Friday, May 8, 2015

Fundamentalism I and II - Richard McBrien on Fridays

Note:  I'm glad to say that the situation in the Vatican is far different under Pope Francis than it was under John Paul II, when this article and the one it refers to were written.

The issue of fundamentalism comes up frequently online since it is part of the neo-atheist program to pretend that either all religious belief is fundamentalist or that fundamentalism is the only genuine form of religion.  The self-serving aspect of that insistence is pretty clear in that fundamentalism, along with cults of idols and material gods are among the easiest of religious ideas to refute.  That anywhere from many hundreds of millions to billions of religious people aren't fundamentalists and believe in an uncreated, non-material God is among the biggest frustrations of both fundamentalists and neo-atheists.


Too many people -- politicians and ordinary citizens alike -- continue to refer to the "war on terror" as if terrorism were the enemy. As a number of more careful commentators have pointed out, terrorism is simply the deadly means employed by the enemy; it is not itself the enemy. 

The real and immediate enemy is Islamic fundamentalism. Not Islam as such, but Islamic fundamentalism. To be sure, the all-encompassing problem is fundamentalism of every kind, in whatever religious tradition it is found.

Religious fundamentalism flourishes, for example, within Shi'ite and Wahabist Islam, within ultra-orthodox and orthodox Judaism (the Haredim and Hasidim), within so-called Bible-belt Protestantism, and increasingly, in recent decades, within Roman Catholic traditionalist circles as well.

Of course, fundamentalism is a complex phenomenon, having been the subject of serious and sustained study by Martin Marty, emeritus professor of Church history at the University of Chicago, and his former student and current Notre Dame professor, R. Scott Appleby, who co-edited a highly regarded five-volume series on the topic. 

Given the general focus and audience of this column, however, its attention will be directed mainly to Catholic fundamentalism, with the hope that its broader ecumenical and inter-faith implications will be evident.

One of the best articles ever written on the subject of Catholic fundamentalism appeared over 17 years ago in the Jesuit weekly, America (4/11/87). It was entitled, "The Rise of Catholic Fundamentalism." Its author, Father Patrick M. Arnold, S.J., has since died. 

So impressive was his piece that I devoted an entire column to it. I think it worthwhile now, if only as a memorial to Father Arnold, to reproduce the main points of his article. It stands up very well indeed to the passage of years.

Like all careful and insightful observers of the fundamentalist scene, Father Arnold took care to distinguish between fundamentalism and conservatism, with which it is often confused, to the detriment of conservatism.

Conservatism, he insisted, fulfills a necessary and constructive role in the Church and in society alike. It is concerned with preserving a community's historical heritage, especially in times of cultural change. It urges a cautious approach, as captured, for example, in the familiar saying: "Look before you leap." 

Fundamentalism, on the other hand, is neither necessary nor constructive. Working out of an absolutist perspective, it sees the world as filled with evil forces conspiring against everything that it regards -- with unquestioned certitude -- as true and good.

Father Arnold identified five unhealthy characteristics of religious fundamentalism in general and of Catholic fundamentalism in particular.

First, it is marked by paranoia and self-righteousness. There is always some terrible enemy out there that has to be fought and ultimately destroyed.

Fundamentalism is marked, secondly, by fear and rage directed not only against the enemy outside the ranks but even more intensely against the enemy within, including bishops, priests, sisters, and theologians.

Father Arnold called this "the most revealing and dangerous characteristic" of fundmentalists because it leads them to engage in divisive activities. They spend an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to purge people, to get them fired, to destroy their reputations and, therefore, their influence.

Fundamentalists are captivated, thirdly, by the "myth of the Golden Age." They imagine that Catholicism in the decades just before Vatican II was in its pristine and ideal state, exactly as God intended it to be, without problems or deficiencies of any kind.

For the fundamentalist, fourthly, all truth is to be found in a single source. For the Muslim, it is the Koran. For the Jew, the Torah. For Protestants, the Bible. And for Catholics, the pronouncements of the pope and the Roman Curia.

Fifthly, religious fundamentalists tend to link themselves with right-wing political regimes and movements in the hope of advancing their own theocratic policies. Accordingly, Catholic fundamentalists are unenthusiastic about Catholic social teaching. They tend instead to emphasize a limited range of other issues as if they were primary.

Less than two years later, another Jesuit scholar, Father John Coleman, addressed the same topic in Commonweal magazine, linking today's Catholic fundamentalists with the Integralist movement of the early-20th century. The Integralists also claimed that the most dangerous enemies of the Church are within, and that the way to deal with them is through censorship, repression, and even excommunication.

Father Coleman offered some examples: Comunione e Liberazione in Italy, Opus Dei in Spain and around the world, and Catholics United for the Faith and the Wanderer Forum in the United States.

Not since the pontificate of Pius X (1903-14), when the Integralists flourished, have groups of this type enjoyed such favor at the highest levels of the Vatican. 


In late July, 1985, I devoted a column to "the threat of Catholic fundamentalism." I suggested that fundamentalism may pose the most immediate risk to Catholic faith in the United States today, pointing to the thousands of ex-Catholics who now belong to the Jehovah's Witnesses and various other fundamentalist, evangelical, and Pentecostal churches.

I quoted a prominent Catholic biblical scholar who had observed that the number of Catholics who have been lost to the Church because of Hans Kueng could hold a convention in a telephone booth, but the number lost because of fundamentalism is in the thousands.

I did not identify my source at the time. It was the late Father Raymond Brown, one of the Church's most distinguished New Testament scholars, who is sorely missed by all who have benefitted from his many writings and lectures.

Regrettably, the pastoral situation today is little different from what it was in mid-1985. Many Catholics continue to come under the sway of Protestant fundamentalists and they are still defenseless against their attractively simplistic interpretations of Sacred Scripture. 

The fact also remains that the modern Catholic biblical renewal, promoted initially by Pope Pius XII in his landmark 1943 encyclical, Divino Afflante Spiritu, and reinforced by the Second Vatican Council two decades later, has made no impact at all on a very large portion of the Catholic community. It is as if the renewal never happened.

I proposed in that column, some 19 years ago, that the U.S. Catholic bishops should write a pastoral letter to address the problem. To be sure, it was a time when the bishops' conference was still capable of achieving sufficient consensus to produce substantive and compelling documents on a wide range of major topics, including war and peace (in 1983) and the state of the U.S. economy in the light of Catholic social teaching (in 1986).

Soon after my column appeared, the bishops' conference established an Ad Hoc Committee on Biblical Fundamentalism, which issued a "Pastoral Statement for Catholics on Biblical Fundamentalism" in September, 1987. (For the full text, see Origins, November 5, 1987). 

"Fundamentalism," the statement pointed out, "indicates a person's general approach to life which is typified by unyielding adherence to rigid doctrinal and ideological positions -- an approach that affects the individual's social and political attitudes as well as religious ones."

The bishops urged the creation of a pastoral plan to enhance understanding of the Bible at the parish level by encouraging better homilies that apply the biblical texts to daily living, by providing better preparation for lectors at Mass, and by insuring that the content of religious education programs is solidly biblical at its core.

The chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee happened to be at the time my archbishop in Hartford, Connecticut, the late John F. Whealon, a biblical scholar in his own right. It was Archbishop Whealon who informed me that my column had been the catalyst for the formation of the committee and for the issuance of the statement on biblical fundamentalism.

He and his brother bishops were aware, of course, that there is more to Catholic fundamentalism than its uncritical use of the Bible. Their statement noted that fundamentalism also involves "rigid doctrinal and ideological positions" that affect "social and political attitudes as well as religious ones."

For an understanding and effective critique of this broader notion of Catholic fundametalism, there is no better resource than a 100-page paperback by my former Notre Dame colleague, Father Thomas F. O'Meara, O.P, Fundamentalism: A Catholic Perspective (Paulist Press, 1990). Unfortunately, the book is out of print.

I highlighted its many positive features in my column for the week of May 18, 1990, and subsequently compressed its central points in my book, Catholicism, which is still very much in print. 

"Catholic fundamentalism, [O'Meara] suggests, is a corruption of Catholic values, especially of sacramentality. It sees the world as evil and dangerous, forgetting that God is its Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.

"It limits the manifestation of grace to the extraordinary and even the bizarre, forgetting that God is present to ordinary people, in ordinary situations of life. And it limits access to God's grace to a chosen few, the righteous within the larger community of the unrighteous, forgetting that God wishes to save all and has won salvation for all in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ" (Catholicism, p. 94).

"Fundamentalism," Father O'Meara shrewdly observed, "is not a conservative attitude, for it rejects every past but the one it rigidly honors."

So much that is regarded as conservatism in the Church today is not conservative at all. It is fundamentalism. 

The bishops' statement is still pertinent.

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