Catholics and the “F” Word



“Fundamentalist” is, in secular culture, a quick and dirty insult typically used by people who only have time to watch TV news. Its synonyms are “bigot,” “ignoramus,” “yahoo,” and “Neanderthal.” When the secular media says “Fundamentalist” it generally means “anyone who takes their faith seriously and tries to express it in the public square.” Thus, pro-lifers are virtually always “Fundamentalists.” So too are believers (such as Focus on the Family's Dr. James Dobson) who appeal for sanity in sexuality and reverence for the family. So too are those such as the Rev. Billy Graham who stresses the “hard” side of Christianity (i.e., the reality of in-your-face personal sin as distinct from nice, safe, abstract “structural” sin, the demand for repentance, the need to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Christ).

All this is frequently labeled “Fundamentalist” because it asserts the unpleasant reality of a transcendent Judge Who makes real and painful demands, not merely on “society” but on you and me and our sex lives and wallets.

On the other hand, Christians (and others) are not labeled “Fundamentalist” by the secular culture when they demand an end to apartheid, or march with Martin Luther King, Jr., or take exception to nuclear proliferation or sexual harassment or the death penalty or the plight of the dispossessed. That is because these actions (which, of course, have gobs of legitimacy in the Christian tradition) also happen to line up with much of secular culture's own general ideology.

So where do we Catholics figure into all this? Oddly, Catholics are sometimes identical with Fundamentalists in the secular mind. I am reminded, for example, of a caption I once saw beneath a newspaper photo of priests and nuns saying the Rosary outside an abortuary: “Anti-abortion Fundamentalists protest local clinic.” Now that's funny to both Catholics and Fundamentalists. Evidently, that paper's editor regarded all serious Christians, from the Pope to Jerry Falwell, as a homogeneous tapioca lump much as an ancient Greek simply dismissed all foreigners as “barbarians.” For him, the relatively petty difference between Protestant Fundamentalist and orthodox Catholic vanished in the immense chasm between the postmodern worldview whose Credo is “Feel Good About Yourself, Seek Power for Yourself, Create Truth for Yourself” and the ancient Judeo-Christian faith in a Righteous Judge who says, among other things, “Thou shalt not kill.”

This deep similarity between orthodox Catholics and Fundamentalists ought to be noticed before all else. In nine of 10 essentials, Catholic and Fundamentalist can lock arms in opposition to much of postmodern culture. Both oppose the notion that “God is whatever we think [insert Pronoun Formerly Known as Him] to be.” Both believe that God is Who He is (a Righteous and Merciful God) whether we like it or not and has revealed Himself to us, first in the life of Israel and finally in Jesus Christ. Both believe in virtue, sin and in Christ's death and resurrection. Both believe in justification by faith, the Holy Spirit, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. And both vigorously assert this to a culture of death.



Are Catholics then just Fundamentalists in Catholic clothing? Hardly. And both a Catholic and a Fundamentalist would be the first to point this out. In numerous areas there are real and substantive differences that cannot and should not be denied by honest Catholics or honest Fundamentalists. But the differences are nothing near as great as either would have with the screeching blasphemies of certain WomanChurch theologians (who mysteriously continue to belong to the Catholic communion even as they busy themselves with attacking anything remotely resembling the evil male Christ of Scripture) or the warm and fuzzy blasphemies of a Bishop John Shelby Spong (an Episcopalian bishop who speculates that Christ was born of a rape victim) or the larcenous blasphemies of the various Big Hair polyester tele-crooks whom the secular media find indistinguishable from a genuine (and honest) Fundamentalist like Jerry Falwell.

Media usage aside then, there are Christians who call themselves Fundamentalist and who ought to be respected for their commitment even though we Catholics must, in honesty, balk at certain aspects of their theology. What confuses the average spectator is that when these Christians call themselves “Fundamentalist” they are referring not to the label secular culture has twisted, but to their roots in the historic movement in American Protestantism which began about a hundred years ago. Said movement was not the reaction of killer Neanderthals to rational thought, but the reaction of lovers of Christ to the watering of gospel wine into the near-beer of “caring and sharing” (and thence to the skepticism, apostasy and blasphemy now reaching its apotheosis in the writings of groups like the Jesus Seminar).

The aim of that Fundamentalism was the preservation (however imperfectly done) of faith in a supernatural Jesus Christ who (so far from being a bastard eaten by wild dogs as Spong and John Dominic Crossan venture) “came down from heaven, was born of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit, was crucified, died and was buried and on the third day rose again” — just as we Catholics profess in the Creed. At its best, that is still the aim of Fundamentalism and that is why I respect it.

That said, I think it would be best to retire the word “Fundamentalist” since it now serves simply as a term of opprobrium for most English speakers. It prevents, rather than assists, communication and has become one of the sharpest slaps in the face of faith that the culture of death can muster. Indeed, Fundamentalist-bashing has, for much of that culture, all the dark pleasures of anti-Semitism and none of the guilt. And the culture has succeeded so well in degrading the word that most Christians have already given it up for all practical purposes. That is why we typically spend time showing, not that Fundamentalists ain't that bad, but rather that we aren't really Fundamentalists. It's a word no longer worth the effort to redeem for most of us.

Yet, though it would be best to abandon the word, we Catholics must never abandon the Fundamentalist. For there is no group in American society more regularly demonized than they. There are all kinds of apologists in our culture for sophists, kooks and general sleazies. Announce that you divine stock trends from chicken entrails and you will win a sympathetic hearing on tabloid TV. Plead for the right to off depressed little old ladies in a van and you will be hailed as a pioneer. But clear your throat and mumble that sometimes Falwell makes a certain amount of sense and watch the cultural mercury plummet.

Our culture has media-approved heroes aplenty. Many of them, like Madonna, are clearly a case of the blonde leading the blind. But as Catholics we must take very seriously the fact that some of them are heroes indeed. Cesar Chavez suffered and Martin Luther King, Jr., died for all-too-real sins that continue to plague us. But both men (a devout Catholic and a devout Protestant) undertook their causes not because they were hip but because they were right. Fundamentalist-bashing is not right, but it is very hip. Therefore, it's about time we Catholics undertook the defense of Fundamentalists against the relentless assault of our culture.

It's easy to march on behalf of some media-approved cause when the streets are full and the anchor-people are smiling at you, but the Lord of “the least of these” looks for more from His children. Are we willing to be identified with the emphatically unapproved (and unhip) Fundamentalist? Are we willing to endure the scorn such identification will surely bring? Are we serious enough about our faith to take them seriously? Harder still, are we Catholics willing to do so when some Fundamentalists (thankfully fewer every day) regard us, in turn, as papist enemies of true Christianity?

If we are, then our decision should depend not on what Peter Jennings thinks, nor upon the gratitude we hope to derive from Fundamentalists, nor upon a selfish desire to patronize them, but upon the love of One who is the Defender of the outcast–One Who takes them very seriously indeed. For as “Fundamentalist” as it may sound, I do believe He will hear their cry (imperfect theology or no) if I, a Catholic with honest theological disagreements, do them the dishonest evil of participating in our culture's slander of them.

Therefore, my prayer is that we Catholics guard the dignity of our separated brothers and sisters remembering the truth of our own Tradition: “In essential things, unity. In doubtful things, liberty. In all things, charity.”

Mark Shea

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Mark P. Shea is a Catholic author, blogger, and speaker.

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