Fundamentalism is the new '-ism' for the church to fight

The Catholic church is well-known for its opposition to many important "-isms" over the years: It has railed against secularism, materialism, communism, and modernism with vigor and determination. Now it appears Pope Francis has decided to argue against an "-ism" of a different sort.

For more than a year now, Francis has repeatedly returned to the issue of religious fundamentalism and has condemned it, whether Christian, Muslim or Jewish fundamentalism.

The subject arose again on his recent trip to Turkey. Francis called for interreligious dialogue to end all forms of fundamentalism.

The pope sees dialogue as a way to deepen our understanding of the ways in which we agree and can pursue common interests. Cooperation should be built on respect for life, religious freedom, working to provide the essentials for a dignified life to all people, and care for the environment. He wants to see all the religions of the world work together to fight hunger, poverty and the marginalization of peoples.

Looking back at some earlier papal comments can provide greater clarity as to what the pope is concerned about with fundamentalist groups of all stripes. He goes to the very heart of fundamentalism when he sees it as a mental structure that is essentially violence in the name of God.

In the Middle East, Francis condemned violence in the strongest terms. He acknowledged that in the past, Christians did condone violence in the name of God at times, but he says that today such actions are unimaginable. He is worried about sectarianism and division, even questioning independence movements in Scotland and Catalonia. He refers to the idea of denying the Holocaust as "madness."

What is it about fundamentalism, however, that Francis sees as violent or worthy of such severe criticism? It seems to center around the rigid ideology that can be found in all forms of fundamentalism. Francis says fundamentalism is not healthy. He calls ideological Christianity an illness. In eloquent terms from one of his daily homilies, he comments, "In ideologies there is not Jesus: in his tenderness, his love, his meekness."

To Francis, ideologies are too often rigid. Rigid adherence to an ideology will likely prevent one from reaching out to see the truth or value of what the other may have to say. Francis wants us to become acquainted with reality through experience. He wants us out on the periphery connecting with the world. The danger he sees is for Christians to become abstract ideologues.

A perfect example of what Francis is talking about can be seen in those at the recent synod on the family who refuse to consider even the possibility of change. Those totally absorbed in logical arguments based on scholastic categories are not in touch with the concrete realities of those living lives around them or on the periphery.

Pope Francis is asking for a big leap in the way business is done in the church, and it will no doubt create serious difficulties for many. Yet it is long overdue. It is the 21st century, and the old categories no longer work. More importantly, the way of Francis is a return to Gospel values and to Jesus himself.

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here