Catholic Fundamentalism – Catholic Perspective

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Fundamentalism is not limited to Islamic religions. In fact, fundamentalist movements are present in all societies and religions, including Catholic Christianity.

Fundamentalism is a form of anger organized in response to the troubling consequences of rapid social and religious change.

Fundamentalists find the rapid changes emotionally extremely disturbing and dangerous. Cultural, religious and personal certainties are shaken. Therefore, fundamentalists simplistically yearn for a return to a utopian past or a golden age, purified of dangerous ideas and practices. They aggressively unite to put things right – according to what they decide to be orthodox principles. Sometimes they turn to all kinds of bullying – emotional, political, sometimes even physical violence – to get things back to “normal”. History must be reversed.

Because fundamentalism is in depth an emotional reaction to the disorienting experience of change, fundamentalists are not open to rational discussion. Here in Australia, for example, there is a political fundamentalist movement to preserve “pure and orthodox Australian culture” from “dangerous routes of foreigners”. It doesn’t matter to the adherents that such a culture never existed. Anthropologically, every culture is the result of constant contact and mixing with other cultures over the years.

Fundamentalists have become particularly powerful and vocal within Catholic communities in recent decades. Their fundamentalist reactions are the result of the impact of two massive cultural upheavals colliding. First, there is the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. The credibility of every value and institution, including churches, has been called into question. This had profound social, economic and political consequences which continue to this day. Second, there is the impact of the immense cultural changes generated by the indispensable reforms of Vatican II.

Catholic fundamentalism is an often aggressive reaction to the anxiety-provoking upheavals of these two cultural and religious upheavals. It is an ill-defined but powerful movement in the Church to uncritically restore pre-Vatican II structures and attitudes. Here are some signs of this fundamentalism among Catholics:

  • Nostalgia for a pre-Vatican II golden age, where the Church is assumed to have never changed, was then a powerful force in the world, undivided by stray devotees of Council values. The point is that the Church and its teachings have changed many times. Some statements have turned out to be false and have either been repealed or rendered obsolete.
  • A very selective approach to what fundamentalists think of Church teaching: statements on “ancillary” matters are obsessively affirmed, but papal or episcopal statements on social justice are ignored or considered subjects for debate only.
  • Concerned about chance, not about the root of the problems, for example, the Lefebvre group emphasizes Latin for mass, failing to see that this does not come under authentic tradition.
  • The vehemence and intolerance with which they attack co-religionists who strive to tell the Gospel to the world around them according to Vatican II.
  • Attempts to infiltrate Church government structures in order to gain legitimacy for their views and impose them on the whole Church.
  • An elitist assumption that fundamentalists have some sort of supernatural authority and the right to prosecute and condemn those who disagree with them, including bishops and theologians.
  • A spirituality in which Jesus Christ is portrayed as a ruthless and punitive God; Christ’s overwhelming compassion and mercy are ignored.

When it comes to fundamentalist Catholics, we must avoid hostile or passionate arguments. Belonging to fundamentalist groups is not a question of logic, but generally of a sincere, but misguided, search for meaning and belonging. Expressions of anger and vigorous disagreement will only assure people of the correctness of their belief. Our best witness to the truths of our Catholic beliefs will be our inner peace based on faith, charity and concern for justice, especially among the most marginalized.

Father Gerald Arbuckle SM, Ph.D, is an award-winning author. His most recent books are: Fundamentalism at Home and Abroad: Analysis and Pastoral Responses (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2017); Loneliness: ideas for healing in a fragmented world (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2018); Abuse and Cover-Up: Rebuilding the Catholic Church in Trauma, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2019); and The pandemic: the lasting human costs (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2021).

Reproduced with permission.


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