Galloping Fundamentalism Erodes Church Life

National Catholic Reporter, June 28, 1996 | Go to article overview

Galloping Fundamentalism Erodes Church Life


During times such as these it is often helpful to remember the word catholic means universal. It does not mean uniform. The 20th century has had its obvious shortcomings. It has been characterized much more than we would like by hatred and warfare. However, it has also revealed signs of hope, including the growing tolerance for and celebration of diversity in thought, society and culture.

We applauded this phenomenon as we watched the spread of liberation movements, the end of colonialism and the proliferation of new nations. We rejoiced as the world gave needed attention to the rights and emerging roles of indigenous peoples and the way cultures blend while maintaining their own identities. The process is called inculturation.

We understand the idea in broader ways when we hear ecologists teach us that the diversity of life forms is a precious gift, essential to a broader web of creation. "Geologian" Thomas Berry maintains that one of the three central laws of the universe is the movement toward greater differentiation. Yet another of the universe's central laws, Berry says, is the law of communion -- everything is related to everything else in a kind of cosmic balancing act.

Ours is a church on a journey in turbulent times, attempting to maintain both differentiation and communion. Both are required for health. Both are needed for continued growth. Both are essential if we are to properly celebrate life, proclaim the Good News and be a continuing sign of God's infinite love.

It is especially troubling, then, to see the growth of a new kind of fundamentalism in our midst, one throwing us off balance as it demands a destructive uniformity at the cost of communion. Its dynamics are characterized by fear and intolerance, by an excessive appeal to authority, by a hearkening to a nostalgic, idealized past that never existed, by a shallow understanding of history and an adamant refusal to acknowledge the dynamics of living and changing Catholic traditions.

Fundamentalism is not new to religion. The intensity of a new Catholic fundamentalism is new. It is also destructive to a reasoned faith tradition. Most unsettling, it is new in modern times that fundamentalism be encouraged in some of the highest ranks of our church.

This Catholic fundamentalism is still so young that its long-term impact remains unclear. It is still being defined through many minidevelopments, which, if left unchecked, will eat away our Catholic soul. The full dynamics of this fundamentalism are similarly unclear. Their intensity, however, is gaining strength -- and this should be a major concern for all Catholics who care for the health of their church.

Like a disease that comes on gradually, this fundamentalism can debilitate almost imperceptibly. It is especially grave because it attacks the collective church spirit. As we slowly acquiesce, we adjust our lives, learning to expect less and less of our church and perhaps of ourselves.

This is because this form of fundamentalism is being wrapped in a new idolatry of ecclesial authority, one that has the effect of diminishing the scope of the Christian deity of infinite love and compassion and forgiveness. With it are diminished the calls to work passionately on behalf of peace and justice and mercy.

A call to Vatican-defined orthodoxy, instead, consumes ecclesial passions. Many seem to be throwing up their arms in a "who cares" attitude. Old hopes die; the young walk away. …

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