Is There Such a Thing as Catholic Fundamentalism?
Peter Henrici


"Fundamentalism is always a form of religious subjectivism, a subjectivism that bases its own highest and most personal conviction on an un-mediated text."

There are certain words, perfectly respectable in themselves, that in recent usage have lost all but their derogatory sense. No one would apply these words to himself, but only fling them at an enemy. "Fundamentalism" is one of these modern terms of insult. We connect this word with all possible images of horror: intellectual narrowness, authoritarianism, and a disposition to violence. Nevertheless, the word always stands in a religious context, particularly in connection with Islam. For the enlightened and tolerant--i.e., for the modern European--"fundamentalism" is a word with dark, antagonistic overtones.


Two Parameters

Nevertheless, the word "fundamentalism" has an American, Christian, and thoroughly respectable origin. In 1895, just before the turn of the twentieth century, a group of American ministers and lay people, all firm believers in the Bible, came together in order to defend the "fundamentals" of Christian faith against the rise of theological liberalism. Between 1910 and 1915 they published a twelve-volume work entitled "The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth," of which a million copies were produced, and in 1919 they formed the "World's Christian Fundamental Association." The five fundamentals that they insisted absolutely had to be affirmed were the following: 1) the literal inerrancy of Holy Scripture; 2) the divinity of Jesus Christ; 3) the virgin birth; 4) Christ's act of reconciliation on our behalf; and 5) Christ's bodily resurrection from the dead and his second coming.

Almost exactly a century later, the papal biblical commission published a document on "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church" (1993), in which thirteen different approaches to Holy Scripture were critically evaluated.(1) Only the last of these was unqualifiedly and emphatically rejected. The biblical commission is not skittish in its dealing with fundamentalism: according to the commission, it has its roots "in an ideology that is not biblical"; it "denies the historical character of biblical revelation," refuses to accept "that the inspired word of God [can be] expressed in human speech," and therefore takes no account of the "development of the gospel tradition." We can therefore not "deny a tendency toward intellectual narrowness" in fundamentalism; indeed, it is "dangerous," because it attracts people who "seek biblical answers to their lives' problems" and thus invites them "to lay aside their own thinking."

One could scarcely envision a more pointed account of a certain manner of approaching Holy Scripture--especially considering that it comes from an authority, whose promulgations at the beginning of the last century could be (mis)understood themselves as altogether fundamentalistic, and also considering that the other four "fundamentals" proposed by the Fundamentalists are in fact shared by all of the members of the biblical commission. Indeed, these fundamentals are perfectly Catholic--though of course we would still have to come to agreement concerning what it means that Jesus died in our place.

Two posts have thus been set to mark the parameters for an answer to our question concerning Catholic fundamentalism: On the one hand, we have the papal biblical commission's unambiguous rejection of a fundamentalistic interpretation of scripture, and on the other hand there is the unmistakable relation between many basic fundamentalistic convictions and Catholic doctrine. Clearly, a discernment of spirits is in order.


Is Catholicism Fundamentalistic?

Not only are there four basic convictions that the Catholic Church shares in common with American Fundamentalism; there is also a remarkable temporal coincidence between the Fundamentalists' defense against liberalism and the position the Church took up against modernism, a form of liberalism that is not as self-conscious about its set of beliefs. The encyclical on scripture, Providentissimus Deus, appeared already in 1893; in this letter, Leo XIII affirmed the inerrancy of scripture, particularly in relation to the new knowledge gained by the natural sciences. Then, the papal biblical commission was established in 1902, in order to make decisions on concrete exegetical questions in the light of Leo XIII's teaching. Finally, in the decree Lamentabili (1904) and the encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis (1907), Pius X condemned Catholic modernism, initiating an anti-modernist movement within the Church, which was brought to an end only in 1914 by Benedict XV--but which, as we will see, has continued to reverberate even into our age.

This historical coincidence between American Fundamentalism and the aforementioned Catholic movements of resistence may be due to the zeitgeist that confronted believing Protestants and Catholics with the same, or similar, opponents. Nevertheless, the question arises whether Catholicism is "fundamentalistic" in its essence. In the USA, we may be talking about a single, albeit significant, group of believers, but, on the Catholic side, we are by contrast talking about the official Church, defending her official doctrine. It is impossible to dismiss the question, once we consider that four of the five "fundamentalistic" fundamentals in fact belong to the foundation of the Catholic faith--even if this foundation, of course, embraces a number of other "fundamentals."

Here, we already see the first characteristic difference. The determination of five "fundamentals" cannot but remind us of the "five Catholic truths" articulated by the Anglican Richard Hooker (1594), who sought to establish peace among the different confessions by boiling the number of creedal affirmations down to a common minimum. But faith cannot be reduced to individual propositions, even if these are affirmed as essential; it represents an organic whole, formed from many truths (not propositions), which together make up a single truth, a truth that undergirds and impacts our life. It is possible to test the validity of a proposition, and thus find the "certainty" that modern man, plagued by insecurity, has been chasing ever since the time of Descartes. But truth is something one can only enter into, something one can dwell within, something one can "do" (Jn 3:21); as Paul Ricoeur so beautifully put it, "My hope is to be in the truth."

Thus, what lies behind the fundamentalistic project is a need for certainty, a need that is supposed to find satisfaction in propositions that are absolutely certain. That is why the first "fundamental" to be established is the inspiration of the words of Holy Scripture, i.e., the belief that scripture was literally dictated by the Holy Spirit and for this reason (and this reason alone) it is inerrant. Here, we can only mention the fact that putting this doctrine into practice confronted American Fundamentalists with insurmountable difficulties in relation to the question of the "correct" translation of scripture. What is more important is the distinction between human certainty, that is, the certainty that man can provide for himself on the basis of infallible propositions, and the certainty of faith, which is given by God, because it is something that arises from his fidelity and, in biblical terms, his truthfulness.

The need people experience over the course of their lives to find certainty on the basis of infallible propositions is something we also see in realms outside of religion. We can think, for example, of the role that "scientifically proven" statements play in matters that touch on personal health. In this respect, we could speak just as much of medical fundamentalists as, for example (until recently), of Marxist fundamentalists in relation to the future of society and the economy. Faith, however, has nothing to do with this sort of certainty, but rather with something altogether different. Catholicism, too, affirms many "fundamentals," and even claims these to be "unshakeable." They are unshakeable, however, not because of some quality they possess or because they have been "revealed" but because God's saving deed on behalf of his people and for the whole of humanity has been emphatically witnessed to and revealed in Jesus Christ's divine Sonship, in the virgin birth, in his dying "for us" and in the bodily resurrection from the dead.

This is where the most fundamental difference emerges between Catholic faith and Fundamentalism. Fundamentalism understands divine revelation primarily as a book, namely, the Bible (which is why any "religion of the book," for example, Islam, is essentially fundamentalistic), while Catholic faith understands it as the history of God's involvement with man, a history of which scripture is but one incomplete outcome. The object of Catholic faith is not in the first place words or propositions, but a person, the Person of Jesus Christ, and an event, the Resurrection of Jesus. While the word of scripture seems to speak immediately to the reader, the Person of Jesus, his message and his resurrection have come to us only through a series of mediators: first, through the mediation of the faith of the apostles and the first Christian communities; second, through the mediation of the evangelists' reports (which are also in turn mediated through faith); third, through the mediation of the ecclesial transmission of this faith across the centuries, passing through various languages and cultures (all of which is included in the single concept of tradition); and finally through the mediation of the proclamation of the faith in our own age, a mediation that includes--last but not least--the individual consciousness that receives this proclamation and appropriates it for itself.

This last-mentioned mediation warrants a moment's further reflection. Fundamentalism also has its own eminently practical dimension; it derives practical rules of behavior immediately from the biblical text. The biblical text itself, and the New Testament in particular, extends to a large extent to normative and imperative expressions. Do these norms and imperatives need to be followed and carried out in a literal sense? We have two contrasting examples of the literal carrying out of these commands: Orthodox Judaism and the saints. Orthodox Judaism, like Pharisaism in Jesus' time, strives to carry out all of the prohibitions and commandments of the Old Testament literally in life, to remarkable effect, but also with a tendency toward narrowness, to condemnation, and even to violence. Even the Pharisee Paul had to confess that such an observation of the law is impossible and only leads people into contradiction--and this is what brought about his conversion to faith in Jesus Christ (Phil 3:4-9).

But the saints, too, have taken the words of the gospel literally, and followed them out word for word. There have been saints who have passed on the very words of scripture to us through their lives--St. Anthony the Hermit, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Francis Xavier--insofar as their lives were devoted to the literal fulfillment of these words. Even so, they did not follow these words simply because they found them written, but because the Word that was proclaimed to them touched them in the core of their being and because they thus made it their own. In more contemporary language: it was mediated through their own conscience. Christian morality, like the Old Testament morality before it, is not based on dictated norms but always on a conversion. And a conversion can only ever be a matter of the "heart," of one's own inner conscience. God sees the heart and the conversion of the heart. Thus, the essence of Jesus' call is "The Kingdom of God is near; repent and believe in the Gospel!"(Mk 1:15). This is anything but fundamentalistic.

To sum up: Protestant fundamentalism and Catholicism Fundamentalism have very much in common with regard to the content of the truths of faith. But they differ from each other methodologically in how they receive the sources of faith, and therefore also in the way they interpret these sources. Even the papal biblical commission took a position against fundamentalism as an exegetical method, and judged this method to be unqualifiedly false. For Catholicism, the sources of faith are scripture and tradition, i.e., God's entire, historical saving act, as it has occurred in the Jewish and Christian communities, and as it has been interpreted through the life of these communities themselves. For the Fundamentalists, by contrast--and this is their Protestant heritage--the only source of faith is scripture, and indeed, the very words of scripture, which (presumably without any "interpretation") are thus meant to be taken "literally".

What this means with regard to the way the Bible is read and in fact with regard to Christian life in general, is that Fundamentalism rejects any and every form of hermeneutics, while Catholicism, for its part, must constantly take into account a three-fold mediation: the religious-historical mediation through tradition; the non-religious historical mediation through various cultures, and finally the mediation through one's own conscience--which, as we have seen, does not at all mean subjective arbitrariness, but rather personal contact with God's word. Catholicism takes the incarnation of the Son of God seriously in light of these three mediations--for "the word has become flesh" (Jn 1:14)--while the un-mediated literalness of Fundamentalism, though it may give the appearance of scholarly seriousness, also betrays something inhuman.


Fundamentalism as a Temptation for Catholics

We have seen that behind the fundamentalistic method lies modern man's need for an unshakeable certainty. Today, there are even many Catholics who experience this same need, perhaps all the more so the more contemporary circumstances or the changes in the heart of the Catholic Church herself at least apparently put it into question. It is thus no surprise if a form of fundamentalism has become a genuine temptation for more than a few Catholics.

Let us first consider the symptoms of this temptation before we attempt to penetrate more deeply into its nature and consequences. As we have said, Fundamentalism bases its certainty on the literal reception of a text. Today, it is not too infrequent to find Catholics similarly clinging to a particular text. To be sure, it is not usually a text from the Bible, but rather texts from the Church's magisterium or, even worse, from private revelations. The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the most recent proclamations from Rome represent life rafts of this sort for some people, while for a smaller number of those more theologically inclined, the Codex Iuris Canonici plays this role. But the universal catechism is primarily meant to be an aid for bishops so that they may translate ("mediate"!) it into a locally-adapted catechism, and Rome's declarations are fundamentally intended likewise to provide help for the same bishops in their own dioceses (once again responsible for themselves). Moreover, the Codex itself warns against a merely literal interpretation, insofar as, in its final canon, it once again recalls "aequitas canonica" (legal balance), as well as the fact that the highest law in the Church must always be the salvation of the soul (can. 1752). By contrast, the texts from the Second Vatican Council have almost never been misused in a fundamentalistic way, no doubt because they themselves guard against such an approach.

We have seen that the Fundamentalists' literal interpretation of scripture is a denial of historicity and any other form of mediation. In a similar vein, the preferred slogan of Catholic fundamentalists is "Semel verum, semper verum" (what was once true is always true). Catholic fundamentalism is often a defensive reaction against or desire to take flight from what are seen to be radically destructive changes, which have taken place in the Catholic Church during the last century, most particularly in the realm of liturgy. No doubt, what was once true cannot become false overnight. But we must also realize that that which was once true can be complemented, deepened, understood, and thus also better expressed (which in every case means differently expressed) over the course of history--just as the liturgical forms of expression have been changed over and over again through the centuries and in the sphere of different cultures without detriment to its substance. What contemporary fundamentalists who cling to the old way find most shocking is that this "old" way, from a historical perspective, has in fact been around for only a few centuries, not to say a few decades.

This fundamentalistic tendency in Catholics, nevertheless, becomes dangerous only in relation to a third fundamentalistic characteristic, namely, the denial of any mediator. It is understandable that one would reject the mediation of diverse cultures--i.e., "inculturation"--out of fear of cultural relativism. But this is a blindness caused by a plank in the eye: for, the fundamentalist, just like any believer, belongs to a particular age, which in this instance happens to be modernity. What is worse is rejecting the mediation of (ecclesial) tradition, insofar as the fundamentalistic Catholic thereby places himself de facto outside of communion with the Church. In this case, he is above all yielding to self-deception; he is giving the name "tradition" to that and only that which the theological manuals have determined to be the definitive Catholic teaching at a particular point in history (let us say a half-century ago, for example)--and he thus forgets that the true tradition on the one hand extends quite a bit further into history and on the other hand continues to exist in the Church of today. Thus, in the extreme cases, the Catholic fundamentalist ends up criticizing his bishop in the name of his shrunken "tradition," which may even lead finally to open schism. There is no need to name names.

The self-contradiction implied here reaches its culminating point in the denial of the mediating role of individual conscience. This rejection seems, to all appearances, to protect against arbitrariness and subjectivism, especially in what regards moral questions. But in fact the Catholic fundamentalist makes his own idiosyncratic way of reading and interpreting ecclesial texts (and even worse: his wholly personal belief in private revelations) the ultimate, sole criterion for truth. He lacks the ecclesial obedience of one who is ready first of all to lay aside his own understanding in order to hear out the other, in this case, the living representative of the ecclesial communio. Only by means of this patient, obedient and attentive listening does he become capable of integrating his own faith into the community of the true and living (and not only the presumed) faith of the Church. Fundamentalism is always a form of religious subjectivism, a subjectivism that bases its own highest and most personal conviction on an un-mediated text.

Now, as we have already noted, Catholic anti-modernism developed at the same time as American Protestant Fundamentalism. Behind this chronological fact lies a more essential matter. In both cases, what is at issue is in the first place a rejection. What this rejection intended to protect against is indeed something that needs to be protected against: the liberal, Enlightenment or "modernistic" arbitrariness in the interpretation(s) of the faith, which eventually leads to the complete emptying out of the faith. In this sense, we said, Catholicism stands in fact quite close to Fundamentalism.

There remains a question, however, concerning the method of this rejection. In relation to the history of anti-modernism (no doubt one of the darker chapters in recent Church history), we might think in the first place of external methods: polemic, suspicions, denunciations, condemnations--none of which is very Christian. Maurice Blondel, himself a victim of these methods, for his part pointed out these errors with a sober eye and uncovered their ideological sources(2)--but also their affinity with the "political positivism" of the "atheistic Catholic" Charles Maurras, the founder of "Action Française," which was then condemned in 1926 by Pius XI. Tempi passati, we fortunately no longer have to concern ourselves with these things.

But what still confronts us, on the other hand, is the inner method and the interior attitude that inspired this rejection. They have their source in the self-assured possession of the truth, which thus divides up the world into whatever this faith deems to be good and evil. Even apart from the fact that doing so contradicts the commandment from the Sermon on the Mount not to judge (Mt 7:1-5) and the parable of the weeds and wheat (Mt 13:24-30), this also does not correspond to the normal procedure of the Church's magisterium. One only has to pick Denzinger up to see that there is far more said about what cannot be affirmed than what must be affirmed. This is not least due to the nature of human knowledge: it is easier to establish definitively what is clearly false than to express the true correctly and definitively. Vatican II, which made more affirmative than negative statements, thus exhibited a certain prudence in not trying to establish anything in a dogmatic, definitive manner. The fact that there are some people these days who object to this Council in a fundamentalistic way on the basis of a preconciliar theological certainty and who thus condemn the Council itself as "modernistic" is an irony of Church history.

In order to complete and round out this brief phenomenology of fundamentalistic tendencies in modern Catholicism, we ought finally to mention that one can encounter a negative form of fundamentalism as well. It consists in taking the silences of Holy Scripture as literally and binding as its positive statements. Thus, for example, there are some who take Scripture's silence on the question of celibate priesthood to be already an answer to the question--and of course it is whatever answer they themselves want.


"Fundamentalism" as a Derogatory Word in the Church

In the introduction, we affirmed that the word "Fundamentalism" today is never used except in a derogatory manner. Our attempt to give a brief sketch of Protestant Fundamentalism and its Catholic counterpart was nevertheless not meant to be derogatory, but rather a discernment of spirits. Yet our sketch would remain incomplete if we failed to give at least a short account of the derogatory connotation.

The word is used, both within and outside of the community of the Church, in a much wider sense than the one we have been describing. While in relation to other religious groups one typically identifies the word "Fundamentalism" with the willingness of religious groups to resort to violence, in relation to Christian groups the word acquires vaguer traits. The word is connected in the imagination with ignorance, intolerance, religious fanaticism and coercion, and thus one likes to use it as a defense against religious demands that one does not oneself wish to deal with. Movements and groups, which strive to lead a life in conformity with the Gospel, can sometimes accuse even the teaching of the Catholic Church itself of being "fundamentalistic"--and therefore not something that needs to be heeded. "The concept of Fundamentalism," a trustworthy witness once said already many years ago, "is a product of the mediocrity that is spreading through the world, which ultimately seeks, by this concept, to cover up its inability to understand a radically religious way of life and the genuine regional and specific causes of the emergence of violence, and perhaps even a misunderstanding of religion in general."(3)

The symptoms of fundamentalism in the Catholic Church, which it has been the purpose of this article to discuss, are indeed a cause for concern; but what is perhaps more troubling still is the undifferentiated use of the word even in "enlightened" Catholic circles, since such a use betrays a misunderstanding of religion itself.--Translated by David Christopher Schindler.


Peter Henrici, S.J. is auxiliary bishop of Zurich and serves as international director, as well as director of the German edition, of Communio.

1. Papal biblical commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, an address to His Holiness John Paul II and a document of the papal biblical commission presented 23 April 1993.

2. Maurice Blondel ("Testis"), Une alliance contre nature. Catholicisme et intégrisme: Semaine Sociale de Bordeaux (1910), 2nd printing (Brussels, 2000).

3. Axel Michaels, in: Jahresbericht der Christlich-Jüdischen Arbeitsgemeinschaft der Schweiz 1994, 24.

This article first appeared in Communio