Column: The Catholic (as) fascist

Published on May 16, 2017; provoked by online encounters with friends who are devout Catholics and support President Duterte’s signature campaign, the misleadingly named “war on drugs.”

I was born into a Vatican II household. Or perhaps it would be more precise to say I belonged to a family that in the 1960s took readily to the new emphases, the changes in the liturgy, in short the opening of windows, made possible by the historic ecumenical council. Looking back on those transition years, I can remember Masses in Cagayan de Oro or in General Santos City where the priest still faced the altar, rather than the congregation. We were aware of the changes and willingly took part in them; we were certain of our Catholic identity, encouraged by the modernizing faith we professed, and tolerant and respectful of other faiths.

It took me some time to realize that there were other kinds of Catholics—resistant to what Pope John XXIII called, in his opening speech before the Second Vatican Council, the “medicine of mercy,” partial instead to the old prescription of “severity.” Perhaps I oversimplify; I must have met relatives and strangers alike who were “catolico cerrado,” who believed in “sola scriptura,” or who were, as the expression goes, more papist than the Pope. But Catholic fundamentalism was first an academic problem for me, in college and right after it, before it became a personal one.

Now it is decidedly personal. Catholic fundamentalism, like other religious fundamentalisms, is open to fascism and helps enable authoritarianism. And I have some friends and acquaintances who do not see any disconnect between their Catholic faith and their support for the Duterte administration’s bloody war on drugs.

While the context is somewhat different, I am mindful of Russia scholar and ex-evangelical Christopher Stroop’s admonition, against calling Christians who voted for Donald Trump “fake Christians.” Stroop argues that “Trumpist” Christianity is “a cultural system and ideology with an internal coherence and relationship to communal belief and practice,” which “grounds itself in a certain interpretation of the Bible.”

We must treat Catholics who enthusiastically support President Duterte’s bloody war in similar fashion; they are not fake Catholics, but rather believers who respond to antidemocratic, counterparticipatory aspects of the faith.

The psychologist Bob Altemeyer, a leading scholar on authoritarianism, has some sharp words to say about religious fundamentalists. The following extended passage from “The Authoritarians” (freely available online) is from the conclusion of his chapter on “Authoritarian Followers and Religious Fundamentalism.”

Religious fundamentalists “are highly likely to be authoritarian followers. They are highly submissive to established authority, aggressive in the name of that authority, and conventional to the point of insisting everyone should behave as their authorities decide ….”

“But they are also Teflon-coated when it comes to guilt. They are blind to themselves, ethnocentric and prejudiced, and as closed-minded as they are narrow-minded. They can be woefully uninformed about things they oppose, but they prefer ignorance and want to make others become as ignorant as they. They are also surprisingly uninformed about the things they say they believe in, and deep, deep, deep down inside many of them have secret doubts about their core belief. But they are very happy, highly giving, and quite zealous ….”

“Read the two paragraphs above again and consider how much of it would also apply to the people who filled the stadium at the Nuremberg Rallies. I know this comparison will strike some as outrageous, and I’m NOT saying religion turns people into Nazis. But does anybody believe the ardent Nazi followers in Germany, or Mussolini’s faithful in Italy, or Franco’s legions in Spain were a bunch of atheists? Being ‘religious’ does not automatically build a firewall against accepting totalitarianism, and when fundamentalist religions teach authoritarian submission, authoritarian aggression, and conventionalism, they help create the problem. Can we not see how easily religious fundamentalists would lift a would-be dictator aloft as part of a ‘great movement,’ and give it their all?”

Precisely. Contrary to what I thought growing up, being Catholic does not necessarily enroll one in the movement to resist authoritarianism. Being a different sort of Catholic—judgmental, focused on rules, open to all forms of discipline—can turn one into an authoritarian enabler.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Politics, Readings in Religion

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