Longenecker on “Catholic Fundamentalism”

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.

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4 Comments

  1. Brian M
    March 7, 2016

    I would bet that he’s talking about Fr. Corapi.

    Reply
  2. Murray
    March 7, 2016

    Yeah, there is a real cult-of-personality problem with figures like Corapi or Michael Voris (as well as other, lesser lights) who put themselves forward as “telling it like it is” in contrast to the milquetoast accommodationist approach so often heard from the official Church these days. And since these guys often do speak the truth, many ordinary Catholics (most commonly those of lesser intellects) cling to them like they are the very oracle of God’s truth itself.

    But Fr Longenecker has at least one foot in this camp himself (along with other “conservative” Catholic pundits like Mark Shea, Jimmy Akin or Elizabeth Scalia). You see it every time the pope says something hard to square with Catholic teaching (i.e. at least twice per week, on average): distraught Catholics rush to the conservative mainstays to find out what the pope really meant and how it’s really all good, nothing to see here, move along. And then they leave obsequiously grateful comments thanking the pundit for reassuring them and blaming the media for “poor translation” or taking the Holy Father “out of context”, etc. It’s really just a variation on the same thing.

    But this article appears to be vintage Fr Longenecker: he’s a serial practitioner of the Golden Mean Fallacy, in which he’s always the sensible guy occupying the reasonable middle ground between two extremes: Hey, those people over there are crazy, and so are those on the other side, while here I am in the sane center. It never seems to occur to him to actually, you know, evaluate arguments on their merits; nope, the mere fact that Those People Over There have strong opinions means that they’re crazy extremists. It’s beyond tiresome.

    Reply
    1. Gabriel Sanchez
      March 7, 2016

      Truth be told I stopped paying much mind to Fr. Longenecker and the professional Catholic commentariat some time ago. It simply got to be too much. At the same time I must confess that I have found myself increasingly estranged from traditional Catholicism, at least with respect to its endless series of griping against “evil Rome” and our “semi-false” pope. However, that may say more about me than it does about them. Two plus years of non-stop traditionalist polemics left me with serious doubts about not simply the state of the Church, but her doctrine as well. I can’t say I am always free of such doubts, not when I am expected to “square the circle” regarding the gulf between what the Church claims to teach absolutely and how she behaves in practice. I find little comfort in the various observations that there has never been a “golden age” nor that the Church experienced centuries with rogue bishops and pontiffs running about. I find that sort of historical “apologetic” to be unsatisfying and, in fact, more likely to lead people away from the Church than be comforted during the present period of crisis.

      Reply
      1. Murray
        March 7, 2016

        I’ve certainly gone through that particular dark night myself–and truth be told, I’m still not 100% sure how to square the indefectibility of the Church with what’s been going on over the past 50-plus years, let alone the past three. It’s really no comfort at all (indeed often counterproductive, as you say) to attempt to reassure people that it’s all OK since nothing has been proclaimed definitively, since that’s a far lower bar for acceptability than the Church has previously claimed for itself. Theologians used to assert that the Church was infallible even in disciplinary measures, in the restricted sense that she could not enact disciplines that were positively harmful to souls. Well, the bastions have been razed, the liturgy was banalized, and Catholics left the Ark in enormous numbers. How is that not harmful?

        My answer–as unsatisfactory as it might be to sedevacantists and to my Orthodox brethren–is to take the long view, and to remember that I don’t have the authority to make these judgments for myself. I don’t think things have ever been worse in the Church than they are now, perhaps even worse than the Arian Crisis, but they have been pretty bad indeed, and yet she perdures.

        Reply

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