I Heard the Voice of Catholic Fundamentalism


Listening to Bishop Leonard P. Blair of Toledo, Ohio, on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” program on July 25th, I heard the voce of Catholic fundamentalism. It is a dangerously arrogant voice; and we hear it ever more frequently in episcopal rhetoric.

Bishop Blair believes firmly that the bishops have the truth and the LCWR sisters need to conform and adhere to it. No one in fact has all the truth; and we should all be in respectful dialogue. But dialogue for Bishop Blair is not genuine dialogue. For him it appears to be more like a monologue demanding loyal submission of intellect and will.

On the dialogue that the LCWR would like to have with the Vatican, Bishop Blair said in the NPR interview: “If by dialogue, they mean that the doctrines of the church are negotiable, and that the bishops represent one position and the LCWR represents another position and somehow we find a middle ground about basic church teaching on faith and morals, then no, I don’t think that’s the dialogue the Holy See would envision. But if it’s a dialogue about how to have the LCWR really educate and help the sisters appreciate and accept church teaching and to implement it in their discussions, and try to heal some of the questions or concerns they have about these issues, that would be the dialogue.”

When the subject of women’s ordination came up, the Toledo bishop made statements that are simply wrong. I will explain in a minute what I mean. First Bishop Blair’s statement: “The church doesn’t say that the ordination of women is not possible because somehow women are unfit to carry out functions of the priest, but because on the level of sacramental signs, it’s not the choice that our Lord made when it comes to those who act in his very person, as the church’s bridegroom. And you can say that sounds like a lot of poetry or you know, how do we know that’s true, but if you’re a Catholic, this is part of our sacraments and practice for two millennia, and it’s not just an arbitrary decision of male oppression over women.”

Now why the bishop is dead wrong.

(1) Jesus did not ordain ANYONE! In the church’s first century, ordination, as we know it, did not exist.

(2) There is now ample and clear historic evidence that demonstrates beyond a doubt that women did in fact preside at Eucharist in early Christian communities; and women were called “apostles” by St. Paul and other early church leaders.

(3) And (as I indicated in an earlier post) there is also solid historic evidence that women were ORDAINED and functioned as deacons and priests even into the Middle Ages.

Yes…..Fundamentalism is hardly confined to just Islamic religion and is found in all societies and religions, including Roman Catholic Christianity; and the virus of Roman Catholic fundamentalism is pernicious, self-righteous, and devilishly destructive….

Increasingly, Roman Catholic fundamentalism (one need only reflect on many a red-faced outburst from the Cardinal Archbishop of New York) is a form of organized anger in reaction to social and religious change.

Fundamentalists find change emotionally disturbing and dangerous. Cultural, personal, and institutional religious “certitudes” are shaken. Today’s Catholic fundamentalists, like Cardinal Raymond Burke wrapped in his medieval cappa magna (picture below) pushing to bring back the Latin liturgy of the Council of Trent, yearn to return to a utopian past or a golden age, purified of “dangerous” contemporary ideas and practices.

Todays Catholic fundamentalists, like supporters of Pope Benedict’s New Evangelization, have aggressively banded together in order to put things right again – according to “orthodox” principles. They want to get things back to “normal”….Or as Bishop Blair said: dialogue is “about how to have the LCWR really educate and help the sisters appreciate and accept church teaching.”

Today’s Catholic fundamentalists are still troubled by: (1) the cultural revolution of the 1960s that questioned all institutions and brought profound social, economic and political consequences that continue to this day; and (2) the impact and immense cultural changes generated by the much-needed reforms of Second Vatican Council.

Catholic fundamentalism is becoming a powerful movement in the church to restore uncritically pre-Vatican II structures and attitudes.

Here are some clear signs of contemporary Catholic fundamentalism:

(1) Nostalgia for a pre-Vatican II Golden Age, when it is assumed that the church never changed, was then a powerful force in the world, undivided by the post 1960s misguided devotees of the Vatican II values. In fact, we know for certain that the church and its teachings have often changed. Some church statements have been shown to be wrong and were repealed or allowed to lapse.

(2) A highly selective approach to what fundamentalists think pertains to church teaching and belief. Statements about sexual ethics, for instance, are obsessively affirmed. At the same time, papal, conciliar, or episcopal pronouncements on social justice are ignored or considered simply matters for debate.

(3) An exaggerated concern for accidentals, not for the substance of issues, e.g., the Cardinal Burkes stress Latin for the Eucharist, failing to see that this does not pertain at all to the church’s authentic tradition.

(4) Vehemence and intolerance in attacking people like LCWR who are striving to relate the Gospel to the world around them according to the insights and teachings of Vatican II.

(5) An elitist assumption that Catholic fundamentalists have a kind of supernatural authority and the right to pursue and condemn Catholics who disagree with them, especially “radical feminists” and theologians.

(6) A spirituality which overlooks the humanity, compassion, and mercy of Christ and stresses in its place an unbending and punishing taskmaster God.

Remember: Membership in Catholic fundamentalist groups is not a question of logic, but an often sincere, but misguided, search for meaning and belonging.

If we react to Catholic fundamentalists with heated expressions of anger we will only confirm them about the rightness of their beliefs.

Our best witness to the truths of our Catholic beliefs, as they continue to be explored and developed, is our own inner peace built on faith, charity, and concern for justice, especially among the most marginalized.

And a closing biblical refection:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave-just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28; cf. Mark 10:42-45 and Luke 22:25-27)

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17 thoughts on “I Heard the Voice of Catholic Fundamentalism

  1. are we headed for schism?? it becomes more and more difficult to serve the church under the fundamentalist dictums. our bishop,Robert McManus, cancelled the diaconate, saying that there are too many men in the diaconate program and the diocese does not know what to do with them!!?? apparantly, the Holy Spirit talks only to the boshops!! are we headed for schism??

  2. It’s too bad the so-called Catholic Fundamentalists don’t really go back past beyond Vatican I. They seem to want to “restore” things to a pre-Vatican II era. That is hardly being ‘fundamental’, more like being retrogressive. True
    Catholic Fundamentalists would derive true inspiration from the practices of the early, ancient Christian Church, not from a century and a half ago.

  3. This is an insightful and eloquent piece. John Greenleaf has hit the nail on the head once again. God bless your ministry of prophetic witness in these times, John. And as the old Latin phrase goes, Oremus pro invicem!

  4. I believe that you have put it well and eloquently. I was essentially chased out of the Church because I refused to go along with the Catholic Fundamentalists who took control of my parish.

    A couple of things I would add. Cardinal Newman, in his “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine” — you can find it on-line at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/newman-faithful.asp — gives a specific example from the Fourth Century. He says that in the Arian controversy, a majority of the bishops actually supported arianism. It was the laity which kept the orthodox faith. Bishop Blair would do well to read Newman’s essay.

    That photograph of the cardinal in full regalia reminded me of Matthew 23:1-7:

    Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practise what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi.

  5. This article as well as all your past ones have been full of insight, truth, and wisdom. It is an author as yourself, as well as others, that continue to call a ‘spade a spade.’ I have valued your statements, research, and your calm attitude.. Please, please continue writing. You help validate my own convictions as well as experiences working in the ministry of our Church. Do not give up writing!

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