George A. Sprecace M.D., J.D., F.A.C.P. and
Associates of New London, P.C.
ZENIT, The world seen from Rome
Interview With Author of The New Fundamentalists
In this interview with ZENIT, Deacon Brandenburg, who will be ordained
a priest of the Legionaries of Christ this December, comments on his
book "The New Fundamentalists: Beyond Tolerance," recently published by
Q: In a nutshell, what is the new fundamentalism that you address in
Deacon Brandenburg: When we hear fundamentalism, what normally comes to
mind is religious narrow-mindedness, perhaps with an irrational or even
fanatical bent, like that displayed by some Muslim followers after
Benedict XVI's Regensburg address.
The "new" fundamentalism that I describe in my book often displays the
same intolerance, irrationality and extremism. The key difference,
however, is that the new fundamentalists profess to be secular
followers of no religion. Yet closer examination shows that the
relativistic dogma underlying their worldview excites more religious
fervor than do many tenets of the great world religions.
John Paul II's experience with Nazism and Communism -- two completely
secular ideological systems -- led him to write in "Centesimus annus":
"When people think they possess the secret of a perfect social
organization which makes evil impossible, they also think that they can
use any means, including violence and deceit, in order to bring that
organization into being. Politics then becomes a 'secular religion'
which operates under the illusion of creating paradise in this world."
I would say that what Nazism and Communism were in the past, relativism
is today in our times. The methods are different -- softer and more
subtle, working from the inside out -- but the effects on people and
social structures and relationships do bear some comparison.
Secular religion did not die with those defunct systems. During an
address last June 11, Benedict XVI touched upon the difficulties of
passing on the faith "in a society, in a culture, which all too often
makes relativism its creed. [I]n such a society the light of truth is
missing; indeed, it is considered dangerous and 'authoritarian' to
speak of truth."
We face a new fundamentalism -- a new secular religion -- that assumes
there is implicit arrogance in any statement of truth, especially if it
implies a value judgment about morality or the merits of one religion
or worldview in comparison to others. The relativism of our time admits
no rivals and is aggressively intolerant.
In the end, when truth is taken away or ignored, might makes right.
That applies for any brand of secular religion.
Q: Your book opens with a case study of a college student named Jeff
who is virtually blackballed on campus for standing up for his faith,
even though he did so in a reasonable and respectful way. What is the
urgency of combating secular fundamentalism on college campuses?
Deacon Brandenburg: Jeff's case is one of countless true stories, all
of which call us to an essential point: It's not enough to understand
the nature and dangers of this new fundamentalism. We also have to
equip ourselves and others to oppose it, using the tools of logical
argumentation and reasonable dialogue.
This is of the highest urgency, since relativism has a corrosive effect
on almost every area of human life, from religion to morality to the
organization of social and political life. The battle is not limited to
college campuses, but extends to all levels of education, the media,
politics and social life.
Q: What specific solutions do you propose as an antidote to the
influence of relativism?
Deacon Brandenburg: Since this new fundamentalism is both a human and a
religious malady, the medicine I prescribe at the end of my book has a
human and a religious ingredient.
On the human level, I urge mutual respect, dialogue and honesty. This
last point of honesty is vitally important, since it entails a constant
attitude of openness to truth.
Sometimes it is uncomfortable to be continually challenged by truth. It
might seem easier to dig our heels into what we already know and just
settle into a familiar landscape of facts and opinions that we feel we
But truth is not something we can possess and put in our pocket. It is
something that masters us, possesses us, and constantly challenges us
to grow. To avoid that challenge would be to run away from growing into
our full stature as human beings ... and as children of God, who is
On the religious level, I believe the remedy is authentic religion: a
faith rooted in the personal encounter with a God who transcends and
loves us, leading to deep attitudes that build on the best of human
virtues and surpass them.
For example, authentic religion builds on the principle of mutual
respect and elevates it to the virtue of charity. In a similar way,
faith takes dialogue to a higher level of impact by opening man to the
fullness of his spiritual nature. And honesty is brought to its full
wingspan when man reaches after objective truth with all his strength.
Relativism and agnosticism clip man's wings by discouraging him from
inquiring after the great questions and actively seeking the answers to
his most profound longings. The liberation of faith is that it brings
back that wide horizon of ultimate questions and sets man free to
search for the answers.
Q: Your book occasionally cites insights from Alexis de Tocqueville,
the early 19th-century Frenchman who wrote "Democracy in America." What
do you think De Tocqueville would say if he could see the impact of
relativism in America today?
Deacon Brandenburg: I think De Tocqueville saw the potential danger
from the beginning. He was one of the first to say that a democracy is
worth only as much as its people are, and that the character of a
nation is dependent on the moral character of its individual citizens.
One of the points I argue in the body of the book is that the doctrine
of tolerance is having a clear and measurable impact on marriage,
family and the quality of social relationships as a whole; it is
weakening the people who made our nation strong.
Q: What do you think are the key concepts that help us to engage
effectively in debate and action?
Deacon Brandenburg: Many people might argue that tolerance is the key
to interpersonal relations, but I would venture to say that charity and
truth are much more important.
If I really care about a person -- charity -- I will seek the truth for
them. A doctor does his ailing patient a disservice to tell him he has
nothing wrong, just as a parent destroys his child's future by
tolerating self-destructive activity like engaging in premarital sex or
taking drugs. We need to go beyond tolerance and pursue truth; hence
the subtitle of my book.
We can't be afraid to say that truth exists. The relativistic ethos of
our society tends to frown upon statements of objective truth because
it assumes that growth in intellectual maturity runs on par with growth
in skepticism. For the modern mind, intellectual sophistication seems
to require systematic doubt, an ability to see all sides without
committing to any one point of view.
Of course, there is no doubt that there is a legitimate complexity to
many things in life and answers are not easy to find. Yet this will
never legitimate the lack of absolute answers to anything.
Maturity means moving from doubt to renewed conviction about what is
good and true. Truth, in this context, is not just a soap box to stand
on, or a state of intellectual stagnation to sit in. On the contrary,
seeking after truth is dynamic, active, growing, and yes, critical and
discerning, because it requires going beyond skepticism to a deepened
and perhaps purified grasp of reality in all its dimensions. Again,
it's a matter of allowing reality to challenge and change us.
We can respect people and tolerate their right to hold their own ideas
while still affirming that some ideas are true, and others are just
plain out of touch with reality. Part of dialogue entails this respect
for the person and the willingness to engage in debate based on the
objective merit of the ideas.
That's what this book is intended to drive forward: to provide the
tools and means for committed Catholics -- like Jeff -- to engage in
reasoned dialogue with the secular world without losing confidence in
the truth they have received.
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