Under Pope Francis, and in part as a reaction to his papacy, we are witnessing the flourishing of a Catholic fundamentalism that often borrows from its Protestant predecessors (see, for example, this article by Mark Silk for an overview of the subject). In this post, I will look at an idea drawn from Protestant fundamentalism that lingers in the background of some Catholic fundamentalism: biblical literalism and inerrantism. Lest I be accused of “breaking a butterfly on a wheel” by focusing on a fringe perspective that is not, at this time, held by many Catholics of any persuasion, I will say that I find it interesting simply because it provides an intriguing example of the modern thinking that undergirds some forms of traditionalism. It is extreme, but offers insight into some of the larger trends at work.
This subject arose on a recent episode of The John-Henry Westen Show podcast. Westen, co-founder and editor-in-chief of LifeSiteNews.com and co-founder of Voice of the Family, is one of the most prominent fundamentalist voices in Catholic media. On a February 18 episode of his show titled “Creation v. Evolution: Science and Catholicism agree on the winner,” Westen interviewed Hugh Owen, founder of the Kolbe Center for the Study of Creation, providing a sympathetic platform for Young Earth Creationism. I recognize that Westen may not share all of Owen’s views, but he certainly seems to agree with him on a broad level and offers no criticism during his interview. On the contrary, he sounds keen to help the Kolbe Center promote their new 13-part DVD series, Foundations Restored.
Owen takes an extremely literalistic approach to Genesis, which leads him to reject any possibility of what he calls “molecules to man” evolution. He also rejects the Big Bang theory and argues that the Earth is mere thousands of years old, not billions. Further, he claims that cutting-edge science shows that the Earth is at the very center of the universe.
His thoughts on Noah and the Great Flood are especially curious. According to Owen, dinosaurs are thousands of years old, not millions. The fossils that paleontologists have been able to recover are from those dinosaurs that perished during the worldwide Great Flood; these dinosaurs were too large and numerous to be taken onto Noah’s Ark. However, Owen adds, some dinosaurs were rescued by Noah, and these continued to roam the earth after the Flood, until the population was greatly reduced by the ice age that followed. The surviving dinosaurs are what we know from folklore as “dragons.” Some may still survive—and Owen suggests that Papua New Guinea would be a promising area for dinosaur hunters to explore.
Those who do not hold these and similar beliefs, Owen suggests, are not true Catholics. They are “modernists.” But the modernism that Owen describes is not quite the Catholic Modernism that Pope Pius X warned against. Pius X was primarily concerned with the idea of evolution in history, not evolution in nature. His frame of reference was philosophical and theological. At the same time, the allegedly “traditional” Catholic position that Owen upholds sounds suspiciously modern; the Kolbe Center relies upon scientific thinking in its many efforts (which include lab testing) to debunk evolutionary theory, even if they also claim that science cannot tell us anything about Creation. Their position is very different from that of a naively literalistic approach to Genesis. Indeed, Young Earth Creationism became influential in Protestant fundamentalist circles only after the publication of The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and its Scientific Implications (1961) by John C. Whitcomb and Henry M. Morris. It is an import: a radical perspective from a largely North American debate that is alien to the Church.
Think back to those innocent early years of the Francis pontificate when it was the secular media that most often misrepresented the words and actions of Pope Francis. The media was enthralled with the new pope, and tended to place his every public utterance within the context of polarized debates. One such example occurred after the pope, on October 27, 2014, delivered an address at a plenary session for the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. He reflected upon the question of Creation, approaching it in a manner very much in line with his papal predecessors—such as Pope Benedict XVI, a bust of whom was revealed at the event. After praising the Pope Emeritus for his support of science and scientists, Pope Francis stated:
When we read the account of Creation in Genesis we risk imagining that God was a magician, complete with an all powerful magic wand. But that was not so. He created beings and he let them develop according to the internal laws with which He endowed each one, that they might develop, and reach their fullness. He gave autonomy to the beings of the universe at the same time in which He assured them of his continual presence, giving life to every reality. And thus Creation has been progressing for centuries and centuries, millennia and millennia, until becoming as we know it today, precisely because God is not a demiurge or a magician, but the Creator who gives life to all beings. The beginning of the world was not a work of chaos that owes its origin to another, but derives directly from a supreme Principle who creates out of love. The Big Bang theory, which is proposed today as the origin of the world, does not contradict the intervention of a divine creator but depends on it. Evolution in nature does not conflict with the notion of Creation, because evolution presupposes the creation of beings who evolve.
This is a rich but non-controversial statement in a Catholic context. The secular media, however, interpreted it in a very different way. The Washington Post headline of October 28 blared, “Pope Francis says evolution is real and God is no wizard.” The Independent headline was similar: “Pope Francis declares evolution and Big Bang theory are real and God is not ‘a magician with a magic wand.’” Further, the article claimed that “the Pope made comments which experts said put an end to the ‘pseudo theories’ of creationism and intelligent design that some argue were encouraged by his predecessor, Benedict XVI.”
Catholics groaned. Anyone who understands the Church’s general position on Creation and evolution would recognize that Pope Francis was not saying anything very shocking, and that it did not represent a radical break from the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI. The media, however, was placing the pope’s words within the context of the inane debate (still lingering at the time) between Protestant fundamentalists and New Atheists like Richard Dawkins. That debate, in turn, was an echo of the great “fundamentalists versus modernists” battle that rocked Presbyterianism in the United States during the 1920s and shaped the future of evangelical Protestantism. And that is the true context of the battle that Catholic fundamentalism is fighting. That is the context in which the Kolbe Center’s Young Earth Creationism is at home.
The fundamentalist versus modernist battle hinged, in part, upon the question of biblical inerrancy: should the bible be considered inerrant in all matters of fact? The fundamentalists said yes. The modernists, at the other extreme, allowed for metaphorical readings that went beyond what even most progressives in the Catholic Church would deem acceptable. It all led to the Scopes Trial of 1925, where fundamentalism took on evolution in both the courtroom and the court of public opinion, and failed.
Although fundamentalism had a revival much later on, with the rise of the “Christian Right” and figures like Jerry Falwell, the fundamentalist interpretation of Genesis has never carried much weight within the Church, even among conservative Catholics. This is because fundamentalism is itself based upon modern presuppositions. I came across an insightful Master’s thesis by Andrew Charles Hoffmeister that makes exactly this case regarding American Protestant fundamentalists; he sees their ideas regarding biblical inerrancy as being based upon Scottish Common Sense Realism and Baconian scientific induction, which are both key elements of what he refers to (using term coined by Henry May) as the American “Didactic Enlightenment” of early nineteeth century (6). Hoffmeister writes, “as well as providing a basis for empirical criticism regarding evolution, the Didactic Enlightenment also provided the means for the construction of an inerrant Bible” (13). Thus, fundamentalism—which only became a coherent movement in the early twentieth century—was as modern as the modernism it opposed. It may sometimes go under the guise of “traditionalism” in the Catholic Church, but the modern roots are the same. The Kolbe Center provides an particularly striking example of this, in the way it fuses traditionalism with an ostensibly modern and “scientific” way of thinking, the result being that both tradition and science are warped and misrepresented in the process.
I can only hope that Westen’s apparent interest in Young Earth Creationism is not a sign of trends to come in that part of the Catholic world, even if it would certainly fit very well with the “end-times” apocalypticism that Westen has also been dabbling in. If it catches on, however, it will only serve to further marginalize the Catholic fundamentalists and remind us how removed from mainstream Catholic discourse they really are. In a famous 1922 sermon that fueled the fundamentalist versus modernist controversy, Harry Emerson Fosdick asked, “shall the fundamentalists win?” In our case the answer, thankfully, is no. The battle of the Catholic fundamentalists is not really with the Church, and their debate is not a Catholic one.
Photo: Noah’s Ark, by Edward Hicks (1780-1849)