President Obama goes to the University of Notre Dame this Sunday to deliver the commencement address and receive an honorary degree, the ninth U.S. president to be so honored. The event has stirred up a hornet's nest of conservative Catholics, with more than 40 bishops objecting, and hundreds of thousands of Catholics signing petitions in protest. In the words of South Bend's Bishop John M. D'Arcy, the complaint boils down to President Obama's "long-stated unwillingness to hold human life as sacred." Notre Dame, the bishop charged, has chosen "prestige over truth."
Not even most Catholics agree with such criticism. A recent Pew poll, for instance, shows that 50 percent of Catholics support Notre Dame's decision to honor Obama; little more than one-quarter oppose. It is, after all, possible to acknowledge the subtle complexities of "life" questions -- When actually does human life begin? How is stem cell research to be ethically carried out? -- and even to suggest that they are more complex than most Catholic bishops think, without thereby "refusing to hold human life as sacred."
For many outside the ranks of conservative religious belief, this dispute may seem arcane indeed. Since it's more than likely that the anti-Obama complainers were once John McCain supporters, many observers see the Notre Dame flap as little more than mischief by Republicans who still deplore the Democratic victory in November. Given the ways in which the dispute can be reduced to the merely parochial, why should Americans care?
Medievalism in our future?
In fact, the crucial question that underlies the flap at Notre Dame has enormous importance for the unfolding 21st century: Will Roman Catholicism, with its global reach, including more than a billion people crossing every boundary of race, class, education, geography and culture, be swept into the rising tide of religious fundamentalism?
Those Catholics who regard a moderate progressive like Barack Obama as the enemy -- despite the fact that his already unfolding social and health programs, including support for impoverished women, will do more to reduce the number of abortions in America than the glibly pro-life George W. Bush ever did -- have so purged ethical thought of any capacity to draw meaningful distinctions as to reduce religious faith to blind irrationality. They have so embraced a spirit of sectarian intolerance as to undercut the church's traditional catholicity, adding fuel to the spreading fire of religious contempt for those who depart from rigidly defined orthodoxies. They are resurrecting the lost cause of religion's war against modernity -- a war of words that folds neatly into the new century's war of weapons.
If the Catholic reactionaries succeed in dominating their church, a heretofore unfundamentalist tradition, what would follow? The triumph of a strain of contemporary Roman Catholicism that rejects pluralism, feminism, clerical reform, religious self-criticism, historically minded theology and the scientific method as applied to sacred texts would only exacerbate alarming trends in world Christianity as a whole, and at the worst of times. This may especially be so in the nations of the Southern Hemisphere where Catholicism sees its future. It's there that proselytizing evangelical belief, Protestant and Catholic both, is spreading rapidly. Between 1985 and 2001, for example, Catholic membership increased in Africa by 87 percent, in Europe by 1 percent.
In their shared determination to restore the medieval European Catholicism into which they were born, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI became inadvertent avatars of the new Catholic fundamentalism, a fact reflected in the character of the bishops they appointed to run the church, so many of whom now find President Obama to be a threat to virtue. The great question now is whether this defensive, pre-Enlightenment view of the faith will maintain a permanent grip on the Catholic imagination. John Paul II and Benedict XVI may be self-described apostles of peace, yet if this narrow aspect of their legacy takes hold, they will have helped to undermine global peace, not through political intention, but deeply felt religious conviction.
Something to cheer
No one can today doubt that the phenomenon of "fundamentalism" is having an extraordinary impact on our world. But what precisely is it? Some fundamentalists pursue openly political agendas in, for instance, Northern Ireland, Israel and Iran. Some, like Latin American Pentecostals, are apolitical. In war zones like Sudan, Afghanistan, Palestine and Sri Lanka, fundamentalism is energizing conflict. Most notably, after the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq in 2003, the insurgent groups there jelled around fundamentalist religion, and their co-extremists are now carrying the fight, terrifyingly, in the direction of the nuclear arsenal of Pakistan. Catholic fundamentalists in the U.S. are far from being terrorists, but an exclusionary, intolerant, militant true belief is on display this week in their rallying to denounce President Obama in Indiana.
Obviously, these manifestations are so varied as to resist being defined by one word in the singular, which is why scholars of religion prefer to speak of "fundamentalisms." But they all do have something in common, and it is dangerous. The impulse toward fundamentalism may begin with fine intentions: the wish to affirm basic values and sources of meaning that seem threatened. Rejecting any secular claims to replace the sacred as the chief source of meaning, all fundamentalisms are skeptical of Enlightenment values, even as the Enlightenment project has developed its own mechanisms of self-criticism. But the discontents of modernity are only the beginning of the problem.
Now "old time religion" of whatever stripe faces a plethora of threats: new technologies, a shaken world economy, rampant individualism, diversity, pluralism, mobility -- all that makes for 21st-century life. The shock of the unprecedented can involve not only difficulty, but disaster. And fundamentalisms will especially thrive wherever there is violent conflict, and wherever there is stark poverty. This is so simply because these religiously absolute movements promise meaning where there is no meaning. For all these reasons, fundamentalisms are everywhere.
In contemporary Roman Catholicism, whose deep traditions include the very intellectual innovations that gave rise to modernity -- Copernicus, after all, was a priest -- Catholic fundamentalists are more likely to be called "traditionalists." They are galvanized now around the moral complexities of "life," at a time when the very meaning of human reproduction is being upended by technical innovation, and once-unthinkable medical and genetic breakthroughs are transforming the meaning of death as well.
Like other fundamentalists, they are attuned to the dark consequences of the Enlightenment assumptions implied in such developments, from the Pandora's Box opened by science unconnected to morality to the grotesque inequities that follow from industrialization and, more recently, globalization. Where others celebrate new information technologies, traditionalists, even while using those technologies, warn of the coarsening of culture, the destruction of privacy, and, especially, threats to the family. In nothing more than its emphasis on a rigorous and comprehensive sexual ethic -- anti-feminist, radically pro-life, contemptuous of homosexuality -- does this brand of Catholicism echo a broader fundamentalism.
In the immediate aftermath of the liberalizing Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Catholic traditionalists, with their attachment to the Latin Mass, fiddle-back vestments, clerical supremacy, and the entire culture of the Counter-Reformation, were rebels. That was why the anti-Council sect, the Lefebrites, including the notorious Holocaust denier Bishop Richard Williamson, was excommunicated in 1988.
Today, as indicated by Pope Benedict's lifting of that excommunication, the Vatican is the sponsor of such anti-liberal rebels. Instead of reading the Bible uncritically, as Protestant fundamentalists do, Catholic traditionalists read papal statements that way. To affirm the eternal validity of prior papal statements, as in the case of the ongoing papal condemnation of "artificial birth control," traditionalists willingly sacrifice common sense and honesty.
If the Catholic Church is as opposed to abortion as it claims, why has it not embraced the single most effective means of reducing abortion rates, which is birth control? The answer, alas, is evident: The overriding issue for Catholic fundamentalists is not sexual morality, or even "life," but papal authority. As Protestant fundamentalists effectively make an idol of biblical texts, Catholic fundamentalists, in obedience to the Vatican, make an idol of the papacy.
When it comes to Notre Dame, ironically, American Catholic fundamentalists, including the bishops leading the charge against Obama's appearance, are not going to be backed up by the Vatican. In Rome, a tradition of realpolitik tempers the fundamentalist urge of the current establishment. The highest church authorities have long been accustomed to putting issues of theological purity second to the exigencies of state power.
So, no insults of the American president will be coming from the Vatican this weekend, and its silence on the Notre Dame controversy will speak more clearly than any official statement on the subject might. Indeed, the long history of Roman Catholicism, where Puritanism has steadily lost out to robust earthiness, and doctrinal rigidity has regularly bent before the pressures of lived experience, is itself reason to think that the University of Notre Dame has found the truest Catholic response to the world's present moment: its brave decision to honor President Barack Obama.