Who’s afraid of Fundamentalism?

Elsewhere, Raymond Cardinal Burke is faulted for representing the “fundamentalist” wing of the Catholic Church, a wing to which, by implication, I was also supposed to belong. We have been conditioned to fear the “fundamentalist” boogeyman; its mere invocation is supposed to be a thought-terminating cliche, for no one, surely, would risk being associated with so benighted a notion. 1 But let us take the charge seriously and meet it head-on.

The media has transformed the word “fundamentalism” into a synonym for “religious extremism,” but it originally had (and here in “flyover country” retains) real content. A.C. Dixon’s The Fundamentals, 2 the book whence the movement that would first be called Fundamentalists and later Evangelicals took its name, could be characterized as having an almost tridentine character: It sought to synthesize a pan-protestant orthodoxy in the face of various theological challenges, especially “liberal protestantism” and the historical-critical methodology that fueled it, Mormonism, a resurgent “Romanism,” and so on. It sought to do this by clarifying those core or “fundamental” beliefs that are believed by all Christians, and placing the emphasis on these rather than on the minutiae that might divide them. Confessedly, that may be (and often was) inverted into a proposition that sounds divisive in the abstract: “All Christians must believe these things.” But let us briefly take one concrete example to dispel our fears: The virgin birth. Harry Emerson Fosdick, the greatest of the liberal baptist preachers, said that it

is one point of view that the virgin birth is to be accepted as historical fact; it actually happened; there was no other way for a personality like the Master to come into this world except by a special biological miracle. That is one point of view, and many are the gracious and beautiful souls who hold it. But side by side with them in the evangelical churches is a group of equally loyal and reverent people who would say that the virgin birth is not to be accepted as an historic fact. 3  

Against this, Fundamentalism insisted that Christians must believe the former. But so, too, does the Catholic Church; that Jesus was born of Mary ever-virgin was the common confession of orthodoxy time out of mind, 4 and it is de fide dogma. 5 On that point, Fundamentalism stood for orthodoxy against heresy. This is the boogeyman?

In its content, then, Fundamentalism is a conservative (or, arguably, reactionary) flavor of protestantism that asserts the truth of the reformed faith against various theological innovations and errors that were introduced in the 19th Century. While there is a great deal of truth and enduring  value in The Fundamentals and its progeny, when we take it as a whole and focus on its content, the notion of a “Catholic Fundamentalism” would be a contradiction in terms.

But in its attitude and concerns, or even what we could sum up as its “mood,” 6 there is perhaps something more general, which can be seen if we slightly boost the level of generality. Fundamentalism saw that the antecedent faith of the protestant churches was under attack from a modernist and liberal ideology that was mounting a hostile takeover of its parishes and precincts, converting them to a corrupted and ersatz faith that was antithetical to that antecedent faith. It sought to man the barricades (in which sense it is militant in its attitude), to reaffirm the traditional beliefs that the reformers were attacking (in which sense it is orthodox in its belief), to defend and preserve what is left of the antediluvian Church (in which sense it is conservative), and to reclaim lost ground (in which sense it is reactionary).

In this context, because much of this sounds familiar, we might be able to speak meaningfully of a “Catholic fundamentalism.” Some of the same forces that besieged protestantism in the early Twentieth Century later besieged the Catholic Church, and similarly mounted a hostile takeover of the Roman Rite after the Second Vatican Council. The character and texture of the attack looks somewhat different because of the structural differences between Catholicism and Protestantism, but the same dynamic is at play. Many different groups in the Church have realized this, and have likewise sought (with varying emphases) to man the barricades, to reaffirm the traditional beliefs, to defend and preserve what is left of the antediluvian Church, and to reclaim lost ground. Maybe there are some cross-connections here.

The difficulty, however, is that the various groups of Catholics opposed to the modernist project have little in common with and little patience for one another (there is little understanding and no love between EWTN and the Remnant, for example), which makes it a little artificial to apply any kind of group label to them. “Orthodox Catholics” is about the best one can do. And “fundamentalism” would seem a particularly-inapt candidate to replace that label, because Fundamentalism, ex vi termini, is characterized not by that which it has in common with orthodox Catholics (i.e. its opponents), but by the peculiar character of its response. The fundamentalists met their opponents by figuring out a way to bridge the differences among orthodox protestants (if you will) with what they had in common. We can’t even agree on a common vocabulary! 7 

The unforgivable sin of Fundamentalism, by which it stood convicted before the sophisticated world, was that it proposed to take religion seriously qua religion. It insisted that scripture really was scripture, not just literature; it insisted that faith really was faith, not just a social program; above all, it refused to belittle our ancestors, their faith, their salvation, and their scripture. 8 While there was much that was wrong about it, there is more that is admirable in it than the world wants us to suspect. We should not, therefore, shrink for fear of the very word. But with the considerations discussed above in mind, the notion of a “Catholic fundamentalism,” while appealing, seems misplaced.


  1. Cf. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Values in a Time of Upheaval 11 (McNeil, trns., 2006):

    Politicians of all parties take it for granted today that they must promise changes …, far-reaching reforms are demanded and promised all the more insistently. … The world is experienced as hard to bear. It must become better. And it seems that the task of politics is to bring this about. So since the general consensus is that the essential task of politics is to improve the world, indeed to usher in a new world, it is easy to understand why the word “conservative” has become disreputable and why scarcely anyone views lightly the prospect of being called conservative, for it appears that what we must do is not perserve the status quo but overcome it.

  2. Conveniently online at http://web.archive.org/web/20030101082327/http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Parthenon/6528/fundcont.htm, but reprints are available and Amazon has a Kindle edition.
  3. Shall the Fundamentalists Win? http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5070 (last visited Oct. 2, 2014).
  4. Denzinger, Sources of Catholic Dogma  13, 20, 91, 113, 144, 201-2, 214, 255-56, 282, 290, 344, 429, 462, 708, 735, 993, 1472 (Deferarri, trns. 1957).
  5. Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma 203-05 (1954).
  6. Thomas O’Meara, Fundamentalism: A Catholic Perspective 5 (1990).
  7. Cf. Simon Dodd, Conservatives, traditionalists, and Traditional Catholics, 4 MPA __ (2014), available at simondodd.org/blog/?p=1356.
  8. Compare J.I. Packer, Fundamentalism and the Word of God 48 (1958) (“The Spirit has been active in the Church from the first, doing the work He was sent to do—guiding God’s people into an understanding of revealed truth. The history of the Church’s labor to understand the Bible forms a commentary on the Bible which we cannot despise or ignore without dishonoring the Holy Ghost. To treat the principle of biblical authority as a prohibition against reading and learning from the book of Church history is not an evangelical, but an Anabaptist mistake…. Tradition may not be so lightly dismissed”) with G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy 85 (1909) (“Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”).