“Hold Fast to What Is Good” (I Thess. 5:2) –
A Pastoral Statement on Fundamentalist Groups
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
On January 22 to 24, 1989, we, Catholic Bishops from all over the Philippines, gathered in Tagaytay for a seminar on Fundamentalism. What brought us together was a serious pastoral concern about the increasing flow into our country of fundamentalist groups, preachers, TV programs, and the harm they cause to many of our faithful.
Main Characteristics of Fundamentalist Groups
The fundamentalist groups we refer to are not the mainline Churches like the Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists and the United Church of Christ in the Philippines. Fundamentalists are people who profess with us that the Bible is the Word of God. But they accept the Bible as the one and only necessary source of teaching for our salvation, and claim that we ought not to believe what is not explicitly taught in the Bible. Further, they cling to a very literal interpretation of biblical passages which they often quote in isolation from their contexts and to which they give a meaning different from that intended by the human and divine authors of the biblical books concerned. This literal interpretation of biblical passages taken out of their context is then used to aggressively attack Catholic teachings and practices like our teaching on the Blessed Virgin Mary and our veneration of sacred images.
They also understand biblical inerrancy in the sense that everything said in the Bible, even statements expressing an outmoded picture of the world, cannot be mistaken. We Catholics understand biblical inerrancy in the sense that the Bible teaches without error those truths which God intended to teach for our salvation.
Another characteristic of fundamentalist groups is their one-sided assertion that one is saved by faith alone, and that once a person accepts Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior he is already saved. This leads to a practical neglect of the importance of the Church. Indeed one notices that fundamentalist groups have little room in their teaching for the Church, and take little or no account of Tradition and the sacraments.
The fundamentalists’ insistence on the Word of God, their emphasis on a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus, the warm welcome and fellowship they accord to members and prospective members, and the liveliness of their worship service have proven to be great attractions to Catholics.
Errors of Fundamentalists
While we cannot deny the presence of grace in fundamentalists of good faith, we must nevertheless warn against serious fundamentalist errors. We note especially the following errors which we cannot admit:
1. We cannot admit that God’s revelation can be found only in the Bible. There was already revelation before any single line of the Bible was written. In the case of the New Testament, one need only recall that its earliest book (I Thessalonians) was written about twenty years after Christ’s death and resurrection. And yet the first Christians were not deprived of the Gospel of Christ. It is nowhere written in the Bible that the Bible is the only source of saving truth. Indeed the opposite is implied by St. John when he writes, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book…” (John 20:30). And St. Paul explicitly states, “keep the traditions that we taught you, whether by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thess. 2:15).
2. We cannot admit that the Bible by itself is a sufficient guide to know God’s truth. For if this were so, why is there no agreement among these Churches and sects who all profess to be guided by the same Word of God? We need an authoritative interpreter of the Word of God, and that interpreter is the Church which the Lord commissioned to teach and to which he promised the assistance of the Holy Spirit (Cf. Mt. 28:19; Jn. 14:26, 16:13).
The truth is, the Bible is not only God’s Word but a book produced by God through the Church, and should never be separated from, and much less used against, the faith of the Church that gave it birth.
3. We cannot admit the minimizing of the role of the Church in salvation. It is clear from the whole Bible, but especially in the writings of St. Paul, that we are called to belong to one body where all do not have the same functions and gifts though all are called to be children of the same Father. Only Christ saves, yes, but as Saul learned on his way to Damascus, Jesus identifies Himself with the Church (cf. Acts 9:4-5), which is His body (cf. 1 Cor. 12:12; Eph, 5:30).
Nevertheless, we must take the coming and activities of these fundamentalist sects as an invitation from God to us towards an honest self-examination, and as a challenge to understand, and mature in the Christian and Catholic faith in which we have been baptized. The presence and activities of fundamentalists in our midst raise the following challenges:
1. There is the challenge to read and study, pray over and live the written Word of God. After all our new birth came “from the everlasting word of the living and eternal God” (1 Pt. 1:23). We, your bishops, have decided to proclaim 1989 as National Bible Year. May the Bible, read in the Church, occupy the place of honor it deserves in every Catholic heart, home and parish.
2. We are also challenged to provide catechesis which will enable Catholics “to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15), and lead to a mature personal commitment to the Lord Jesus and a living relationship with Him, the Father, and the Holy Spirit.
3. We are challenged to devise pastoral approaches which will reach out to all, especially those who are marginalized in our Church, to make every member of the Church feel that he/she belongs to the Catholic Church in the small communities and in the parishes. Those who feel that they belong to the Church and that the Church is actively concerned with their welfare are not likely to leave us to join a fundamentalist sect. But we must sadly admit that many of our parishioners do not feel that they belong to a parish family, and do not feel a call to involvement in parish life. The bigness of many of our parishes prevents a personal knowledge and relationship of the priest with the majority of his people. We must devise ways and means to make our parishioners rise from their present anonymity. Basic Ecclesial Communities, block rosaries, and other Church organizations and movements have proven to be especially helpful in this regard.
4. We are challenged to make our liturgies, and our prayer meetings fraternally warm gatherings of people committed to the Lord. Preparation of biblically based homilies delivered with conviction and the power of the Spirit will go along way towards enlivening our liturgies.
5. There is the challenge to recruit and train lay evangelizers who will confirm their brothers and sisters in the Faith through their ministry of the Word of God. Just as we need lay Eucharistic ministers, we also need lay ministers of the Word. We can rejoice that the biblical apostolate is already flourishing all over the country.
We ask our people not to endanger their faith through a false sense of ecumenism which often serves as the entry point of many of these sects. Pope John Paul II has expressed the desire that the faithful “while acting in sincere ecumenism with brethren of other Christian confessions and with respect for all may nevertheless know how to remain and behave as faithful children of the Church in which they have been baptized.” (Pope John Paul II to the Bolivian Bishops, May 9, 1987). We must regretfully say that the fundamentalist sects, with their aggressive and sometimes vicious attacks on the Catholic Church, do not practice an ecumenism which we can trustingly reciprocate. In the near future we shall issue detailed guidelines on our relationship with fundamentalist groups. But for now, preachers and members of fundamentalist groups should not be allowed to teach in Catholic meetings even under the guise of giving witness. We also ask our faithful not to join so-called ecumenical prayer or study groups, or other meetings organized by fundamentalist groups. Our faithful must also beware of financial enticements to join the fundamentalists.
We have written these things to you so that you may not be led astray and that we may all together grow in faith and unity. “Hold fast to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:2). We are confident that the leaders and other members of the Church will face up to the challenges posed by the fundamentalists and will emerge purified, stronger, more confident in their faith and more committed to the Lord and His Church.
May the Blessed Virgin Mary, ever faithful, Mother of the Church, who is called “blessed among women” and “Mother of my Lord” by Elizabeth who spoke under the inspiration of the Spirit (Lk. 1:41-43), help us all to hold fast to our faith.
For the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines:
(Sgd.)+LEONARDO Z. LEGASPI, OP, D.D.
Archbishop of Nueva Caceres
January 27, 1989
The Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines
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“Hold Fast to What Is Good” (I Thess. 5:2) – A Pastoral Statement on Fundamentalist Groups