Catholicism and Fundamentalism: A Contrast

A Pastoral Letter to Catholics in Mississippi and Alabama

"I prefer to work with you toward your happiness." 2 Cor. 1:24

1. The quest for happiness in human history is a powerful force that touches individuals and, through them, all of society. Our successes and failures in succeeding generations show that happiness cannot be found apart from order and harmony. In a variety of ways order and harmony emerge as natural needs for all people. To live lives in balance with others around us, free from fear and unpredictable change, is the dream and longing of every person. But, as we here in Alabama and Mississippi approach a new millennium, all too often we seem to experience anything but calm and stability.

Certainly rapid change in so many areas of our lives is a major contributor to these unsettling feelings. We Catholic bishops of Alabama and Mississippi want to take this opportunity to share with you some observations about our times and to offer some historical and faith insights about various movements which have sought to meet the challenge of change. We also desire to reflect with you upon the richness of our Catholic tradition. Finally, we would like to indicate some directions that we believe the Church can take to help us move with a vision of hope into the twenty-first century.

Current Context

2. Alongside the many wonderful advances in science, technology and medicine in the last century, we must note that there have arisen certain pressures in our nation and world which have adversely affected people. Today's youth tell us that they feel the pressures of living under the threat of nuclear holocaust. They can cry, "no more war," but they still must live with the worldwide presence of nuclear weapons poised for destruction. Social and economic upheavals have often come too swiftly for the individual to make some comfortable adjustment. For many, life in general seems so complex that they feel they have lost control. In short, many increasingly sense the absence of a firm anchor of security in their lives.

We see the symptoms of this pressure all about us -- a weakening of family life which threatens both personal security and the stability of marriage itself; a growing distrust of, and disrespect for, civil authority; a quest not for lasting fulfillment, but for instant gratification. The effect is to turn us inward, to encourage us to be more selfish and self- centered in 'doing our own thing.' Even in our ancient and sure anchor of security, the Church, many fear an erosion of authority, suspect a watering-down of doctrine and detect a weakening of moral resolve. Truth itself seems to have become relative and shifting, leaving not a few to wonder just what is true anymore. There is, in the minds of many, little or no certitude about absolute moral values; we hear this expressed in cliches like: "if I think it's okay, it's okay for me" or "if it feels good, do it." Too many people sense no black and white answers ... just a vast, frightening sea of gray.

3. This discomfort of feeling adrift brings to the surface a natural religious and political hunger. We want to be part of a nation that is strong and purposeful. We need firm political authority to assure our protection from economic chaos and social violence. We need the clear authority of religion to give us certainty about forgiveness and salvation and God's will. We want to be certain about the truth of Sacred Scripture. Surrounded by a complex and often confusing world we want simple, clear answers even if our problems and questions are difficult. But, as history and personal experience teach us, there are no simple answers to complex problems.

Such lessons even in our own century are well within the memory of many who read these words. Nations, after World War I, were under pressure to realign. A fragile effort to establish world community could not compete with protectionist nationalism. The economy of the world was shaken by banks collapsing and markets crashing. Depression and insecurity were the hallmarks of the times. Then there rose up a man who offered security as the result of rigid authority, racial purity through genetic manipulation, certitude founded on teutonic superiority. Thus Nazism was spawned by Adolph Hitler. Various terrorist organizations throughout the world from time to time sought to correct the perceived wrongs of their nation or of the larger globe by one simple method -- violence. Even some radical religious movement today, like that which engages the followers of the Ayatollah Khomeni, guarantee salvation by embracing the fanatical demands of their cause leaving no room for questions, doubts or dissent. While somewhat different, all three of these examples share one thing in common -- the guarantee that there is a simple and singular solution to complexity, a solution that harkens back to a past and supposedly less complicated age.

For better of for worse, we are privileged to live in one of those complex and important times in human history -- a time of great change. As bishops of Alabama and Mississippi, we want to assert that it is not the present time which is bad. It can be an opportunity for good or for evil, but the important thing is how we respond to the times. After all, the same age that produced Khomeni produced Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Similar times have occurred before, and undoubtedly, will occur again. It is to ensure that we Catholics cooperate in making this a good time, a time of blessing and spiritual opportunity, that we, your bishops, address a movement which we see as offering false security to our people -- Fundamentalism.


4. In order to understand Fundamentalism in our day, it is necessary to look back at its beginnings. [1] Around the turn of this century there began a Protestant movement in our country which fostered a return to the real basics of Christianity, a return to the "good old days" when there had been simple and certain answers. This was in large measure a reaction to Liberalism, which, in turn, sought to cast off the yoke of rigidly structured scientific theory and religious thought. In the last century, Charles Darwin had proposed his Theory of Evolution. While scientific in its scope, the theory seemed to religious people to attack the heart of some of their most firmly held beliefs. Such new "truth" seemed totally opposed to the Bible's account of creation. A newer understanding of Scripture, coming largely from the German schools of biblical criticism, was threatening traditional scriptural interpretation. Sigmund Freud's theories of psychoanalysis had suggested that some human behavior was due to the unconscious mind rather than to free choice. The Social Gospel was calling churches to a new agenda. Some saw the church's response to the human and social ills of a newly urbanized and industrial society as a dangerous retreat from its spiritual mission. Many Protestant leaders sought to accommodate religious teaching to these "new" insights, thus giving rise to Liberalism.

Such wide-ranging complex changes posed challenging questions. Is the Bible true? Am I responsible for my actions or is my unconscious determining my behavior, thus weakening or destroying my own free will? In an environment of uncertainty and doubt a number of Protestant theologians at Princeton Theological Seminary [2] and the participants of the various Niagara Bible Conferences [3] drew up what they considered to be the basic, nonnegotiable fundamentals of the Christian faith. Although the number of these items sometimes varied, the list commonly included: 1) the inspiration and absolute inerrancy of Scripture (often referred to as literal interpretation of Scripture); 2) the Virgin Birth and the Divinity of Christ; 3) the substitutionary atoning death of Jesus; 4) the bodily resurrection of Jesus; 5) the literal second coming of Jesus to rule this earth.

At the very core of Fundamentalism lies the doctrine of strict and literal individual interpretation of Scripture and the absolute inerrancy of every word in the Bible. For those who now called themselves "Fundamentalists," this is the key to defending what they perceive as traditional orthodox truth against any threat to it. By setting forth and emphasizing the absolute basics of Christianity as they saw them, the Fundamentalists were looking for simple solutions to the increasingly complex problems of life.

5. We are not saying that there is not much that is sound in some of these principles nor that as Catholics we do not share some of the same beliefs. For, after all, we are a Church of basics -- basic beliefs grounded in Scripture and our tradition developed over almost twenty centuries. But we do see certain tenets of Fundamentalism as contrary to Catholic belief. While we have always been a Church of fundamentals, we are not a Church of fundamentalism. As bishops of these deep South dioceses we note that while modern Fundamentalism is of rather recent origin, its roots are a part of our American religious experience, especially within the Southern Bible Belt.

Do these roots of modern Fundamentalism pose a temptation and a danger to our people? We think so. The Fundamentalist stance of literal interpretation of Scripture by each believer violates the history ad tradition of Scripture itself. That is the danger. We also believe that Fundamentalism constitutes a grave temptation in our two states for it offers:

a) An unreasonable certainty about the meaning of Scripture texts regardless of their context;
b) an overly simplistic certainty of salvation, achieved instantaneously upon acceptance of Christ as Savior;
c) a deep sense of personal security, in often identifying the "American Way" with God's call and will;
d) intimacy with God in a relationship so personal that it effectively excludes others.

Such attitudes are too readily accepted by those who equate the "American way of life" with rugged individualism and self- sufficiency.

Scripture and Community

6. If our history helps us to understand the appeal of Fundamentalism, its danger must be assessed in the light of the faith. The true fundamental understanding of Scripture for Catholics is that Scripture cannot stand apart from the community. God in Old and New Testament times called people to Himself and revealed Himself to every generation: "In times past, God spoke in fragmentary and varied ways to our fathers through the prophets; in this, the final age, He has spoken to use through His son, whom He has made heir of all things and through whom He first created the universe." [4] It was the task of the community to hand on this Sacred Revelation from God to each succeeding age. This they did in human language and ideas, and manners, and customs. Sometimes the community spoke, at other times it wrote; always the community had a care to pass on the Word it had received.

This community, the Church, has always recognized the divine authorship of the Bible and its central, divinely directed role in her life, but it is important to remember that the Church existed before there was a New Testament. Before the New Testament was composed and assembled generations of Christians had lived heroic lives of faith and missionary zeal, and had even given the ultimate witness to their faith in martyrdom. God inspired members of the early Christian Church to produce the New Testament. It was those early Christian communities who preserved the Sacred Text, copied it by hand and then passed it on to successive generations of Christians. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit the leadership of the Church decided upon the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. [5] We can only ask those who claim the authority of Scripture alone as expressing the Divine Will, who only want a 'religion of the Book,' "Where in the Bible is the list of its inspired books?" There is no such list. It was a teaching religion, the Church, which decided, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, which books were inspired and which were not to be considered part of the Bible. That same teaching continues in the Second Vatican Council:

Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in
writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit. And Tradition
transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been
entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy
Spirit. It transmits it to the Successors of the Apostles
so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may
preserve, expound and spread it abroad by their preaching.
Thus it comes about that the Church does not draw her
certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures
alone. Hence, both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted
and honored with equal feelings of devotion and reverence.
Sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture make up a single,
sacred deposit of the Word of God, which is entrusted to the
Church. [6]

7. Since Scripture is the possession of the Church community, we take this opportunity to praise those members of the Church who have rediscovered or discovered for the first time this essential foundation of our faith. Because God expressed His Sacred Word not only in human language but entrusted it to the living context of a believing community, we have always recognized that it is the Church's vocation, led by the Holy Spirit, to proclaim with confidence the true meaning of Sacred Scripture. The Bible is not just "mine," it is of its own nature and origin "ours." The inerrancy of the Bible arises from the fact that the Holy Spirit guided the Church in producing Scripture to begin with, and continues to guide new generations of Christians in understanding its meaning by guiding the leadership of that community -- as has happened in the past -- in interpreting it.

It is from our twenty centuries of spirit-led life experience, and in union with the Church Universal, that we, your bishops, offer you Christ's "way and truth and life" for our times. Our vantage point enables us to accept the very much that is good in "the American way" but reject exaggerated and selfish values. Hence in recent years our National Conference of Bishops in the United States has issued clear and careful statements on racism, [7] on peace, [8] and on the economy. [9] It is this experience which has led the Church in America and abroad to condemn injustices in society and to speak on behalf of those who are not allowed to speak, to seek a world of truth, justice, love and peace. The Church has always sought to heed Paul's admonition that we not conform ourselves to this world, but rather be transformed by the renewal of our minds in Christ Jesus so that we "may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect." [10]

Contrast with Catholicism

8. Fundamentalists, because of their literalist mindset, have led others, by using brief Scripture quotations taken out of context, to world views and judgments very much opposed to our Catholic understanding. They set up an exaggerated contrast between the world (evil) and the Kingdom (good). While it is true that Scripture talks about the antagonism between the world and the Kingdom, it does not condemn our basic creation. The Bible teaches that we often take the good things God has created and misuse them. it is we who can be evil, not the universe. For Catholics, Biblical teaching has always maintained that our world is good and has been entrusted to our care by God. We do not see it as something evil to escape, rather we embrace our world without embracing the sin within it.

The Fundamentalist approach often leads one to an unbalanced spirituality. Holiness, in this view, comes from fleeing the world: perfect holiness will only be achieved when the world is destroyed. This gives the lie to the Incarnation. Christ Jesus entered the world and began the process of its conversion and transformation. What Adam undid through sin, Christ redoes, and more, through the grace of His redeeming Death and Resurrection.

From the beginning, Christ has promised to be with us all days and has sent us the Holy Spirit to instruct and guide us. [11] We have recognized that it is not only as individuals but especially as a community of believers that we make His Kingdom present. [12] It is as a community that Christ nourishes us with both His Word and His Flesh and Blood in the Eucharist. We profess that in baptism we are adopted by God as His children and are engrafted onto Christ's living Body, the Church. We profess that it is from the very Person of Christ always present among us through His Holy Spirit that our community life and sacramental nourishment flow. We live with confidence in our teaching Church and with hope because we know our Lord came that we might have life to the fullest and that we might share His joy here and now, as well as forever in heaven. [13]

9. As a community we have come to understand that the Bible is not a mere answer book for every problem. It is rather the record of God's loving and saving presence among His people. It is His call to us to become a loving saving presence to one another in the community that is the Church. We are called by the Church and God's Word to a fullness of life that develops the community and its members as people of God. That is why we cherish the Sacraments so much and celebrate them with unparalleled joy. That is why the Eucharist, the greatest sign of our unity in sharing God's life, is the sun and center of our lives.

The presence of uncertainty and doubt, of hardship and human suffering, does not mean that God is not with us. While He often leads us out into the desert, He also feeds us and brings us to the promised land. With Christ we experience Good Friday, with Christ we rise on Easter Sunday. He is our God, we are His people. That is why we are people of hope who do not fear the complexity or insecurity of discipleship. It is a part of our faith journey.


10. These reflections urge us to make some recommendations for all who are serious about their journey of faith. We believe that those who follow them will avoid the temptations and dangers of Fundamentalism and at the same time discover that confidence and hope to which the Lord calls all true disciples. "Come to me, all you who are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls." [14]


We call all to become more acquainted with the Word of God as it is embodied in the richness of our Catholic tradition. We encourage all to read it daily. We recommend the establishment of courses of Biblical study in every parish or among groups of parishes in our dioceses so that all, especially the adults, can become more familiar with Sacred Scripture.


We recommit ourselves as bishops and remind priests and deacons of our ordination call to be teachers of God's Word. This is one of our most important ministries, to prepare well- ordered and biblically sound homilies. We also call the faithful to be attentive listeners to the biblical faith that is communicated as Scripture is proclaimed and God's Word is preached.


We encourage all undertakings among our people that lead to a spiritual development flowing from Scripture and community. We call our parishes to become more and more communities of God's love. We must work at this using various biblically centered programs and processes that can help bring this about and sustain it. We recommend, for example, THE RITE OF CHRISTIAN INITIATION OF ADULTS, RENEW, CURSILLO, PRAYER GROUPS, RETREAT MOVEMENTS, SOCIAL MINISTRY.


We commend, in particular, the work of the Catholic Charismatic Movement. Avoiding the biblical fundamentalism we have noted above, it has often provided much needed leaders in Biblical Studies and community building and service.

Remembering that it is the community of the Church, with its teaching, its sacraments, its signs and symbols which lifts us up and nourishes us, we offer the Catholics of our two states the challenge to become more involved in our parish and diocesan life and programs. Ultimately, we will not find peace and joy in a simplistic manipulation of biblical texts or in some instantaneous and emotional religious experience. rather, we are assured of Christ's peace when we take on that gentle yoke of discipleship which is based upon the Paschal Mystery: the Lord dies and rose for our Salvation. In turn, our death to self, sin, and such consequences of sin as racism, materialism and consumerism will bring to birth in us, and around us, that happiness which the world cannot give. May our dying and rebirth in Christ show us truly to be the light of the world. Then, because of loyal and persevering discipleship, the Lord will find us waiting when He comes.

(s) + Oscar H. Lipscomb
Archbishop of Mobile

(s) + Joseph Lawson Howze
Bishop of Biloxi

(s) + William R. Houck
Bishop of Jackson

(s) + Raymond J. Boland
Bishop of Birmingham-in-Alabama

June 29, 1989

Solemnity of St. Peter and St. Paul


The need for a pastoral statement on Fundamentalism surfaced in discussion at the level of the presbyteral councils of Mississippi and Alabama. Such a document was recommended by a resolution of the Mobile Provincial Council. A writers' committee chaired by the Reverend Francis J. Muscolino and consisting of the Reverends Joseph Dilettuso; Robert Dalton, Glmy.; Aedan Manning, S.T.; and J. Alex Sherlock prepared the original drafts. The Most Reverend Joseph B. Brunini, retired Bishop of Jackson, offered strong support, valuable insight and positive criticism at several levels of textual development. The Most Reverend Joseph G. Vath, first Bishop of Birmingham-in- Alabama, contributed significantly to the progress of the pastoral prior to his death in 1987.


1. Bill J. Leonard, "The Origin and Character of Fundamentalism," <The Review and Expositor: A Baptist Journal> 79 (1982): pp. 5-17. For a more popular presentation, see Anthony E. Gilles, <Fundamentalism: What Every Catholic Needs to Know> (Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1984).

2. Eric w. Gritsch, <Born Againism: Perspectives on a Movement> (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982): pp 37-38.

3. Leonard, p. 5

4. Heb. 1:1-2

5. This was firmly and finally fixed at the Council of Trent in 1546, although the earliest Councils of Hippo in 393 and Carthage in 397 issued like decisions.

6. <Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum)> nos. 9 and 10.

7. <Brothers and Sisters To Us.> 1979.

8. <The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response.> 1983.

9. <Economic Justice for All.> 1986.

10. Rom. 12:2

11. Mt. 28:20; Jn. 16:13

12. Jn. 18:20-26; Mt. 18:20

13. Jn. 10:10, 15:11

14. Mt. 11:28-29



Richard W. Chilson, C.S.P., Full Christianity, A Catholic Response to Fundamental Questions (Paulist Press, 1985).

Anthony E. Gilles, Fundamentalism, What Every Catholic Needs to Know (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1984).

Edwin Daschbach, Interpreting Scripture: A Catholic Response to Fundamentalism (William C. Brown, 1985).

Philip St. Romain, Catholic Answers to Fundamentalists' Questions (Ligouri Publications, 1984)


Eugene A. LaVerdiere, S.S.S., "Fundamentalism: A Pastoral Response, " Liturgical Press (4 cassettes, 155 minutes, $32.95)

Philip St. Romain, "Catholic Responses to Fundamentalists' Issues," Ligouri Publications (2 cassettes, 180 minutes, $14.95)


Eugene A. LaVerdiere, S.S.S., "Fundamentalism: A Pastoral Concern," Liturgical Press, 1983.

National Conference of Catholic Bishops, "A Pastoral Statement for Catholics on Biblical Fundamentalism," (March 26, 1987), Liturgical Press, 1987.

Source: The Catholic Week (Mobile, AL), July 14, 1989