Is Roman Catholicism Really the Ultimate Form of Fundamentalism?

That’s what David Phipps of the Church Society tells us re John Henry Newman’s conversion to Catholicism:

No one can be a Catholic without a simple faith, that what the Church declares in God’s name, is God’s word, and therefore true. A man must simply believe that the Church is the oracle of God.

When he became a Roman Catholic, he was committing himself to whatever the Church had taught, or would teach in the future – whatever it was. He tells others that if they are contemplating the same step, then they should count the cost. They could not pick and choose, they could not examine (and possibly reject) individual doctrines. Their faith had to be in the Church and not in the doctrines of the Church. It was all or nothing.

Becoming a Roman Catholic on these terms really is a fundamentalism of the most extreme kind. All rational and critical faculties have to be switched off in a conscious act of intellectual abdication. Not only is it a sin to deny what the Church teaches, it is an expression of doubt, and thus a sin, even to open the Bible to check that the teaching of the Church is there. Newman says that it is an act of unbelief to come to the Bible to look for truth. This displays ‘an unbelieving spirit.’ One simply has to take the word of the Church.

It’s easy for Phipps to come up with that kind of thing, but for me, that’s exactly what I was faced with in the fall of 1972 when I converted to Roman Catholicism.  That’s what my family (especially my father) told me, even when they were hardly enthusiastic Christians.

For those of us who made the switch–even those who have reversed it–the issue is more complicated.

Most people who convert to Roman Catholicism do so in part (or sometimes in whole) for the institutional stability.  They want a church which says something and sticks with it.  They want a church with answers on not just a few things but just about everything.  Right or wrong, the Roman Catholic Church offers that.

Protestants generally interpret that as “checking your brains at the door,” as Phipps does.  But the truth is more complicated than that.  Today we have the spectacle of a Supreme Court with a good number of Catholics but no Protestants.  I’ve whined about the dominance of Ivy Leaguers on that institution, but our SCOTUS people are smart people.  How can this be in a church which supposedly demands such blind obedience?

The answer lies in the nature of Catholic vs. Protestant thought.  Protestants and especially Evangelicals have achieved success because their religion is limited in scope re the questions it answers.  It’s focused on getting people to heaven, which is why “progressive” Evangelicals need to quit belittling people who supposedly only offer “fire insurance.”  As far as getting from here to there, if you have a simple life and follow simple precepts, it’s going to be good.  “Why?” is a question that Protestants, immersed in sola fide and sola scriptura, hate just about as much as “The General” did in the Prisoner television series.

Roman Catholicism actually has a stronger intellectual tradition and as a result has made pronouncements on a wider variety of issues.  Sometimes this gets the church into trouble, as it did with Copernicus and Galileo.  And what looks to be the “teaching of the church” to Protestants isn’t always as definite a pronouncement as it looks.  Catholic theology can be an enormously nuanced and complicated affair, with “authoritative” statements on a surprisingly small range of issues.

So, who is the bigger “fundamentalist” here depends upon how you look at it.  And then, of course, there are fundamentalists of other stripes: secuarlists, New Atheists, Muslims, etc…

The biggest problem with Roman Catholicism is not as much what it teaches as what it believes about itself.  Roman Catholicism posits itself as an active mediator between man and God, and this is flatly contradictory to what the real Mediator taught in the New Testament.  That, more than anything else, is why you should think before you convert!

One thought on “Is Roman Catholicism Really the Ultimate Form of Fundamentalism?”

  1. Thank you for your very thoughtful information. I actually have more of a question than a comment. I am a Christian, my daughter is seriously dating a Christian who converted to Roman Catholicism. When I express concern over the differences, such as the one you have highlighted, there is so much rationalizing I become lost in the conversation. My daughter, 24, is getting her PHD. Her boyfriend, 33, has a PHD, and converted to Roman Catholic at age 26,with NO second thoughts. I am in over my head in any discussions, and have no desire to put down or criticize those of the Catholic faith. But I am worried about my daughter, a sensitive, loving Christian. We have sought advice for my fears and been brushed off, I am told it is not important. His lack of second thoughts, and what I perceive as a superior attitude looking down on simple Christianity, worries me deeply. I know my daughter is an intelligent adult, and I respect her as highly as anyone I know, but I am very concerned. Please feel free to email me, I am praying daily for help. Thank you.

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