Vol 38 No 4
GodLover or Judge?
A REFLECTION ON LOSS: IN THE CONTEXT OF MATTHEW'S PASSION NARRATIVE
Cormac Nagle OFM
PUBLIC POLICY AND MORALITY
SOME POPULAR MYTHS ABOUT GAYS AND LESBIANS
Frank Fletcher MSC
INTRODUCING HEART SPIRITUALITY
Brendan Byrne SJ
CAN THE SCRIPTURAL WORLD STILL BE OUR WORLD? EARLY MILLENNIAL REFLECTIONS
OF AN AUSTRALIAN BIBLICAL SCHOLAR
ON THE RISE AGAIN NEO-FUNDAMENTALISM IN AUSTRALIAN CATHOLICISM (PART THREE)
NEW RELIGIOUS BOOKS BY AUSTRALASIAN AUTHORS
the rise again
Neo-Fundamentalism in Australian Catholicism (Part
IN TWO PREVIOUS articles in Compass (Compass 2004/2, 2004/3), I looked
at a growing theological-religious-biblical phenomenon within Australian
Catholicismfundamentalism. While fundamentalism is not new to the
Catholic Church, in recent decades, and particularly since the Second
Vatican Council, it has shown signs of renewed vigor. The move for theological
and liturgical renewal has been perceived by some as something akin to
undermining Catholic orthodoxy. In earlier articles I identified the nature
of this form of Catholic neo-fundamentalism, suggested the theological
and anthropological underpinnings for its attraction, and discussed the
history of its development, especially recognizing its roots within nineteenth
century North American Protestantism and its reactions against the Enlightenment.
In this final article I offer a response of a more pastoral nature, which
might help inform the agenda for Catholic pastoral life and education.
Catholic neo-fundamentalism presents us with a challenge to renew our
methods of theological education; it even suggests for us what might be
the content of such education.
The Fundamentalist Phenomenon
My interest in these articles is to describe the Catholic expression
of theological, biblical and devotional fundamentalism, and what it might
suggest to pastoral and educational leaders. However we have also noted
that its popularity will not wane, at least in the short term, as it attracts
people of intellect and develops a political agenda. This agenda is clear
in the growing association between the religious and political right.
Such alliance is obvious on the United States political scene and
more clearly with the Reagan and Bush administrations. Nor is it unique
to the United States, as we have seen in the recent Federal Australian
elections and the formation of political parties and candidates with a
clear moral evangelical platform. We have also noted that the ease of
association of fundamentalism on the inter-religious scene, and particularly
with Islam, in the late twentieth century clearly indicates that this
is not a local theological or religious phenomenon identified with one
nation or religious tradition.
This worldwide phenomenon impinges on Catholicism, and the Australian
Catholic community in particular. It is also receiving serious scholarly
attention. The first book-length monograph on the subject of religious
fundamentalism was written by Gabriel Herbert in 1957. Since then the
most significant contributions from a contemporary theological and biblical
perspective include the works of Barr, Ammerman, Lawrence and Boone.1
In my second article I drew upon the fruits of the research contained
in the five-year Fundamentalism Project of the University of Chicago (1991-1995).
Directed by Martin Marty, this Project might well represent a definitive
highpoint in the study of fundamentalism in the late twentieth century.2
Each study sought to understand the fundamentalist phenomenon from different
points of view. Overall, the scholarly literature over the past 50 years,
from Hebert to the Chicago Project, with some of the more helpful works
listed below, reinforce the view that fundamentalism is set to occupy
a central place for theological and religious phenomenological researchers.
It must also occupy the agenda of Catholic educators and pastoral leaders
in this country. It is to this agenda that I now turn.
The Pontifical Biblical Commissions Response to Fundamentalism
In its 1993 statement The Interpretation of the Bible in the life
of the Church, the Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC) focused on the
essential issues of fundamentalism. While what is described can be applied
to Protestant fundamentalism, the document itself is addressed specifically
to the Catholic community. Given this context, it must be assumed that
what is said about biblical fundamentalism in general also applies to
its expression within the Catholic community. I draw on the PBCs
analysis on fundamentalism and allow it to shape what follows.
The document affirmed the modern approaches adopted by Catholic scholars
to the Bible, and the benefits derived from the critical methods of biblical
interpretation. In its section dealing with fundamentalism it isolated
the essential limitations and theological fallacies associated with fundamentalism.
This statement is a reminder of those issues central to the study of fundamentalism
isolated in an earlier article. However, the nature of the document as
a voice from an authoritative agency of the Catholic Church makes its
observations particularly pertinent. Through its analysis of fundamentalism,
and the way this can be applied to its Catholic expression, the Commission
also presents a pastoral strategy from which Catholic educators might
draw in developing a future educational curriculum and method.
The document defines the basis of fundamentalism from a principle of inerrancy,
the principle that:
The Bible, being the word of God, inspired and free from error, should
be read and interpreted literally in all its details. But by literal
interpretation it understands a naively literalist interpretation,
one, that is to say, which excludes every effort at understanding the
Bible that takes account of its historical origins and development. It
is opposed, therefore, to the use of the historical-critical method, as
indeed to the use of any other scientific method for the interpretation
This statement is central. The PBC recognises the importance of the various
methods that scholars employ to understand the Bible, and also the limitations
of the Bible in terms of its location within time and culture. It is a
collection of writings, albeit sacred and formative for the Christian
community, culturally and historically conditioned by the experiences
of their writers and audience. This is the value of the historical-critical
method, which seeks to acknowledge the cultural and historical context
of the Bible and its impact on biblical interpretation.
The PBCs statement affirms that those who hold a fundamentalist
position are inspired by an attempt to uphold the importance and inerrancy
of truths which are derived from the Bible. However, the statement also
acknowledges that this opinion comes from a rigid, doctrinal position
that rejects a critical reading of the Bible in the light of contemporary
methods. Underpinning this approach is a rejection of the historical character
of the Bible, written in Hebrew and Greek by authors human and limited.
Catholic fundamentalists naively presume the Bible is the product of Gods
verbal dictation to the biblical author, without any historical conditioning.
They deny the presence of a variety of literary forms in the Bible and
the attempt by people over time to express themselves through story and
image. This denial results in a literalist reading of the Bible, with
an emphasis on historical accuracy while failing to take the necessary
account of the possibility of symbolic or figurative meaning. All
this reflects a critical position adopted by Catholic fundamentalistsa
denial of the closeness of the divine and the human (PBC).
This rejection of the possibility of divine intimacy is a key issue that
must be addressed in future adult educational curricula by Catholic educators
and pastoral theologians.
The PBC document specifically looks at the way a fundamentalist reading
of the Gospels confuses the final stage of Gospel writing with the historical
events upon which the Gospels are based. More centrally, this neglects
the way in which Christian communities sought to understand the relevance
of Jesus for their own time. It is a failure to grasp what the PBC describes
as a witness to the apostolic origin of the Christian faith and
its direct expression. Implicit in this is a rejection of the development
or growth of this apostolic witness throughout history. In other words,
the fundamentalist reading of the Gospels stems from an a-ecclesial
attitudea reading that is individualistic, uninformed by the insights
of the Church community throughout history, and a devaluing of doctrinal
or teaching development honoured in the Second Vatican Council. While
fundamentalists profess fidelity to the Church, their approach to the
Gospels and the Scripture alone principle indicate a rejection
of the Churchs historical appreciation of the Gospels. At the heart
of this rejection lies a particular privatised and static ecclesiology
that perceives the time of the Church before this present age as golden
and unblemished. The PBC explicitly calls fundamentalism anti-church,
the very antithesis of what Catholics who are fundamentalists believe
themselves to be.
In the final part of the PBCs analysis of fundamentalism, issues
of a more anthropological nature are considered. Fundamentalism purports
to offer definitive answers to lifes problems, but, according to
the PBC, its interpretations are illusory and it invites
people to a kind of intellectual suicide.
From another perspective, the PBCs analysis of fundamentalism and
the false, ungrounded hope it purports to offer, suggests to Catholic
educators and theologians an important aspect for consideration. This
has to do with an authentic Christian anthropology grounded in the struggles
of human beings and the issues they face. It concerns the necessity of
engaging with lifes issues in a way that acknowledges their perplexities
and ambiguities. There are no easy, black-and-white solutions to these
deep concerns. Christians are able to bring to bear on these issues the
wisdom and fruit of reason from previous generations of disciples, in
a process that is ongoing, contemplative and deeply faithful. But it is
not easy. A holistic anthropology affirms the value of this struggling
journey that is profoundly spiritual and physical. In other words, rather
than living with what the PBC describes as false certitude,
Christians are encouraged to engage the world.
The PBCs study of fundamentalism focuses on four key areas. These
provide the educational and pastoral agenda for the Catholic community
as it responds to the renewed growth of neo-fundamentalism in the Australian
Catholic Church. These areas concern spirituality, theology, ecclesiology
Many spiritual writers in this country have recognised that, despite
obsessive materialism, greed and xenophobia amongst Australians, there
exists a desire for God and largeness of spirit. These desires reveal
themselves in the many extraordinary acts of kindness performed by ordinary
Australians. Such acts demonstrate another side frequently unnoticed or
that many Australians are obviously led by values of
a deeply spiritual nature. They seek a simpler form of living, conscious
of their use of the worlds resources, and they seek to lead lives
of integrity, justice and concern for others. In theological discourse,
they live guided by the spirit. In other words, there exists a deep religious
and theological sensibility that permeates the lives of human beings in
this country. This is the obverse response to our apparent cultural secularity
The groaning of this religious spirit cannot be stifled within a culture
that appears banal and rootless. Australians seek something more than
what appears to be. That which is superficial and material simply does
not quench the deep spiritual yearning within human beings.
Fundamentalism, at another level, demonstrates the desire amongst Catholics
to seek meaningful answers to lifes questions. Though the answers
which fundamentalism offers are misplaced, they exemplify the need to
provide ways for Catholics to engage our theological, devotional and biblical
heritage that speaks to lifes concerns. This thirst for a genuine
spirituality has guided Catholics to seek courses, programs and communities
that can genuinely satisfy. Programs of adult faith education will continue
to be increasingly important in the future, especially as the numbers
of ordained continue to decrease and the future leadership of the Catholic
church rests more squarely on the shoulders of lay people, especially
women. The development of theologically, biblically and spiritually nurturing
programs and courses to meet the future needs of the Australian Catholic
Church will continue to be a challenge. It is a challenge that will become
From a theological perspective, adult faith education courses and
programs can also help explore a Catholic theology of sacramentality and
incarnation. These aspects of Catholic teaching affirm that Gods
presence permeates our world and seeks communion with human beings. The
incarnation, the word becoming flesh, also underscores divine
intimacy with humanity. Both aspects of Catholic theology speak against
the fundamentalist denial of the closeness of the divine and human, as
identified by the PBC.
As noted in the first article in Compass (Compass 2004/2), the fundamentalism
of the Protestant evangelical revivalists of the eighteenth and nineteenth
century was focused on the Bible and its interpretation. In their effort
to reject the critique created by newer methods of biblical interpretation
that were gaining favour, fundamentalists sought to return to what were
judged as the fundamentals and truths of Christian faith. The touchstone
of this truth was the Bible and how it was interpreted. The Bible was
considered the central symbol of this theological movement and its definition
of religious orthodoxy. As we noted Catholics, too, had their religious
symbol against which theological truth or falsehood could be judged. This
symbol could be variously described as papal or Episcopal authority, devotional
life and its various expressions, or the celebration of the Eucharist.
When the role, function and nature of these and other aspects of Catholic
life became renewed in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, a unique
expression of Catholic fundamentalism was born. Catholic fundamentalism
looked for the same kind of authoritative clarity and definition that
the Bible provided for the Protestant Tradition.
Some Catholics are attracted to fundamentalism because of their difficulties
with modern, critical, theological and biblical scholarship. This skepticism
is reinforced by an anti-intellectual attitude they pick up from some
Catholic leaders, cynical of recent scholarship, who give homilies derived
from a literalist interpretation of the Bible, and preach in a way that
does not address the real-life issues and experiences of their congregation.
Several years ago, the North American Catholic biblical scholar, Sandra
Modern critical scholarship seems often to be so complicated on the
one hand, and so spiritually empty and dry on the other, that the non-professional
student of Scripture is driven either to conclude that the Bible, after
all, was not meant for ordinary Christians, or else that God must have
made the biblical message plain and the scholars are complicating it for
purposes of blunting its demanding message. 3
These words continue to be relevant. A theology which explores divine
revelation and the way people come to faith offers an alternative view
held by fundamentalists. In considering the Biblical Word as absolute
and identical with the Word of God, fundamentalists tend to confine God
to only one place. For them, God does not speak to the hearts of men and
women apart from the pages of the Bible. This attitude, which has been
called bibliolatria - the actual worship of the pages of a
book, - presumes that a physical object (paper and ink) is what is actually
sacred. It is Gods Word. This position is in tension with Catholic
teaching on divine revelation: The Word of God must be broken open for
the hearer. It is never automatic or magic. Certainly the biblical Word
is one of the privileged and treasured places where people have discovered
God addressing them, and as Vatican IIs document Dei Verbum, makes
clear, it is not the only place.
Some Catholics who miss religious sustenance in Church life look for it
in other ways. They return to a more traditional style of devotional and
liturgical life. They read literature critical of contemporary Catholic
theology and biblical scholarship, are encouraged in an antagonistic attitude
critical of Vatican II and a spirituality fed on a devotional and biblical
literalism. Whatever one might think of the fundamentalist attitude that
reinforces this spirit, it does suggest the elements for a renewed adult
educational agenda. It encourages us to continue to expose Catholics to
the best insights of authentic scholarship on ecclesiology, christology
and Bible. It must do this in a way that is more embracing of ordinary
Catholics whose only exposure to teaching is usually in the Liturgy of
the Word at Sunday Mass. An imaginative and total program of adult faith
education needs to be devised, one that is as serious and comprehensive
as are our programs of faith education for children in Catholic schools.
Fundamentalism can appear to offer security and a sense of community
to people who are experiencing isolation, loneliness and personal abandonment
caused often through the sheer size of some of our Australian parishes.
Precisely because of their relative small size, Catholic devotional sects
are able to offer community to people at a time when they are lonely.
The experience of Catholic fundamentalism therefore raises the theological
and organizational questions about our ecclesiology. Theologically we
must continue to ask ourselves What does it mean to be church today?
Organizationally, we need to ask How can we better express what
it means to be church today? The growth in Catholic fundamentalism
clearly demonstrates the need to reflect seriously on our diocesan structures
and parish shapes. The current strategy in Australian dioceses in seeking
to address the shortage of ordained priests is the amalgamation of parishes.
This can occur at the cost of people feeling a sense of ecclesial abandonment.
If this happens, then those Catholics who feel at a loss within their
present situation cannot hope to have their needs addressed by an anonymity
reinforced within large, impersonal parishes. The further challenge of
preserving a sense of small, face-to-face, neighborhood Church communities
while responding to the need for ordained ministers is not an easy one.
There are no simple answers to the ecclesiological issues that currently
confront Australian Catholicism. Yet in the midst of seeking answers,
fundamentalism will have its attraction for some Catholics.
A focus on ecclesiology in adult education will have other important implications.
It helps Catholics understand the nature of the Church as a community
of disciples seeking to express their discipleship and faith in a particular
time and place, while dependent on the lived tradition of the past. This
is an important response when a contrary attitude arises from the fundamentalist
ecclesial perspective identified above by the PBC. As we have noted, fundamentalists
view Gods revelation as immediate to the believer through a literalist
reading of the Bible. There is no development in the understanding of
this revelation, no latitude for subjective assimilation nor any place
for an ecclesial community gradually deepening its understanding of Gods
revelation and the apostolic witness in history and for different cultures.
Such an attitude cuts across a Catholic position that emphasises the place
of tradition in theological reflection and understanding. It glosses over
two thousand years of faithful living by those who have sought to understand
the Word of God in the light of their own historically and culturally
conditioned experiences. Logically, Catholic fundamentalists would consider
that these people have virtually nothing to say to us today. The comment
of Catholic theologian Catherine Mary Hilkert is relevant to this issue:
If the Spirit resides in the community of the baptized, then the
word of God can be discovered only gradually as the community wrestles
with its own lived tradition, including the scriptures it calls sacred.4
One of the unique features common to all forms of fundamentalism,
neither specifically Catholic nor Christian, and identified in an earlier
article, is its combative nature. The manner in which Catholics aggrieved
by contemporary scholarship seek to assert their point is baffling, sometimes
to the point of lacking civility, if not charity. This is evident when
the protest comes in the form of public confrontation or disruption by
whatever means, and, more significantly, an unwillingness to engage in
respectful dialogue or conversation, especially with an authentically
Catholic appreciation of the Bible. Confrontational aggression and transparent
aversion to dialogue reinforce one of the clearest pastoral issues which
the Catholic community must address in its ongoing educational agenda:
an anti-intellectualism born out of fear. This fear is, in essence, concerned
with what it means to be human today. From this point of view, it is anthropological
in nature. It is directed against a contemporary Catholic scholarship
judged to be inauthentic, even heretical. While this fear is in response
to biblical or theological scholarship, its cause is rather social change
that exacerbates personal instability, insecurity and dislocation. This
is evident among those who see church structures as inadequate in dealing
with social upheaval. Catholic fundamentalism and devotional nostalgia
are embraced by those who seek an escape from personal or social suffering.
In such times, the desire to shut out the world or put off decision-making
is stronger than the search for the wisdom of authentic Catholic scholarship.
This leads to a final anthropological note. The most important pastoral
response the Catholic community must make to those who are attracted to
the various expressions of fundamentalism is one of recognition. It is
the recognition of the very humanness of those who are attracted to the
simple answers that Catholic fundamentalism seems to offer. As the North
American Catholic Biblical scholar Eugene La Verdiere has reminded us,
fundamentalists dont see their fundamentalism as a problem but rather
a solution to a number of problems. He suggested that the most authentic
pastoral response was one based on love, was invitationary and emerged
out of a conversion to the very Word to which we are sensitive. While
his words concern biblical fundamentalism in particular, their relevance
concerns all forms of fundamentalism, especially the unique Catholic expressions
discussed in these three articles:
The only viable response to this personal problem lies in our gradual
purification as minis-ters of the Word. Insecurity, rigidity, and illusory
power cannot be met by the same behaviour. The temptation to raise our
voices or to ridicule is strong. Our best response to Fundamentalism,
indeed the only genuinely Christian response, consists in a pastoral concern
for which we have such a fine example in the life and work of Jesus. The
answer to Fundamentalism is not a biblical argument but the strength of
faith and the power of love, the dual wellspring of hope and the true
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.
1. J Barr, Fundamentalism (London: SCM Press, 1984); J Barr, Escaping
from Fundamentalism (London: SCM Press, 1984); J Barr, The Dynamics of
Fundamentalism (Perth: St Georges Cathedral, 2001); NT Ammerman,
Bible Believers: Fundamentalists in the Modern World (New Brunswick: Rutgers
University Press, 1987); BB Lawrence, Defenders of God: The Fundamentalism
Revolt against the Modern Age (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989); KC
Boone, The Bible Tells them So: The Discourse of Protestant Fundamentalism
(Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990).
2. ME Marty and RS Appleby, The Fundamentalism Project (Chicago: Chicago
University Press, 19911995).
3. S Schneiders, Gods Word for Gods People, The
Bible Today 22 (1982):102.
4. MC Hilkert, Naming Grace: Preaching and the Sacramental Imagination
(New York: Continuum, 1996), 88.
5. E LaVerdiere, Fundamentalism: A Pastoral Concern, Bible
Today 21 (1981):11.
Ammerman, NT. (1987) Bible Believers: Fundamentalists in the Modern World.
New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Barr, J. (2001) The Dynamics of Fundamentalism. Perth: St Georges
Barr, J. (1984) Fundamentalism. London: SCM Press.
Barr, J. (1984) Escaping from Fundamentalism. London: SCM Press.
Boone, K.C. (1990) The Bible Tells them So: The Discourse of Protestant
Fundamentalism. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Hilkert, M.C. (1996) Naming Grace: Preaching and the Sacramental Imagination.
New York: Continuum.
LaVerdiere, E. Fundamentalism: A Pastoral Concern, Bible Today
Lawrence, B.B. (1989) Defenders of God: The Fundamentalism Revolt against
the Modern Age. San Francisco: Harper and Row.
Marty, M.E. and Appleby, R.S. (1991-1995) The Fundamentalism Project.
Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Schneiders, S. Gods Word for Gods People, The
Bible Today 22 (1982):100-106.