Column: Catholic fundamentalism has deep roots in the US


For the Valley News

Published: 12-31-2022 2:53 PM

Catholic fundamentalism is on the rise. Who knew?

Although the term has since been applied to other religious traditions — Islamic fundamentalism, Hindu fundamentalism, Jewish fundamentalism — the word fundamentalism derives from a series of pamphlets published between 1910 and 1915 called The Fundamentals. American evangelicals at that time felt besieged by cultural forces, including Darwinism, an intellectual movement called higher criticism, which cast doubt on the veracity of the Bible, and what they characterized as liberalism, or “modernism,” in Protestant denominations.

The Fundamentals reasserted what its many authors insisted were “orthodox” Christian doctrines: the virgin birth of Jesus, the authenticity of miracles, the inerrancy of the Bible, Christ’s bodily resurrection. Those who subscribed to these doctrines became known as fundamentalists, and soon other characteristics besides fidelity to the scriptures became associated with the movement, especially the impulse to separate from those regarded as insufficiently orthodox and a tendency toward militarism and bombastic rhetoric.

As Jerry Falwell Sr. himself once remarked, a fundamentalist is an evangelical who’s mad about something.

And it’s not difficult to see why those characteristics have been associated with conservative impulses in other religious traditions: Islam (militant Muslims), Judaism (those who want to detonate the Islamic Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem), Hindus (the practice of sati, where a widow casts herself on her husband’s funeral pyre), among others. While teaching at Columbia University, I even became persuaded of the existence of Buddhist fundamentalists.

My friend and colleague Mark Massa, a Jesuit priest at Boston College, has educated me more than anyone else about Catholic fundamentalism, which he believes emerged in the middle decades of the 20th century as a reaction against the supposed liberalism in the church. Although I suspect that Charles Coughlin, the antisemitic, anti-New Deal “radio priest,” would probably fit into this category, Massa cites Leonard Feeney and Gommar DePauw, among others, as examples of Catholic fundamentalism.

Feeney, who was eventually excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church and exclaustrated (dismissed) from the Society of Jesus, headed the St. Benedict Center in Massachusetts, adjacent to Harvard University. Feeney ran afoul of church authorities for his insistence on a 14th-century teaching that “outside the church there is no salvation.” After his expulsion, Feeney organized a religious order called the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and spiraled down into something very close to madness, including antisemitism and full-throated rants against the Catholic hierarchy.

DePauw, whom Massa calls a “liturgical fundamentalist,” opposed the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, especially the saying of mass in the vernacular. He founded the Catholic Traditionalist Movement in 1965 so that the “true mass” — the Latin mass — could be said at Ave Maria Chapel, “the little oasis of true Roman Catholicism,” located in Westbury, Long Island. (I attended mass there some years ago, and I must say that venue, the clergy and the liturgy were dreary beyond words.)

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“I was not prompted to put my career on the line merely to save the Latin liturgy,” DePauw declared in 1967, “but to save the very identity of the Catholic Church itself, which is being undermined by left-wing subversives from within.”

As the recent defrocking of Frank Pavone demonstrates, Catholic fundamentalism persists into the 21st century. Pavone is national director of Priests for Life, an antiabortion organization. In November, the Vatican removed Pavone from the priesthood after finding him guilty in a canonical proceeding of “blasphemous communications on social media” and “persistent disobedience of the lawful instructions of his diocesan bishop.”

Under canon (church) law, the ruling cannot be appealed. Pavone has long defied church officials, especially his bishop, Patrick J. Zurek of the Diocese of Amarillo. Pavone live-streamed his endorsement of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign for the presidency with an aborted fetus on a table he used to celebrate mass.

He served as a co-chair for Trump’s 2020 antiabortion coalition and briefly held an advisory role with Catholics for Trump. He was forced to relinquish the latter position because canon law stipulates that priests cannot have an active role in politics without permission from their bishop.

Pavone became notorious for his profanity-laced denunciations of Joseph Biden Jr., a devout fellow Catholic. The Code of Canon Law states, “A person who in a public show or speech, in published writing, or in other uses of the instruments of social communication utters blasphemy, gravely injures good morals, expresses insults, or excites hatred or contempt against religion or the Church is to be punished with a just penalty.”

Catholic fundamentalists, like fundamentalists in other traditions, refuse to go quietly. Just as Feeney stationed himself on Boston Common to declaim against the Catholic hierarchy, Pavone remains defiant. He vowed to continue his antiabortion activism and noted that his removal from the priesthood is not final: “the next pope can reinstate me.”

Francis, the current pope, however, seems intent on quashing Catholic fundamentalism, as suggested by the Vatican’s actions against Pavone. The pontiff could do worse than shift his attention to another nest of Catholic fundamentalists, the United States Council of Catholic Bishops. These are the lovely folks who decided several years back to place their moral authority into receivership by celebrating the election of Trump and then debating whether or not to deny Biden access to Holy Communion.

Sadly, Catholic fundamentalism is alive and well.

Randall Balmer is the John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth College and the author of Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right.