Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Message From Pope Francis: The Danger of Fundamentalism

Pope Francis in East Harlem, Manhattan
I have been completely enthralled with Pope Francis on his visit to Cuba and the United States this past week.  I actually took the week off from work so that I could follow his as closely as possible, and I have not been disappointed.  Whatever you may think of Pope Francis, there is no denying that he is completely genuine.  It was amazing to see how accessible he made himself to the crowds, despite all attempts by security to keep the crowds away.  I remember in 2008 when Pope Benedict XVI visited NYC.  No one could get near him.

Not so with Pope Francis.

Pope Francis in East Harlem, Manhattan

Pope Francis and the homeless in Washington D.C.
 All in all, I think he has been an amazing representative for Jesus Christ.

Pope Frances in Washington D.C.
I have listened rather closely to the Holy Father's speeches and homilies, and have found them filled with wisdom, spiritual enlightenment, gentle yet firm correction, and great love for people.

There are so many different issues concerning his speeches that I could discuss, but I was especially struck by one particular statement he made in his speech to the United States Congress:
All of us are quite aware of, and deeply worried by, the disturbing social and political situation of the world today. Our world is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and of religion. We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism. This means that we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind. A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms. But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. 

Why would Pope Frances warn against fundamentalists? Why is religious and ideological fundamentalism such a danger to the world? As the Holy Father explains, fundamentalists tend to view the world in "simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or if you will, the righteous and the sinners." To a fundamentalist, everything is either right or wrong. good or evil. The fundamentalist never questions himself or his beliefs.   He knows without a doubt in his mind that he is right.  Therefore, everyone who does not agree with him is wrong and a sinner and must be rejected.  Taken to its logical extreme, a fundamentalist can kill you - an evil sinner - and think he does God a service.  As the Holy Father explained, no religion is immune to this kind of thinking.

Those who read these words would agree that this definition of fundamentalism is clearly true when talking about radical Islam.  But we need to be honest that this can also be applied to Christian fundamentalists.  We have seen that far too often throughout history, both among Catholics and Protestants.  

There are many dangers inherent in fundamentalism.  First, fundamentalism kills spiritual growth.  A fundamentalist believes he knows everything and has all the answers, leaving no room to grow or to expand his view of the world or of God.  Since everything is so black and white and never to be questioned, fundamentalism actually defines and makes God in the image of the fundamentalist instead of allowing God to reveal and define Himself. Fundamentalism put God in a box and sticks Him in a corner.
Fundamentalism refuses to acknowledge that God is a God of diversity.  If this was to be applied to nature, a fundamentalist would look at an eagle, and then declare that unless a bird looks and acts like an eagle, it cannot be a bird.  A fundamentalist would say that unless a flower looks and smells like a rose, it cannot be a flower.  This is what fundamentalism does when it says to the world that unless you believe and act like me, you are condemned by God.

As I have stated, fundamentalism puts God in a box.  It also puts people in a box.  A great evil of fundamentalism is that it attempts to take away our free will.  All throughout scripture, starting with Adam and Eve, we see God commanding people to do the right thing and obey Him, but never does God force anyone to do what is right.  He always gives people the freedom to make their own decisions.  God commanded Adam and Eve to eat only from the tree of life, but He allowed them to choose to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  God commanded the nation of Israel to choose life, but He allowed them to choose death.  Fundamentalism - contrary to the actions of the Creator - takes away the freedom to choose.

When Jesus Christ walked among the people, His message was one of invitation.  He called out to the people and invited them to follow Him. Jesus never forced people or imposed His Holy Will upon them as fundamentalists do:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Matthew 11:28-30
On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.”
John 7:37-38
"Come, follow me," Jesus said, "and I will send you out to fish for people."
Mark 1:17
In his speech to the US Congress, Pope Francis followed his warning against fundamentalism with one of the most profound statements I have ever heard:
The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. That is something which you, as a people, reject.
Pope Francis is warning us here that in our efforts to stop the evil and destruction caused by others, we can be tempted to engage in the same hatred and evil tactics that they use, thus feeding the "enemy within", which is our own hatred and paranoia.  We are then no better than those who are trying to destroy us.  This statement can be applied to global relationships as well as personal one-on-one relationships.  Although we certainly need to defend ourselves against those who wish to destroy us, we must never allow hate to enter into our hearts.  We must never demonize our enemies.

I regretfully admit that I was a religious fundamentalist for most of my adult life. For over 30 years, I belonged to a small, fundamentalist Christian Church which was very big on rules and regulations. After leaving that, I came back to the Catholic Church, but was drawn to the traditionalist movement.

Looking back, it makes perfect sense that I would have gone from protestant fundamentalism to Catholic traditionalist. Protestant fundamentalists and Catholic traditionalists are actually very much the same. They are both utterly convinced of their own rightness and condemn anyone who does not believe as they do. They each claim a higher authority for their beliefs: Protestants cite Holy Scripture, and Catholic traditionalists cite Catholic Church tradition, but the reality is that they are their own authority.

Lately I have been asking myself why I chose to follow fundamentalism for so much of my life. Certainly I was searching for truth, and I believed that I had found it, first in my little church and then with Catholic traditionalists. But what was the real payoff? I have to admit that it was the ability to feel superior to others. I knew something most of the rest of the world didn't. I had a special relationship with God that eluded the vast majority of mankind. Although I never consciously admitted it, I loved being right and declaring the rest of the world condemned. What I didn't realize was that in my pride at being "right", I had lost the ability to love. And as St. Paul told us, without love we are nothing more than a clanging cymbal.

Pope Francis's message to the world is that we need to accept each other right where we are. When Our Lord came into the world, He accepted people on the level he found them. The story of the woman at the well is a prime example. He didn't preach at her and tell her she needed to get her life right - she who had been married five times and now lived with a man who was not her husband. Instead, he offered her salvation:
Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life (John 4:13)
Further, Jesus didn't wait for people to come to Him.  He didn't demand that they first get all cleaned up and then present themselves to Him.  He went out and met them where they were. Jesus, in effect, got down in the dirt with the people.  As Pope Francis has said more than once, the shepherds need to have the smell of the sheep on them.

In his homily in Santiago, Cuba, Pope Francis said:
The Gospel we have just heard tells us about something the Lord does every time he visits us: he calls us out of our house. These are images which we are asked to contemplate over and over again. God’s presence in our lives never leaves us tranquil: it always pushes to do something. When God comes, he always calls us out of our house. We are visited so that we can visit others; we are encountered so as to encounter others; we receive love in order to give love.
. . .

Generation after generation, day after day, we are asked to renew our faith. We are asked to live the revolution of tenderness as Mary, our Mother of Charity, did. We are invited to “leave home” and to open our eyes and hearts to others. Our revolution comes about through tenderness, through the joy which always becomes closeness and compassion, and leads us to get involved in, and to serve, the life of others. Our faith makes us leave our homes and go forth to encounter others, to share their joys, their hopes and their frustrations. Our faith, “calls us out of our house”, to visit the sick, the prisoner and to those who mourn. It makes us able to laugh with those who laugh, and rejoice with our neighbors who rejoice.
Like Mary, we want to be a Church which serves, which leaves home and goes forth, which goes forth from its chapels, its sacristies, in order to accompany life, to sustain hope, to be a sign of unity. Like Mary, Mother of Charity, we want to be a Church which goes forth to build bridges, to break down walls, to sow seeds of reconciliation. Like Mary, we want to be a Church which can accompany all those “pregnant” situations of our people, committed to life, to culture, to society, not washing our hands but rather walking with our brothers and sisters.
It is not our job to change one another.  Only the Holy Spirit can do that.  Our job is to love one another, and through that love, bring them to Christ who alone change their hearts.  This was the message that Pope Francis gave to the bishops in Washington, D.C.  This message was directed to the bishops, but we as laity can also learn from it in living a Christian life.  Pope Francis urges the bishops to always be open to the people, to lead them with joy and kindness, never harshness, and again stating that we need to go out to the world:
The path ahead, then, is dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyterates, dialogue with lay persons, dialogue with families, dialogue with society. I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly. The richer the heritage which you are called to share with parrhesia, the more eloquent should be the humility with which you should offer it. Do not be afraid to set out on that “exodus” which is necessary for all authentic dialogue. Otherwise, we fail to understand the thinking of others, or to realize deep down that the brother or sister we wish to reach and redeem, with the power and the closeness of love, counts more than their positions, distant as they may be from what we hold as true and certain. Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has no place in his heart; although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing.
We need to let the Lord’s words echo constantly in our hearts: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, who am meek and humble of heart, and you will find refreshment for your souls” (Mt 11:28-30). Jesus’ yoke is a yoke of love and thus a pledge of refreshment. At times in our work we can be burdened by a sense of loneliness, and so feel the heaviness of the yoke that we forget that we have received it from the Lord. It seems to be ours alone, and so we drag it like weary oxen working a dry field, troubled by the thought that we are laboring in vain. We can forget the profound refreshment which is indissolubly linked to the One who has made us the promise.
We need to learn from Jesus, or better to learn Jesus, meek and humble; to enter into his meekness and his humility by contemplating his way of acting; to lead our Churches and our people – not infrequently burdened by the stress of everyday life – to the ease of the Lord’s yoke. And to remember that Jesus’ Church is kept whole not by “consuming fire from heaven” (Lk 9:54), but by the secret warmth of the Spirit, who “heals what is wounded, bends what is rigid, straightens what is crooked”.
Jesus' way - in great contrast to fundamentalism - is never one of coercion and condemnation. The only time Jesus ever spoke words of condemnation to people were to those people who themselves engaged in condemning others. This wasn't because Jesus did not want to offer mercy and compassion to the religious leaders of his time. These leaders - like many fundamentalists in our day - were infected with the spiritual cancer of pride. Pride is completely immune to mercy and compassion. Mercy rolls off of pride like water off of a duck's back.

Jesus never put people in a box.  He met people where they were, and that is what we must do.  We don't look at someone with no legs and demand that they walk.  Just so, we cannot look at someone who is separated from God and expect them to walk the spiritual life.  Our job is to allow the Holy Spirit to work through us and bring them to Christ, and that can only be done in a spirit of love and compassion, never judgment and condemnation.

As Christians, we need to be brutally honest and unbending when it comes to our personal sins.  And we must never compromise with the truth in our own lives.  We must never hesitate to say no to ourselves, to deny ourselves.  But with others, we need to always show gentleness and compassion, as we have seen in abundance with Pope Francis.  We need to look at others and see Jesus Christ in them and treat each person as we would treat Jesus Christ Himself.

In calling for the abolition of the death penalty, Pope Francis told Congress, "every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity."  That is a vital truth which we must always keep in mind whenever we interact with people, especially with those with whom we disagree.

Here is a video by Cenk Uygur, a very liberal progressive who identifies as an agnostic atheist. He supports abortion and gay rights. Yet, he absolutely loves Pope Francis, even though he readily admits that on moral issues, he and the Holy Father are on opposite sides. How can this be? Cenk sees in Pope Francis a man who truly and genuinely loves people. When Christ walked the earth, crowds were drawn to Him because they sensed He genuinely loved them. People are seeing the same thing in Pope Francis. This is the lesson we need to learn.
He stands for what is best in Christianity.  He stands for the weak, the powerless, and the hungry, and through his speeches and through his actions, wants to fight for those guys.  That is a man after my own heart, even if I disagree with him on a lot of policy issues.  
. . .

If you're a Catholic and you have looked up to the pope your whole life, it's great to hear a progressive pope who doesn't agree with everything we think, either, just be completely clear about that. But that is a decent human being pushing for a positive vision of Christianity where you look out for your fellow man. I can't say hallelujah loud enough.
In this video, you will see an agnostic atheist who is far closer to the truth than many who call themselves Christian.


  1. Dear Catholic in Brooklyn, I must say that this is a very good reflection on an extremely important temptation. I believe that the presence of numerous Protestant tele-evangelists in the US has cause fundamentalism to creep into Catholicism. and it is worrying. I am glad that Pope Francis tackled this issue, and did so in a way that was truly pastoral. Many thanks for this reflection.

    1. Please excuse the typos in my previous statement. I should always preview before hitting the publish button and will blame tiredness for my carelessness :)

    2. Thank you for your kind words. I'm not sure who is harmed more by fundamentalism - the fundamentalist or those he targets. As one who was a fundamentalist, I know that a primary danger of fundamentalism is that it cuts us off from the Holy Spirit and from the great mercy and love of God because the fundamentalist has all confidence in himself and his beliefs and will not listen to anyone who contradicts him in any way. A true Christian is one is always questioning himself, taking his spiritual temperature, always placing his confidence in God but never himself. And like our Creator, a true follower of Jesus Christ, while always being a witness to the Gospel, will never force his will on another.


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