Academic journal article Theological Studies

Catholic Reaction to Fundamentalism

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Catholic Reaction to Fundamentalism

Article excerpt

CATHOLIC REACTIONS to American Protestant fundamentalism began in the wake of the political and social resurgence of evangelicalism marked publicly by the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976.(1) Between 1976 and 1992, over 80 essays were published in Catholic periodicals, ranging from scholarly analyses in journals aimed at pastors and intellectuals to articles and columns in the national Catholic weekly press.(2) Over 30 of those essays appeared in journal issues dedicated entirely to fundamentalism. In addition, four monographs destined for general readership and one collection of scholarly essays on fundamentalism were published by Catholic theologians.(3) There were at least five public statements by American bishops on fundamentalism, one document issued by the Vatican which touches directly upon Catholic attitudes toward "sects and new religions" but which may have significant implications for Catholic attitudes toward fundamentalism, and another which discusses (and rejects) fundamentalism among the hermeneutical options in New Testament study. While not massive (it would be outweighed considerably by the Catholic literature on abortion and on peace and justice questions), the literature is significant.

Sorting out the literature on the basis of its reactions to fundamentalism poses a problem. A good deal of the literature is commonsense history and description, with predictable doctrinal contrasts which are accurate as far as they go, but which are of very little theological interest and value. The literature gets interesting when particular theological insights flash, when the common is put in a particularly clear fashion, when strategies of response are developed and promoted, when particularly abysmal ignorance is displayed, and when the canons of a methodical theology and even Christian virtue are violated.

The literature, while it is as complex as the Church which spawns it, is not theologically profound yet seems to provide valuable clues to the American Catholic mind in the late-20th century. Here, rather than take on the whole body of the literature, I shall mention a few features of the periodical and trade literature and discuss in more detail seven pieces which serve as the public response of the Roman Catholic hierarchy to fundamentalism. Finally, I shall suggest an alternative approach.

THE PERIODICAL LITERATURE IN BRIEF

Discussion of fundamentalist beliefs, practice, and ethos is a new preoccupation for Catholics, though no doubt with genre roots In traditional Catholic responses to Protestantism. In the Catholic Periodical Index, which indexes 150 periodicals and journals, the category "fundamentalism" appears in 1977, while its neighboring categories, "fund raising" and "funeral fees," predate and will no doubt outlast it.(4) A summary analysis of the periodical literature may help to situate the episcopal literature.

Of the essays written by Catholics on fundamentalism since 1977, none is to be found in a Catholic scholarly journal, though many of them are written by professional theologians.(5) Fewer than a handful seem to envision scholars among their readers, and most are written for those engaged in ministry, the theologically literate lay audience, and for the readers of the weekly Catholic press. Not one of the essays has fundamentalists among its intended readers.

Many of the essayists are well informed within a narrow range of secondary literature on fundamentalism. Some of the literature aims chiefly at historical presentation and doctrinal explanation of fundamentalism.(6) Few reveal any direct acquaintance with the primary literature of fundamentalist history and doctrine. As a whole the literature makes plain the fact that Catholics are not interested in fundamentalism as a phenomenon in its own right, but only insofar as it poses a pastoral problem for Catholics. All of the literature, in other words, has a pastoral as distinct from an academic interest, and so, at best, relies on a close reading of secondary sources, namely evangelical histories such as those of Marsden, Noll, and Hatch, mainline Protestant antifundamentalist theological polemic (James Barr's books), and occasional work of American Studies scholarship. …

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