The New Literalism and Fundamentalism
by Stephen M. Krason
Catholics—even more so liberal Catholics—are usually quick to criticize anyone who seems to interpret Scripture too literally. Indeed, liberal Catholics often don’t even want to view a lot of it as historical. Liberal Catholics and leftists generally are also ready to rebuke people who adhere to aspects of traditional Christian morality, especially sexual matters, as “fundamentalists” (they don’t say much about Islamic fundamentalism, however, which is the truly dangerous expression of religious fundamentalism in our day). So, it’s interesting that among liberal Catholics, and even others who are well-meaning (including some Church leaders), we witness a kind of literalism with reference to certain biblical statements and Church teachings that expect people to surrender their reason, good judgment, and attentiveness to context and the realities of nuance. This can be observed especially when they consider certain public policy issues.
A good example is the immigration question. We are told that the various passages of Scripture, such as Matthew 25, that exhort us to “welcome the stranger” require us to accept immigrants without question, even those who are here illegally. Some regard the law as irrelevant or unjust—without ever taking the time to show how it can be judged to be unjust from the standpoint of ethics or moral theology—because, after all, the people who come here are just looking for a better life. They often don’t want to consider issues related to border security, such as: criminal gangs that have implanted themselves in the U.S. because of the ease of coming here; the troubling level of crime among illegal immigrants; the reports of terrorists who have used the southern border as a gateway to enter; the corruption, selfish, and irresponsible elites in Latin American countries that have deprived the masses, and tempted them to leave; the diseases that have appeared or recurred in the U.S. because of so many unscreened entrants; the financial burdens on state social services and educational systems that have to be borne by already-overtaxed American citizens; the fact that many corporate cheerleaders for illegal immigration like it because it gets them off the hook from paying a just wage (which is, by the way, a central mandate of Catholic social teaching); the general undermining of respect for the rule of law, because it is permissible to flout it on this subject; and the possible weakening of a political community’s civic bond as a result of the entry of many people who do not share its common vision or basic principles (this is especially acutely with Islamic immigration).
To insist that this range of issues concerned with illegal immigration be ignored, simply because Scripture says to “welcome the stranger” is not just a literalism impervious to context and qualification, but asks people to surrender their minds. Catholicism, however, is not a “blind faith” religion, but one in which faith and reason work in harmony. Such Catholic “immigration literalists,” who suggest that their fellow Catholics who want to stop illegal immigration are somehow not upholding Church teaching, don’t seem to remember that Pope St. John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris, says that one has the “right to emigrate” when “there are just reasons for it”(#25), and that “as far the common good rightly understood permits” nations have a duty to accept immigrants (#106). The liberal Catholics among these immigration literalists have seldom been concerned about dissent on contraception, but are ready to point the finger regarding something that in no way involves such an unconditional and uncompromisable moral teaching.
Illegal immigration is hardly the only issue where we see such literalism. Scripture tells us to “feed the hungry,” and Christians understand that they have an obligation to assist those in need. What this has too often come to mean, not just for Catholic “social justice” activists but also for many in the institutional Church in the U.S., is to endorse and push for more government programs—to expand the welfare state. While one can understand the temptation to “grab for what is there,” it is negligent to ignore the countervailing problems of the welfare state—such as bureaucratic inefficiency, runaway costs, the increasing burden on taxpayers, the growth of government dependency and suppression of incentive, and the violation of subsidiarity. To claim that people who refuse to lend wholehearted support for it are somehow not acting as Christians should is another example of asking people to surrender their reason and good judgment. Here, too, we see a cherry-picking of the principles of Catholic social teaching. Pope St. John Paul II’s trenchant critique of the Western “social assistance” state in the encyclical Centesimus Annus (#48) is not paid attention to. The new literalism and fundamentalism doesn’t understand—or want to consider—that howsomething is done is often as important as what is done. It also seems easier to just to expand or set up a government program to address human needs, instead of working to build up the civil society sector, as Catholic social thought had stressed so strongly until recent decades.
Similarly, when the Church speaks in her social encyclicals about the obligation of better-off countries to assist poor ones, she does not say that the funds have to be forked out without conditions or accountability, or that giver nations must deprive their own citizens in order to do this. In fact, Blessed Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum Progressiospecifically says, “the superfluous wealth of rich countries should be placed at the service of poor nations” and stresses accountability (#49, 54). Also, when the Church speaks of the necessity and value of international organizations and increasing their authority, this doesn’t mean that they should be given a blank check, or the rights to violate subsidiarity or national sovereignty (see Pacem in Terris #132-141). In fact, in light of problematic developments, John Paul said international organizations were in need of reform (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis #43). When one listens to both liberal Catholics and their secular compatriots, it seems as if they are impervious to such qualifications and realities.
The way some Catholics interpret the Church’s teaching with regard to relations with other religions, as set out in such Vatican II documents as the Decree on Ecumenismand Nostra Aetate, also rings of literalism and fundamentalism. They think the Church simply says to accept other religions with no questions asked, so that something like a searching examination and critical assessment of, say, Islam is to be avoided. It becomes what Fr. Kevin M. Cusick has called “ecumania.” At its worst, it slips toward syncretism for some among the liberal Catholic crowd.
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