Nearly a decade and a half ago, this condemnation of
fundamentalism was issued: "The fundamentalist approach is dangerous,
for it is attractive to people who look to the Bible for ready answers
to the problems of life . . . instead of telling them that the Bible
does not necessarily contain an immediate answer to each and every
problem. . . . Fundamentalism actually invites people to a kind of
intellectual suicide. It injects into life a false certitude, for it
unwittingly confuses the divine substance of the biblical message with
what are in fact its human limitations." This robust denunciation came
from the Vatican, in a 1993 document entitled "The Interpretation of
the Bible in the Church."
The phenomenon of "fundamentalism" has made an extraordinary impact
on the world. But what is it? The scholar Gabriel A. Almond defines
fundamentalism as "religious militance by which self-styled
'true-believers' attempt to arrest the erosion of religious identity,
fortify the borders of the religious community, and create viable
alternatives to secular institutions and behaviors." Some
fundamentalists pursue openly political agendas (Northern Ireland,
Israel, Iran). Some are apolitical (Latin American Pentecostalism). In
war zones (Sudan, Afghanistan, Palestine, Sri Lanka), fundamentalism is
energizing conflict. Most notably, the warring groups in Iraq have
jelled around fundamentalist religion.
These varied manifestations resist being defined with one word,
which is why it is better, as Almond suggests, to speak of
"fundamentalisms." But they all have something in common, and as the
Vatican critique of biblical fundamentalism suggests, it is dangerous.
The impulse may begin with good intentions, the wish to affirm basic
values and sources of meaning that seemed threatened. The term was born
when conservative Protestants in early-20th-century America committed
themselves to defend the five "fundamentals" of their faith -- the
inerrancy of the Bible, virgin birth and deity of Jesus, doctrine of
atonement, bodily resurrection of Jesus, and his imminent return. That
movement was a rejection, especially, of the historical-critical mode
of biblical interpretation, and of Darwinian science. These
characteristics still animate Protestant fundamentalism.
But all fundamentalisms, rejecting a secular claim to have replaced
the sacred as chief source of meaning, are skeptical of Enlightenment
values, even as the Enlightenment project has begun to criticize
itself. But now "old time religion" of whatever stripe faces a plethora
of threats: new technologies, globalization, the market economy,
rampant individualism, diversity, pluralism, mobility -- all that makes
for 21st-century life. Fundamentalisms will especially thrive wherever
there is violent conflict, and wherever there is stark poverty, simply
because these religiously absolute movements promise meaning where
there is no meaning. For all these reasons, fundamentalisms are
Even in contemporary Roman Catholicism, with whose condemnation of
fundamentalism we began. Catholic fundamentalists are more likely to be
called "traditionalists," and today the Vatican is their sponsor.
Instead of reading the Bible uncritically, in search of "ready answers
to the problems of life," they read papal statements that way, finding
in encyclicals the "false certitude" that the Vatican warns biblical
literalists against. The most recent case in point is Pope Benedict's
"Apostolic Exhortation," issued last week. What begins as a
contemplative appreciation of the Eucharist ends up as a manifesto
designed to keep many Catholics from receiving Communion at Mass. The
ticket to Communion is an uncritical acceptance of what the pope calls,
in a striking echo, "fundamental values," which include defense of
human life "from conception to natural death." The key declaration is
that "these values are not negotiable."
But culture consists precisely in negotiation of values, and change
in how values are understood is part of life. Moral reasoning is not
mere obedience, but lively interaction among principles, situations,
and the "human limitations" referred to in the 1993 Vatican statement.
Take "conception." The great Thomas Aquinas depended on 13th-century
notions of biology, and did not believe that human life began at
conception. Negotiation followed. Take "natural death." Disagreements
over its meaning (including among Catholic bishops) were made vivid not
long ago in the case of Terri Schiavo. Negotiation followed. The pope
affirms universal and unchanging "values grounded in human nature," as
if human nature is fixed, instead of evolving. One detects here, too, a
suspicion of Darwin, an invitation to "intellectual suicide."
The various fundamentalisms are all concerned with "fortifying
borders," and that is a purpose of today's Vatican. The pope's
exhortation concludes by referring to the Catholic people as the
"flock" entrusted to bishops. Sheep stay inside the fence. But what
happens when Catholics stop thinking of themselves as sheep?
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.