Vol 38 No 3
SPIRITUALITY FOR EARTHLINGS
THE LONG JOURNEY HOME: SEARCHING FOR EUCHARIST TODAY
THE LONG JOURNEY HOME: SEARCHING FOR EUCHARIST TODAY
REFLECTIONS ON SPIRITUALITY AND THE CHURCH
ON THE RISE AGAIN: NEO-FUNDAMENTALISM IN AUSTRALIAN CATHOLICISM (PART
and Liz Chatelier
MARRIAGE: GROWING IN LOVE
KEEPING ALIVE THE MSC TRADITION
NEW RELIGIOUS BOOKS BY AUSTRALASIAN AUTHORS
the rise again:
Neo-Fundamentalism in Australian Catholicism (Part Two)
IN A PREVIOUS article (Compass 2004/2, pp.9-13) I offered a brief overview
of the history of fundamentalism from its specific Protestant origins.
I suggested that there were four phases in the growth of Protestant fundamentalism:
its origins (in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries), public
expression (in the post-1920s), moderation (in the post-1940s) and a return
to its original intention (in the post-1960s). Towards the end of the
essay, I concluded that Protestant fundamentalism cannot be expressed
as a homogenous, clearly defined phenomenon. It would be more accurate
to chart the fundamentalist phenomena as a spectrum, with militant fundamentalism
and revivalism at the extremes, and fundamentalism proper and conservative
evangelicalism more centered.
What follows is a description of the eras of Catholic biblical understanding,
the fundamentalist and, more recently, its neo-conservative reaction,
and the range of expressions which can be detected. This present essay
will investigate the nature of fundamentalism, especially biblical fundamentalism.
This focus also needs to be read alongside Michael Fallons contribution
in the last edition of Compass (2004/2, pp. 19-24). Michael reflected
on biblical fundamentalism from the point of view of the necessity of
using metaphors in speaking about God, the human dimension of religious
experience, and the historically and culturally conditioned nature of
the biblical text. He also emphasised the importance of reading the Bible
from within the context of the community of faith out of which the text
originated. Before we look at the nature of fundamentalism, I would like
to survey the four phases of Catholic appreciation of the Bible, illustrated
by the official Church documentation that accompanies each era.
Eras of Catholic Appreciation
Before 1900s (Literalism)
The period before the 1900s could be characterised as one of a fundamental
rejection of the methods of biblical interpretation that were developed,
particularly by Protestant German scholars, in Europe. The approach of
this period was one of a literal interpretation of the Bible. It was used
to support apologetic and theological arguments about Catholic Church
life and practice. In this era, little appreciation was given to the cultural
or historical context of the biblical text. The four gospels were considered
as lives of Jesus and harmonised to offer what was believed
to be a more accurate historical picture. The acknowledgement of the uniqueness
of each of the gospels and their christologies was less important than
the apologetic motives and historical concerns that shaped gospel reading
and interpretation. These interests are clearly reflected in Pope Leo
XIIIs 1893 encyclical letter Providentissimus Deus, on biblical
since the divine and infallible magisterium of the Church rests
also on the authority of Holy Scripture, the first thing to be done is
to vindicate the trustworthiness of the sacred records at least as human
documents, from which can be clearly proved, as from primitive and authentic
testimony, the divinity and the mission of Christ our Lord, the institution
of a hierarchical Church, and the primacy of Peter and his successors.
Though Leo was cautious about biblical methods of interpretation, and
especially from non-Catholic scholars, his position regarding the possibilities
of linguistic and exegetical studies was more nuanced, even open. This
position anticipated a development which would be fully endorsed with
the Second Vatican Council seventy years later.
Between 1900 and 1940s (Suspicion and Fear)
The second era in Catholic reaction to biblical appreciation can be described
as one of suspicion, if not fear. This was taking place in the context
of the growing popularity of a new scientific paradigm that was impacting
widely upon European society. Pope Pius Xs 1907 Encyclical Pascendi
Dominici Gregis failed to distinguish between the heresy of Modernism
and its use of German Protestant exegetical methods. These methods, by
implication, were regarded with suspicion. Catholic biblical scholars
(like M.-J. Lagrange) were mistrusted and reported to Rome because of
a fear that they had been tainted by Modernism. Pope Benedicts Encyclical
Spiritus Paraclitus of 1920 reinforced a negative attitude towards newer
methods of exegetical method. In discussing the factual, historical truth
of the Bible, Benedict condemned as out of harmony with the Churchs
who hold that the historical portions of the Scripture do
not rest on the absolute truth of the facts but merely upon what they
are pleased to term their relative truth, namely, what people then commonly
thought (Par. 6).
Between 1940s and 1980s
The third period represents a time of gradual but painful assimilation
of modern methods of biblical interpretation by the Catholic Church. Exegetical
methods by European and North American scholars became more acceptable
in Catholic circles and received Papal endorsement from 1943 onwards.
The key moments in the history of the official endorsement of contemporary
biblical scholarship can be identified with Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul
VI and John Paul II. Pius XII wrote in 1943 encouraging interpreters to
be aware of the times and culture out of which the Bible emerged. His
famous letter (Divino Afflante SpirituUnder the influence of the
Holy Spirit) was a ground-breaking statement which launched the renaissance
of Catholic biblical scholarship. Paul VI continued the work of his predecessors.
In his pontificate the Second Vatican Council endorsed the Constitution,
Dei Verbum (The Word of God) in 1965. This document confirmed, among several
things, the revelatory nature of the Word of God acting in history, the
centrality of the Bible to the life of the Church and the importance of
the Catholic Community in reclaiming the Bible in its faith and worship
life. The year before the proclamation of Dei Verbum, the Pontifical Biblical
Commission (established in 1902 by Leo XIII to assist the Teaching Office
of the Catholic Church) issued an Instruction on the Historical
Truth of the Gospels. The instruction encouraged the use of modern
methods of biblical interpretation for understanding the Gospels.
From 1990s to the present
In 1993, the Pontifical Biblical Commission issued a further statement
about the Bible, its role in the Catholic community and the methods of
interpretation, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. This document
might be considered a highpoint of official Church endorsement of biblical
scholarship. Its optimistic spirit encouraged the use of contemporary
methods of biblical interpretation, named some of the limitations of these
methods, praised the work of women biblical scholars and seriously critiqued
a fundamentalist approach to reading and interpreting the Bible. At an
official, formal level, Interpretation reversed the negative portrayal
of Catholic scholarship identified in the second period above. It clearly
articulated the point to which Catholic biblical scholars had arrived
in their contribution to Church life and the genuine dialogue in which
they engage with colleagues from other Christian traditions, reflecting
the growing ecumenical nature of biblical scholarship.
Since the promulgation of Interpretation, over the past decade the insights
and contributions of Catholic biblical scholarship have been seriously
scrutinized and criticized at a more popular level. Some Catholics have
moved back to a more fundamentalist and literal appreciation of the Bible.
They have adopted a neo-traditionalist, fundamentalist attitude to theologians
and biblical scholars reminiscent of the reactionary espionage spirit
typical of the second period described above. The social context in which
this reaction occurs makes this phenomenon even more serious. The need
to respond to the cultural and social concerns reflected upon in media
and newspapers is ever urgent, and the ability to read or
interpret the cultural scripts reflected in current events non-literally,
but symbolically and theologically is central. In this context, those
who hold a naïve literalism cannot engage the world. They are left
either to condemn it or retreat from it.
The Oxford English Dictionary links fundamentalism primarily to religion
and describes fundamentalism as the strict maintenance of traditional
orthodox religious beliefs or doctrines. As mentioned in my previous
article, religious fundamentalism, broadly speaking, is a particular form
of conservative Protestant Christianity. It is a particular form of religion
or, as George Marsden has described it, a militantly traditionalist
religion (Marsden 1991, 1) He describes a fundamentalist as,
an evangelical who is militant in opposition to liberal theology
in the churches or to changes in cultural values or mores, such as those
associated withsecular humanism
a subtype of evangelicals and militancy is crucial to their outlook. Fundamentalists
are not just religious conservatives, they are conservatives who are willing
to take a stand and fight. (Marsden, loc. cit.)
What Marsden highlights in this description are features about fundamentalism
that are important to identify: The relationship of fundamentalism to
evangelicalism, its opposition to what seems changeable, and its uncompromising
position expressed in militant action. While Marsden is thinking specifically
of Protestantism, these phenomena, especially of militancy and traditionalism,
can be found amongst Australian Catholics. The reason for this combative
feature is that Catholic fundamentalists no longer see themselves as victims
to the corruption of modernity and the theological compromise encouraged
by the Second Vatican Council. Rather, like their Protestant counterparts,
they perceive themselves as successful respondents to the present situation.
Their success is guaranteed by a belligerence that enables them to confront
and actively fight back (Marty & Appleby, ix). In the last decade,
the University of Chicago funded a study of the fundamentalist phenomenon.
The study, the Chicago Fundamentalist Project, found that fundamentalists,
besides fighting back, also fight for, with,
against and under. Again, while these comments
are framed to reflect all expressions of fundamentalism within Protestantism
and other religions, they have their Catholic expression.
for a worldview they inherited, believe in and seek to reinforce.
This worldview is comprehensive. It is about strictly defined religion,
morality, family life and public policy;
with the use of certain clearly defined resources, using the past
(either real or imagined) selectively, classified in ways that help them
define the central truths for which they fight;
against others who do not hold the same appreciation as they have.
These others become outsiders and the enemy. They may hold diametrically
opposed views, or they may exhibit more moderate positions, open to dialogue
prepared to work towards a middle position. These moderates are, too,
the enemy, because there is no moderation or compromise on what is judged
as truth. In other words, fundamentalists have a black and white view
about the world and truth.
under God or a transcendent reference which ensures victory. When
fundamentalist believe that God or Allah has called them to wage war on
those they regard as the enemy the results, as history has shown, are
devastating. In Australian Catholicism the transcendent referent is frequently
one who is regarded as a seer or visionary. This person is able to give
true and faithful Catholics messages sometimes from Jesus,
sometimes from Mary. In this atmosphere of searching for an undeniable
source of truth untainted by human error and New Age thinking, private
devotions become the substitute for Catholic teaching, and Marian apparitions
The suffering and tragedy that emerge from the actions of the extreme
militant fundamentalists confront people with the reality to which religious
idealism can lead. It is this idealism that shapes conduct, is believed
to be revealed by God, and determines true community and personal identity.
This truth is undifferentiated and uncompromising to ones political
and religious worldview (cf. Marty 1995, 816-820). In this view, truth
has no aspect of relativity or historical development, conditioning or
contingency. And while the uncompromising aggressive behaviour of fundamentalists
might be seen as scandalous to others, to holders of this view it is perfectly
consistent with their divinely allotted crusade for truth. Their actions
and unyielding extremism differentiates them from true believers or outsiders,
who are frequently demonized or mythologized against. Militant fundamentalists
are convinced they are enacting an eschatological drama established by
God that will influence the future history of the world. It is this conviction
about the historical significance of their conduct that encourages them
to look for the divinely pre-orchestrated blue-print which they find confirmed
in sacred texts (Koran or Bible) or traditions explained by a teacher,
designated leader, seer or visionary. In a Catholic context, the visionary
has enormous power and influence.
The recognition of this historical and timely privilege to wage the divinely
ordered war enables fundamentalists to develop a counter-culture orientation
that establishes clear boundaries of community designation. These prescribed
boundaries preserve the fundamentalist community from assault, contamination
and corruption. It is this attitude which has led some within the Catholic
community to break away from the mainstream and develop a ultra-traditionalist
sectarian Catholicism, a living nostalgia of a past, pre-modern era.
When the term is associated with the Bible, fundamentalism applies to
a way of reading and interpreting the Bible that guarantees an approach
to religious practice apparently secure, certain and unalterable. In its
classical sense, Protestant biblical fundamentalism has two characteristics.
It is concerned with the literal presentation of what is believed to be
taught in the Bible, and seeks to impose these teachings in an aggressive
or militant fashion on religious teaching and ethical conduct. The antagonistic,
almost violent, imposition of what are regarded as the truths derived
from the Bible is designed to expose the non-biblical character of other
religious affirmations which are judged to be inauthentic. Within Protestantism,
the Bible is considered the only source of truth. It is, literally, the
Word of God, inerrant, infallible and culturally, historically and scientifically
accurate. Catholic biblical fundamentalists hold similar views.
Biblical fundamentalism with its theological and devotional neo-traditionalist
arm remain a pastoral and theological concern in Australian Catholicism.
This is obvious in four ways: in biblical illiteracy, ignorance or distrust
of the Bible; the aggressionsometimes vociferousleveled at
Catholic scholars by some who are (unwittingly or deliberately) uninformed
about contemporary scholarship; the expressed nostalgia to return to an
earlier era of Catholicism; and the subtle or unrecognized attraction
that Protestant evangelicalism holds for some Catholics.
Biblical Illiteracy, Ignorance or Distrust
Many Catholics still either avoid the Bible all together, or feel uncomfortable
reading and reflecting on it, though they are being exposed to its proclamation
in the Liturgy of the Word in the Eucharistic setting and the celebration
of the Sacraments. This avoidance or reading difficulty arises from a
lack of familiarity with the Bible developed over years (in the case of
the reader) and centuries (in the case of the Catholic community), between
the sixteenth century Reformation and a decade after the mid twentieth
century with Vatican II. In this period, emphasis had been placed on official
teaching exercised by the Bishops. The Protestant deference shown to biblical
authority had its Catholic counterpart in the authority of the Churchs
official teachers, the local Bishops teaching in communion with the Bishop
of Rome. Vatican II restored the importance of the Bible in the life of
the Catholic community, in its teaching, theological enterprise, and liturgical
life. While we are still coming to terms with this biblical restoration
almost fifty years later, there is a deepening desire amongst Catholics
to be imbued with a biblical spirituality. This is a sign of hope, and
contrasts sharply to the dearth of biblical education current in Australian
The challenge to press on in the spirit of Vatican II to implement a totally
embracing biblically-inspired theological and catechetical renewal is
revealed in other ways. When the Bible is drawn upon or spoken about for
catechetical purposes or preaching, passages are sometimes regarded as
literal accounts of what actually happened or are used for moral illustrations.
This illustrative or proof-text approach popular
in instructional or catechetical texts reinforces the view that the Bible
is simply a resource book used to buttress what is already believed. In
this context, the Bible is treated like a Catechism. It is a resource
to supplement what is believed and a compendium to what is authoritatively
Aggression towards Contemporary Catholic scholarship
Those involved in biblical and theological education seek to present the
fruits of contemporary Catholic scholarship in a more accessible way.
Sometimes, though, they are confronted by others who impugn their motives,
qualifications, loyalty to the Bishop of Rome, or even their Catholic
faith. This especially happens when the teaching environment is outside
the tertiary institution or university, and in a parish or more public
setting. The aggressor seeks to question vehemently the content of what
is being taught, or the dialogical manner of engaging the learning community.
The content is challenged as being heretical and a rejection of Church
authority or Catholic devotion or piety. The attack sometimes is couched
in emotive terms, with particular references to certain aspects of Catholic
liturgical or doctrinal life. Contemporary biblical and theological scholarship
is held responsible for what is perceived to be wrong in the Catholic
Church, especially since the Vatican II. It is fundamentally a resistance
to change, renewal or reform. Scholarship, it is judged, is responsible
for undermining Catholic faith and liturgical life, the development of
a new church, with its promotion of doctrinal liberalism,
a post-modern alliance with the new age movement, and the gradual decline
in church membership. This is seen to result in a distancing from traditional
church teachings, a phenomenon typical of the present age.
Nostalgia for Earlier Expressions of Catholicism
In an attempt to reclaim support, Catholics inclined to fundamentalism
use a language typical of an era prior to the Second Vatican Council.
It is a subtle but effective strategy, and seeks to align orthodoxy with
their interpretation of central tenants of Catholic doctrine concerned
with the celebration of the eucharist, christology and mariology. The
main focus of attack is frequently with liturgy, moral teaching and theological
interpretations. What is clear is that the crusaders of this traditionalist
position have rarely engaged in serious study in theology or Bible from
an accredited theological faculty. Ironically, this results in an unwitting
alignment with conventional Protestant fundamentalism. This second expression
of theological and devotional fundamentalism comes from a desire to return
to what is thought to be the idyllic golden age of the 1950s and earlier,
when churches were full and Catholicism was perceived as an identifiable
and distinct moral force in the landscape of Australian paganism.
Attraction of Evangelicalism
A fourth expression of Catholic fundamentalism is evident in what I call
the attraction to evangelicalism and evangelism. The two are separate,
though linked. Both words are related to the Greek word for Gospel
(evangelos). Frequently the terms are used interchangeably to describe
a religious movement. In the attempt to become more socially influential,
conservative Catholics have also aligned themselves with Protestant evangelicals
and fundamentalists, and even with extremists from other religious, non-Christian
groups. In an earlier era, such an alliance with these groups would have
been regarded as a betrayal of perceived authentic Catholic faith. The
evangelical alliance offers neo-conservative Catholics a broader community
of believers in sympathy with the perception that Christian faith and
morals are being destroyed through post-modernity. Resistance to these
perceived atheistic threats to faith is the only hope for the world and
the future of the Catholic Church. What results is a more defined form
of sectarian Catholicism, unhappy with the world and unwilling to engage
in any form of theological dialogue. Such conversation would appear to
be a compromise and a failure to crusade for Catholic truth.
* * *
These four expressions of theological and biblical fundamentalism offer
the Australian Catholic community a challenge that is unique in its history.
Though some of these challenges may look old or tired, they are new in
the public face of their aggression. They also raise the future theological,
biblical and educational agenda and call for a pastoral strategyat
least the recognition of a strategy. This will be the focus of the next
and final article on neo-fundamentalism in Australian Catholicism.
Michael Trainor is a priest of the Archdiocese
of Adelaide and teacher at the Adelaide College of Divinity, with the
School of Theology of Flinders University.
Barr, J. (2001), The Dynamics of Fundamentalism. St Georges Cathedral,
Béchard, DP. (2002), The Scripture Documents: An Anthology of Official
Catholic Teachings. The Liturgical Press, Collegeville.
Fallon, M. (2004), Biblical Fundamentalism, Compass: A Review
of Topical Theology, vol. 38, winter, pp. 19-24.
Marsden, G. (1991), Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. Eerdmans
Publishing Co, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Marty, ME. and Appleby, RS. (1991-1995), The Fundamentalism Project. Chicago
University Press, Chicago.
Pontifical Biblical Commission (1993), The Interpretation of the Bible
in the Church.