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Catholic fundamentalisms

Are they misdirecting the religious zeal of youth

By Terry Monagle

Bayazid, a ninth century Sufi Gnostic, once said that when he was young and revolutionary his prayer was for energy to change the world. In middle age, realizing he had failed to change a single soul, he prayed that he change just his family and friends. As an old man, however, his prayer was for the grace of change in himself. He concluded, “If I had prayed for this right from the start I should not have wasted my life”.

In recent days the elders of the Liberal Party have bemoaned zealotry in its youth section. On a different scale, Vladimir Putin has his youth squads, so has Robert Mugabe. The child warriors of the Khmer Rouge were its cruellest minions, spies and torturers. In some instances they betrayed and tortured their parents and families. The same is true of Mao’s ‘cultural revolution’. Young Islamic terrorists, from Bali to London, ironically share with young fundamentalist Christians, a detestation of secular societies.

In our own Catholic family there is new energy in conservative Catholic youth movements. In July, at their annual conference, the conservative Australian Catholic Students Association processed at night around Sydney University. The group is inspired by evangelistic zeal for Catholicism and a contempt for heresies in the Church and Australian secularism. Daniel Hill, their president in 2004, has said that most Catholics have only a ‘kindergarten’ level of faith. The Sydney St Thomas More Society conducted 40 hours adoration to win the World Youth Festival to Sydney.

But the passions are not just right wing. For decades, we have seen young people, intoxicated with purity of vision for a deep ecology, dedicating themselves with a religious passion to saving the environment, to storming the bastilles of capitalism at Davos and Seattle. Young people often have a precocious sensitivity to spiritual values. But this means that this purity of insight is vulnerable to being channeled into simplistic and unattainable visions.

We seem to be living in a moment which is the mirror reverse of the cultural revolutions of 1968. We could make an ironic play on an old saw: “If you are not a fundamentalist at 20, you don’t have a head. If you are still a fundamentalist at 25, you don’t have a heart”.

For each of the fundamentalist youth movements there is usually a powerful mentor in the background who provides the ideology and the money. The Victorian branch if the Australian Catholic Student’s Association has been hosted on the website of the AD 2000 magazine, an expression of the late Bob Santamaria’s National Civic Council.

Fundamentalist Catholics take triumphalist comfort in the emergence of new groups of young enthusiasts. Their argument is that the correctness of their theological position is confirmed by their capacity to attract young people to events such as the World Youth Festivals. They point to a flowering of new ‘ecclesial movements’ all over the world.

However it is easy to whip young people up into excitement over a seemingly glamorous, ancient and global corporate identity. In the case of a highly organisational religion like Catholicism, too strong an identification with a church, and too strong an identification of the Church with God can lead to a shallow ecclesiolatry. This might be the starting point for a definition of Catholic fundamentalism. Ecclesiolatry, which is a word of poet Les Murray’s coining, points to our ongoing temptation, as Catholics, to make an idol of the church, to indulge in the cult of celebrity, to be titillated by worldly power.

Of course everyone yearns for young people to discover and cherish profound values and to give new energy to failing organisations. The success of the work of the Young Marist network, and the youthful energies flowing through Young Vinnies is very encouraging.

Young people’s energy is generally counter cultural. But Australian Catholic schools, despite the ameliorative efforts of many, are structurally locked into mainstream certification and its attendant values. This necessarily dilutes their prophetic voice.

In contrast to the corporate energy of the conservative strands in the Australian Catholic church most ‘liberal’ Catholic gatherings tend to be full of greying, balding, but loving heads. One wonders about the future of their organisations and outlets. Perhaps their children keep their values, but don’t feel any attraction for a communal expression of religious values.

I make these reflections having had my moments of youthful fundamentalism as a young Catholic in the 50’s and 60’s. I was influenced by my father, the conservative rhetoric of Bob Santamaria in politics, and by the Catholic Church’s claim of universal and exclusive truth in religion. Catholic priests were being tortured and killed by the new Communist government in China, there were demons to slay, a world to convert. We knew we were the one true Church because the protestant churches were splintering and closing. If only we could have seen the Hillsong Church in 2005 with 18,000 swaying, singing adherents we might not have been so cocky.

In our current period, unlike the 60’s perhaps, there is an appetite for certainty in those years of transition, say from 18 to 22, as we move from the safety of home and school to the world of relationships, to university, the economy and an independent selfhood. Refuge can be found in a worldview of clear lines between good and bad, orthodoxy and heresy. This can give safety when so much else is challenging. This need for a safety belt is all the more necessary if the family environment from which one has come had not given the personality a robust base.

Other young people try to carve out their own cultural niche detached from the secular state and capitalist values. They look to ‘independent’ music, clothes and cultural styles. It is a culture of quiet resistance.

Seductive for the former group is the sheer size and novelty of the challenge. “The world is bad, we were good, we have a special knowledge, and our job is to convert the world.” Each generation feels this intensely and fails to realise that in every other generation this perception has been equally intense.

There is evidence that the radical young Australian Muslims who try to recruit at,  and take over, mosques in Sydney and Melbourne feel this way. There is evidence too, that suicide bombers feel ennobled by a sense of personal purity and the enormity of the challenge that they feel called to. They want to slay the profane dragon of American imperialism and paganism.

Young conservative Christians, similarly devoted to ‘orthodoxy’, have dragons who need slaying. In the church their targets are heresy, treachery, and backsliding.

A few months ago I saw eight young women in St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne.  I was shocked to see them dressed in a uniform which could only mean they were nuns. They all seemed to be in their early twenties. Young nuns? Very unusual, a cultural shock.

I made a point of talking to them. They were called The Leaven of the Immaculate Heart. I made a double take on the cloying cliché of their order’s title. Has the Church learnt nothing, I thought? They were girls from the Philippines who spoke with American accents. They were dressed in white blouses, dark skirts and cardigans. As the wedding started they put while lace veils on their heads. As the bride walked in they joined their hands before their faces. During the “I confess”, they bowed their heads.

Such fervent piety.

I obviously don’t know enough about them and no doubt they have very generous hearts, but I felt scared for them and sad for the Church. I was fearful that a youthful gullibility and generosity was being traded on, and that they would be kept in some sort of juvenile state of narrowness and obedience.

Any organization which recruits young people, and benefits from their industry, enthusiasm and goodness, takes on a most serious obligation of a full and liberating nurturing. Simple formulas are no use in the lifelong search for wisdom and transformation.

Having personally made a long journey out of fundamentalism it is sad to see new generations of young people diving into it. It is a blockage between oneself and God. Spiritual and religious maturity needs deep humility, a sense of dependency upon God, and a reluctance to judge. To make exclusive claims to religious truth goes with a powerful temptation to mark all others, who aren’t in your sect, as second rate even expendable humans.

We have seen the shattered glass, the burnt out cars, and the pools and rivulets of blood that this entails.

Terry Monagle (www.monagle.net.au) is a Melbourne-based author and journalist.

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