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No Christian group is growing faster than the fundamentalists. And many of their converts are coming from the Catholic Church — mainly, badly educated Catholics. To halt this “soul drain,” to answer the fundamentalist challenge and, most of all, to understand our faith better, Peter Kreeft looks at five major points of conflict: (1) the Bible (2) the nature and authority of the Church, especially the Pope, (3) how to get to heaven, (4) Mary and the saints, and (5) the sacraments, especially the Eucharist.
Whose Bible is it, anyway?
We needn’t be bitter in defending our beliefs. Even though many fundamentalists think the Catholic Church is under the control of Satan and all or most Catholics are headed for hell, not all think that — and we shouldn’t think the same of them.
However narrow-minded their faith often is, it’s also usually genuine, both in personal sincerity and in basic Christian orthodoxy. Fundamentalism is not some flaky non-Christian sect like New Agers or Moonies. The things on which Catholics and fundamentalists agree are more important than the things on which we disagree, even though the latter are very important, too.
Since the source for every fundamentalist’s faith is the Bible, we begin there. Fundamentalists will always settle an argument by appealing to the Scriptures. But what do they believe about the Bible? We can’t understand them unless we first understand their deep devotion to Scripture as their absolute.
We all need a final, unimpeachable “court of last resort” beyond which no appeal can go. Most of the modem world is a spiritual shambles because it has no absolute. More, we need a concrete and not just an abstract absolute. A mere ideal, like “the good, the true and the beautiful” or “the idea of God,” won’t do. If God is to be our absolute, He must touch us where we are.
Fundamentalists and Catholics agree that this point of contact is Christ. We also agree that the Bible is a divinely inspired, infallible and authoritative means for us to know Christ. But we disagree about other means, especially the Church and its relation to the Bible. Fundamentalists take Scripture out of the context of the historical Church that wrote it, canonized it, preserved it and now teaches and interprets it. To Catholics, that’s like taking a baby out of the context of its mother.
It is a fault, of course, to ignore Mother Church. But it is a virtue to love Baby Bible, a virtue we should respect and imitate. We can love other things too little, but we can’t love the Bible too much. We can love it wrongly. But we are not wrong to love it.
Seven things fundamentalists believe about the Bible are that it is (1) supernatural, (2) inspired, (3) infallible, (4) sufficient, (5) authoritative, (6) literal, and (7) practical. Catholics believe these things too — but differently.
(1) Fundamentalists stress Scripture’s divine, supernatural origin: It is the Word of God, not just the words of men. The primary author of all its books is the same God; that’s why it’s one book, not just many. Orthodox Catholics agree, of course. But fundamentalists are usually reluctant to emphasize or even admit the human side of the Bible’s authorship. Their view of Scripture, which is the Word of God in the words of men, is like the old Docetist heresy about Christ: to affirm the divine nature at the expense of the human.
When someone calls attention to human features like the great difference in style between Genesis 1-3 and Genesis 12-50, or between First and Second Isaiah, thereby concluding joint authorship, or St. Paul’s personal psychological problems and hard edges (e.g., 1 Cor. 7:6-9, 25-26; Gal. 5:12), they automatically think: “liberalism, Modernism!” They fail to see that it’s an ever greater miracle for God to have authored the Bible without effacing the human authors.
(2) This brings us to a second area. Fundamentalists believe the Bible was inspired (“in-breathed”) by God, but they often think of this process the way a Moslem believes Allah dictated the Koran to Mohammed — word for word. Fundamentalists believe in “plenary (total) and verbal [word-for-word] inspiration.”
However, we don’t even have the original autographs of any of the books of the Bible, so we’re not absolutely sure what the exact words were. There were some minor errors in copying, for the earliest texts we have don’t totally agree with each other — though there’s 99 percent verbal agreement among different manuscripts, far more than for any other ancient writings.
Sometimes you even find fundamentalists claiming divine inspiration for the King James version! The serious motive behind this foolish idea is to hold the line against Modernism even in translation. For many modern translations of the Bible are not translations at all but interpretations or paraphrases using the dubious principle of “dynamic equivalence” — i.e., the translator imagines what the writer would have written if he’d written modern English, rather than translating the actual words he did write. The fundamentalist’s concern for word-for-word fidelity, though extreme, seems less mistaken than the revisionist’s fast-and-loose guesses.
(3) Fundamentalists resort to this to guard the infallibility of the Bible. Again they’re fighting a battle against the Modernist, who “demythologizes” and thus dismisses (“dismyths”) any passage that makes him uncomfortable (e.g., those that teach miracles or an absolute moral law).
Catholics agree that Scripture is infallible, or free from error, but not necessarily grammatical, mathematical, or scientific error, only error in its message.
For example, when a biblical poet speaks of “the four corners of the earth” he’s reflecting the common ancient Hebrew belief that the earth is flat; yet his point is not the shape of the earth hut the glory of God.
(4) The crucial difference between fundamentalists and Catholics concerns the sufficiency of Scripture, Luther’s principle of “sola scriptura.” The fundamentalists insists he needs no Church to interpret Scripture, for he contends that (a) Scripture is clear, or that (b) it interprets itself, or that (c) the Holy Spirit interprets it directly to him.
All three substitutes for the Church are easily shown to be inadequate: (a) Scripture is not clear, as it itself admits (2 Pet. 3:15-16). After all, if it’s so clear, why are there 500 different Protestant denominations, each claiming to be faithful to Scripture? (b) Nor does Scripture interpret itself, except on occasion, when a New Testament author quotes or refers to an Old Testament passage, (c) Finally, heretics all claim the Holy Spirit’s guidance, too. To rely on a private, personal criterion has been perilous and divisive throughout history.
The strongest argument for the need for an infallible Church to guarantee an infallible Bible is the fact that the Church (the disciples) wrote the Bible and (their successors) defined it by listing the canon of books to be included in it. Common sense tell you that you can’t get more from less; You can’t get an infallible effect from a fallible cause. That’s like getting blood out of a stone.
Catholics agree with fundamentalists that Scripture is sufficient in that it contains everything necessary to know for salvation. If this were not so, Protestants couldn’t be saved! Catholics also agree with fundamentalists that Scripture provides the foundation for all subsequent dogmas and creeds. But fundamentalists insist that all dogmas must be present explicitly in Scripture, while Catholics see Scripture as a seed or young plant: The fullness of Catholic dogma is the flowering of the original revelation.
(5) As for the Bible’s authority, orthodox Catholics agree with fundamentalists that it’s authority is absolute and unimpeachable. Where we disagree is whether the Bible is the only authority and whether it can maintain its proper authority without an authoritative Church to preserve and interpret it. Many Protestant denominations began in an authoritative fundamentalism and slid into a most unauthoritative Modernism.
(6) The weakest plank in the fundamentalist’s platform is surely his insistence on a literal interpretation of everything in the Bible — or almost everything. Even fundamentalists cannot take Jesus parables or metaphors like “I am the door” literally Fundamentalists specialize in literal interpretation of the beginning and end of the Bible, Genesis and Revelation, thus opening evolutionistic and eschatological cans of worms. Though Genesis itself suggests some sort of evolution (1:20a; 24a; 2:7a), it’s a dirty word for fundamentalists. And though Jesus Himself does not know when the world will end (Matt. 24:36), fundamentalists love to make rash predictions — all of them wrong.
Here the fundamentalist makes the same mistake as the Modernist: confusing objective interpretation with personal belief, interpreting Scripture in light of his own beliefs rather than those of the author’s. The literary style of Genesis 1-3 and Revelation are clearly symbolic, just as the miracle stories are clearly literal. Fundamentalist and Modernist alike fail to remove their colored glasses when they read.
Fundamentalists also confuse literalness with authority, fearing that if you interpret a passage nonliterally, you remove its authority. But this isn’t so; one can make an authoritative point in symbolic language, e.g. about the power (“the strong right hand”) of God.
One passage no fundamentalist ever interprets literally, however, is “This is my Body.” The fundamentalist suddenly turns as symbolic as a Modernist when it comes to the Eucharist.
(7) Finally, the greatest strength of fundamentalism comes not from theory but from practice. Fundamentalist biblical principles are weak, but fundamentalist practice of Bible reading, studying, believing and devotion is very strong. And this is the primary point of the Bible, after all: See Matt. 7:24–27.
Even here, though, there’s some confusion. Interpreting it literally, they sometimes apply it literally where not appropriate (e.g., Mark 16:18 as backing “snake handling”). However, few apply Matthew 19:21 literally, like St. Francis.
All in all, a tissue of strengths and weaknesses — that’s how fundamentalist beliefs about the Bible appear. What’s needed above all, then, is discernment, so we both learn from the good and avoid the bad. We must neither mirror their closed-mindedness nor become so open-minded that our brains spill out.
No matter how sincerely and passionately fundamentalists believe, what they believe is less than the fullness of the ancient, orthodox deposit of faith delivered to the saints. If we had half their passion for our great creed that they have for their small one, we could win the world.
Who's in authority here?
All the beliefs that divide Catholics from fundamentalists are derived from the teaching authority of the Church.
Because Catholics believe in the Church, they believe a fuller, more complex and mysterious set of things than the narrowed down fundamentalist. Thus, the Church is the essential point of divergence.
In the fundamentalist view, the Catholic Church exalts itself over the Bible, adding to God’s Word: It is man arrogating to himself the right to speak in God’s name.
But for Catholics, the fundamentalist puts the Bible in place of the Church as his “paper pope.” Instead of a living teacher (the Church) with a book (the Bible), the fundamentalist has only a book.
Fundamentalists believe that the Bible authorizes the Church. They accept a Church only because it’s in the Bible. Catholics, on the other hand, believe the Bible because the Church teaches it, canonized it (i.e., defined its books) and authored it (the disciples wrote the New Testament).
Last week we looked at the fundamentalist idea of the Bible and contrasted it with the Catholic view. Now we must do the same with fundamentalist notions of the Church.
The most important point here is that the fundamentalist view is a new one while the Catholic view is an old one. The Catholic Church and its claims have been around for more than 19 centuries, fundamentalism for less than one. The historical argument for the Catholic Church is thus very strong. Fundamentalists have to believe that the early Christian Church went very wrong (i.e., Catholic) very early, and went right (i.e., fundamentalist) very late. In other words, the Holy Spirit must have been asleep for 19 centuries in between.
Fundamentalists usually know very little about Church history. They don’t know how many Catholic doctrines can be traced back to the early Fathers of the Church — e.g., that appeals to the Bishop of Rome to definitively settle disputes throughout the rest of the Church occur as early as turn of the first Century; or that the Mass, not Bible preaching, was the central act of worship in all the earliest descriptions of the Christian community.
Five key differences between fundamentalists and Catholics center on the Church’s (1) nature, (2) mystery,(3) authority, (4) structure and (5) end.
undamentalists agree with Catholics that the Church was founded by God, not just by men. For a fundamentalist the Church is not just a religious social club, as it is for a modernist. But while fundamentalists see that God commanded the Church’s beginning, they do not see that He still dwells in it intimately, as a soul lives in its body and as He lives in faithful souls. For a fundamentalist, the Church’s origin is divine but its nature is human.
Fundamentalists see the Church in the opposite way from which they see the Bible. They affirm the divine identity of Scripture and minimize or ignore the human side of its authorship. But they stress the human side of the Church and ignore its divine side. In other words, they’re Docetists about the Bible and Arians about the Church. (Docetism was an early heresy that denied Christ’s human nature; Arianism denied His divine nature.) Catholicism alone has consistently affirmed the mystery of the two natures both of Christ, and of the Church and Bible.
Fundamentalists often accuse Catholics of the error of the Pharisees and love to quote Mark 7:7-8, Jesus’ rebuke to the Pharisees for teaching as divine doctrines mere human traditions. The Pope and bishops are men, after all, and fundamentalists bristle at the thought of ascribing to these humans a divine authority. But they’re inconsistent, for they ascribe to the human writers of the Bible a divine authority, and (of course) they ascribe to Christ a divine authority, though He was also human. So the principle that God can and does speak through human authorities is a principle based on Christ and Scripture.
Maybe the simplest way to see the difference is this: Fundamentalists see the Church as man’s gift (of worship) to God, while Catholics see it as God’s gift (of salvation) to man. For fundamentalists, we’re saved as individuals and then join in a kind of ecclesiastical chorus to sing our thanks back to God. For Catholics, we are saved precisely by being incorporated into the Church, Christ’s mystical Body, as Noah and his family were saved by being put into the ark. (Many of the Church Fathers use the ark as a symbol for the Church.)
It’s as if — to extend the metaphor — fundamentalists prefer to be saved by clinging to individual life preservers, then tying them together for fellowship.
To Catholics, the Church is “the mystical Body of Christ.” The Church is a “mystery.” Fundamentalists don’t understand this category. “Mystery” sounds suspiciously pagan to them. They want their religion to be clear and simple (as Moslems do). They’ll admit, of course, that God’s ways are not our ways and often appear mysterious to us. But they don’t want their Church to be mysterious, like God, because they don’t think of it as an extension of God but as an extension of man.
In other words, they think of “mystery” as mere darkness or puzzlement. But in Catholic theology it’s a positive thing: hidden light, hidden wisdom.
Fundamentalists say that they emphasize “the Church invisible” more than “the Church visible” and accuse Catholics of overemphasizing the latter. Fundamentalists draw a sharp distinction between these two dimensions of the Church so that they can explain Scripture’s strong statements about the Church as applying only to “the Church invisible” (the number of saved souls, known to God) and not to the visible Church on earth.
Why? Because if they referred such statements to the visible Church, the claims of the Catholic Church to be that single, worldwide, visible Church stretching back in history to Christ, still forgiving sins and exercising teaching authority in His name — well, these claims would surely seem more likely to be true of the Catholic Church than of any other visible Church.
Fundamentalists also have a very individualistic notion of the Church. The Catholic sense of a single great worldwide organism, a real thing, is not there. The Eastern Orthodox Church usually has an even more powerful sense of the mystery and splendor of the Church than most modern Western Catholics do. They’re east of Rome spiritually as well as geographically — i.e., more mystical. Fundamentalists are west of Rome — much too American.
A third difference concerns the authority of the Church. This follows from the previous point: Fundamentalists lack the Catholic vision of the Church as a great mystical entity, an invisible divine society present simultaneously in heaven and on earth, linking heaven and earth as closely as man’s soul and body are linked. And lacking this vision, authority can only mean power, especially political power. Thus, fundamentalists sometimes sound like their archenemies, the modernists, when it comes to criticizing the “authoritarianism” and political power of Rome. For both fundamentalists and modernists lack the Catholic understanding of the Church and its authority as much more than “political.”
Yet fundamentalists tend to be quite authoritarian themselves on a personal level — e.g., in their families. They are more willing than most people to both command and to obey authority, if it’s biblical. The issue that divides us is not authority as such but where it is to be found: Church or Bible only?
The structure of the Christian community also divides us. Fundamentalists usually criticize the “hierarchical” Church. This is often more a matter of politics than of religion, sometimes stemming from American egalitarianism rather than religious conviction. But when it is a matter of religious conviction, such criticism usually takes one of these three forms:
First, fundamentalists charge that Catholics worship the Church and the hierarchy, especially the Pope. There’s a fear of idolatry coupled with a fear of the papacy mixed up here, a confusion between sound principle (anti-idolatry) and a gross misunderstanding of facts. While I’ve met many Catholics who love the Pope and (unfortunately) some who hate him, I’ve never met or heard of anyone who worships him!
Second, the hierarchy is suspected of corruption just because it’s a hierarchy: It is structurally, culturally, un-American. (So is the hierarchy of angels “un-American.” But that doesn’t mean it’s corrupt.) Of course, 500 years ago there was some truth to this charge, but fundamentalists are still fighting Luther’s battle.
Third, there’s often an unadmitted racial prejudice against Italian Popes. Some people, when they hear “Italian,” immediately think “mafia” and “Machiavelli.” This element is rarely admitted, but it definitely plays a part in anti-papal prejudice.
Beyond these irrational criticisms, I’ve never come across any solid theological argument against the papacy. The current Pope has done much to temper fundamentalist fears by his holy personality, wise words and strong opposition to abortion and to the excesses of some contemporary theologians.
Finally, fundamentalists and Catholics have different visions of the end or task of the Church. For fundamentalists, that task is only two things: edification of the saved and evangelization of the unsaved. For the Catholic, these two ends are essential, but there are also two others.
First, Catholics also emphasize the Church’s this-worldly tasks — social justice and the corporal works of mercy such as building hospitals and feeding the poor. Fundamentalists say the Church “shouldn’t get involved in politics” (though many of them are thoroughly politicized on the far right). And when did you last see a fundamentalist hospital.
Second, there’s a still more ultimate goal. Evangelization, edification and social service are ultimately only means to this greater end in the Catholic vision. The Church is there for the world, yes (the first three ends), but in a more ultimate sense the world is there for the Church, for her eternal glory and perfection.
The Church’s ultimate task is to glorify God, to be the Bride of Christ. The world is, in the long run, only the raw material out of which God makes the Church. In fact, the universe was created for the sake of the Church! God’s aim from Day One was to perfect His Bride, to share His glory eternally.
When we speak of this eternal glory we have in mind first of all the Church as invisible, as “mystical”; but there’s a substantial unity between the Church invisible and the Church visible, between the Church as inner organism and the Church as outer organization, between its soul and body, as there is between man’s soul and body.
You can see this mystical thing, as you can see a man. The most holy thing you can see on earth has its seat in Rome, its heart in bread and wine on the altar and its fingers as close as your neighbor.
It isn’t that fundamentalists explicitly deny this Catholic vision of the Church; they just don’t comprehend it. They may have things to teach us about being on fire with religious zeal, but we have much to teach them about the fireplace.
A fireplace without a fire is cold and gloomy. But a fire without a fireplace is catastrophic.
The need for sacraments
Four elements stand out in the traditional Catholic doctrine of what a sacrament is. Fundamentalism is suspicious of all four. A sacrament is “a sign that effects what it signifies, instituted by Christ to give grace.”
First, sacraments are signs and symbols. Fundamentalism is temperamentally wary of symbolism. It has a plain, “no-nonsense” mentality. Symbols are too poetic for its hardheaded mind to grasp, whether in Scripture or in sacrament.
Second, sacraments effect what they signify. They’re both signs and things. They thus overcome the “either-or” that plagues Scripture scholarship, the assumption that any given passage must be either interpreted literally or symbolically, not (as in Aquinas) both.
Yet according to Aquinas, since God is the author of history, historical events can signify as well as effect. For example, the parting of the Red Sea both effected salvation from Egypt for Israel and also signified salvation from sin and death through Christ. Fundamentalists resist symbolism in considering historical events, and resist “real presence” and effects when considering sacramental signs. “This is my body” they interpret as wholly symbolic, merely symbolic; yet most of the rest of Scripture they see as not symbolic at all.
Third, sacraments were instituted by Christ. Fundamentalists agree, but limit sacraments to Baptism and the Eucharist (which they call “The Lord’s Supper”). But the question immediately arises: How do you know whether a sacrament has been instituted by Christ or not? How do you know He didn’t intend foot-washing to be a sacrament? (See John 13:1-15.) How do you know how many sacraments He instituted? You need His Church to teach you, to define and sort out the sacraments. (This was not done explicitly for all seven sacraments until the 11th century.
Fourth, sacraments give grace. They “work.” In fact, they work ex opere operato, out of themselves rather than out of and caused by the subjective dispositions of the recipient. They’re like physical food: Spinach gives you iron because of what spinach is, not because of what you are. Sacramental grace is real, objective, ontological.
This last feature is the thing fundamentalists object to most. It seems like magic to them. We hear three basic criticisms about sacraments from fundamentalists: It seems to them that Catholic doctrine is magic, externalism and pagan superstition.
First, fundamentalists misunderstand ex opere operato. To say sacraments are like magic in one way (objective, not subjective) is not to say they are like magic in other ways. Magic is impersonal and automatic, but sacraments are like gifts. They come from the giver (God), not the receiver (us), but they must be freely accepted in order to be received.
Fundamentalists often use arguments like this: According to Catholic doctrine, if the water in Baptism fails to touch the forehead of the baby, by some accident, then if the baby dies it goes to hell or limbo, not heaven; and if a man about to confess a mortal sin is run over by a truck on his way to confession, he goes to hell rather than purgatory or purgatory rather than heaven; now isn’t that ridiculous? (Fundamentalists also usually misunderstand purgatory, by the way; they think it is eternal rather than temporary.)
Fundamentalists already have, in their theology of salvation, the principle for understanding sacramental grace. Salvation is a gift of God (objective) yet it must be freely accepted by man (subjective) in order to “work.”
In Catholic theology “the baptism of desire” brings the same grace that water baptism brings, and a sincere intention to confess counts in the eyes of God just as a confession itself does.
Not only must there be the subjective element of desire and choice and intention added to the objective element of the matter of the sacrament, but if the objective matter of the sacrament is unavoidably absent, the subjective intention alone can make up for it. Fundamentalists do not know this about Catholic theology. That’s mainly because nearly all fundamentalists rely on a single, badly misinformed book by Lorraine Boettner for their anti-Catholic criticisms rather than reading the official Catholic documents.
A second criticism is that Catholic sacraments direct attention outward to externals and distract attention from the heart and spirit, which are where God is to be found. Fundamentalists always see a tension, even a contradiction, between sacramentalism and personal piety. It seems to them that the more sacramental a religion is, the less pious its believers are; and the more personal piety a religion has, the less sacramental it is.
There are several replies to this. First, God deliberately made sacraments external to free us from “ingrown eyeballs” and subjectivism. The fact that the sacrament is external to us aids devotion because it takes us out of ourselves; it makes us trust in God.
Second, sacraments aid devotion by being a test of faith. We believe not because of appearance, or evidence, or experience, or feeling, or reasoning, but simply by divine authority. As Thomas Aquinas so beautifully put it in his hymn to the Eucharistic Christ:
Sight, taste and touch in Thee are each deceived; The ear alone most safely is believed I believe all the Son of God has spoken; Than Truth’s own word there is no truer token.
Third, external sacraments overcome our materialistic tendency to think of everything real outside our own consciousness as matter, to think of spirit as subjective and matter as objective, thereby making God subjective rather than objective. (If you know Descartes, you’ll see how very modern fundamentalism is. It buys into the fundamental modern dualism of Descartes’ matter or spirit.)
A third fundamentalist objection to Catholic sacramentalism is that it is really pagan superstition. It is naturalistic and grants too much spiritual power to matter — like the pagans, who thought trees housed nymphs and storms were raised up by gods. Fundamentalists often accuse Catholics of softening the Creator-creature distinction by raising subhuman creatures (water, bread, wine) up to have divine powers in the sacraments.
The Catholic reply is that paganism is profoundly right here in its basic intuition (though not, of course, in its idolatrous details). Matter is much more than moderns (including fundamentalists) think it is. Catholics have not only sacraments but a whole sacramental worldview. That’s why they build cathedrals.
It’s instructive to watch fundamentalists in a Gothic cathedral. They usually look uncomfortable and guilty, as if it were sinful to beautify matter so much and to enjoy material beauty so deeply. At best, they look wistful and envious. They wonder why they don’t build cathedrals. The answer is that cathedrals were built not to house Catholics but to house the Eucharist.
The ultimate answer to fundamentalists’ criticism of the sacraments is Christ. If it’s impious or impossible for matter to be raised to such heights of power in sacraments, what was it raised to in Christ? Why not criticize the creeds’ doctrine of Christ as too pagan and superstitious? Is it naturalism to bring God down to man and matter? Is it too superstitious, too supernaturalistic an attitude to take toward matter to think it can be raised to the level of being the very body of God incarnate? Is it too low for God to be man and too high for man to be God? Is it too low for spirit to be joined to matter and too high for matter to be joined to spirit in a human being who is both body and soul?
Just before Christ instituted the Eucharist, according to John’s Gospel, He washed His disciples’ feet. The Incarnation itself was like Atlas stooping to raise the whole world to heaven on his shoulders. Christ’s death and burial were the supreme example of this divine lowering for the sake of human raising. That’s just the way God is; sacraments show His amazing humility. It’s unintentional pride, even a kind of snobbery of the spirit, for fundamentalists to feel sacraments are too pagan, too naturalistic, too material.
I vividly remember how hard it was for me to overcome that feeling after my own conversion. My mind had accepted the whole of Catholic doctrine, but sacramentalism was the one thing my Protestant instincts had the most trouble digesting. The thought that this wafer of bread was really God’s body was just too staggering for me.
But not for God. He “stoops to conquer.” And we must stoop to be conquered. The greatest saint is like a baby bird opening its mouth for its mother to fill it. Catholics are feasted by Mother Church. Fundamentalists choose to diet.
Praying with the saints
One good way of understanding my belief is to ask: What differences does it make? Devotion to saints makes at least seven important differences to Catholics. In each case, fundamentalists find Catholicism too mystical for their tastes.
First, saints make a difference to our prayer. We’re not alone when we pray. We’re surrounded by saints. If there was any one experience that brought me aboard the Barque of Peter, it was realizing that as I prayed I wasn’t alone, but was joined by Peter and Paul, Augustine and Aquinas and the whole company of angels and saints on that great Ark.
But fundamentalists think Catholics pray to saints as we pray to God, rather than just asking saints to pray for us to God. That would be idolatry, of course. There’s a major misunderstanding here that comes from the change of meaning in the word “pray.” Pray used to mean “request”; now it usually means only “worship.”
The only possible reason for fundamentalists objecting to this practice, since they too ask each other to pray for one another, would be if they knew that the saints, the blessed dead in heaven, don’t hear or care about us. In other words, they implicitly claim to know that death separates the Church on earth from the Church in heaven spiritually as well as physically, so that prayers can no longer “get across” the barrier of death.
This is because they don’t have the Catholic vision of the Church as Christ’s Mystical Body. They admit that the Church is Christ’s, and that it is His Body, because these notions are explicitly taught in Scripture. But they balk at the “mystical” part. Not that the invisibility of the saints is the problem — that would be the materialist’s objection. No, fundamentalists believe in the invisible (God, souls, heaven), but this doctrine is not just about something invisible but something mystical. Mysticism seems to them (as one wag put it) to begin in mist, center in I, and end in schism.
Saints make a difference, secondly, to death. Death does not divide us. The Church Militant (on earth), the Church Suffering (in purgatory) and the Church Truimphant (in heaven) is one Church. Again, this is too mystical an ecclesiology for fundamentalists. Though Hebrews 12:1 says we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses”(RSV), fundamentalists interpret these not as living saints in heaven watching us, but as dead martyrs on earth in the past who “surround” us only in our memories. (The same Greek word means “martyr” and “witness.”)
A Presbyterian writer told the story of how after his father died, when he was 12, he prayed for his father, as was his custom, before going to bed. His mother heard him and rebuked him: “Son, you must not do that any more. We are not Catholics.” He said he felt as if his mother had just clanged shut a great iron door in his face; as if his father’s physical death had not been so horribly final as this spiritual isolation.
The human spirit cries out against this apparent triumph of death over presence. The French Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel called death “the test of presence.” If presence is soul-to-soul and not just body-to-body, then death, in removing the body, does not remove presence.
Saints make a difference, third, to the nature of the Church. The Church is not just what we can see (“the Church Visible”). It is also not just “the Church Invisible” in the sense of the number of redeemed souls on earth. It is a single spiritual organism with a cosmic unity spanning heaven, earth and purgatory. Once again, it’s the mystical quality of Catholic doctrine that fundamentalists fear. It’s too scarily big for them.
Fourth, saints make a difference to what community means. To include the saints in our present Church community is to have a mystical view of community, not just a political, psychological and sociological view. This means that we are each other’s arms and feet, and “each other” includes the dead as well as the living. The human spiritual family is so strong that it is just as much a family when death makes its links invisible as when life makes them visible. The “mystical” here again frightens fundamentalists.
Fifth, saints make a difference to heroism. Ours is the first society in history without heroes — unless we still have the saints. Fundamentalists can sometimes be quite heroic themselves in their personal lives, but they’re typically American in their suspicion of “hero-worship” as too aristocratic, hierarchical and mystical. They prefer plain, butter-and-eggs people whom they can see and feel comfortable with rather than extraordinary, superior, invisible heroes of the past. (Fundamentalists also tend to ignore the past, since their denominations are all so recent.)
Sixth, saints make a difference to hope. Anyone can be a saint. It is everyone’s purpose and vocation. The most mediocre of us is called to heroic sanctity. This hope is a high and exalted one; but the fundamentalist, though hoping for heaven, hopes merely to get there, to “get saved” (justified). The Catholic hope also involves being perfected (sanctified). vFinally, saints make a difference to meaning. They give us the meaning of life, the purpose of our existence. This is sanctification. For fundamentalists, Jesus is called “Savior” because He saves us from hell, i.e., from the punishment of sin. For Catholics, He is called “Savior” because “He shall save His people from their sins.”
Now, except on the one issue of “praying to” saints, most of the differences between us are matters of emphasis or sensibility rather than doctrine. But when it comes to Mary, the greatest saint, doctrine sharply divides. Fundamentalists call Mariology “Mariolatry.” Passions run higher on this than on any other issue.
Yet here too there’s a difference in sensibility behind the dispute. Fundamentalists would be much more open to the Marian doctrines (the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption) if they understood the motives behind devotion to Mary.
What motivates Catholic Marian devotion is something even more than her physical privilege of being the Mother of God, incredible dignity though that was. It was her spiritual excellence, her perfect modeling of sainthood. We can distinguish seven related aspects of Mary’s sanctity and contrast them with fundamentalism’s opposite emphasis.
First, Mary is hidden, almost invisible. She “kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Like John the Baptist, Mary disappears before Christ. (That’s why Christ called John the Baptist the greatest of all the prophets (Matt. 11:11) because his whole program was that “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). Mary is greatest because she is smallest. Fundamentalists object that Mary gets in the way of Christ. In fact, it is the exact opposite. She is like the morning air to the rising sun (the Rising Son!).
Second, Mary is humble, modest, withdrawn, almost Oriental compared to the typically American brashness and aggressiveness of most fundamentalists.
Third, Mary is silent. Fundamentalists talk a lot. Their religion centers on words in a book, not sacramental mysteries in a church. Ecclesiastes advises, “God is in heaven and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few.”(Eccl. 5:3) This is Jesus’ attitude too; have you ever noticed how short His prayers and speeches are? Fundamentalists preach hour-long sermons. Mary knows more about love than that. Love seeks silence. Mary must have read Ecclesiastes; for example her prayer to Christ at Cana was simply, “They have no wine.” And her directions to the servers (and to us) were simply “Do whatever He tells you” (John 2:3,5).
Fourth, Mary is womanly, a model woman “Blessed art thou among women” — Mary is the alternative to both chauvinism and feminism, counterpointing the heat and hate of both. Like Christ, she is new wine; she transcends our categories and expectations.
Fifth, Mary is willing. Her “fiat” (“Let it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38) is the blindingly simple secret of all sanctity: the eagerness to say “yes” to her divine lover’s will. Fundamentalists are no better and no worse at that than any other Christians. Saints, by definition, are better at that, for “that” is precisely sanctity.
Sixth, Mary is simple. There is nothing more, nothing added to this one simple thing, this purity (oneness) of heart. More would be less. Fundamentalists rarely show this simplicity. (For that matter, neither do most Catholics.)
Seventh, Mary is heroic. She is worthy of “hyperdulia,” the highest human respect. Fundamentalists think we give her latria, the adoration proper to God alone. They do not usually even give her dulia, the respect due to rare human excellence in sanctity. (For as noted above, they tend to be suspicious of superiority as un-American.)
The effect of Mary and the saints on our character and devotion is even more important than their effect on our belief. Without the saints, our devotion would be much more humdrum and unheroic (like fundamentalism). Without Mary, our sanctity would be one-sidedly masculine, spiritually male. Mary actualizes our anima, the feminine function of the soul. Fundamentalists tend to be spiritually over-masculine; verbal, aggressive, obvious, non-mystical.
Another effect Mary has on our devotion is that through Mary, matter is made sacred. God entered matter through a mother! Fundamentalists believe this but do not feel it. Their spirituality emphasizes the inward, the subjective. They tend to ignore matter and concentrate on spirit.
Fundamentalism must come to terms with the fullness of the Incarnation and the sacramentalization of matter and of Mary if they hope to understand Catholicism — and that’s a very large step for them to take.
But many have taken it. Many Catholic converts came from fundamentalism. For fundamentalists often feel a sacramental vacuum in their religion. Recently, there have been many conversions from Catholicism to fundamentalism for the same reason: Many Catholics feel a spiritual vacuum because many Catholic priests and teachers are robbing the laity of clear, strong doctrine and morality in the name of the so-called “spirit of Vatican II.”
In both cases, the needs of the heart demand to be filled. Only the fullness of the Catholic faith can do that. Modernism, Catholic or non-Catholic, cannot do that; neither can fundamentalism.
Kreeft, Peter. “Fundamentalists.” National Catholic Register. (October, 1988).
Reprinted by permission of the author. To subscribe to the National Catholic Register call 1-800-421-3230.
Peter Kreeft teaches at Boston College in Boston Massachusetts. He is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.
Copyright © 1988 National Catholic Register