Pope Francis, returning from his trip to Africa, spoke to journalists on the plane.
“Fundamentalism is a sickness that is in all religions,” Francis said, as reported by the National Catholic Reporter’s Vatican correspondent, Joshua McElwee, and similarly by other journalists on the plane. “We Catholics have some — and not some, many — who believe in the absolute truth and go ahead dirtying the other with calumny, with disinformation, and doing evil.”
“They do evil,” said the pope. “I say this because it is my church.”
“We have to combat it,” he said. “Religious fundamentalism is not religious, because it lacks God. It is idolatry, like the idolatry of money.” [LifeSite].
I’ve written previously on the grave errors of religious fundamentalism: The Many Errors of Religious Fundamentalism. I’ve also condemned similar errors found in secular culture: Secular Fundamentalism. So this type of idolatry, as the holy Pontiff correctly terms it, is not unique to religion.
My analysis of fundamentalism finds three main errors, which then give rise to every other error. And this set of errors is found among Catholics as well as among believers of other religions.
The very word “fundamentalism” implies this error. The fundamentalist oversimplifies religion, to a severe extent, resulting in many errors on faith, morals, and salvation. These errors are the “disinformation” which the Pope mentions; in other words, fundamentalists are mistaken on many points.
True religion is not so simple. Consider the Summa Theologica or the teachings of the Council of Trent or the Second Vatican Council. Consider any course in theology, or any substantial written work of theology. There are many complex and subtle truths. There are also mysteries beyond complete human comprehension.
This oversimplification leads the adherent of fundamentalism to consider that he cannot be mistaken in his ideas, since everything is considered to be very simple and clear. He allows for no subtle distinctions, no complex theological analysis, no depth and breadth on each theological question. Every idea held by the fundamentalist is treated as if it were a simple clear dogma, as if it were “absolute truth”, just as Pope Francis said. Yet in truth, the ideas held by fundamentalists include many errors as well as mere opinions being treated like dogma. They treat every point on doctrine and discipline as if they could not possibly be mistaken. They dogmatize everything.
Dogmatization necessarily results from oversimplification because if every point is very simple and very clear, then it seems as if every point must be absolute truth. By oversimplification, the fundamentalist creates many grave errors and also concludes that these errors must be true, since every point is so simple and clear.
If every point is so simple and clear that the fundamentalist cannot be wrong, why do so many other believers disagree? The fundamentalist concludes that those who reject these simple, clear, absolute truths must be bad persons; they must have some grave sin or fault that explains their rejection of the fundamentalist position. And so the fundamentalist villainizes all who disagree. And this villainization, in some cases, includes the false justification of violence. Some fundamentalists resort to violence; others villainize without violence — but it is essentially the same set of errors.
The Pope said that fundamentalists are “dirtying the other with calumny, with disinformation, and doing evil.” They utter all kinds of calumny against those who disagree, because they assume they cannot be mistaken and they assume that anyone who disagrees must be bad persons (or at least that they are sinning gravely by disagreeing). So this calumny of those who disagree is part of the villainization. They utter disinformation, in that they have badly misunderstood religion, by oversimplification, and they attempt to convince others to believe these errors because they assume they cannot be wrong. They are “doing evil” to others by teaching error, uttering calumny and sometimes also by violence, because they have villainized all who disagree.
The above-described fundamentalism is a type of idolatry because belief in a God whose fullness is beyond complete comprehension by human persons is replaced with absolute certitude in one’s own oversimplified distorted understanding. The fundamentalist does not truly have faith in God, but only in his own understanding. God is Truth. The understanding of any fallen human person, faithful or not, is limited and may possibly err. The refusal to admit that one might have erred on religion exalts one’s own understanding as if it were an idol to be worshiped.
In Catholicism, we have a long tradition of complex and subtle theology, found in Sacred Scripture, in the documents of the Magisterium, and in the writings of Saints and especially Doctors of the Church. The faithful Catholic should not oversimplify any theological question, nor should he rule out further distinctions and a greater depth and breadth of understanding.
In Catholicism, we have some dogmatic truths, which are infallible and so might be termed “absolute truths.” But dogma is only infallible when properly understood. And the Church also has many non-infallible teachings, which can err to a limited extent. In addition, the faithful Catholic will find it useful, sometimes indispensable, in living the faith, to hold fallible pious opinions, which can err even seriously. So true Catholicism rejects the dogmatization of every idea.
In Catholicism, we love our enemies. We do not assume that they are necessarily wrong on every point of disagreement. Any individual Catholic might have misunderstood a Catholic dogma. Also, our non-infallible teachings and pious theological opinions are not absolute truth and might err. Even when we are certain that we are correct and an opponent has misunderstood, we acknowledge that the grace of God is working in all human persons, to bring them to salvation and to the fullness of truth. We acknowledge the goodness and truth in other religions and in all persons of good will.
The faithful Catholic does not over-simplify, over-dogmatize, or villainize.
Yes, many Catholics have fallen into fundamentalism, to one extent or another. It is important to understand though, that our condemnation of fundamentalism is not a condemnation of persons who have unfortunately fallen into this error. We condemn sinful acts and all falsehoods. But we do not judge souls. We condemn all violence against the innocent, regardless of the motivation. But fundamentalism does not always lead to violence, and some persons have fallen into the errors of fundamentalism only partially.
Examples of Catholic fundamentalism are found on the right and on the left.
On the left, many Catholics oversimplify by casting aside every teaching which they dislike, especially the condemnation of popular grave sins and the teaching authority of the Magisterium. They have reduced the faith to their own simple misunderstanding, which tends to incorporate the false “absolute truths” proposed by sinful secular society, and to ignore the dogmas of the Church. And they villainize faithful Catholics who oppose the false ideas in modern culture.
On the right, many Catholics have decided that every conservative theological position is inerrant truth — especially when that position is the current majority opinion among conservatives or among traditionalists. They do not accept correction from Popes or Councils, because they have dogmatized every point on doctrine and discipline. And they villainize anyone who disagrees, including Pope Francis and the Second Vatican Council.
Catholic fundamentalism is found, materially, in certain ideas. The restriction of salvation mainly to Catholics or Christians, with very limited availability of the baptism of desire or of blood to non-Christians is a type of fundamentalism. It villainizes non-Christians, as if they are generally not in a state of grace and not on the path of salvation.
Another idea arising from Catholic fundamentalism is the traditionalist dogmatization of every point of discipline, especially in the form of the Mass. They insist that every decision on liturgical form is of the greatest importance and urgency, and they speak as if their subculture in the Church were the only competent authority on the subject. All who disagree are treated as villains. They ridicule and denigrate their fellow Catholics who disagree on liturgical form, treating them with open contempt. And they do the same on every point of doctrine where any Catholic disagrees, even Popes and Councils.
Catholic fundamentalism is found in many areas of theology, whereby the adherent oversimplifies the subject, treats every point as dogma, and villainizes all who disagree. Unfortunately, much theology (if it can be so called) is being written by anonymous persons online, who make many grave errors by oversimplification. And they generally do not accept correction or instruction, because they have oversimplified every point. They represent themselves as understanding much, though they have studied little — but this is possible only by oversimplification. They oversimplify so they can represent themselves as if they were qualified to teach and correct on every topic in religion, despite their ignorance. And if you disagree — especially if you disagree by presenting a complex and subtle theological argument — they make personal attacks and villainize you.
Over at Creative Minority Report, Pat Archbold villainizes Pope Francis for proposing ideas contrary to Pat’s own oversimplified understanding of Catholicism. The presumption that Archbold understands Catholicism better than the Pope is typical of the arrogance and self-exaltation of fundamentalists. They assume that their own understanding cannot be wrong; their every assertion is treated as dogma. And if anyone disagrees, he must be a villain, even if he is the Pope.
Archbold has exalted himself as judge over Second Vatican Council, calling it: “the Council that endeavored to make the Holy Catholic Faith and its practice as protestant as possible” and making other negative references to the Council. He exalts himself as judge over Pope Francis. He speaks as if the whole Faith were simple and clear and dogmatic, as if he could not possibly have misunderstood, as if an Ecumenical Council or a Pope could not possibly have a better understanding. And that is an example of fundamentalism.
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