Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Fundamentalism - What it is, and isn't

You have undoubtedly heard someone say, "We Catholics are not fundamentalists;" and they are correct.  The problem arises when it is followed by something like, "we're not bound by the social taboos of an earlier time.  As a Catholic, I support 'marriage equality,'" and by that mean redefining "marriage" in a way completely at odds with Scripture and the Catholic Faith. (Think I heard our V.P. say something like that recently.)

When a Catholic, such as Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) says that he or she is not a fundamentalist, they do not mean that they have freedom to reinterpret the doctrinal and moral tenets of the Faith, which as Catholics they believe the truth of which is guaranteed by God.  Or to put it in shorthand:
"I am not a fundamentalist" "I can say Scripture or the Church has been wrong on a point of faith or morals"
If someone has led you to believe otherwise then he or she has done you a gross disservice.  The Church's morality, given to her by God, does not changeThe authentic Catholic understanding is:
"I am not a fundamentalist"  =  "When I read the Bible I understand that ancient authors, just like today's authors, make use of literal as well as figurative language; and it sometimes takes study to understand which is which."
In her official documents the Church has stated time and again that Scipture was written in a different culture than our own, and makes use of literary genres that we do not.  History was written under different rules.  When you read that a king reigned "X" number of years, the author may have been using a symbolic number (40 was a popular one, meaning 'fullness'), or a multiple of it - never meaning his number to be read as those recorded in the Encyclopedia Britannica. The Bible's authors used idioms and hyperbole just as we do today ... the only difference being that we are unfamiliar with theirs.  (We're like four year-olds who start to squirm when dad tells them an X-Box costs "an arm and a leg.")  And when we Catholics come at the creation accounts in Genesis 1-3, we understand that the author had no intention of writing a scientific account!  What he wrote was 100% true, but communicated in language we might characterize as a "poetic" history, as opposed to a scientific one. (We understand that man and woman were made by God, that the family is willed by God, there was a Fall from grace, etc.)  When we read Luke's account of the Resurrection on the other hand, he was making claims about what witnesses saw, and reporting history in a way familiar to us today.

When Scripture shows God saying, "Thou shalt not kill ..." it is a positive assertion, and we are bound to it.  Same with the host of biblical statements on marriage and sexual morality that a significant number of Christians today, more influenced by the world than by Scripture and 2,000 years of Christian teaching, seem comfortable ignoring and even opposing.  They misunderstand the statement "We are not fundamentalists" to mean "We do not have to be faithful to these hard teachings, these teachings that our culture has started to belittle."

The Jesus of history, the Jesus recorded in Scripture, made a bold assertion.  It should make us pause before we reject what Christianity has always proclaimed to be true:  "If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels" (Lk.9:26).


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