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By Diogenes ( articles ) | Dec 01, 2007

A former adviser to Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor has an article in The Tablet deploring the moral absolutism of our Church. Conventionally independent of mind, he takes issue with the Catholic stance on gay adoption, gay access to IVF, abortion, and contraception. The author concludes that the Church is "in danger of adopting an aggressive fundamentalism."

It's this last charge that caught my attention.

Fundamentalism is one of those words that have a "public odor" (in Flannery O'Connor's phrase) so predictably repellent as to obviate the need for an actual argument. All the accuser has to do is make the charge stick and he's usually won the day.

Yet it seems to me undeniable that, if you take a look at the history of monastic and religious life in the Church and examine the peaks and troughs of the long-lived congregations, you'll find that almost every successful reformer is a "fundamentalist" with respect to the tradition of his own order. As generations go by, for example, the Rule of St. Benedict may get interpreted more and more liberally by certain abbots: first by way of common-sense adjustment to novel circumstances; later perhaps in response to external political pressures; finally out of a detestation of austerity. A healthy foundation can thus become corrupt. Then along comes a reforming monk or prioress who strips away all the accommodations and accretions and says, "From now on, were going to read the Rule literally and live that way." For the same reason, reformed congregations often bear the qualifier "... of the Strict Observance," or "... of the Primitive Observance." St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Teresa of Avila were fundamentalists in this sense. They rejected contextualization in favor of literal adherence, laxity in favor of zeal.

Accommodationists object that no one can live the Christian life without some compromise, and reformers are naturally regarded as fanatics by those who have made their peace with the drowsy comfort of a decadent indifferentism. Yet one of the reasons the Church honors a St. Thomas à Kempis or a St. Jean Vianney is that they can communicate to their fellow Christians -- laymen as well as clerics -- that the life Jesus call us to is livable, not only by a few highly-favored heroes, but by anyone who really wishes to live it.

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