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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Faith and fundamentalism

Lucia Santos and two of her cousins were young Portuguese shepherds who claimed to have been visited by the Virgin Mary six times between May and October 1917. That apparition is now known as Our Lady of Fatima. Lucia also claimed that on July 13 Mary entrusted them with three secrets. Two of the secrets were revealed in 1941 in a document Lucia wrote, but she sealed the third in an envelope and said it wasn’t to be opened until 1960. The envelope eventually reached the Vatican.

The year 1960 came and went without an announcement from Rome (the contents were made public in 2000; they made no stir). So, during Vatican II (1962-1965) a joke circulated that the Vatican had remained silent because letter said “Luther was right.”

The force of the joke was that, without stating it explicitly, that ecumenical council, under the leadership of John XXIII, accepted Luther’s position on fundamental theological points. Among them were salvation by grace through faith, not by human merit; priesthood as a function in the church, not a change of nature by ordination, and relatedly, the priesthood of all believers; and the eucharist as a communal meal of believers at the table, not a sacrifice by the priest at an altar.

But on some points that aren’t fundamental to Christianity but which the Vatican has made fundamental to Roman Catholicism, the council rejected Luther. The one that has become fraught with the gravest consequences for its future is an exclusively celibate male priesthood.

Luther had been a priest. After his excommunication, he married Katharina von Bora, who had left her convent. Theirs was a deeply loving relationship, and Luther spoke of marriage as a school of character in which God uses the hardships of daily family life to sanctify us. Protestant churches have had married clergy ever since, and most of those churches are now ordaining women.

The most obvious damage the Roman Catholic Church has inflicted on itself by insisting on a celibate male clergy is widespread pederasty and the hierarchy’s cover-ups. A less noted but greater damage is that a gross shortage of priests has rendered it unable to bring the sacraments regularly to millions of the faithful. For Catholicism, the administering of the sacraments is the primary pastoral obligation.

I write about this failure partly because the Roman Catholic Church is an extraordinarily important global institution and, in my lifetime, has been a major force for good. It’s sad to see it wounding itself. But another reason is that it isn’t the only religion that takes for fundamental what isn’t.

For example, there’s the insistence by many U.S. Protestants on the literal inerrancy of the Bible. Among its other ill effects, this doctrine sets the truth of faith against the truth of science, and thus schools its adherents to deny evidence whenever evidence complicates the ways they have arranged reality. That’s why it has poisoned politics in this country. And yet, no one who says s/he reads the Bible literally does so consistently (e.g., their churches’ approval of divorce and remarriage), any more than Roman Catholic priests consistently observe celibacy.

But fundamentalism — meaning regarding as fundamental what isn’t — invades secular belief systems as well, such as faith in “the free market” or “strict constitutional” judicial interpretation. It always impairs what is fundamental — in the latter case, justice — and it’s never practiced with consistency. Absent integrity, any faith degenerates into dogma.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Daily Tidings every Saturday.