Is anti-Catholicism the last acceptable prejudice?

  • The advertisement for a student-loan company features a picture of a nun in a veil with the legend “If you’re a nun, then you’re probably not a student.”
  • The movie “Jeffrey” includes a trash-talking priest sexually propositioning a man in a church sacristy.
  • One can readily venture into novelty stores and buy a “Boxing Nun” hand puppet or, if that’s out of stock, perhaps a “Nunzilla” windup doll.
  • “Late-Nite Catechism,” a play that features a sadistic sister in the classroom, has become a favourite of local theatres across the country. Since last fall nine Catholic churches in Brooklyn, N.Y., have been vandalized; statues have been decapitated and defaced.
  • In some instances, hate mail was sent as well. The playwright Tony Kushner, writing in The Nation, calls the pope “a homicidal liar” who “endorses murder.”
  • During one Holy Week, The New Yorker displays a picture of the crucifixion on its cover; but in place of the corpus, a traditional Catholic icon appears the Easter Bunny.
  • On PBS’s “Newshour With Jim Lehrer” a commentator discussing mandatory DNA testing for criminals identifies the following groups as “at-risk” for criminal behaviour: “teenagers, homeless people, Catholic priests.”
  • A Catholic priest highly recommended by a bi-partisan committee that spent “literally hundreds of hours” in their search for a chaplain for the U. S. House of Representatives is rejected with no adequate explanation.
  • And the leaders of Bob Jones University, where Gov. George W. Bush appeared during his presidential campaign, call Pope John Paul II the “Anti-Christ,” and the Catholic Church “satanic” and the “Mother of Harlots.”

Examples of anti-Catholicism in the United States are surprisingly easy to find.

Moreover, Catholics themselves seem to be increasingly aware of the spectre of anti-Catholic bias.

In the past, a largely immigrant church would have quietly borne the sting of prejudice, but today American Catholics seem less willing to tolerate slander and malicious behaviour.

In addition, the question of anti-Catholic bias has recently been brought to the fore by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

Emboldened by its public-relations successes, with attacks on television shows like “Nothing Sacred,” Broadway offerings like “Corpus Christi” and last year’s exhibit “Sensation” at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, this organization has made anti-Catholicism a hot political issue.

But this raises a critical question: How prevalent is anti-Catholicism in American culture? Is it, as some have termed it, “the last acceptable prejudice?”

Is it as serious an issue as racism or anti-Semitism or homophobia?

Or are rising complaints about anti-Catholic bias simply an unfortunate overstatement, another manifestation of the current “victim culture,” in which every interest group is quick to claim victimhood?

In short, is anti-Catholicism a real problem in the United States?

Historical Roots

It is, of course, impossible to summarize 400 years of history in a few paragraphs. But even a brief overview serves to expose the thread of anti-Catholic bias that runs through American history and to explain why the eminent historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. called anti-Catholicism “the deepest-held bias in the history of the American people.”

The eminent historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. called anti-Catholicism “the deepest-held bias in the history of the American people.”

To understand the roots of American anti-Catholicism one needs to go back to the Reformation, whose ideas about Rome and the papacy travelled to the New World with the earliest settlers.

These settlers were, of course, predominantly Protestant.

For better or worse, a large part of American culture is a legacy of Great Britain, and an enormous part of its religious culture a legacy of the English Reformation.

Monsignor John Tracy Ellis, in his landmark book American Catholicism, first published in 1956, wrote bluntly that a “universal anti-Catholic bias was brought to Jamestown in 1607 and vigorously cultivated in all the thirteen colonies from Massachusetts to Georgia.”

Proscriptions against Catholics were included in colonial charters and laws, and, as Monsignor Ellis noted wryly, nothing could bring together warring Anglican ministers and Puritan divines faster than their common hatred of the church of Rome.

Such antipathy continued throughout the 18th century. Indeed, the virtual penal status of the Catholics in the colonies made even the appointment of bishops unthinkable in the early years of the Republic.

In 1834, lurid tales of sexual slavery and infanticide in convents prompted the burning of an Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Mass., setting off nearly two decades of violence against Catholics. The resulting anti-Catholic riots (which included the burning of churches), were largely centred in the major urban centres of the country and led to the creation of the nativist Know-Nothing Party in 1854, whose platform included a straightforward condemnation of the Catholic Church.

By 1850 Catholics had become the country’s largest single religious denomination. And between 1860 and 1890 the population of Catholics in the United States tripled through immigration; by the end of the decade, it would reach seven million.

This influx, largely Irish, which would eventually bring increased political power for the Catholic Church and a greater cultural presence, led at the same time to a growing fear of the Catholic “menace.”

The American Protective Association, for example, formed in Iowa in 1887, sponsored popular countrywide tours of supposed ex-priests and “escaped” nuns, who concocted horrific tales of mistreatment and abuse.

By the beginning of the 20th century, fully one-sixth of the population of the United States was Catholic.

Nevertheless, the powerful influence of groups like the Ku Klux Klan and other nativist organizations were typical of still-potent anti-Catholic sentiments.

In 1928 the presidential candidacy of Al Smith was greeted with a fresh wave of anti-Catholic hysteria that contributed to his defeat. (It was widely rumoured at the time that with the election of Mr Smith the pope would take up residence in the White House and Protestants would find themselves stripped of their citizenship.)

As Charles R. Morris noted in his recent book American Catholic, the real mainstreaming of the church did not occur until the 1950’s and 1960’s, when educated Catholicssons and daughters of immigrants were finally assimilated into the larger culture.

Still, John F. Kennedy, in his 1960 presidential run, was confronted with old anti-Catholic biases and was eventually compelled to address explicitly concerns of his supposed “allegiance” to the pope. (Many Protestant leaders, such as Norman Vincent Peale, publicly opposed the candidacy because of Kennedy’s religion.)

And after the election, survey research by political scientists found that Kennedy had indeed lost votes because of his religion.

The old prejudices had lessened but not disappeared.

Contemporary Prejudices

But why today?

In a “multicultural” society shouldn’t anti-Catholicism be a dead issue?

After all, Catholics have been successfully integrated into a social order that places an enormous emphasis on tolerance.

Moreover, the great strides made in dialogue among the Christian denominations should make the kind of rhetoric used in the past outmoded if not politically incorrect.

But besides the lingering influence of our colonial past, and the fact that many Americans disagree with the Catholic hierarchy on political matters, there are a number of other reasons for anti-Catholic sentiments.

Most of these reasons are not overtly theological. (However, as the recent flap at Bob Jones University demonstrated, strong theological opposition to the church still exists among small groups of Baptists and evangelicals in the South.)

Rather, these sentiments stem mainly from the inherent tensions between the nature of the church and the nature of the United States.

First, in any democracy, there is a natural distrust of organizations run along hierarchical lines, as the Catholic Church surely is. The church’s model of governance can strike many as almost “anti-American.” (Many Americans, for example, view the church’s ban on women’s ordination largely in terms of democratic principles, or “rights” and “representation.”)

Second, the church’s emphasis on community, as well as what St. Ignatius Loyola famously called “thinking with the church,” is often seen as at odds with the American ideal of rugged individualism.

This attitude manifests itself whenever the institutional church is criticized but personal faith is celebrated.

This is also the philosophy represented in such movies as “Dogma” and “Stigmata.” The implicit message is that while organized religion is bad, “spirituality” (especially in a highly personalized form) is good. Similarly, in a pluralistic society, the church’s emphasis on the one, eternal truth can strike some as difficult to comprehend.

Third, in a rational, post-Enlightenment society the church’s emphasis on the transcendent seems at best old-fashioned, and at worst dangerously superstitious.

The church teaches a transcendent God, embraces mystery, seeks to explain the nature of grace, and believes in the sacramental presence of God.

The rational response: How can an intelligent person believe in such things? Continue reading

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