Fr. Brown's "Answer" To Fundamentalism


By Leon J. Podles


Fr. Raymond Brown, S.S., on Oct. 21st spoke at St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore, Md., about “The Challenge of Fundamentalism." St. Mary's is having a drive to renovate its building, although enrollment has declined from 400 to 100 students. The seminary also hosts an Ecumenical Institute, taught by Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, and open to all comers. A prior dean of the Ecumenical Institute was an Episcopal priest who was convicted of molesting a boy who was a parishioner of his at Christ Church (now closed). Many in the audience were associated with this Ecumenical Institute.


As I sat in the chapel waiting for the talk to begin, I was both amused and shocked by the character of the crowd. There were several priestesses and ministresses, all in full clerical garb, and numerous priests and seminarians, many in secular clothes. The conversation in the pew behind me was at first amusing and then horrifying. Someone associated with the Ecumenical Institute was introducing a Presbyterian ministress to a colleague from a liberal Episcopal church whose rector is an advocate of process theology (that is, God doesn't exist yet, but She is coming into existence all the time).


They were talking about how to deal with their, slowly dying churches. The Episcopal worker had started a Christian-Jewish Institute. The Presbyterian ministress announced she had made some really revolutionary changes. Instead of having one service at 11:00 a.m. on Sunday, she was having two, one at 10:00 and one at noon. The noon was for the Yuppies who couldn't be dragged out of bed for a service any earlier. Not even the prospect of a free brunch, however, could entice more than a handful to the service, and the congregation continued to age and die off.


The ministress expressed an interest in studying Celtic Christianity. The Ecumenical Institute person lamented that they used to have a good priest who taught that here, but that the priest had insisted on sleeping with a man and flaunting it publicly. The seminary authorities decided that they could not tolerate such behavior "under present circumstances" so the offender was sent off to a rectory in a small city in another state for "spiritual reflection." Such was the audience that Raymond Brown attracted. Their churches are dying as sincere Christians seek refuge in fundamentalist churches.


Brown's talk was a curious mixture of perceptive comment, good advice, and evasion and confusion about some central points. Brown accepted the common definition of fundamentalism as a reaction to the theological liberalism that had become entrenched in the Protestant seminaries of the United States at the beginning of this century. Fundamentalists saw that liberalism was abandoning Christianity's key doctrines, and therefore emphasized the doctrines that liberalism attacked: the Virgin Birth, the Atonement, the bodily Resurrection, and the inerrancy of Scripture.


Brown thought that Catholics were drifting to fundamentalism in increasing numbers for the following sociological reasons:


  • Vatican II had made Catholics more open to Protestantism in general;
  • Catholics were moving from Catholic northern cities to the Sunbelt where most of their friends were evangelical;
  • Catholics moving into these new areas were often met by friendly, helpful, Bible-believing Christians who invited them to their fundamentalist church;
  • Catholics sought the religious security that they had lost in their own Church after Vatican II.

Brown proposed the following remedies to stop the drift of Catholics to fundamentalism:

  • the Church must realize that in Anglo-Saxon cultures and in the Third World countries touched by that culture, "to be religious is to be biblical";
  • the Catholic Church must proclaim its own belief in the Bible and emphasize the biblical nature of its own doctrines;
  • the Catholic Church must instruct the faithful that the Bible is a product of the Church, not the Church of the Bible;
  • the Catholic Church must emphasize that God gave His Revelation through Jesus Christ, and not through a book, even the Bible;
  • the Catholic Church must teach all the faithful that biblical “literalism" is a distortion, and that the Bible is a collection of books the intentions of whose human authors is the basis for all interpretation;
  • that the Church must practice hospitality to a greater extent and preach "the love of Jesus" more in sermons.


Brown especially cautioned his liberal audience not to use words like "mythology" because such words immediately warned the fundamentalists of what the liberals' views were. He proposed a cooperative effort among mainline denominations to teach the Bible to the people using the historical-critical method.


Brown neglected to define what he meant by "literalism." He denounced it, without making clear what fell into the category of "literalism." Are literalists only those people who fail to realize that the Bible contains various genres, and mistake the story of the Good Samaritan for a report from the Jerusalem highway patrol? Or are literalists those who believe that the New Testament teaches the Virgin Birth, the miracles, and the bodily Resurrection of Jesus? The spectrum of attitudes to the Bible ranges all the way from those who see Middle Eastern politics of the 20th century explicitly referred to in Daniel and the Apocalypse, to those who see the miracles and Resurrection of Christ as theolougomena — invented stories that convey a belief without foundation in the real events of history. Where does Brown stand amidst this confusion? He said that Evangelicals had warned him that Kueng and Schillebeeckx were Modernists, who abandoned all Christian doctrine. Brown said that he thought that biblical criticism "did not necessarily" end in Modernism. Does it for Brown?


Brown was full of denunciations of those who think the Bible is written for us, rather than for readers dead for millennia. He neglected to affirm the constant teaching of the Church that the primary author of Scripture is God, the Holy Spirit. This fact is the only reason anyone apart from professional scholars is interested in the Bible. In a real sense, God did intend to speak to all ages through the Bible. Another connected point that Brown totally neglected was the necessity of holiness to understand the Bible. Holy Spirit is the primary author of Scripture. Those who are holy by sharing in the Spirit therefore have a co-naturality to the divine Author, and an ease in understanding His intentions. Brown knows his theology; he did his S.T.L. on the sensus plenior, the spiritual sense. His total emphasis on the historical critical method and his neglect of the necessity for holiness to understand the Scripture is typical of liberalism. The conversations I recounted at the beginning of the article shows where theology without faith ends.


Brown states that the Church (presumably the Pontifical Biblical Commission) teaches that Catholics must believe, "by the obedience of faith," that the Gospels are not "literal" accounts of the life of Christ and do not contain "literal" words of Christ. The Church does no such thing. It recognizes the utility of the historical-critical method, but is cautious about it because this neutral method is often joined to an anti-supernaturalist bias. Does Brown believe in the Virgin Birth and in the Resurrection in the same sense in which Christians — both the ordinary faithful and orthodox theologians — have always believed in these doctrines?


As a matter of diplomacy and politics, Brown speaks of his position at the "center" — as if biblical scholarship were a matter of right and left like secular politics. Brown advises his liberal auditors to preach the love of Jesus. But how can they preach the love of Jesus if they do not believe that He is truly risen, that He is more alive today than we are?


Most of Brown's criticisms of the fundamentalists are accurate, and his suggestions for dealing with their appeal are useful. Brown knows that he and his liberal audience are losing their constituencies, and advises them to cloak their liberalism in biblical language. The laity are tired of turning to their leaders in the mainline Protestant churches and in the Catholic Church in this country, seeking the Bread of Life and instead receiving the stone of a historical-critical approach — one that has a profound bias against the supernatural and miraculous, a bias that takes the heart out of Christianity. The starving sheep wander to the fundamentalist churches where they can at least find a half loaf, while the true Church that could feed their souls struggles with unbelief and ambiguity among the very people who are set apart to reflect on and proclaim her doctrine. Brown's solution to the problem is that the stones should be painted to look like bread. The sheep will not be deceived.