This week I return with some contemporary reflections about fundamentalism. People have asked me if U.S. Catholics have now become fundamentalists. Hardly. But some of course. Many U.S. Catholic bishops, however, shaped and influenced by the theology of Popes John Paul II (pope from 1978 to 2005) and Benedict XVI (pope from 2005 to 2013) show signs of ardent fundamentalism. Their fundamentalist responses are a reaction to their fears about social change, which they cannot understand, and the continuing decline of the Catholic Church in the United States over which they are losing control. Catholics now make up about 20% of the U.S. population – down from close to 24% in 1965.
Ever since the Catholic, Joseph Biden, entered the White House in 2021, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has been wrangling and wringing its hands about his position on legalized abortion, same-sex marriage, and gender issues. Much to the added consternation of many U.S. bishops, according to the Pew Research Center, 63% of U.S. Catholics believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. A June 2022 report by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, raised that to 64% of U.S. Catholics, 40% of them Republicans. This is almost identical to the 65% of all adult Americans who hold that view.
The poll also found that 77% of U.S. Catholics said Communion should not be denied to someone who identifies as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. That should not be surprising, as more than two-thirds of U.S. Catholics now support same-sex marriage, in opposition to church teaching. Gallup, curiously, has found that, over the past 20 years support for same-sex marriage has consistently been stronger among Catholics than among the American population as a whole. And more than 90% of U.S. Catholics now back Transgender Rights
In terms of U.S. Catholic decline, the data are not positive:
- More than two dozen U.S. dioceses have now entered into bankruptcy proceedings, the vast majority in the past decade. Of those dioceses, 12 are in the midst of the proceedings as of July 2023, while 17 have completed the process.
- Ongoing revelations of clerical sexual abuse and lost credibility in episcopal leadership have led many Catholics to simply walk out the door. Many who temporarily left due to Covid have now made their exodus permanent.
And the exodus has clearly not stopped.
- Researchers at Georgetown University have found the number of Catholic priests in the U.S. has dropped by more than half over the last five decades.
- Seminarian enrollment in the United States has been on a decades-long decline as fewer young men seek out the priesthood and the number of active priests in the U.S. continues to dwindle. Those who do become priests today tend to be right of center or far right of center.
- As of 2022, 43% of Latino adults identify as Catholic, down from 67% in 2010.
- In 2021, the Archbishop of Cincinnati announced that 70% of Catholic churches would be closing there in the next several years. In May 2023, the Archbishop of St. Louis announced the closing of 35 parishes. Already in November 2015 the Archdiocese of New York announced that it would consolidate 368 parishes into 294, reflecting a national trend of parish closures in the United States caused by low attendance, a shortage of priests and financial troubles.
- Nationally, Catholic school enrollment has declined by more than 430,000 students since 2008.
The word “fundamentalist” was first used in print in the United States, in 1920, by Curtis Lee Laws, editor of The Watchman Examiner, a national Baptist newspaper. But the term “fundamentalism” was extended to other religious traditions around the time of the Iranian Revolution in 1978-79.
In general, all fundamentalist movements arise when people are confronted with an unsettling disruption of their “normal” way of life. Sensing societal chaos, they develop strong feelings of anxiety and fear about losing control over their lives and losing personal and group identity. Fundamentalists are uncomfortable with and reject the realities of changing anthropological, sociological, and theological understandings.
Regardless of the religious tradition to which they belong, all fundamentalists follow certain patterns: (1) Religious ideology is the basis for their personal and communal identity. (2) They insist upon one statement of truth that is inerrant, revealed, unchangeable, and to be adhered to without question. (3) They see themselves as part of a cosmic struggle between good and evil. (4) They seize on historical moments and reinterpret them in the light of this cosmic struggle. (5) They demonize their opposition. (6) They are selective in what parts of the religious tradition and heritage they will stress.
Religious fundamentalists place such a high priority on doctrinal conformity and obedience to doctrinaire spokespersons that they end up sacrificing values basic to all the great religious traditions: love, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, and caring.
When Christian belief becomes highly fundamentalized, churches start to become repositories not of grace but of grievances. They become places where something like tribal identity is reinforced, fears are nurtured, and aggression and nastiness become part of a holy cause. In their overwhelming seriousness about “their” religion, fundamentalists do not hesitate to intervene in political and social processes to ensure that society conforms to the values and behaviors required by their fundamentalist worldview. Fundamentalists become their own justification.
What does one do about fundamentalism?
- The best way to confront the narrow vision of fundamentalism is through broad-based education that emphasizes critical, analytical thinking skills.
- We need to establish channels for dialogue and support those institutions that promote multi-cultural knowledge and understanding.
- We need to courageously work against ignorance and speak-out about dishonest or faulty information, especially on the Internet. And speak-out about those who advocate and publish it.
“Truth is always complicated by the human envelope in which it is enclosed. It’s not only an intellectual problem, but one at the heart of the gospel itself. It was not sinners who turned Jesus off. It was the righteous religious types who felt they had all the answers.” Rev. Raymond E. Brown (1928 – 1998), Catholic biblical scholar