When Parallel Lines Converge: Roman Catholic Integrism and Evangelical Fundamentalism--some reflections from Latin America


[1] Roman Catholicism (RC) is still the major religious force in most of Latin America. It is more than a denomination: it is a powerful social organization with an extraordinary cultural-formative power. Even though Protestants, Evangelicals and Pentecostals have experienced a steady growth during the last century, Catholicism has managed to continue to dominate the religious scene.[1]

 [2] Many assert that the category "fundamentalism" cannot be applied stricto sensu to Roman Catholicism. Fundamentalism -they say- is a valid description for a Protestant phenomenon whose origin is clearly located in the beginning of the 20th Century in the U.S., applicable today to the global evangelical movement that it has spawned. There are many elements that characterize evangelical fundamentalism which are not present in the ultra-conservative sectors of RC.[2] Yet, while a functionalist approach to individual aspects of both traditions may fail in providing a useful comparative scenario, a more structural perspective uncovers in fundamentalism and the ultra-conservative camp of RC a common regressive Gestalt that attempts to undo the cultural revolutions stemming from the 60´s and thus discipline democratic demands.[3] They are, in this regard, a powerful ideological resource for the implementation of what Giorgio Agamben calls "states of exception."[4]

 [3] As in evangelical fundamentalism, RC ultra-conservatism seeks to resituate church and traditional beliefs in the face of the crisis brought by modernity and secularization. The efforts to preserve the traditional ideological and organizational traits, and arrest and reverse the waning of Catholic hegemony in the social, cultural and political spheres, are similar. Yet battle lines are drawn according to the specific cultural and social geography. In the case of evangelicals, scriptural inerrancy, creationism, virginal birth, premillennialism, etc., are the main themes that rally the strands of an ideology embracing a host of ethical issues ranging from public education to abortion. In the case of RC, the authority of the Pope, the strict hierarchical organization, the objectivity of dogma, and the discipline and control of (mostly female) sexuality, is at stake. Even their conception of the role of the church in society, and the means for Christian influence in culture, are as diverse as the Calvinistic and Thomistic roots of their political theologies. Yet their common thread is the combination of an unrelenting resistance to the disruptive changes brought by modernity, the attempt to re-create stable institutions, and a strong political vocation to "fight back" and re-establish a social order congruent with the conservative mores of their religious vision. Both traditions feel that legal and governmental processes must recognize the way of life they see as prescribed by God and set forth in Scripture or Magisterium. The state must be subservient to God, thus disciplining a society that has lost its moral core and direction.

 [4] The particular RC conservative vision is nourished by two ideological streams that have significantly shaped the RC profile in many countries of Latin America: integralism and integrism. Catholic Integralism is the name given to the curial opposition in the late 19-century and early 20-century to the "heresies" of Modernism. At that time these heresies included the critical-historical studies of Bible and dogma, the Darwinian theory of evolution, liberal democracy, socialism, trade unions, masonry and Protestants. Above all it championed a Christendom model of social order and the close relation between church and state. In sum, it represented the static categorization of tradition and the defense of an objectivist view of truth. Only an integral Catholicism, that is, the upholding of dogma and Magisterium, guarantees an institutional strength and clarity of beliefs that can be applied to all challenges and needs of contemporary society. This view of Catholicism is total, unwavering and exclusivist, inviting to a sort of anti-modern crusade in the pursuit of a new social Catholicism (Catolicismo Total or Integral).

 [5] Integrism, on the other hand, is an expression coined by the French right-wing intellectual Charles Maurras denoting the aim of bringing all aspects of a nation within a single political organization. In this view Roman Catholicism is regarded as an integral aspect of the political structure of the country, along with language, customs and tradition. This version of Integrism came to Latin America mixed with Spanish Falangism and Italian Fascism, all characterized by a strong corporativist view of state and society.[5]

 [6] Today "integrism" and "integralism" are terms used indistinctively referring to those sectors within RC that views the core beliefs of Catholicism as integral to the nation's -or the continent's- identity. This type of Catholicism proved to be quite strong in the first half of the 20th century, loosing some positions in the 50´s and 60´s, to gain a protagonist role during the military dictatorships (in Argentina, 1976-1983). Since then, an increasing pluralization of the Catholic Church has been the norm, although the core ideological elements of Integrism still color vast sectors of this church -especially among clergy and bishops. During the 90´s, coinciding (paradoxically?) with the enforcement of neo-liberal policies, several integrist "congregations" and religious societies were either created, or already existing ones spread with new vigor. Among these are Opus Dei, Miles Christi, Comunión y Liberación, Legionarios de Cristo (Juventud Misionera y Familia Misionera), Asociación Profamilia, Tradición-Familia-Propiedad (although waning during the 90´s), Instituto del Verbo Encarnado, Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, Comunidad Jerusalén, Camino Neocatecumenal, F.A.S.T.A., and many others.

 [7] Following an ultra-conservative interpretation of Vatican II, these organizations stress lay apostleship in society, education and the formation of leadership, full engagement in the "cultural wars" relating to abortion and homosexuality, confrontation with the "progressive" liberal values spread by the media, opposition to the laicized ideology of public schools, and so on. They loudly declare allegiance to the Pope, a feature that distinguishes them from other parallel integrist associations, properly called traditionalists.[6] Yet they belong to the same wave of religious and ideological discontent with modernity and the liberal (and liberationist) interpretation of Vatican II.

 [8] The argentine sociologist Fortunato Mallimaci[7] distinguishes three strands in the integrist camp within the Argentine church. The first one is a small ultra-nationalist and anti-democratic minority that still cultivates a special relationship with the Military, the alleged institutional paladin of argentine identity. A second one, no doubt the majority, prioritizes the strengthening of the theological and ecclesial dimensions in order to face the modernist and secularist waves in society and culture. Their main assumption is that a popular and ancestral catholic heritage is today challenged not by atheism and communism, but by secularization, laicism, moral relativism, hedonism, consumerism, feminism, sects, and the liberal (or "progressive") message of the media. They also have strong qualms regarding democracy. Many bishops and clergy, as well as numerous lay associations advocating traditional family values, are ideologically identified with this line. Finally a more populist form of Integrism is camouflaged with a public and vociferous defense of the poor and marginalized. With a language resembling the left-wing criticisms of globalization and capitalism, they are firm defenders of the social doctrine of the church. 

 [9] As in the case of evangelical fundamentalism, RC Integrism is also marked by militancy, exclusivism, a "fight against the world" attitude, and a profound distaste for (philosophical) relativism and (ideological) pluralism. Boundary setting, identification of enemies, proselytism, creation and strengthening of intermediate institutions, stand out as important watermarks. They also share some common moral positions, such as patriarchal models of family, antiabortion and homophobic stances, promotion of religious education in schools, etc. In sum, an anti-modern and anti-secularization attitude seems to galvanize their focus. Yet there are some features in these movements that are clearly "late-modern" and even "post-modern": Opus Dei and most evangelicals, for instance, do not seem inimical to such "modern" phenomena as capitalism, bureaucratic organization, mass communication technologies, or higher education.[8] This indicates that they are not simply anti-modern, but rather critical of those aspects of the modern that are perceived to be threatening to their core beliefs, their social organization and ideology. While capitalism is not considered such a threat, cultural developments leading to a pluralization of consciousness and views certainly are.[9] This (late) modern pluralization of the cultural realm is perceived as an insurmountable, inimical, and hostile stance against church, faith, nature and truth. 

 [10] As a strategy facing pluralization and secularity, fundamentalisms and integrism share a highly cognitive doctrinal religiosity marked by an objectivistic, dogmatic, legalistic and dissonant style. The claim to "objectivity" revamps a hermeneutical circle unaffected by human experience, interests and location. In a way they simply continue the "epistemological objectivism" of the West, with reality conceived as though it were composed by foundational blocks or bricks which posses a certain order and relationship. To uphold the truth means to respect this structure and order. This epistemological mapping (worldview) possesses an intrinsic appeal that is coupled with deep-seated tendencies of the human psyche. Such a worldview seems to infer no conflicting expectations or suggestions for human daily behavior and ethical "decisions". As the anthropologist Anthony Wallace asserts, there is a predisposition to be infatuated with a worldview that promises order, for this is perceived as diminishing stress. It is associated with every satisfaction derived from life and with the maintenance and reproduction of life itself.[10] Consequently any element that produces disturbances in this worldview implies, automatically, a disturbance in the rules of behavior and therefore in the satisfactions expected from life. The cognitive and the moral are, at this point, indistinguishable, and the terrain for the struggle sweeps across the multiple cultural choices in an effort to streamline them according to a divine norm.

 [11] Yet, what (late) modernity has brought to the fore is that the nature of reality as such is complex, and therefore requires for its grasping multiple metaphors and views.[11] Any monolithic conceptual system will soon prove inconsistent and unable of establishing congruence with the diverse metaphors and symbols required for life in complex settings. Therefore integrism as fundamentalism prove to be incapable of surmounting dissonance, and also creators of new ones. This generates additional cognitive dissonances which at best may be able to offer a "solution" for individuals within modernity, but not to the injustices brought by modernity. As much of late-modern trends, they offer biographical solutions to systemic problems.[12]

 [12] Thus integrism as fundamentalism expresses a cognitive strategy which tries to homogenize what is radically plural. Against this background they can be considered as a form of super-stition (super stare, standing over something that is a vestige from the past), to the extent that they intend to recreate conceptions of nature, society, culture and self which once had wide currency. Although to a certain point they share many of the traces of religious revitalization movements, that is, the deliberate, organized and conscious effort to construct a more satisfying culture and social environment,[13] they are unable to produce what these movements successfully do: a widespread reduction and/or redirection of stress. Therefore it would be more adequate to consider fundamentalisms as truncated revitalization movements, for they are constantly tempted to idealize a past in face of the perils of the present.

 [13] The integrist-fundamentalist cognitive incongruence and the psychological stress produced even on its own membership shows that its appeal can only be partial. Very few can bear the implications of transforming the self as is required and demanded by these movements. Moreover, in a pluralized scenario marked by "increasing reflexivity" questioning authority, globalization and an enhanced consciousness of diversity,[14] the chances to "discipline" both the religious and political body are increasingly difficult. This incapacity creates a loop-effect of pressure and tensions, which cannot be resolved by the religious system. The temptation, therefore, is to seek reducing incongruence not in the symbolic system as such (which would imply a thorough revision of "objective" truth), but in the societal and cultural conditions which generate such stressful stimuli. Sooner or later, violence would have to be exercised or legitimized in order to vindicate the truth of the religious-ideological system, finding thus a rewarding psychological outlet.

 [14] In sum, different fundamentalisms appear to share a common counter-cultural strategy that is linked to the social and economic conditions of globalization and late-modernity. Facing the dislocation set by capitalism and modernity, their aim is to influence societies and cultures by encouraging high uncertainty avoidance, sanctioning power distance, stressing the collective rather than the individual, and giving prominence to the masculine rather than the feminine.[15] In this strategy stand prominently matters pertaining to sexuality, family and above all, the role of women.[16] These issues not only have to do with the enforcement of patriarchal property rights and gender monopoly of the labor market, but also with a definite notion of communal reproduction where women are perceived to be the most reliable agents in the transmission of culture and religion. Because modern economic pressures invariably change family patterns and gender roles, "womb" and "school" appear as the battlefront of fundamentalist and integrist reaction. The first because it signifies the power to control reproduction, a sort of container of male prerogative to fulfill an ironclad biological (and divine) law. The second because it represents the entrance gate into the public sphere, thus largely determining its future conformation.

End Notes

[1] Jews and Muslims are reduced to few (ethnic) enclaves, yet their influence should not be underestimated.  
[2] Take, for example, inerrancy of Scriptures, something difficult to assert for a church that has stressed as normative sources both Bible and its ongoing interpretation by a Magisterium (tradition). Or consider the evangelical-subjective emphasis on rebirth (born again), an awkward concept for the objectivist and sacramental self understanding of RC
[3] I understand regressive in the sense of attempting to preserve in contemporary milieu the beliefs and practices from a sacred past as normative for today. Yet, it must also be born in mind that it is not simply a romantic reaction, but a deliberate effort to re-create social and political order that is oriented to the future. Cfr. Martin Marty and Scott Appelby, Fundamentalisms and Society: Reclaiming the Sciences, the Family and Education (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 3. As to the reaction to gender issues stemming from the 60´s, see Hardacre, in Ibid, p. 134.
[4] In Stato di eccezione, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben shows how Western democracies become effectively invested with the need of turning emergency into the foundation of their existence. The military and the economic "state of emergency" often merge into one, employing war metaphors as main currency in public speeches. Stato di eccezione (Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 2003).
[5] In Argentina many sectors that converged into Peronism, as well as the nationalist party within the military, have historically supported this view. During the 60´s and 70´s, it reached a gruesome "maturation" through the Doctrine of National Security, the ideological umbrella that supported the military dictatorship in its repression and disappearance of those "elements" considered subversive of the (Catholic) values and mores of the Argentine Nation. "Heresies" acquired social and political form, and culprits must be wiped out in order to purify the foundations of the polis.
[6] In the line of Lefebvre and others, the latter are schismatic groups (mostly clergy) setting up their own Magisterium, questioning the reforms introduced by Vatican II regarding the Roman missal, collegiality of bishops, ecumenism and the recognition of religious freedoms.
[7] Fortunato Mallimaci, "El Catolicismo latinoamericano a fines del milenio: incertidumbres desde el Cono Sur," Nueva Sociedad 136 (1995), pp. 154-176.
[8] Cfr. Emilio Corbière, Opus Dei: el totalitarismo católico. Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 2002.
[9] Cfr. Peter Berger, Una Gloria lejana: la búsqueda de la fe en época de incredulidad (Barcelona: Herder, 1994), p. 93.
[10] See Anthony Wallace, Revitalizations and Mazeways: Essays on Culture Change, vol. 1 (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2003), p. 182.
[11] Cfr. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought (New York: Basic Books, 1999), p. 78
[12] Cfr. Zygmunt Bauman, La sociedad sitiada (Buenos Aires: FCE, 2004), p. 94. However, this is not the case with Islamic fundamentalism(s), which are mostly counter-systemic movements.
[13] See Wallace, p. 10.
[14] See Peter Taylor, Modernities: A Geohistorical Interpretation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), p. 133f.
[15] Cfr. Geert Hofstede, Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997), pp. 14ff.
[16] See Michael Walzer, On Toleration (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997), pp. 64ff. This cognitive objectivism, distaste for pluralism, and legalistic outlook is illustrated in the case of Roman Catholic integrism by its militant opposition to issues ranging from the introduction of sexual education in schools and the distribution of condoms in state hospitals, to gay rights (civil union) and the decriminalization of abortion. The war metaphor acquires new currency, as denoted by the statements of integrist ideologues when referring to feminism, one of the disturbing "dissonances" in late modernity. According to Adolfo Castañeda, director of Vida Humana Internacional and a consultant for the integrist circles in Latin America, we are facing a "cultural subversion," where "´gender perspectives` represent one of the most dangerous ideological weapons mustered to destroy life and family, and therefore, society." That such views exist in the pluralistic setting of late modernity must not alarm us; what is cause for alarm is their active pursuit of political means to enforce their vision of a Catolicismo integral.


© November 2006
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 6, Issue 11