by Patrick Devlin

The people’s pope ventured again into precarious doctirnal waters when he recently made comments suggesting that he believes that human ‘fundamentalism’ has been a barrier to advancement. The pope shared his analysis with 120 priests who are the leaders of Catholic religious orders in a meeting in Switzerland this past November.

Responding to queries regarding how the new leader of the church wants his priests to approach the communities of the faithful as well as those who may consider becoming Catholic, the pope proposed his analysis stating, “It is a hermeneutical question: reality is only understood if it is looked at from the periphery, and not when our viewpoint is equidistant from everything. Truly to understand reality we need to move away from the central position of calmness and peacefulness and direct ourselves to the peripheral areas. Being at the periphery helps (us) to see and understand better, to analyze reality more correctly, to shun centralism and ideological approaches.”

Pope Francis exemplified his critique of fundamentalism by pointing to the dangers of “clericalism”, a kind of fundamentalism the pope finds in the training process of Catholic priests that leads student priests to focus on rules and doctrine and obscures the church’s larger canonical mission, by providing an illustration from his experience as a Catholic priest. As a young priest, Francis said he was advised, “If you want to advance, think clearly and speak obscurely,” advice that the new Pope realized is “a clear invitation to hypocrisy.” Francis told the assembled priests, “Charism (the church’s preparation of young priests) is not a bottle of distilled water. It needs to be lived energetically as well as reinterpreted culturally,” and that educating and preparing priest is “a work of art, not a police action,” capable of “creating little monsters” if mishandled, instead of compassionate and helpful priests and missionaries. The Pope said that this blinkered and passive mindset causes a “lack of maturity” in the church.

But Francis’ critique of fundamentalism appeared to be a broader evaluation of how fundamentalism promotes myopic and self-justifying human thought that has stifling consequences for human growth. “I am convinced of one thing: the great changes in history were realized when reality was seen not from the center but rather from the periphery,” the pope said. The Catholic leader continued; “This is really very important to me: the need to become acquainted with reality by experience, to spend time walking on the periphery in order really to become acquainted with the reality and life – experiences of people. If this does not happen we then run the risk of being abstract ideologists or fundamentalists, which is not healthy.”

The pope went on to suggest that priests and the teachers of the Catholic faith should strive to “recapture tenderness, including maternal tenderness” in their teaching and embrace these modes of human interaction that are neglected and shunned in the modern world. Strange and sensible, bizarre and beautiful, contradictory and commonsensical – the Pope (with vigor and without whimsy) diverges from the historical Catholic church and from other bastions of orthodoxy where top-down automatons belch the bromides of the received fundamentalist cannon.

Why, it was not so long ago that the Conference of Catholic Bishops in a concerted vote-swinging act of political-theologism warned American Catholics from the pulpit of the wages of their voting for politicians who appreciate a woman’s right to privacy and support modern medicine. And the people’s pope himself just recently, cleaving to centuries of wayward sexism that borders on the pathologically misogynistic, took the executive-fundamentalist-in-chief step of excommunicating an Austrian priest who agitates for the capacity of women to become priests. But perhaps Father Bergoglio (now pontiff) is capable of memory and its fruits; humility and metamorphosis, and he remembers the sad and sickening days of the Argentinian “Dirty War” (itself tied to American anti-Soviet imperialism) and how the Catholics were up to their cassocks in much of that murderous madness…who knows.

But, new year and old hippie and all, I’m willing to give the guy a chance. After all, any leader who suggests, not a religious occupation, not an uber-surveillance regime, not a ‘get out of jail for free card’ for the wealthy, not a purge, or pogrom or prohibition, but rather implementing an agenda of “inculcating maternal tenderness” seems to be on the right track.

The rising tide of fundamentalism in modern America, however, displays our leaders’ disdain for tenderness. The way we frame problems and the solutions we propose indicate that we have created our own ‘little monsters’. Corporatism, jingoism, classism, imperialism propelled in part by a modern form of Christian theology but mainly by human greed are re-branded as power projection. The geo-political melds seamlessly with the theo-political.

America is in the midst of an historic revolution of super-bipartisanship. Our leaders agree that corporations and the wealthy should receive unfair tax advantages and that private business solutions can speak to just about every problem we face. There is broad agreement that bank criminals cannot be prosecuted. Our current Democratic president is winding down a 15 year war by proposing ‘exiting’ Afghanistan, while leaving as many as 10,000 US soldiers in the country for an unspecified timeframe. No one disagrees with extrajudicial execution of innocents in sovereign states. The fact that party big-wigs, after agreeing to not use the phrase “grand bargain”, are still trying to finagle a cut for our sick and elderly and on-going revelations regarding history’s most expansive and invasive secret spying regime that has been eagerly expanded upon by presidents both Republican and Democrat since the 1990’s aptly demonstrate a continuum of party agreement heading the US down a pre-determined path.

But, alas, we are told because American politics are permanently frozen by “abstract ideologists or fundamentalists” engaging in faux debates revolving around inflated disagreements eliciting hyperventilated fulminations on Sunday talk shows, all we are able to do at this point of late-stage American Democracy is embrace “centralism and ideological approaches” that themselves create more problems that our practical leaders claim can only be solved by limiting citizens’ freedoms and empowering private businesses with super-citizen rights…”which is not healthy”, exudes a “lack of maturity” and expresses the antithesis of “maternal tenderness”.