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Inside the Obama-Notre Dame Debate | The Nation

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Inside the Obama-Notre Dame Debate

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Something to Cheer

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James Carroll
James Carroll is a scholar-in-residence at Suffolk University, columnist for the Boston Globe, and author of the...

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After two months of world-historic protest and rebellion in streets and squares across the Arab world, Americans are seeing Arabs and Muslims as if for the first time, and we are, despite ourselves, impressed and moved.

Sacred violence, again unleashed in 2001, could prove as destructive as in 1096.

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 United States 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 twenty-first-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--antifeminist, radically prolife, 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 antiliberal 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 Notre Dame University has found the truest Catholic response to the world's present moment: its brave decision to honor President Barack Obama.

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