Look, I’m a practicing Roman Catholic, but you don’t have to be Catholic, you don’t have to be a Christian to work for Blackwater.
– Erik Prince, founder of mercenary military organization Blackwater and convert to Roman Catholicism
An acquaintence of mine is a Pentecostal Christian studying historical theology at a Catholic theological school. He is — as the kids say — “way into” conspiracy theories. I had a conversation with him today about the “tensions” between the Jesuits and Opus Dei. I mentioned that a good resource on Opus Dei is John Allen’s deliberately balanced book, a balance which is helpful in that it lets the real (and very problematic) features of the Opus Dei spirituality shine through, as opposed to the sensationalized “Da Vinci Code” characteristics that we hear about in popular culture.
The problem with Opus Dei’s spirituality is that it is an extreme version of a dualism that has plagued the Church for some time. The Christian separation of politics and religion — the dualism that allowed German Christians to turn a blind eye when other German Christians were slaughtering Jews and that allowed Catholics to slaughter other Catholics in the Latin American civil wars — continues in our own time and in increasingly insidious ways. Sadly, the general assumption of many versions of the Catholic “spirituality of work” seems to be that Catholics should seek to “sanctify” the work that they do, no matter what that work might be. Perhaps the most extreme form of this spirituality is that of Opus Dei’s founder St. Josemaria Escriva who wrote
Opus Dei aims to encourage people of every sector of society to desire holiness in the midst of the world. In other words, Opus Dei proposes to help ordinary citizens like yourself to lead a fully Christian life, without modifying their normal way of life, their daily work, their aspirations and ambitions…. [Members] do not join Opus Dei to give up their job. On the contrary, what they look for in the Work is the spiritual help they need to sanctify their ordinary work.
This fundamental principle is played out, of course, in the classes of people that Opus Dei tends to cater to, as is well known.
Compare this type of spirituality that seems to baptize just about every profession imaginable to the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola whose Spiritual Exercises includes a section on discerning the state in life to which one is called through a reflection on the “two standards,” i.e. the way of Christ vs. the way of Satan. Unlike the spirituality of Opus Dei which, according to its founder, is not intended to help one “modify” one’s state in life, the Ignatian vision is meant to help the Christian to continually discern, and yes, even to radically modify one’s state in life based on conformity to the standard of Christ as opposed to the standard of Satan. And the Ignatian vision is embodied vividly by its founder who laid his warrior’s sword at the feet of a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary as a gesture of his new way of life, that of a soldier for Christ rather than a soldier of the world.
Are there professions that fit clearly in the latter Ignatian category, that of the standard of Satan? Absolutely. But while most Catholics would point to abortionists and prostitutes as clear (perhaps the only?) examples of “illegitimate” professions, beyond these they are not so comfortable drawing those kinds of lines. Combox discussions here at Vox Nova have occasionally brought up the question of military service and whether it can be a legitimate Christian vocation. (My view is no, at least not in the specific context of the united states military. A forthcoming paper of mine will argue this, foregoing abstract arguments about soldiering in general by focusing on the 21st century u.s. military experience.) Those discussions, predictably, generated arguments on both sides. Surprisingly, though, a Vox Nova discussion a while back attracted some folks who argued that “serving” as a Blackwater (recently renamed “Xe”) mercenary was a legitimate profession. Certainly, while we cannot judge the hearts and minds of Blackwater employees themselves as to whether their very employment by Blackwater is itself sinful, we can judge the actions of Blackwater employees that so clearly manifest sins against the dignity of human life. And we Catholics must have the courage to draw the necessary line that says that some Catholics, like convert Erik Prince who envision a privatized, unaccountable military force that operates for hire in the interest of pure profit (and not for the supposedly noble reasons for which our U.S. military forces exist), are dedicating their lives clearly and deliberately on the wrong side of the Ignatian “two standards.”
The Catholic tendency to “sanctify” any and all types of work as “vocation” — including the “vocation” of killing and dying for the nation-state and/or for profit — is at root an ecclesial problem. In the words of Catholic theologian and philosopher Robert Brimlow (PDF)
The churches offer no alternative vision to what the secular powers define as good; the churches equate Jesus’ call to discipleship with business as usual.
In the face of such embarrassing examples of Erik Prince, which embody this ecclesial failure, perhaps the Catholic Church could take a lesson from the late theologian John Howard Yoder who argued from his congregationalist Mennonite perspective that perhaps our church communities should consider taking church membership much more seriously, both in terms of one’s entrance into the church, as well as one’s continued membership in the Body of Christ. Central to Yoder’s theology is the Mennonite conviction that membership in the Body of Christ requires the acceptance of a particular social ethic based on a radical following of Jesus. This notion of a “shared social ethic” is something that Catholicism, for all its emphasis on the outward signs and structures of the faith, simply lacks, or rather resists every time our spiritual leaders insist on a spirituality that does not require us to gauge our professions and lifestyles according to the social ethic — the “standard,” in Ignatius’ words — of Christ.
Brimlow, at the risk of sounding like a “sectarian” Catholic (he indeed argues elsewhere that Catholics should become more not less “sectarian”) gets the Ignatian impulse right when he says
To label our work and the professions as ‘callings’ or ‘vocations’ is not only arrogant it also, and more importantly, cheapens the gospel. There is one calling we should recognize — discipleship — and one vocation — to follow Jesus.