The Papal Spiderweb - II: A Reverence for Fundamentalism

By Lernoux, Penny | The Nation, April 17, 1989 | Go to article overview

The Papal Spiderweb - II: A Reverence for Fundamentalism


Lernoux, Penny, The Nation


Religious fundamentalists usually bring to mind well-known stereo types-Jim and Tammy Bakker pleading poverty from their multimillion- dollar home or Pat Robertson ordering a hurricane to retreat. Yet fundamentalism is not limited to the Bible Belt, a particular kind of Protestantism or a single country, as shown by its upsurge in Iran and Israel. The most powerful fundamentalist of them all, at least in terms of the number of followers he commands, is not the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini or an American evangelical but Pope John Paul II, leader of the Catholic world. A throwback to the 1950s, before the reforms undertaken by the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II), the Polish Pontiff has the same characteristics as those of Moslem, Jewish and Protestant fundamentalists, including a reverence for authority and a fear of secularization -or "secular humanism," as the Vatican and U.S. evangelicals call it. Like his counterparts in other religions, John Paul insists that his church alone possesses the truth. "To deserve the name at all," the Pope told a Polish audience, "a civilization must be a Christian civilization." He has also aligned himself with the political right, another characteristic of religious fundamentalists.

Although much was made of President Ronald Reagan's ties to Jerry Falwell and other Protestant fundamentalists, the Pope actually did more to further the Republican cause by disciplining Reagan's most outspoken Catholic critics and throwing the church's institutional weight behind groups identified with U.S. interests, such as anti-Sandinista Catholics in Nicaragua. While John Paul has followed his own agenda, which is primarily concerned with re-establishing Vatican authority over local churches, Rome's interests have frequently coincided with those of the White House, producing a "parallelism in viewpoints," to quote Archbishop Pio Laghi, the Vatican's Ambassador to the United States. At the same time, U.S. Catholic fundamentalists played a key role in providing the church with the means to attack Reagan's domestic critics, such as the "peace" bishops who in the early 1980s persuaded the Catholic hierarchy to write a pastoral letter that challenged Washington's nuclear arms buildup.

An important figure in the fundamentalist Catholic cause is Paul Weyrich, a founder of the New Right who was influential in advancing Falwell's career and who is credited with coining the phrase "Moral Majority." Weyrich also helped found the Heritage Foundation with the financial aid of Joseph Coors, the ultraconservative vice chair of the Coors brewery and an adviser to President Reagan. Heritage, the first and most influential of the New Right think tanks, was for several years directed by Frank Shakespeare, a friend of Reagan's and U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican. Like John Paul, Weyrich is a pre-Vatican II Catholic who wants to resurrect a religion based on absolutism and infallible certitudes. He objected to the bishops' discussing the nuclear arms issue, which was not, he said, a proper subject for religious consideration. Nor did he agree with liturgical and other reforms in church ritual and administration. Working with the archconservative Minnesota-based newspaper The Wanderer, Catholics United for the Faith and other fundamentalist groups, Weyrich encouraged U.S. Catholics to complain to Rome about such activists as Seattle's Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, who supported the Sanctuary movement and opposed U.S. arms policies. To teach Catholics how to turn the screws, Weyrich organized the Washington-based Catholic Center, which sent "truth squads" backed by Coors money to organize workshops in Seattle and other cities with progressive bishops. But the emphasis was always on the religious not the political side: Hunthausen and others like him had scandalized the faithful by allowing homosexuals to sponsor masses -they were poisoning the minds of the flock; they were destroying the church. …

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