Is there such creature as the catholic fundamentalist? Responding to fellow WPI blogger Mike Lewis’s use of the term “fundamentalist” in Fundamentalist Catholics and Ecclesial Catholics, Fr Dwight Longnecker writes:
[The term “fundamentalist”] was coined in the early 20th c. by conservative Protestants who, in the face of modernism, wished to return to the fundamentals of the faith. […] For Mike Lewis to use the term “fundamentalist” is pejorative and inflammatory. It is imprecise, insulting and only adds fuel to the fire. It is just as unhelpful as the conservatives who sling the term heretic at their opponents. At least the term “heretic” might, in some cases, be objectively correct. “Fundamentalist” has nothing to do with conservative Catholics. The term was coined by Biblical literalists.
Now in fairness to Fr Dwight, his knowledge of Protestant Fundamentalism is much more extensive than that of most Catholic writers. After all, Father is a graduate of Bob Jones University, America’s leading Protestant Fundamentalist post-secondary institution. Moreover, Fr Dwight concedes in his response that “there are some conservative Catholics on the lunatic fringe who could properly be termed ‘fundamentalist’. I’ve engaged with some traditionalists who really are racist, anti-semitic, ultra right wing, geo centrist conspiracy theory nut jobs.” So he is not completely excluding the possibility of Catholic fundamentalists.
As an aside, I do not consider Fr Dwight a Catholic fundamentalist. Compared to most neo-conservative critics of Pope Francis, I find Fr Dwight generally fair and respectful when critiquing the Holy Father. I simply do not agree with most of his critiques.
Now I too am familiar with both American Protestant Fundamentalism and reactionary Latin Traditionalism. The former as a Pentecostal during my teen years and a graduate from Tyndale Seminary–arguably Canada’s most renown Evangelical seminary. Of course, Fr Dwight would interject that Evangelicals and Pentecostals are not Fundamentalist. Yet historically Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism have been strongly influenced by their Fundamentalist cousins.
With regards to reactionary Catholic Traditionalism, I am familiar with it as a former Sedeprivationist (a cousin theory to Sedevacantism) who left the SSPX in horror after personally witnessing Bishop Williamson deny the Holocaust. He did so during his homily at a children’s confirmation mass. Coincidentally, one can read both my conversion story and that of Fr Dwight in adjoining chapters of Pat Madrid’s Surprised by Truth 3.
But I digress.
And I disagree.
As a former Pentecostal and longtime Catholic Traditionalist, I think Fr Dwight underestimates the cross-pollination between Protestant Fundamentalism, Radical Catholic Traditionalism, and American political neo-conservatism within the English-speaking world. Particularly since the election of Pope Francis. In fact, this toxic ideological concoction among professional Catholic media has driven many Byzantine Catholics–myself included–to switch favourite religious broadcaster from those previously shared with our Latin brothers and sisters, to the Eastern Orthodox sponsored Ancient Faith Radio.
And it was on Ancient Faith Radio that I came across the following talk by Eastern Orthodox theologian George Demacopoulos: Traditionalism without Fundamentalism.
The talk, addressed to the average Orthodox layperson, is based on a short essay entitled Orthodox Fundamentalism that Demacopoulos wrote for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America website. Although written for Eastern Orthodox traditionalists, the problem is one common to conservative Catholicism. Which is why it is perfectly acceptable to identify and call out Catholic fundamentalism as such.
Orthodox Fundamentalism, Catholic Context
As noted by Demacopoulos in his essay:
Like other fundamentalist movements, Orthodox fundamentalism reduces all theological teaching to a subset of theological axioms and then measures the worthiness of others according to them. Typically, this manifests itself in accusations that individuals, institutions, or entire branches of the Orthodox Church fail to meet the self-prescribed standard for Orthodox teaching. […]
The key intellectual error in Orthodox fundamentalism lies in the presupposition that the Church Fathers agreed on all theological and ethical matters. That miscalculation, no doubt, is related to another equally flawed assumption that Orthodox theology has never changed—clearly it has or else there would have been no need for the Fathers to build consensus at successive Ecumenical Councils.
Translated to a Catholic context, an example of Demacopoulos’s above description is found among Catholic apologists for capital punishment. Appealing to St Athanasius during the Arian heresy, Catholic fundamentalists impose support for capital punishment as a litmus test for Catholic orthodoxy. This is despite the near unanimous agreement for its abolition that has arisen in last 40 years among the Church’s popes, patriarchs, bishops, learned theologians, clergy, and–outside of the United States–laity. In traditional Catholic terms, both the sensus fidelium (sense of the Catholic faithful) and the College of Bishops in union with the Roman Pontiff as its head, now oppose capital punishment.
Yet Catholic fundamentalists oppose this new consensus by the wider universal Church. For example, Ed Feser protested as follows in the Catholic Herald:
[…] the legitimacy of capital punishment is irreformable Catholic teaching. And if that is so, then it follows that a pope who taught that capital punishment was always and intrinsically wrong would be as manifestly guilty of doctrinal error as he would be if he denied the Trinity. (Such doctrinal error is possible when a pope is not speaking ex cathedra, though it is extremely rare. There are only a handful of examples in the history of the Church of popes who have possibly been guilty of this, the best known cases being those of Pope Honorius and Pope John XXII.)
So, did Pope Francis propose reversing this traditional teaching?
The answer, obviously, is that previous Catholic teaching on capital punishment is neither traditional as in pertaining to Apostolic Tradition, nor irreformable. Here I would add Demacopoulous’s following description of the dangers of Orthodox fundamentalism, which is equally valid when imported to a Catholic context.
The insidious danger of Orthodox fundamentalists is that they obfuscate the difference between tradition and fundamentalism. By repurposing the tradition as a political weapon, the ideologue deceives those who are not inclined to question the credibility of their religious leaders.
In an age when so many young people are opting out of religious affiliation altogether, the expansion of fundamentalist ideology into ordinary parishes is leading to a situation where our children are choosing between religious extremism or no religion at all.
For example, broken down by age group, support for capital punishment is generally lower among young people aged (18-29). Yet a 2015 Pew Center poll noted that support among this demographic had dropped from 59 percent in 2011 to 51 percent in 2015. This is an eight-point drop in support over a mere four years.
Additionally, the 2015 poll noted that 43 percent of Americans within the 18-29 age demographic oppose capital punishment. (Presumably, the remaining six percent are undecided). Only two years later, a 2017 Pew Center poll discovered that the 2015 numbers had flipped within the 18-29 demographic: 51 percent now opposed capital punishment, while only 42 percent supported it!
Yet as also noted by my colleague Mike Lewis, a dismissive attitude toward young people is not uncommon among Catholic fundamentalists. “Why are we listening to young people, who really haven’t experienced a lot of life, or God, frankly?” Raymond Arroyo asked recently on his EWTN programme “The World Over Live”.
By way of comparing attitudes, please listen to Ancient Faith Radio’s podcast Why Young People Are Leaving the [Eastern Orthodox] Church and What to Do About It. The lecture, given by Orthodox seminary faculty and former Princeton Seminary assistant director Seraphim Danckaert, addresses the need to encourage young people in their traditional Orthodox Christianity. “We need to have young people entering professional life still committed to their Orthodox faith to have a vibrant Church,” Danckaert states.
Fortunately, in contrast to his Catholic fundamentalist critics, Pope Francis’s attitude toward Catholic youth is similar to Danckaert’s.
Christian Fundamentalism–Not Just for Protestants
Like my colleague Mike Lewis, one of the main critiques Demacopoulos received is that he had separated the word “fundamentalist” from its American Protestant context. Acknowledging its American Protestant roots, Demacopoulous then adds: “We now know that the fundamentalist response to the Biblical scholarship of the 1920’s was actually far more innovative than the scholarship it found so egregious.”
Demacopoulous cites the example of Biblical inerrancy as a modern idea arising from fundamentalism:
The very notion of Biblical inerrancy is a modern idea. I know of no patristic or medieval author–and I have read quite a few of them–who believe that the Bible was without error, which is what inerrancy means. Nor do I know of any ancient or medieval author who thought that the Scriptures were literally dictated to their authors by the Holy Spirit. Those are modern assertions–not patristic, not Byzantine, not medieval.
From here Demacopoulous puts forward 12 signs of fundamentalism within contemporary Eastern Orthodoxy. He divides them into seven general signs of religious fundamentalism and five signs particular to the Orthodox context. Given the close proximity between Catholicism and Orthodoxy–especially for Byzantine Catholics like myself who consider ourselves Orthodox in communion with Rome–the latter five signs are easily translated to Catholicism.
7 General Signs of Religious Fundamentalism
Demacopoulous’s first seven signs of religious fundamentalism are general. That is, they are common to fundamentalism within all contemporary religions or branches thereof–including Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. These seven fundamentalist flags are:
1 – A belief in foundational text’s inerrancy.
2 – The rejection of modernity and especially the rejection of those aspects of modern science that appear to contradict core religious beliefs.
3 – The creation or exaggeration of artificial distinctions between traditional and liberal beliefs and/or expressions of faith.
4 – A militant rejection of fellow believers who fail to see the threat of modernity or liberalism.
5 – The creation of innovative pastoral and/or theological practices designed to preserve an imagined tradition than never actually happened.
6 – The imposition of legalisms or litmus tests to evaluate whether ordinary believers are true members of the faith community.
7 – The replacement of faith with certainty.
These seven general signs of fundamentalism are for the most part self-explanatory. As such, they are easily translated to and recognized within a Catholic context. No further explanation is needed for most Catholics. But for those who require further explanation, simply google “Catholic geocentrism”.
That being said, I should reiterate Catholic teaching that the Bible is inerrant on those matters pertaining to faith, morals, and our salvation. As explained by Pope Benedict XVI quoting the Second Vatican Council’s Dei Verbum (n. 11):
Therefore since all that the inspired authors or hagiographers state is to be considered as said by the Holy Spirit, the invisible and transcendent Author, it must consequently be acknowledged that “the books of Scripture, firmly, faithfully and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures”.
The key phrase here is “for the sake of our salvation”. The creation narrative of Genesis 1 is not intended by the original author as a manual for astrophysics and natural biology.
5 Signs of Fundamentalism Specific to Orthodoxy and Catholicism
Having identified seven general signs of fundamentalism within any religious or spiritual tradition, Demacopoulos then proposes five signs of religious fundamentalism specific to Eastern Orthodoxy. The parallels to Catholic fundamentalism are so strong that only two of the five criteria require further adaption to Catholic context.
Demaopoulos’s subsequent five criteria are:
1 – An insistence upon patristic inerrancy.
Within the Catholic context, one could substitute for patristic inerrancy the writings of deceased Roman Pontiffs. Particularly when cited in opposition to the teachings and writings of the current reigning Pope, rather than in continuity and charitable allowance for development of doctrine.
2 – Demonization of intellectualism and/or academic theology.
3 – Equating of ecumenism with heresy.
4 – The overlapping of hyper-nationalist ideology with the border between Orthodoxy and heresy.
Here one need only substitute “Catholicism” or “Roman Catholicism” with “Orthodoxy”. This particular phenomena, sometimes dubbed “Republican Rite Catholicism” by its American critics, has been well-documented by individuals like friend and fellow Catholic blogger Mark Shea.
5 – An inordinate fixation on the Toll Houses.
(Catholics may substitute “Fatima conspiracies”.)
This criteria is one particular to Eastern Orthodoxy for which there is no direct Catholic equivalent–perhaps the closest being the Latin understanding of Purgatory. Toll Houses are purported to be a series of stations populated by demons through which each soul passes in the afterlife. At each stop the demons inhabiting the specific toll house take their due from the deceased.
Toll Houses are highly speculative, not to mention controversial among most Orthodox, and only recently introduced to Eastern Orthodoxy. Yet they have captured the imagination of Orthodox fundamentalists in a way similar to how conspiracies surrounding the Third Secret of Fatima have sparked the inordinate fixation of many Catholic fundamentalists.
This is not to condemn all Fatima devotion. Nor to question the Blessed Mother’s appearance to the three shepherd children. In fact, it is precisely Sister Lucy’s lifelong example of humble obedience to the Church that leads me to believe in the private revelation’s authenticity. However, as a private revelation–even one approved by the Church–I recognize that every Catholic is free to accept or not accept Fatima. Whereas in violation of traditional Catholic theology, many Catholic fundamentalists have gone so far as to misrepresent Fatima as public revelation requiring the belief of every “true” Catholic.
As one can see from Demacopoulous’s 12 warning signs, Christian fundamentalism is not limited to Protestantism. Increasingly it is found among Catholics and Orthodox. Adapting Demacopoulous’s closing words to a Catholic context, I therefore conclude as follows:
It is time for Catholic clery and lay professionals to proclaim broadly that the endearing relevance of our Catholic Tradition does not lie in the slavish adherence to a fossilized set of propositions used in self-promotion. The significance of Catholic Tradition lies in the earnest and soul-wrenching quest of Christ’s apostles and saints to seek God and to share Him with the world. Fundamentalist readings of old papal documents, saints, and theologians never lead to God—they only lead to idolatry.
Pete Vere is a canonist, author, and catechist. His books include Surprised by Canon Law (volumes 1 & 2), More Catholic Than The Pope, and Annulments: 100 Questions and Answers. Pete and wife Sonya are blessed with seven children. In his spare time Pete enjoys camping with his family, riding his Indian Scout motorcycle, and refereeing professional wrestling.