Question: You have mentioned "Catholic fundamentalism." Could you define what that means, and how does it relate to "Protestant Fundamentalism"?
Answer: The Catholic Church is unchanging in matters of faith and morals because truth is unchanging. Yet many things in the lives of Catholics are not matters of faith or morals, and may change as circumstances and needs dictate. Change merely for the sake of change is usually a bad idea, but organic growth in many areas of endeavor can be useful or even necessary in human society. One of the strong points of the Catholic Religion is that Its head has the authority to permit change in non-dogmatic matters. By contrast, fundamentalist Protestants (and Jews) generally bind themselves to the literal meaning of unchanging Scripture.
What we have been calling "Catholic fundamentalism" is the refusal by Catholics to accept any deviation from the way things were in either what they consider to be the "golden age" of the Church, or in some other period which they remember nostalgically. We have touched on the nostalgia issue in a previous issue, particularly with regard to Holy Mass, so this article will concern itself more with the Catholic "golden age."2
With a certain amount of good reason, Catholic fundamentalists generally think of the middle ages as the Church's "golden age"; monasteries were founded, crusades were won, cathedrals were built, Popes held supreme temporal power, bishops and abbots were lords of the realm, new religious orders appeared, and Western Europe could generally be thought of as the domain of Christ and His Church. These ages of the Church were not "dark ages," for the Faith was an illuminating beacon for civilized Westerners. Innocent III (1198-1216) ruled the Church with greater civil power than any previous or succeeding Pope (see inset). Yet, in many ways, educated Christians of this "golden age" could look back to an earlier period, far more civilized than their own.
Early Christianity flourished in the urban centers of rich Greek and Latin culture -- Corinth, Smyrna, Thessalonica, Alexandria, Antioch, Rome, and later Constantinople. But Christianity remained a relatively "underground" religion for the better part of three centuries. Persecuted first by the Jews and then by the Romans, Christians played relatively little part in public life until the Emperor Constantine first tolerated, and then legalized Christianity in the Empire. But the Empire itself was unstable. Persecution would resume briefly under Julian the Apostate, and the Empire would be forever changed (if it can be said to have continued at all) with the invasions of the Barbarians. Some came to find warmer and more fertile lands, others came to plunder and run. They came from the relatively nearby lands known today as Germany, Scandinavia, and the Balkans, as well as from as far away as Mongolia. Sometimes one barbarian tribe would drive out another. Some appreciated the culture of the Empire, others appreciated destroying it. Within a few hundred years, the Church remained as the only civilizing influence existing throughout the Western Empire. The Eastern Empire would last a little longer, but would eventually give way to invasions of its own.
The Roman Republic ultimately gave way to the feudal society that was necessary to keep life going. The lower class worked the land in order to support the hierarchical warring class that was necessary to keep out the invaders. Petty kings gained the support of lesser lords by assigning them a section of the royal demesne. The lords in turn might "enfief" lesser lords, eventually working down to the level of the agricultural working class. The king and all of his lords employed knights, whose main job was to be ready for mounted battle. Each lord was required to supply military forces to his overlords and to the king, usually in proportion to the size of his holdings.
Medieval bishops and abbots often served as feudal lords, governing their territory and enforcing justice in the name of the king.3 The Church, in turn, recognized the rule of the king, clothing him with priestly vestments and crowning him at Mass offered by a bishop or the Pope himself. The power to rule comes from God, and the Church chose to publicly anoint the one in power -- and, occasionally, to unmake kings, as well. Fundamentalist Catholics look upon monarchy as the Church's own official form of government, for there was little choice in the feudal period -- the structures of the Roman republic or the Greek city-state just did not lend themselves to the tumultuous times.
The glory of Greece and Rome far outshone that of medieval Europe in other ways as well. Medieval men could look back to a period far more productive of science, history, and literature than their own. Generally, only the clergy and a few, relatively rare, laymen were able to read, so most achievements in these areas were made by clerics. And often their works failed to distinguish between faith and reason, between revelation and speculation, between edification and education.
Often the distinction between literature and history was unclear. A writing might record actual events and their dates, or it might present fictional events in an effort to inspire and edify, or it might lie somewhere in between. St. Gregory of Tours (539-594), and Venerable Bede (673-735 were two prolific writers of the period, both of whom attempted to write history in the modern sense. Both were forthright about the limitations of their sources -- but neither lost sight of his priestly duty to edify his readers.4
Most later medieval writers seem to have placed even greater emphasis on edification. No saint's life story was complete without numerous and astounding miracles. In modern times the legends surrounding Pope Saint Sylvester and the conversion of Constantine have been taken as history, even after the document narrating them, The Donation of Constantine, was proved to be a seventh or eighth century forgery.5 Perhaps the first serious effort to produce factual biographies of the saints came well after the middle ages with the Bollandists in the mid seventeenth century.6
Kings and armies and battles were similarly glorified in biography and in epic poetry. Chansons de geste, among the first vernacular literature, combined religious and civic themes. The Song of Roland, (written c. 1075) for example, glorifies the heroism of Charlemagne's nephew (d. 778), dying bravely in battle -- but portrays the battle as being aggainst Moslem invaders, instead of the Christian Basques who actually killed Roland. Even Dante (d. 1321), who, toward the end of the middle ages, placed both princes and popes in his Inferno, wrote about the Christian theme of reward and punishment for the deeds of this life in the next.
Here again, "fundamentalist" Catholics sometimes prefer to read the biographies of saints and kings, and the histories of civilization as they were written during that "golden age" of the Church -- before they were "tainted" by the reason of modern critics -- failing to realize that these writings were written to inspire and edify more than to convey history.
There were science and medicine in the middle ages, of course, but most knowledge in these fields was a combination of what was remembered from the past and from chance discovery. Systematic research based on observation was virtually non-existent. Most knowledge was unquestioningly accepted on the authority of the ancients. The writings of Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) on the movement of bodies, for example, went virtually unchallenged until the theory of "impetus" was developed at the University of Paris by the fourteenth century scholastic philosopher Jean Buridan.7 Perhaps the most famous example of Aristotle's "authority" in science was that acceptance of his claim that heavier objects fell faster than light ones; a claim that appears not to be subjected to experiment until the time of Galileo in the sixteenth century -- because Aristotle said it, it went largely unchallenged for two thousand years!
Aristotle's description of concentric spheres of the heavens centered on earth, was likewise not open to question -- even though it was relatively unlike the description of things given in the Bible.8 In second century Alexandria, the Greek astronomer Ptolemy had set out an enormously complicated system of "epicycles," which explained the odd orbits of planets observed from earth (they sometimes reverse direction and loop). Only in the sixteenth century did the priest, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), present, as purely theoretical, the concept of sun centered system. Both Protestants and Catholics declared it erroneous, and heretical if used as anything more than a device to aid in calculation of the calendar.
Again, we find "fundamentalist" Catholics today who ridicule the works of men like Galileo, Newton, and Einstein -- largely because they contradicted the medieval idea of knowledge being bestowed on us by authority -- largely because they did not work during the "golden age" of the Church.9
The circulatory theories of Galen (130-200), a classical Greek physician, remained supreme until the time of Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564). In repeating Galen's dissections for himself, Vesalius at first thought he was in error when his findings contradicted the master's work. He came to realize that in some things Galen was simply wrong, and that actual observation was the only way to determine the body's true anatomy.10
The "fundamentalist" Catholic paints a picture of Catholics and the Church and its revealed truth, set against secular modern scientists and historians with their rationalism. This view, in itself, is a rejection of historical fact. The "golden age" of the Church may have been hampered in its pursuit of science and history by the barbarian invasions -- but that did not make the Church anti-scientific. Pope Leo XIII reminds us that at least as early as St. Augustine, Catholic scholars recognized that physical truth did not contradict spiritual truth: "Whatever they can really demonstrate to be true of physical nature we must show to be capable of reconciliation with our Scriptures...."11 An important aim of Scholastic philosophy, at least since the time of Boethius (480-524) has been the demonstration that faith and reason do not contradict one another, but represent two ways of knowing the same reality.
Much as they preserved the Bible, the Church and individual Catholic scholars preserved the science, medicine, and history of antiquity to the best of their ability. When additional manuscripts became available from Moslem sources after the Crusades, translations were soon made into Latin. Such manuscripts exist today because they were carefully copied by monastic scribes until the invention of printing by Gutenberg (1400-1468) in the fifteenth century.
The Church, of course, will always have a reverence for authority -- eternal Rome will always move slowly. The sixteenth century brought not only the scientist Galileo -- Martin Luther would challenge the Church's authority on its own proper grounds. Succeeding centuries quickly would bring the philosophes, the "enlightenment," and the further movement of secular nation states away from the Church. But the honest questioning of the authorities of science and history is not inimical to the authority of the Church that was founded by Truth Himself. Augustine and Aquinas wrote about the possibility. In the late middle ages, St. Albert the Great (1206-1280) insisted upon it: "The aim of natural science is not merely to accept the statements of others, but to investigate the causes that are at work in nature." "Experiment is the only safe guide in such investigations."12 The Dominican St. Albert's views are reflected in the "other" philosophical school of the Franciscans, particularly by his contemporary, the more abrasive Roger Bacon (1214-1294). Faith and Reason do not contradict one another, for truth is singular.
Like virtually every other human creation, politics, economics, history, science, and medicine can be misused. Indeed they can be misused on such a scale as to make us wish they had never been invented. But uninvention is never a possibility -- the "genie" cannot be put "back in the bottle." Nor is it possible to retreat into the "golden age." Catholicism and Catholic principles will have influence in the modern world in proportion to the degree in which Catholics and the Church take leading roles in all aspects of society. As Leo XIII wisely pointed out (inset), monarchists may despise a republic, but to refuse to participate in it is to leave all influence over the political process to bad men; likewise every other aspect of public life: "Legislation is the work of men invested with power, and who, in fact, govern the nation; therefore it follows that, practically, the quality of the laws depends more upon the quality of these men than upon the form of power. The laws will be good or bad accordingly as the minds of the legislators are imbued with good or bad principles, as they allow themselves to be guided by political prudence or passion."13
Holy Popes like Leo XIII and Pius XI have written much about the role of the Catholics and the Church in modern society. Many of their works are still in print, in bound or in pamphlet form. Many are available today in electronic form, on CD-ROM or over the Internet. Rather than retreating into a "golden age" long past, Catholics ought to be familiar with their teachings and act accordingly.
1. Cf. The Catholic Encyclopedia (C.E.), 1907 ed., s.v.
2. See The Parish Bulletin, May A.D. 2000 on the Mass as the public worship of
3. The problem of "lay investiture" arose from kings' legitimate
desire to have a say in appointing those clergy who exercised temporal rule. See
The Parish Bulletin, March A.D. 1996.
4. Gregory of Tours' The History of the Franks, and Bede's The History of the
English Church and People are representative.
5. Cf. C.E., s.v. "Donation of Constantine." The legend of Saint
Sylvester baptizing Constantine appears in the 1960 revision of the Roman
Breviary on the feast of the dedication of the Lateran Basilica.
6. Cf. C.E., s.v. "Hagiography."
7. Herbert Butterfield, Ph.D., M.D., The Origins of Modern Science, (New York:
Collier, 1962), 19-22, 27.
8. Cf. Genesis i: 1-19.
9. Cf. Solange Hertz, "The Three Plagues of the Great Apostasy," The
Remnant, Vol. 33, No. 19, 15 November, AD 2000.
10. Butterfield, ibid., pp. 49, 52-57, 110.
11. Pope Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus, section D(b), quoting
12. C.E., s.v. "Albertus Magnus," Section IV.
13. Pope Leo XIII, "Au Milieu des Sollicitudes," 16 February,
1. Cf. The Catholic Encyclopedia (C.E.), 1907 ed., s.v. "Innocent III."
2. See The Parish Bulletin, May A.D. 2000 on the Mass as the public worship of the church.
3. The problem of "lay investiture" arose from kings' legitimate desire to have a say in appointing those clergy who exercised temporal rule. See The Parish Bulletin, March A.D. 1996.
4. Gregory of Tours' The History of the Franks, and Bede's The History of the English Church and People are representative.
5. Cf. C.E., s.v. "Donation of Constantine." The legend of Saint Sylvester baptizing Constantine appears in the 1960 revision of the Roman Breviary on the feast of the dedication of the Lateran Basilica.
6. Cf. C.E., s.v. "Hagiography."
7. Herbert Butterfield, Ph.D., M.D., The Origins of Modern Science, (New York: Collier, 1962), 19-22, 27.
8. Cf. Genesis i: 1-19.
9. Cf. Solange Hertz, "The Three Plagues of the Great Apostasy," The Remnant, Vol. 33, No. 19, 15 November, AD 2000.
10. Butterfield, ibid., pp. 49, 52-57, 110.
11. Pope Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus, section D(b), quoting St. Augustine.
12. C.E., s.v. "Albertus Magnus," Section IV.
13. Pope Leo XIII, "Au Milieu des Sollicitudes," 16 February, A.D. 1892.