we have all inherited.

We were reminded of this by Pope Benedict in his address at Oscott College in Birmingham in September. “As we reflect on the human frailty that these tragic events so starkly reveal, we are reminded that, if we are to be effective Christian leaders, we must live lives of the utmost integrity, humility and holiness. He then quoted an Anglican priest to express his hope for the future: ‘O that God would grant the clergy to feel their weakness as sinful men, and the people to sympathize with them and love them and pray for their increase in all good gifts of grace’” Those words were the prayer of the Rev. John Henry Newman, now Blessed John Henry Newman, delivered in a sermon on 22 March 1829.

The Pope made no bones about the impact of the scandal on the moral credibility of Church leaders. “I have spoken on many occasions of the deep wounds that such behaviour causes, in the victims first and foremost, but also in the relationships of trust that should exist between priests and people, between priests and their bishops, and between the Church authorities and the public.”  But he went on to acknowledge the new awareness “of the extent of child abuse in society, its devastating effects, and the need to provide proper victim support should serve as an incentive to share the lessons you have learned with the wider community”. He did not make the obvious point that clerical abuse was but the tip of the iceberg of child abuse. He sees no point in that kind of defence but those looking on should be ready to concede it, if they are at all interested in fairness. What he did propose was much more positive: “Indeed, what better way could there be of making reparation for these sins than by reaching out, in a humble spirit of compassion, towards children who continue to suffer abuse elsewhere? Our duty of care towards the young demands nothing less.” At the heart of the response must be, he said, “Integrity, humility and holiness”.

Looking forward, with the supernatural vision that is the hallmark of his office, he said that his prayer would be that among the graces of his visit to Britain “will be a renewed dedication on the part of Christian leaders to the prophetic vocation they have received, and a new appreciation on the part of the people for the great gift of the ordained ministry. Prayer for vocations will then arise spontaneously, and we may be confident that the Lord will respond by sending labourers to bring in the plentiful harvest.”  

Finally, as if to underline that essential platform of the spiritual and supernatural on which that harvesting work can only be based, he spoke to them of the Eucharist – in the context of the imminent publication of the new translation of the Roman Missal for the English-speaking world. “I encourage you now to seize the opportunity that the new translation offers for in-depth catechesis on the Eucharist and renewed devotion in the manner of its celebration. ‘The more lively the Eucharistic faith of the people of God, the deeper is its sharing in ecclesial life in steadfast commitment to the mission entrusted by Christ to his disciples’ (Sacramentum Caritatis, 6).

Then, in final words of encouragement the Pope seemed to echo back to that age when the failures and corruption of churchmen five centuries ago drove good men into a revolt which still divides Christendom. He spoke about the generosity needed for the implementation of the Apostolic Constitution, Anglicanorum Coetibus, that apostolic instrument by which members of the Anglican Communion might be reunited with their fellow Christians in the Roman Catholic Church. “This should be seen as a prophetic gesture that can contribute positively to the developing relations between Anglicans and Catholics. It helps us to set our sights on the ultimate goal of all ecumenical activity: the restoration of full ecclesial communion in the context of which the mutual exchange of gifts from our respective spiritual patrimonies serves as an enrichment to us all. Let us continue to pray and work unceasingly in order to hasten the joyful day when that goal can be accomplished.” Now that is moving on.

Seeds of Faith and Reason sown by “a gentle scholar, swathed in white”.

It is always the same. Why were we surprised? I suppose it is a bit like the Olympics cycle, the World Cup cycle and all those other high profile recurring events which travel the world every few years. Prior to it all taking place the predictions are dire. This time it really is going to be a disaster – the stadiums are not ready, the security nightmare will scuttle it, the infrastructure of the chosen country will never cope with the crowds. But as always – well, I can’t remember  any predicted disaster which actually materialised – it works out well on the night. If disasters occur – like in Munich in 1972 – they are never predicted.

So what was the dire prediction this time? The Pope’s visit to Britain of course. For months we had been fed stories of impending disasters – poor planning, big security problems which were going to cripple the whole event, embarrassing protests by brigades of the New Atheism movement and the disaffected “faithful”. They were at it up until the very eve of the visit when the words of Cardinal Walter Kasper got lost in translation. He seemingly suggested that to land into Heathrow was to land into a place rendered third world by multiculturalism.

And what actually happened? Did it all go pear-shaped? Emphatically no. It was, in the words of a number of Vatican people, the best trip of the pontificate so far. Certainly, in the shorter term view it could hardly have been better. In the longer term view we can also say, at the very least, it is full of promise. As always with promises – or to be a bit evangelical about it, the sowing of seeds, – time has to pass to see what the effect will be. There is no question but that there was a very widespread sowing going on – tens of millions throughout the Anglophone world  are estimated to have watched and  heard what the Pope said over those days. And the response was palpably positive for all but the die-hard sceptics.

The Guardian, one of the most hostile organs prior to the visit was reduced to a grudging concession in the wake of the event. “The pontiff’s taking of tea with a Queen whose coronation oaths swore her to defend ‘the Protestant reformed religion established by law’ is quite something. The papal praise poured on Sir Thomas More – the martyr who died defending the pope’s power against the crown – in Westminster Hall would once have been likened to the gunpowder plot. The 5 November celebration is a reminder of the historic reach of anti-Catholicism in popular culture, just as the Act of Settlement is testimony to the sectarian origins of Britain’s high politics. Yet the rapprochement required today is not so much between Protestant and Catholic as between the religious and the rest, and Benedict leaves without denting that divide.” They probably hope so, but one feels that there can be something more than a dent in this if the necessary cultivation and harvesting is attended to. There are already reports of many lapsed Catholics coming to parishes and asking for baptism for their children. There are reports of enquiries from people who want to know more about the faith they saw witnessed to by those few hundred thousand attending events during the visit. Archbishop Vincent Nichols’ reflection on the visit gives some insight into this and what needs to be done now.  http://www.thepapalvisit.org.uk/News-and-Media/Latest-News/Papal-Visit-something-beyond-words

The New Atheists of course saw the whole thing as a big opportunity for them to spread their gospel. What happened? Firstly, their fellow-travellers were profoundly embarrassed by their antics and are probably now deserting them in droves. Their so-called rationality revealed itself to be the height of irrationality.  Ross Douthat in the New York Times observed that “All in all, the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Britain over the weekend must have been a disappointment to his legions of detractors. Their bold promises notwithstanding, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens didn’t manage to clap the pope in irons and haul him off to jail. The protests against Benedict’s presence proved a sideshow to the visit, rather than the main event. And the threat (happily empty, it turned out) of an assassination plot provided a reminder of what real religious extremism looks like — as opposed to the gentle scholar, swathed in white, urging secular Britons to look with fresh eyes at their island’s ancient faith.” That image, as a counterfoil to the hate-filled rants which spewed from the motley crews on the protest platforms, spoke volumes to all men of good will.

Standing idly by?

 The Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community (COMECE) has called on the leaders of the European Union in a new report to wake up to the widespread persecution of Christians in many parts of the world. “Europe cannot remain passive. The European Union must take the co-responsibility for the protection of religious freedom in the world.”

Well, we might wonder, will they? The bellicose and utterly tasteless protest movement against the visit of the Pope to Britain were chanting in the streets of London a few weeks ago: “What do we want? A secular Europe! When do we want it? Now!” There are a lot of people who feel that they have already got it. It really will be a big news story when we hear that Europe’s leaders have taken on the responsibility these bishops are calling for.

Next week COMECE is organising a conference on the persecution of Christians, to be held in Brussels on October 5, It will present a report to the conference detailing situations around the world which reveals that “At least 75% of religious persecution is directed at people of the Christian faith. Each year 170,000 Christians suffer because of their beliefs.”

 “The total number of faithful who are discriminated amounts to already 100 million”, the report estimates. “This makes Christians the most persecuted religious group. Persecution may also include obstacles to the proclamation of Faith, confiscation and destruction of places of worship or prohibition of religious training and education.” While all that is happening Europe is deliberating on moves to prohibit the display of religious symbols in schools. It is anyone’s guess what the outcome of that deliberation might be so what hope is there that Europe will march to the defence of religios freedom elsewhere?

A Fallacy at the Heart of Our Bewilderment

It is strange – or is it? – that some of the most shocking disasters which afflict us poor humans seem to descend  on us in or around Christmas time. The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, the Pan-Am flight 103 which hurtled out of the night sky on the unsuspecting townspeople of Lockerbie in 1988, and now the devastation of Haiti in the region’s worst earthquake for 200 years, all came within a few days or weeks of the season of peace and joy.

Of course it is only an impression. Statistically I’m sure these disasters are distributed fairly normally across the calendar. It is the very juxtaposition with the peacefulness of Christmas which creates the impression. We are shocked by the incongruity of the thought that such pain, suffering and sudden death should be lot of some while others commemorate the coming of the Saviour of the world.

But there is a fallacy at the heart of our bewilderment. Why should we be shocked by something that is the lot of every one of us – and not always in a comfortable bed surrounded by our family and friends? Our good and reasonable responses of sympathy with the suffering and bereaved, of prayer for the dead and practical aid to the afflicted, are often mixed up with the less sensible. We love sensations and sentimentalism. Why is it that a nation finds itself gripped and fascinated by the trial of a man accused of murdering his wife? Sentimentality was once aptly described by someone as working out on ourselves feelings that we haven’t got. We have the experience – the shock, the feeling of pity, the horror of imagining ourselves dying a terrible death – and miss the meaning of it all. We tend to wallow in sentiment and miss the real point. What does death really mean?

Shakespeare – in the words he put in the mouth of Julius Caesar – said it all when he wrote:

Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,

It seems to me most strange that men should fear;

Seeing that death, a necessary end,

Will come when it will come.

Why does the death of thousands at one time and in one place shock us to the core when we know that the same end is the inevitable lot of all? For the self-righteous and now notorious American evangelical preacher the recent deaths of an estimated 200,000 in Haiti were easy to deal with. This was God’s punishment on a nation that had for too long played games with the devil. Now that was truly shocking. If he was a little more evangelical he might have thought about the rhetorical question put by Jesus to his disciples and others, recounted in the Gospel of St. Luke:

Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them think ye that they were debtors beyond all the men who dwell in Jerusalem?

No they were not. We are all debtors, and we will all die someday.

There is no doubt, disasters can bring out the best in some and the worst in others. Among the best – prayers for the dead and afflicted; humanitarian response to the needs of a devastated nation. And the worst? Well, perhaps this. In 1755 the intelligentsia of Europe, contemplating the death and destruction of Lisbon in the great earthquake and tsunami of that year, proclaimed the Death of God – either by losing whatever faith they had or by proclaiming that, if anyone still needed proof, this surely proved that no God existed. But where are they now? They are all dead. Did they not think that in the greater scheme of things it makes little difference whether it happens today, tomorrow or in twenty years’ time?

The suddenness of death should not surprise us. It is a common enough occurrence. That death might come with more rather than less pain should not dismay us – even though we will hope that modern medicine may help us though it somewhat. The two resolutions that we should really get our heads around in the face of those two eminently possible eventualities – a sudden and/or a painful death – should be staring us in the face. Be ready – always; get to grips with the meaning of suffering and in understanding it, for everything has meaning, learn to embrace it as a part of a complete vision of life.

Take all that on board and we will probably still find ourselves shocked by the effects of natural disasters on our fellow men. There is no shame in that. We have emotions. But we will not lose all sense of proportion and hopefully we will consequently respond in a more practical and imaginative way to those who suffer if we keep our feet on the ground.

In 1927 the journey of the Magi to Bethlehem was imagined famously – and not a little mysteriously – by T.S. Eliot. It was also the year in which he converted to Christianity. His reflections on that event brought about at least one conversion to the faith and probably had something to do with his own. In it he talked of two deaths, one of which was in fact Life itself. The narrating wise man has returned home and many years later reflects on what he and his companions had encountered.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,

And I would do it again, but set down

This set down

This: were we led all that way for Birth or Death?

There was a Birth, certainly,

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death,

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.

It may seem a little heartless to offer these thoughts in a context which we still find tearing at our emotions as we contemplate the agony of the poor people of Haiti still rummaging in the rouble of their cities and towns and mourning their dead. But nothing is served, for us or them, by succumbing to an unreality which in the end does nothing but cripple the vision of the soul.

Rushing to Judgement – Enright on the McCanns

So this is what a society without God is going to be like? We may have got a glimpse of it last in the newspaper coverage of Man Booker prize-winner Anne Enright’s  highly publicised judgements on the parents of Madeline McCann, in which she declared herself among the participants in that international sport – her term, – disliking the McCanns. It made grim reading and left one wondering how we got here. A family is in the throes of a tragedy – a child is lost. Yes, that is all we can be certain about just now. Everything else is surmise and suspicion. But what has happened now is that these parents who have suffered this loss are being set upon and every Tom, Dick and Harry is constructing scenarios of what happened without a thought given to the agony the parents are going through. Judges and juries are ten-a-penny and presumptions of innocence are worthless. That is surely a far remove from the Christian basis on which our rule of law was originally founded. This, inevitably, is what happens when God is jettisoned. But even more frightening was the ad hominemjudgement mooted by Anne Enright. She left aside the question of presumed innocence or guilt and just ploughed into the personalities of Kate and Gerry McCann in a manner which one could only say was deeply disturbing. Ms. Enright is a novelist and those who like her grim fiction are entitled to inflict her pain on themselves if that is what they want to do. Fiction is a great human device for exploring and helping us understand the human condition. In it we create situations and characters who mirror reality. Then we offer a kind of judgement, mete out justice and punishment or rewards appropriately. When a novelist, however, takes two living and anguished human beings and does the same to them it is a totally different matter and is specifically what God in the person of Jesus Christ asked us not to do to each other. Man’s necessary but often sad efforts to mete out justice to his fellow man is but a mere shadow of what the final judgement will be. A recent Daily Telegraph headline was a stark reminder of theis: “Over 30 years after an innocent man was wrongly jailed for killing 11-year-old Lesley, ‘the real abductor’ faces court”. The chilling realisation which came while reading this Anne Enright’s exercise in semi-creative writing was that this is the product of a vision in which no other judgement but ours matters. God is nowhere. This, one thought, is what the world will be like if Richard Dawkins, Philip Pullman and Christopher Hitchens – and all the other high-priests of atheism have their way. 

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