Fr. Dwight Longenecker, an ex-Anglican cleric who blogs over at Patheos, is here to set us straight on “Catholic fundamentalism,” or so he thinks. Really what he’s out to do is take some not-so-subtle swipes at traditional Latin Catholics without having the courage to come out and say it. Here is a small sample (with my own commentary) on some of the “10 traits” Fr. Dwight identifies.
Cafeteria Christianity – The Protestant fundamentalist picks and chooses which parts of the Bible he wants to adhere to. Catholic fundamentalists do the same. They pick which parts of Catholicism they consider “authentic” and ignore or denigrate the rest.
I must say that I agree with Longenecker wholeheartedly: cherry picking texts and doctrine is a real problem in contemporary Catholicism, albeit one exhibited more heavily among American conservative Catholics than traditionalists. For instance, conservative Catholics accustomed to embracing the neoliberal/Acton Institute consensus on socio-economic matters routinely “ignore or denigrate” all aspects of the Church’s social magisterium which cannot be squared with capitalism and liberal democracy. They will freely absolutize certain passages in Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum which uphold the right to private property while dismissing Leo’s no less authoriative teaching on the right to just wages. Granted, traditionalists sometimes fall into the error of completely blowing off all of the texts of the Second Vatican Council and other post-conciliar teaching documents, but more often than not they are working to make sense of them in the light of 1,900 years of Catholic tradition. Given that not even non-traditional Catholics struggle to reach consensus on what this-or-that element of the Church’s recent magisterium is in fact saying, are traditionalists all that blameworthy for either their perplexity or their desire to follow less ambiguous articulations of Catholic teaching?
Private Prophets – Protestant fundamentalists always raise up their own preachers and prophets. Mini demagogues–they cultivate a celebrity status and promote them as infallible mini popes. Catholic fundamentalists fall down before their own prophets and preachers who they also raise to a status of authority that supersedes the bishops and even the Holy Father.
To be honest, I am having a difficult time figuring out who Longenecker is referring to here. Yes, a number of traditional Catholics do hold up figures like the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (a cleric Pope Benedict XVI referred to as a “great man of the Church”) as a beacon of truth and holiness, but what’s wrong with that? In a day and age when so many bishops of the Church assert error on a daily basis, does it not make sense for the faithful to seek guidance from prelates like Cardinals Burke and Mueller or Bishops Schneider and Fellay? And if one is being honest, mainstream Catholics seem far more likely to make prophets out of popes and theologians than traditionalists. Consider, for instance, the cult-like status surrounding John Paul II or the radical homage paid to 20th C. thinkers like Hans Urs von Balthasar and Henri de Lubac. Perhaps Longenecker is looking in the wrong direction here.
Fear and Loathing Protestant fundamentalists are fueled by fear and loathing. Catholic fundamentalists are the same. There is little light, joy, peace and confidence in their lives. Instead life is narrowed down by fear and loathing.
To be frank, this is a ubiquitous problem found throughout modern-day religion, not just one wing of Catholicism. And yet one finds among traditional bishops, particularly Bernard Fellay of the Society of St. Pius X, a routine call for Catholics to set aside fear and despair in favor of charity, even towards those with whom we disagree most passionately. This is not to say that traditionalists don’t succumb to fear and loathing; they struggle against temptation like the rest of us. But to (quietly) single them out for rebuke in this area is simply negligent. As Eric Voegelin pointed out time and again, human consciousness is fragile; existential uncertainty coupled with apparent contradictions within our cherished beliefs leads to all sorts of spiritual destabilizations which yield political ones as well. Instead of taking time to reflect deeply on this brutal truth, Longenecker — encased in his polemical bubble — opts for a potshot.
As for the other “traits” Longenecker identifies (e.g., persecution complex, conspiracy theories, self-righteousness, etc.), it’s hard to believe that these pathologies are limited to one “type” of Catholic (or even one “type” of Christian or person of faith). No doubt Longenecker would defend himself by claiming he wasn’t specifically trying to call traditionalist to the carpet. In fact, he notes at the end of his post that all Christians are, from time to time, susceptible to fundamentalism of some sort. True, though given that Longenecker writes for a website which has routinely attacked traditional Catholics and has made known before his low view of traditionalism, it is challenging to take Longenecker’s post as anything other than a low-brow, uncharitable attack on his fellow brethren in the Faith.