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On papal language: Fundamentalism, my foot. Or Christ’s feet, hands and side.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Aug 04, 2016

At first I tried to laugh off Pope Francis’ remarks about Islamic violence, during the in-flight interview following World Youth Day in Poland. These comments were made in response to a question raised by Antoine Marie Izoarde of i.Media: “Why do you, when you speak of these violent events, always speak of terrorists, but never of Islam, never use the word Islam?”

The Pope, like a great many political leaders, prefers to classify violence in the name of Islam as the work of an insignificant minority which does not properly represent Islam, stressing the desire to forge ties with the far larger group of Muslims that is at least open to cordial relationships with people of other religions, and with non-Islamic governments. That approach Is not necessarily bad as a matter of diplomacy; indeed, it has much to recommend it. Obviously, anyone seeking peace with another group will avoid lumping those who are open to good relations together with those who are not. With respect to the latter, the goal is to bypass them, rendering them irrelevant.

A problem arises only when we create a mythology to support our diplomacy. With respect to Islamic violence, this mythology is usually based on two falsehoods: First, that Islam does not, in fact, sanction violence against “infidels”, including terrorism; and, second, that the violence associated with Islam is simply the violence characteristic of every religion’s fundamentalist wing.

It is not only that these falsehoods perpetrate their own sort of abstract violence against the truth. They also have extraordinarily damaging consequences.

Violence

The Koran does in fact sanction violence against infidels, even if it is possible to prefer other passages which speak of peace. Islam also envisions theocracy as the ideal form of government, insisting that what we call the State be governed according to Islamic religious law. This means government must grant only a restricted status to those who do not embrace Islam, and must severely punish (often with death) those who convert away from Islam, show insufficient respect for Muhammed, or attempt to convert Muslims to any other religion.

It is estimated that between five and ten percent of all Muslims believe that Islam commands violence against infidels. As a friend recently pointed out, that’s fifty to one hundred million people! And Islam also sanctions the violence of men against women, which is a kind of terrorism in itself.

The Koran claims to be the direct dictation of God, which must be taken as it stands, without any interpretive problems. But as I have pointed out elsewhere (see And what is Islam, anyway? in 2013 and The meaning of Islam, and the deeper problem we must face earlier this year), there is no authority principle in Islam. This means that when faced with a variety of texts, nobody can say definitively exactly what Islam is or what attitude toward infidels it requires. How Islam is to be lived can be known only sociologically (in exactly the way Modernists attempt to describe Catholicism). Why should we not try to move the sociological data toward tolerance and peace?

These considerations suggest that, on the question of sanctioning violence, the danger for Christians comes from a willful self-deception which can occur when we insist that the policy we choose to follow actually represents not what we are hoping to achieve, but present reality. In Patrick Henry’s famous words, if gentleman cry “Peace, Peace” and there is no peace, then what we end up with is appeasing a powerful enemy while he destroys more and more livelihoods and lives—without mentioning the ravages of the various forms of domestic violence generally justified in Islam.

Fundamentalism

But in the secular West, the second falsehood is likely to be more broadly damaging—the lie that all religions, including Catholicism, tend to produce violent fundamentalisms. It is bad enough that Pope Francis said he prefers not to speak of Islamic terrorism because bad Christians are also guilty of violent crimes, using the example of a man killing his girlfriend. The comparison of violent crime committed in rejection of religious principles with terrorism inspired by religious principles is ludicrous. But it is even worse to say the following:

There are violent persons of this religion…this is true: I believe that in pretty much every religion there is always a small group of fundamentalists. Fundamentalists. We have them. When fundamentalism comes to kill, it can kill with the language—the Apostle James says this, not me—and even with a knife, no? [in answer to question cited above]

Never mind equating incautious speech with physical violence and terrorism (St. James compares the tongue to the rudder of a ship, using this metaphor to emphasize its power and highlight the damage it can do; he nowhere equates hurtful speech to brutal murder). But the more important question is this: By what stretch of the imagination does anyone equate violence with “fundamentalism”? This is verbal sleight-of-hand popularized by secular commentators who seek to paint a principled defense of the natural law as “fundamentalist”—as something rejected by reasonable Christians, just as violence is rejected by reasonable Muslims. This use of “fundamentalism” was deliberately developed to portray serious Christians—those who refuse to accept the secular values which Catholicism teaches to be false—as ugly, narrow, distorted, bigoted…and dangerous.

There have certainly been unbalanced people who have done bizarre things in the name of every religion, our own included. But I defy anyone to point to a significant movement of any kind that justifies and programmatically perpetrates violence against non-combatants based on the principles of Catholicism (or has ever done so). And even if such a movement could be found, I defy anyone to demonstrate that it arose through any sort of “fundamentalism” (whatever that means) in interpreting Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium of the Church.

No. This is just another example of the reflexive adoption of popular secular language to smear those who take Christianity seriously. It is exactly the sort of speech that undermines the Petrine ministry. Our Lord prayed for Peter so that he could confirm his brothers in their faith (Lk 22:32), not so that he could throw them under the bus.

Of course, we can fight these distortions in our discussions and our use of the media. But this problem runs very deep in the current papacy. It is a kind of abandonment, and it is outside our control. It challenges us to imitate St. Paul, rejoicing in our sufferings so that in our own flesh we may “complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1:24).

So if you are a Catholic who pays close attention to fundamentals, please take note: This is what we do.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: susana8577 - Aug. 10, 2016 11:48 PM ET USA

    "This use of “fundamentalism” was deliberately developed to portray serious Christians—those who refuse to accept the secular values which Catholicism teaches to be false—as ugly, narrow, distorted, bigoted…and dangerous. [....] This is just another example of the reflexive adoption of popular secular language to smear those who take Christianity seriously." Well said.

  • Posted by: Andrej - Aug. 09, 2016 1:29 PM ET USA

    Thanks for writing this Dr. Mirus. Personally I feel with Francis my efforts to evangelize people are totally frustrated by these sorts of ejaculations. How can you communicate the faith to someone in a rational manner with Francis lobbing these grenades every few days in the mass media? He has caused so many problems, it's really a sorrowful time.

  • Posted by: fwhermann3492 - Aug. 04, 2016 6:40 PM ET USA

    Well said, Jeff. It's worth pointing out, however, that the straw man of fundamentalism is not merely a peeve of the current pontiff. In its latest documents, the Pontifical Biblical Commission also has harsh words to say about it, even harsher than those directed at modern feminism. By "fundamentalists," the PBC appears to mean those who reject the historical-critical approach to interpreting the Bible. While I have no problem with JEDP, I think such rhetoric is insulting to many Catholics.