Sunday, August 19, 2012

Not Yet Worthy of the Extremist Title? Work On It!

This morning I was reading an article from columnist George Will whom I always find insightful.  In the context of the article, Will quotes Martin Luther King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail.  He writes, "You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. . . . But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love. . . . Was not Amos an extremist for justice. . . . Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel. . . . Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”

Beheading of John the Baptist
Undoubtedly, getting the "extremist" label firmly attached to an opposing politician is a political gain and being stuck with the label of "extremist" is most likely a political liability.  But for those of us not running for office, perhaps we ought not to worry so much about this label.  Calling someone an "extremist" (perhaps I've done it myself, I don't know) is a lot easier than debating the merits of an argument.  Call the other person an "extremist" and you move right to the end of the game.  Attach that label and you are free from any intelligent debate.  "Extremist" equals "that person has absolutely nothing worthwhile to say and is a complete and raging nut."  There, that was easy.

Fifteen years ago when I was ordained, any Catholic priest who sang the "Agnus Dei" in Latin at Mass, owned a cassock, or thought that the pope might be a more authoritative teacher than some trendy university theologian was definitely an extremist. 

There are some folks who think that it is always wrong to go to war.  I think that there are times when war is unfortunately necessary.  But, I don't think that people who always oppose war are extremists--even though their opposition is total and without exception.  But, if you think that the life of an unborn baby ought never to be deliberately killed . . . well, you're an extremist.  For thinking that every human life is sacred and ought to have the full protection of law . . . extremist.  Anyone who thinks that human life is so sacred that it ought to be defended must necessarily be advocating that women be dragged into the streets, beaten, and kept unemployed.  And if the people who are advocating the pro-life position are highly educated women?  Well, pretend that they don't exist or that they are just pathetic victims of . . . the extremists.

Think that the government shouldn't fund Planned Parenthood . . . extremist. 

Do you agree that what Christians held collectively and absolutely to be true about artificial contraception for the first 1900 years of the Christian faith is true?  Nutty Extremist.

Do you think that marriage is a life long union between a man and a woman for the pro-creation of new life and the union of husband and wife?  Total extremist.

Think that a man and a woman should be married before they live together?  Extremist.

Think that it is immoral for a doctor to help a patient kill himself?  Extremist.

Go to Mass every Sunday?  Yep, you're an extremist.  Think that all Catholics have to go to Mass every Sunday and confess all serious sins in the Sacrament of Peance?  Crazy, retroactive, right wing extremist. 

Are you upset by the fact that the government is now compelling religious believers to violate their consciences and threatening to fine them into oblivion if they fail to comply?  You, my friend, are an extremist.  How could it be otherwise?  See, it is not extremist for the government to compel religious believers to violate their consciences if the government tells you that your beliefs are extremist.  And the government has said that opposing abortion, sterilization, and contraception are extremist.  So, you are now an extremist.  You must comply or suffer the wrath of the government.  Extremists like you must be brought into compliance.

Basically, if you are a Catholic--you know, the type of Catholic who is going to believe everything the Church teaches to be Divinely revealed by God--then you are most definitely a nutty extremist.  The history of the Church is filled with such nutty extremists.

St. Francis of Assisi?  He decided to live in total poverty, chastity, and obedience.  Sounds a little extremist.

There was that nutty Thomas More who refused to sign off on Henry VIII's wish to divorce and remarry yet again.  He was such a kooky extremist that they had to cut his head off.

John the Baptist was another extremist when it came to marriage.  Herod cut his head off too.  Herod wouldn't have had to go to such (extreme?) lengths had John the Baptist been willing to be just a little more flexible when it came to morality. 

Then there were all of those women throughout the Church's history who pledged their virginity to the Lord.  When dragged before wicked men who commanded that they submit to being raped, they chose death instead.  Certainly these women were a bit on the extreme side.  They needed to be made an example so that others wouldn't be so extreme in their purity.

There were the early Christians in the catacombs, the Catholic priests of England and Ireland who were hunted down and killed for offering the Sacraments, the clandestine seminaries during the Nazi regime and  then behind the Iron Curtain where seminarians--if caught--could be executed, and the priests, bishops, and lay people in China today who suffer enormous risks in order to remain faithful Catholics.  All extremists.  If only they would just go along with what the culture or the government commanded, then they would not have to be dealt with so . . . extremely.

As the Year of Faith approaches, I wonder if we ought to spend more time learning about the martyrs of the Church.  These men and women who shed their blood rather than deny Christ, deny the Church, or deny what is truly good.  These extremists might have a great deal to teach us.

Heaven is for the extremists.  Heaven is for those who believe all that is Divinely Revealed by God.  Sometimes, in order not to be accused of extremism, people like to point out those doctrines and teachings where they are not in agreement with the Church.  It makes them feel intelligent and . . . well . . . not so extreme.  But, the saints are extremists.  They believe everything that has been definitively taught.  They have an extreme hope that all that Christ promises will be fulfilled.  They have an extreme love for God and for their neighbor.  They are willing to go to the extreme of shedding their blood for the Faith.  Their willingness to suffer humiliation, torture, and death are extreme.

There's a always a temptation to make Christianity more palatable by making it less extreme.  Forgiving and loving enemies, rejecting abortion, contraception, divorce and remarriage, believing that bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, believing "he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood will have eternal life," the resurrection, Hell, believing that God's Son was born of a Virgin and was crucified, and a thousand other things about Christianity all sound pretty extreme.  Making everything sound more like milquetoast is tempting.  Maybe more people will join if it wasn't so extreme.

That is the great deception.  But, the more extreme our faith, hope, and love are, the more the Church is alive.  The more we we sound wishy-washy, the more our numbers decrease. 

Preaching and teaching these truths can be hard.  Defending our beliefs can be dangerous.  Believing extremely, hoping extremely, and loving extremely does not mean that we have to be extreme in our tone or extreme in our words.  We can preach and teach the truth with great patience and joy.  If somebody isn't ready to agree with us today, we can win them over by our extreme love, our extreme patience, and our extreme joy.  But, we can also win others over by our willingness to suffer the accusation of being an extremist. 

To be extremely faithful does not require one to be extremely unpleasant or extremely combative.  That is a caricature that some would like to see painted.  To be extremely faithful means that one believes everything that is part of Christian revelation.  It also means that one is extremely faithful to the method of Christ and receptive to all of the beautiful graces that Christ wishes to bestow upon his disciples.  Extreme fidelity, extreme joy, extreme patience, extreme fortitude, extreme obedience, extreme charity, and all of the other virtues too.

We Catholics are sometimes labeled as extremists.  Let's live up to our name.


  1. Where is todays homily? (Sunday Ausust 23rd I mean) no podcast....should have been! Great job today....

    1. Thanks. The whole podcast thing is still an experiment. It takes a bit of effort to get it done.