Christopher Centrella, Franciscan University of Steubenville
For more information on this subject, our Executive Director has also written on Catholic Fundamentalism at https://clarifyingcatholicism.org/2019/08/02/the-rise-of-catholic-fundamentalism-on-fundamentalism/
In reading the Sacred Scriptures, we must be careful to avoid examining only the literal text, outside of any context or guidelines. This is known as biblical fundamentalism. Interpretation of God’s Word should be deeply personal; it should penetrate our hearts and bring us into a closer relationship with God. “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16 NABRE).
At the same time, the Holy Spirit speaks to other members of the Body of Christ in the same way. Even though Scripture is deeply personal, it is never private. To interpret properly, the reader must first determine what the writer intended to say. Afterwards, he or she must then discover any spiritual senses connected with the text. To do this, he or she must interpret the text within the faith of the Church: looking to the guidance of the Magisterium, the writings of the saints, and the liturgy. By interpreting within the Church, the commentator then brings the fruit of his good work back to the Church to enrich the entire Christian people.
Biblical fundamentalism privatizes Sacred Scripture. This comes from the misunderstanding that God is an Absolute Being whose writings are to be literally understood. Biblical fundamentalists say that since God is the author of Scripture, everything the text says must be exact, like orders from a boss. (cf. John Paul II, Response to The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church). For example, Genesis 1 speaks of God creating the earth in six “days” in a particular order: first, He created light, then the waters, the plants, the sun and stars, the animals, and lastly, the human race. Fundamentalists say that this passage requires us to believe that the earth was created in six literal days, and that the theory of evolution is thus contrary to faith.
However, when reading this passage, we must remember that the author may have used figurative language. Since we are poor human beings, God humbles Himself, communicating to us in our language. He works through our language and culture to accomplish His goals. For example, through the Incarnation, God made Himself man by using a human being, the Blessed Virgin Mary, as His instrument. To save the world, God became man. Jesus, fully human and fully divine, was begotten vulnerable and weak like any child, in all aspects but sin. “For by His incarnation the Son of God has united Himself in some fashion with every man. He worked with human hands, He thought with a human mind, acted by human choice and loved with a human heart.” (Gaudium et Spes, 22).
Throughout the Scriptures, God speaks through men, employing them as His vocal chords. Even though the Holy Spirit guides the human authors to write, He does not dictate how such messages are to be written. Instead, He allows the human author to express themselves in his or her language, invoking the mannerisms and idioms of the time. Thus, the reader must pay attention to the historical and cultural context surrounding a passage in order to understand what the author, guided by the Holy Spirit, intended to say. (cf. Dei Verbum, 12). Going back to Genesis 1, appropriating the stages of creation to different days would be an easy way to communicate the fundamental fact that God exists, that He created the universe with a specific order, and that He loves everything He has created.
Besides biblical fundamentalism, there is another type of fundamentalism that is unique to Catholics, what Bishop Peter Henrici calls “Catholic Fundamentalism.” (cf. Bishop Peter Henrici, “Is There Such a Thing as Catholic Fundamentalism?”). Rather than maintaining that the Word of God must be interpreted literally in all its details, Catholics often apply the same rigid, literal interpretation to documents of the Church’s Magisterium. This could be the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Council of Trent, the Code of Canon Law, some other Church document, or even private revelation.
Besides advocating a certain position based on a rigid reading of the text and incorporation of their theological ideas, Catholic fundamentalism is commonly manifested by limiting “tradition” to one Church document or what the theological manuals termed the definitive Catholic teaching at some point in time. In reality, Catholic Tradition began at the time of Christ, continued through the Second Vatican Council, and into the present day. Such examples can be found in doctrines like “No Salvation Outside the Church.”
To prevent Catholic Fundamentalism, we must ask the Holy Spirit for the grace to see the text in the light of Christ and of God’s involvement with humanity. The Scriptures are not just a book, but the narration of God’s involvement with Man and His love for humanity. Our faith revolves around the Person of Jesus Christ, who came to set us free from the bondage of sin, and the oppression of Satan. We must seek to grow in a deeper relationship with Him and seek to understand our faith in light of Him to avoid fundamentalism. Genesis 1:26 foreshadows the doctrine of the Holy Trinity; since God created the world, Christ was also present: “Let us make human beings in our own image.”
We must strive to love His holy Church, seeing her as Christ’s instrument for salvation: the gateway to the love and freedom found in Christ Jesus and the pathway for the Holy Spirit. By growing closer to Christ and remembering the connection between the text, Christ’s paschal mystery, and the way in which He outpours His Holy Spirit through the Church, we can properly interpret the Bible as the Word of God.
Edited by Noein