Beware of fundamentalists bearing incense

incensegargoyle.jpgTime magazine prompted some snickers last week when it counted Catholics Richard John Neuhaus and Rick Santorum among “The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America.”

This week, a story by Tim Padgett explores how “Bible-Belt Catholics” are “practicing a more conservative Catholicism than their brethren in many other parts of the country.”

Padgett turns to the Rev. Jay Scott Newman, a convert from Protestantism, to help explain evangelical Catholics:

Says the Rev. Jay Scott Newman, pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church, less than two hours south in Greenville, S.C.: “Here you’re not Catholic because your parents came from Italy or Slovakia. It’s because you believe what the church teaches you is absolutely true.”

Such evangelical Catholicism, as Newman calls it, also lends itself to Southern-fried flavors like more exuberant hymn singing, intense Bible study, spirited preaching and what Evangelicals call witnessing — personal and public professions of faith usually foreign to the more philosophical, communal and inward Catholic style.

But not all Catholics in the South rejoice with Father Newman. Indeed, one university president worries about the threat of an undefined “evangelical Fundamentalism”:

Some church observers say this trend, while ecumenical, could undermine the “intellectual heritage” of the faith, says the Rev. Kevin Wildes, president of Loyola University New Orleans, which in 2002 opened the Center for the Study of Catholics in the South. “The question is whether Catholicism in the South simply becomes another form of evangelical Fundamentalism with incense.”

In another piece this week, the wittily titled “Spirits of the Age,” James Poniewozik writes about the mini-trend of TV series that include supernatural elements. The range is as diverse as Medium (produced by Glenn Gordon Caron of Moonlighting), Point Pleasant and Revelations.

The latter show includes “an order of nuns, at odds with the Vatican, that believes the Second Coming is imminent.” Perhaps Father Wildes and his team will let us know whether this would make the fictional nuns evangelical fundamentalists, fundamental evangelicals or high-church dispensationalists (with incense).

In an otherwise thoughtful and entertaining piece, Poniewozik offers these agonizing generalizations:

There is a kind of vanity in Apocalyptic thinking: people eternally want to believe they are so special, their times so afflicted, that their tribulations outclass any others in history. It is oddly boastful to believe that one’s generation has screwed up the world badly enough to prompt the birth of the Antichrist. Ghost stories like Medium too appeal to our egotism. They assume that the dead are concerned above all with giving closure to the living.

But that’s what TV has in common with religion: each helps millions of people, sitting down to hear the same message, individually feel special.

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  • Greg Popcak

    I read, and relished, the Padgett piece earlier this week. I am a cradle Catholic, raised in the Charismatic Renewal (I went through Life in the Spirit at age 8, an experience that stuck through all the sacraments and adolescence) so I guess I’d count as one of those evangelical Catholics.

    I must admit that I had a good chuckle when I read the criticisms of the university president. It is a similar criticism some bishops made when they nixed the pastoral letter on reading the bible last Nov.(e.g., one bishop voiced concern that some Catholics were becoming “too evangelical”). While it is true that some “evangelical Catholics” have more passion than sense, I for one, welcome the trend as an important corrective to the spirituality of too many university presidents which could perhaps be most accurately described as “rational materialism with incense.”


  • Fr. Jay Scott Newman

    I would love to comment on the fatuity of Fr. Wildes’ concern, but I have to run over to the sacristy and fire up some incense to fog a few more minds with Southern Catholic fundamentalism. Once more into the breach!

  • James Freeman

    “The question is whether Catholicism in the South simply becomes another form of evangelical Fundamentalism with incense.”

    The brief answer is “It can.” And with respect to some apostolates popular among the EWTN set, it does indeed begin to veer into mimicry of “evangelical Fundamentalism.”

    I would, however, dispute that this is solely (or even predominantly) a Southern phenomenon.

    Does the solution involve aping the Jesuits who, in too many cases, love their colleges but not so much Christ? No.

    Does the solution involve wholesale rejection of reason because some Catholic “inuhlleckshuls” lack faith? No.

    In a church where it seems half have hardened their hearts and the other half have lost their minds, the answer is both as hard and as simple as something Walker Percy might say: “Get a hold of yourself, man!”

  • Chas S. Clifton

    “There is a kind of vanity in Apocalyptic thinking: people eternally want to believe they are so special, their times so afflicted, that their tribulations outclass any others in history.”

    I think he called it just right. Thanks for the link; I don’t normally read TIME.

  • Dev Thakur

    James Freeman, could you provide some evidence of “EWTN set” approved apostolates that veer to close to fundamentalism?

    Last time I checked, the Catholic Church called each member of the faithful to evangelization; held that the Scriptures were an inerrant font of Divine Revelation; and really encouraged all of the things I see in EWTN, Catholic Answers, and similar apostolates. If some Catholics are able to re-learn this by the example of our evangelical brothers and sisters, God be praised!

    Has any of these apostolates said anything that would be closer to fundamentalism than to the True Catholic Faith?

  • Jill

    Frankly, I’d like to get to know some of those Catholics. I think we’d get along pretty well! Having been raised Roman Catholic (and now hanging out with a decidedly orthdox, evangelical, Anglican crowd) I know that there are many who call themselves Catholic but do not adher to (or even know) the basic tenants of their faith. They might as well darken the door of their local Episcopal Church a couple times a year. That way they don’t have to take the Pope seriously, they can practice whatever birth control methods they want, get divorced and remarried easily, and pretty much believe what they like.

  • James Freeman


    For one, try this:

    Culturally, I’d really like to know what’s the difference between this and, say, a lot of what you’d find on TBN. Particularly interesting is the lumping of the whole creationism/intelligent design/Darwinism debate under the “Faith” header.

    Unless one is dead set on a literalist interpretation of Genesis, why would this be a “faith thing”? And insisting on a literalist interpretation of Genesis runs head-on into what the Vatican has had to say about the subject the last half century.

  • Christopher

    Being Orthodox, I found this particular post interesting from a number of perspectives.

    I have to admit, that “incense gargoyle” has me in absolute stitches. For a few seconds, I gave serious thought of printing it up and putting it in my icon corner to remind me of His infinite sense of humor…

  • Molly

    Are those incense burners for sale anywhere?

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    Dear Molly,

    Here’s an online source for an incense-burning gorgoyle: