Wednesday, March 21, 2007

On Fundamentalisms

James Carroll offers a critique of all types of fundamentalism in this column published yesterday in the Boston Globe.

After defining fundamentalism and noting its troublesome effects, Carroll considers his own faith's version of the tendency. Noting Pope Benedict's recent "Apostolic Exhortation" and its assertion that certain values are "not negotiable," Carroll writes that "culture consists precisely in negotiation of values, and change in how values are understood is part of life. Moral reasoning is not mere obedience, but lively interaction among principles, situations, and the 'human limitations' referred to in the 1993 Vatican statement," which condemned religious fundamentalism.

Consider some of the values that good people might consider "not negotiable." Consider opposition to abortion or the defense of marriage as an exclusively heterosexual union. Or consider the promotion of democracy or of free-market economic principles. Consider support for human rights or opposition to all forms of war.

Steadfast defense of a principle without regard to circumstances--"mere obedience"--is easy. It absolves the one engaged in such a defense of the need to think about contexts or consequences. On the other hand, recognizing that values may come into conflict or that ends and means are both important--engaging, that is, in "moral reasoning"--is more difficult because it entails responsibility. It forbids the excuse that is so common among those who do evil without even realizing it: "I was just following orders."