Catholic Fundamentalism

By Fr Gerald A. Arbuckle SM, 15 November 2020
Image: Pixabay.


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

Fundamentalism is a form of organised anger in reaction to the unsettling consequences of rapid social and religious change.

Fundamentalists find rapid change emotionally extremely disturbing and dangerous. Cultural, religious and personal certitudes are shaken. Consequently, fundamentalists simplistically yearn to return to a utopian past or golden age, purified of dangerous ideas and practices. They aggressively band together in order to put things right again – according to what they decide are orthodox principles. Sometimes they turn to all kinds of bullying – emotional, political, even physical violence at times – to get things back to ‘normal’. History must be reversed.

Because fundamentalism is at 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 the ‘pure, orthodox Australian culture’ from the ‘endangering ways of foreigners.’ It matters little to adherents that such a culture has never existed. Anthropologically, every culture is the result of constant contact and mixing with other cultures over years.

Fundamentalists have become especially powerful and vociferous within the 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 the churches, were questioned. This had profound social, economic and political consequences that continue to this day. Second, there is impact from the immense cultural changes generated by the much-needed reforms of Vatican II.

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

  • Nostalgia for a pre-Vatican II golden age, when it is assumed that Church never changed, was then a powerful force in the world, undivided by misguided devotees of the Council’s values. The fact is that the Church and its teachings have often changed. Some statements have been shown to be wrong and were either repealed or allowed to lapse.
  • A highly selective approach to what fundamentalists think pertains to the Church’s teaching: statements on ‘incidental’ issues are obsessively affirmed, but papal or episcopal pronouncements on social justice are ignored or considered matters for debate only.
  • Concern for accidentals, not for the substance of issues, e.g., the Lefebvre group stresses Latin for the Mass, failing to see that this does not pertain to authentic tradition.
  • The vehemence and intolerance with which they attack co-religionists who are striving to relate the Gospel to the world around them according to Vatican II.
  • Attempts to infiltrate governmental structures of the Church in order to obtain legitimacy for their views and to impose them on the whole Church.
  • An elitist assumption that fundamentalists have a kind of supernatural authority and right to pursue and condemn those who disagree with them, including bishops and theologians.
  • A spirituality in which Jesus Christ is portrayed as an unforgiving and punishing God; the overwhelming compassion and mercy of Christ is overlooked.

In relating to fundamentalist Catholics we need to avoid hostile or heated arguments. Membership of 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 affirm people in the rightness of their belief. Our best witness to the truths of our Catholic beliefs will be our inner peace built on faith, charity and concern for justice, especially among the most marginalised.

Fr 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: Insights for Healing in a Fragmented World (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2018); Abuse and Cover-Up: Refounding the Catholic Church in Trauma, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2019); and The Pandemic: The Enduring Human Costs (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2021).

Reproduced with permission.


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