From ............ Catholic Digest

April, 1994

pages 78-81


Condensed from The Bible Today



Kate, an elderly friend recently died. She was a faithful [Roman] Catholic all her life, and during our last visit, we talked about faith. Her grandson, she informed me sadly, had left the [Roman Catholic] Church not long before to become a fundamentalist. Kate's husband was even more concerned because the grandson had sent them fundamentalist literature, including a special Bible. Intended as a comfort for Kate on her sickbed, the literature only caused more grief. Why had the grandson abandoned the [Roman] Catholic faith? How could they respond to his false assertions about the [Roman Catholic] Church and the Bible?

My friend's situation is only one example of a problem that leaves many American [Roman] Catholics feeling distressed and helpless. In the face of this phenomenon, it can be tempting to dismiss fundamentalists as just too wacky to take seriously. Another temptation is simply to lay out the issues one by one and tick off simplistic [Roman] Catholic responses. Neither approach, however, does justice to the complexity and gravity of the situation.

I would describe the most direct [Roman] Catholic response to fundamentalism as reclaiming the Bible. What are the implications of such an approach? First, let me lay out three important ways that fundamentalism can appeal to some people. Then I want to review [Roman] Catholic tradition about the Bible. Finally, I'll describe how [Roman] Catholics can truly reclaim the Bible.

Fundamentalist Concerns

Three concerns shape the doctrines of fundamentalism:

1. Eschatology is the study of the "end times," an idea rooted in the Bible. Every informed Christian knows that an essential and urgent part of Jesus' teaching was that the end time was near. In the early Church, this expectation came to include hope for the 'parousia', the glorious Second Coming of Christ. As time went on, however, Christians realized that this event might not be imminent. Fundamentalists see the end of time in several ways, but they consistently apply certain biblical hopes (especially those expressed in the Books of Revelation, Ezekiel, and Daniel) to specific events in our era.

Thus, events like the founding of the modern State of Israel in 1948 are taken as signs of the end of history as we know it.

2. Epistemology means a theory of knowledge. Fundamentalists assume that human knowledge of any important topic in life can, under the Holy Spirit's guidance, reach absolute certitude. They believe that truth can be absolutely known by a simple interpretation of the plain sense of the Bible. "The Bible says what it means," they claim, "and means what it says."

This idea appeals to the wish many people have for certainty in this life. In its most extreme form, this has led to small Christian sects including in their worship the handling of poisonous snakes and the drinking of toxic substances because of Mark 16:18: "They will pick up serpents and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them."

3. Psychology. Many fundamentalists need security and belonging.

And in comparison to many large, impersonal [Roman] Catholic parishes, fundamentalist congregations are smaller and promote activities that build up a strong sense of family, community, mutual support, and shared faith. Some fundamentalists engage in a process called "love bombing," overwhelming prospective members with personal attention and welcome. Add to this the very personal side of faith, so evident in a religion that emphasizes accepting Jesus Christ as a "personal" Savior, and it isn't hard to see why some people are attracted.

Catholic Teaching on the Bible

Frequently, fundamentalists characterize [Roman] Catholicism as a religion of "manmade doctrines" as opposed to a religion of the Bible. If it were only fundamentalists who thought that [Roman] Catholics minimized the Bible, perhaps it would not be so bad. But many [Roman] Catholics themselves do not think the [Roman Catholic] Church fosters Bible use in developing personal faith.

In fact, before the 2nd Vatican Council the [Roman Catholic] Church did do a poor job of encouraging people to use the Bible.

There was an inordinate fear that [Roman] Catholics could "get the wrong idea" if they read it themselves, so the emphasis was on the [Roman] Church's responsibility to interpret the Scriptures for people.

[ and burn at the stake whoever adamently thought otherwise .... JP ]

Vatican II signaled a change in this attitude. But [Roman] Catholicism did not suddenly "discover" the Bible in the 1960s. As early as Origen (ca. 85), Jerome (d. 420), and Augustine (d. 430), the Church had great biblical scholars. And Pope Leo XIII began what might be called a "modern" approach to biblical studies just one hundred years ago. His encyclical, Providentissimus Deus (1893), urged that the Bible, "this grand source of Catholic tradition, should be made safely and abundantly accessible to the flock of Jesus Christ."

Fifty years later, Pius XII issued another encyclical, Divino afflante spiritu, which encouraged Catholic biblical scholars to use the best scientific tools available to study Scripture, so people could more fruitfully understand it. What Vatican II did, in its Constitution on Divine Revelation ( Dei verbum, 1965) was to hone the vision further by emphasizing that "access to Sacred Scripture ought to be open wide to the Christian faithful." More recently, the American bishops issued a statement on fundamentalism that called for "a Pastoral Plan for the Word of God that will place the Sacred Scriptures at the heart of the parish and individual life."

A Catholic Response: Eight Steps

Despite changes in direction and emphasis, then, the [Roman] Catholic Church has always revered the Bible. So [Roman] Catholics do not need to remain paralyzed in the face of the fundamentalist phenomenon. Following some simple strategy, however, will not suddenly make fundamentalism less appealing to dissatisfied [Roman] Catholics. Reclaiming the Bible will take genuine effort. But it is an eminently worthwhile effort.

Here's what we have to do:

I . Catholics need to educate themselves about fundamentalism. Books, lectures, and workshops can be helpful.

2. Recognize the limitations of trying to argue with fundamentalists. Avoid getting into a "scriptural duel" where one biblical text is refuted by another. It is more profitable to better learn one's own [Roman] Catholic tradition and its reverence for the Bible.

3. The heart of reclaiming the Bible involves promoting formal Bible study. Surprisingly, more than 25 years after Vatican II many [Roman] Catholic parishes have yet to start any serious Bible study.

Good and inexpensive resources like the Catholic Study Bible (Oxford University Press, 1990) abound, but sometimes leadership is lacking.

[but never a lack of claiming to be the uniquely inspired leader .... JP ]

Educated adults can learn how to run a good Bible study class.

4. Parish leaders need to evaluate how their parish responds to the psychological needs of parishioners. [Roman] Catholics have healthy emotional needs that are not always met by their parishes. The operative word here is healthy. Some parishes are experimenting with smaller communities and others have designed outreach programs to make parishioners feel more welcome. This is critically important for new immigrant [Roman] Catholics (for example, Hispanics, Vietnamese, and Filipinos) who have strong traditions of a more devotional nature and for whom strong family ties are vital.

5. Preachers need to improve their techniques in 'biblically centered preaching'. As homilists become more familiar with the Bible, they can preach the Word of God more authentically. The bishops even note "In areas where there is a special problem with fundamentalism, the pastor may consider a Mass to which people bring their own Bibles, and in which qualified lectors present a carefully prepared introduction...."

6. [Roman] Catholics need to reexamine their sense of eschatology. One acclamation used during the Eucharist is "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again." This contains the seeds of Catholic eschatology, and it comes from the apocalyptic literature of the Bible, a literature of hope. It is important to show that [Roman] Catholics are a people of hope, while avoiding a specific historical scenario that is a misreading of the Bible.

7. The Church needs to capitalize on Catholic tradition. As a biblical and sacramental Church, Catholics have the best of two worlds. We need though, to witness to the life of faith that grows from this foundation.

8. Catholics need to keep a sense of humor. Fundamentalists can be humorless people because they are afraid that if one small aspect of their beliefs should be found wanting, then the whole system will collapse. There should always be room for a God of surprises.

When my friend Kate was in the hospital, she was visited one day by a fundamentalist pastor.

In her simple wisdom, Kate answered,

The fundamentalist pastor had no response. He left after saying that he would pray for her. Kate was concerned about how to express to her own grandson the importance of her [Roman] Catholic faith. I think she gave the best testimony that could be given: by living and dying a faithful [Roman] Catholic Christian.