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Time Essay: The Rise and Fall of Anti-Catholicism

11 minute read
Lance Morrow

American non-Catholics last week seemed almost as happy as Catholics to have the Pope in their midst. No old sectarian angers darkened the pageant. Whatever doctrinal reservations may remain about the Pope of Rome lay quiet, at least for the moment.

The spectacle was a startling confirmation of the substantial changes that have occurred in American attitudes toward the Roman Catholic Church and the papacy. One has only to imagine the nation’s furious reception if Pope Pius XII had appeared in America 30 years ago: Congressmen would have introduced resolutions denouncing the visit; angry pickets would have greeted the Pontiff at every stop. It would have seemed un thinkable to invite him to the White House.

John Paul II’s visit was, by contrast, a measure not only of extraordinary changes in the nation’s attitude toward Catholicism but also in the Catholic Church itself. Yet for all the non-sectarian exuberance that the Pope excited, he came to the U.S. at a moment when the deeply rooted issue of anti-Catholicism had been stirring with signs of life. Some Catholics detect a new wave of the old bigotry. They see it not so much in America’s residual nativist sentiment as in a certain liberal, intellectual contempt for the church’s conservative approach to certain issues: birth control, homosexuality and, above all, the morally painful matter of abortion.

A number of writers, including a few non-Catholics, have been developing the theme in the past two years: The idea that anti-Catholicism is the last respectable bigotry in the U.S.

Norman Miller, the Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau chief, wrote last year: “Subtle and even blatant anti-Catholicism is surfacing again.” In a 1977 book titled An Ugly Little Secret, Andrew Greeley, a priest-sociologist, called anti-Catholic bias the “last remaining unexposed prejudice in American life.” “This prejudice,” wrote Greeley, “is not as harmful to individuals as either anti-Semitism or racism … [But] it is more insidious because it is not acknowledged, not recognized, not explicitly and self-consciously rejected. Good American liberals who would not dream of using sexist language or racist slurs or anti-Semitic jokes have no problem at all about using anti-Catholic language, ethnic slurs or Polish jokes.” There is still some truth in Writer Peter Viereck’s remark in 1959: “Anti-Catholicism is the anti-Semitism of the intellectual.”

The idea that anti-Catholicism is rampant strikes most non-Catholic Americans as self-pityingly sensitive or at least inaccurate. Surely, they argue, the years since John Kennedy’s election and Vatican II have all but cleansed that particular passage of the American subconscious. The hard evidence of American Catholic successes does not suggest that bigotry has closed the door of the dream. Catholics are Governors in twelve states—including the most populous (Jerry Brown’s California, Hugh Carey’s New York). Some 13 members of the U.S. Senate are Catholic, and 114 members of the House.

Ted Kennedy enjoys the highest popularity among all the presidential possibilities for the 1980 race; his religion is not an issue. American Catholics, 50 million of them, now earn more money and have more schooling than any other Christians, including the nation’s old power elite, the Episcopalians. In income and educational levels, Catholics are second only to American Jews. For generations, Catholics had been blocked from the higher reaches of American corporations and universities, but they are gaining now. Where then is the evidence of anti-Catholic prejudice?

Anti-Catholicism persists, all right. But it is an intricate bigotry, more complicated than racism or antiSemitism, and its origins lie deep in American history. It would be strange if a few years of ecumenical feeling — or simple religious indifference — could obliterate all trace of what Historian John Higham of Johns Hopkins University has called “the most luxuriant, tenacious tradition of paranoiac agitation in American history.”

Anti-Catholicism came over on the Mayflower. It was part of the doctrinal baggage that the founding Protestants — whether separatist Puritan, Scottish Presbyterian or Cavalier Anglican — brought with them. Almost every colony harassed “papists,” and some excluded Catholics entirely; priests were liable to arrest in Massachusetts. The Dudleian Lectures were established at Harvard in the early 18th century partly to expose, as their founder said, “the Church of Rome as that mystical Babylon, that woman of sin, that apostate church spoken of in the New Testament.” In New York in 1741, two Catholics were executed, one for being a “professed papist,” the other for being a “popish priest.”

When Catholic immigrants began arriving in large waves in the 19th century, anti-Catholicism developed into a profound civic dread. To Yankee eyes, Romanism swarmed in on the jammed immigrant ships, endangering America’s agrarian dreams, clogging the cities with cheap labor. The old elites regarded the immigrants as the canaille that Jefferson had warned against; democracy could not survive such hordes of the ignorant and illiterate with their allegiances to a sinister wizard who dwelled in Rome surrounded by the skeletons of Borgias. (The Catholic immigrants, flocking together in a consciousness of their own differences, and with some desire to preserve them, seemed to confirm nativist fears.) When Pope Pius IX in the 1840s followed the example of European monarchs and sent a block of marble for the Washington Monument, a mob threw it into the Potomac. Through the 1850s, the violently antipapist Know-Nothing Party flourished, to be supplanted in succeeding generations by the Ku Klux Klan, which went after Catholics as well as Jews and blacks.

The growing political power of the poor and uneducated immigrants, notably Irish and Italian, compounded antipathies of members of old elites who felt their own control threatened. To them Catholicism was alien, corrupt; priests and prelates, manipulated long range from the Vatican, contaminated the clear streams of American individualism. Al Smith’s presidential campaign in 1928 stirred up poisonous anti-Catholic passions; Smith was a measure of how far Catholics had come in America and how much of an imminent danger they were. “We must save the U.S. from being Romanized and rum-ridden,” a Virginia Republican committeewoman wrote in 1927.

Despite these expressions of prejudice, the Catholic Church grew into the most powerful religious body in the U.S. After World War II, Catholics through determination and force of numbers exerted pressures for public aid for parochial schools and hospitals; they interjected themselves into debates on legalized birth control. Such campaigns seemed to give credibility to Paul Blanshard, prolific anti-Catholic pamphleteer. His widely read American Freedom and Catholic Power (1949) declared, “The Catholic people of the U.S. are not citizens but subjects in their own religious commonwealth. The secular as well as the religious policies of their church are made in Rome by an organization that is alien in spirit and control.”

The old antipathy to Catholicism in America was based largely upon an idea of the church as a powerful and tightly disciplined monolith presided over by a spiritual despot in Rome. But the profound cultural changes of the last generation, a new liberalism and tolerance, have altered not only the American people but also the church and therefore the prejudice against it. The church in America now is often seen not as imposingly monolithic but as beleaguered and fragmented. Its members have become selective and of them a la carte Catholics who ignore their prelates’ guidance on birth control, divorce and other issues. The hierarchy has lost its authority to govern Catholics so entirely in their private lives. Far from being an advancing menace, the church each year falls further behind in its recruiting of men and women to take up the religious life.

The Second Vatican Council did much to remove what was for non-Catholics the ominousness of Catholicism. In 1964 Vatican II abolished the absolutist doctrine that “error has no rights,” and instead accepted the right of all religions to worship as they will. Church Latin, unintelligible and sinister to many, gave way to the vernacular, and even some times to a rather cloying liturgical sweetness: guitar strumming around the altar, folk songs, the priest rigged out in sunburst vest ments that proclaim HERE COMES THE SON. Gone are the Legion of Decency, which prescribed and proscribed movies, and the censorious Index of Forbidden Books.

Yet there persist in America two vestigial strains of anti-Catholicism. One is the old and somewhat fading nativist variety —the sort that led the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod in the past year to reaffirm its opinion that the Pope is the Antichrist. The second strain, considerably more disturbing be cause it is so much more “respectable,” is the bigotry practiced by certain intellectuals, liberals, humanists and elitists.

Some of the most effective anti-Catholics have been writers who were raised in the Catholic Church and left it, sometimes paroxysms of guilt. James Joyce’s splendidly horrific descriptions of a Catholic boyhood in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man lent a certain romance to apostasy. In his novels Principato and Farragan ‘s Retreat, Tom McHale displayed a minor genius for the atmospherics of oppressive ethnic Catholicism. Among certain intellectuals, it is faintly disreputable to be a believing, practicing Catholic; a Catholic becomes spiritually interesting only in his repudiation of the faith.

The most vigorous anti-Catholicism today has been excited by the endlessly inflammatory issue of abortion. Both sides in he decade-long fight have been stirred to intemperate furies. Some of the “pro-choice” zealots have injected a sleazy note of anti-Catholicism. They have often tried to make abortion strictly a Catholic issue, when in fact legalized abortion has been opposed by conservative Protestants, the Eastern Orthodox, Mormons, Orthodox Jews and many others. American Catholic bishops are financing a broad political program to outlaw abortion; it is important to remember, of course, that not everyone who disagrees with the Catholic hierarchy on abortion and contraception is an anti-Catholic. But certain ugly notes recur. Two years ago, the Chicago chapter of the Planned Parenthood Federation sent a mailing to college newspapers that included a cartoon showing a Catholic bishop clutching a gasoline can to his breast as if it were a Bible; he was on his way to torch an abortion clinic. In 1972 the Xerox Corp. published a booklet directed at elementary and high school students called Population Control: Whose Right to Live? The authors, two independent university professors, implied that Pope Paul VI’s teachings on birth control sanctioned the starvation of countless numbers ol people around the world and suggested that Roman Catholic students who disagree with the church on the birth control issue consider bringing charges before a world court against the Catholic Church for “crimes against humanity.” It appears to many Catholics that the American Civil Liberties Union, which approvingly quotes Catholic views in its opposition to capital punishment, has seemed intent on rescinding Catholics’ right to free speech over the abortion issue.

Some Catholics seize upon the anti-Catholic sentiments strewn around arguments over abortion or contraception and in defensive anger begin to think that the entire non-Catholic society is turning against them. That is simply not true. Both Catholics and non-Catholics can, and do, disagree with the church on some issues without being anti-Catholic. A number of Catholics see evidence that the rest of the country is anti-Catholic if it seems to exclude ethnics — Italians, Irish, Poles and so on — from various opportunities. But that logic is also defective. One-third of the nation’s Catholics are Hispanics. Does a prejudice against them equal a prejudice against Catholics? Not really. It is not specifically the Catholicism of ethnics that prompts the residual and now diminishing bigotry that they encounter; it is many things — culture, background, accent, even dress and neighborhoods — with religion mixed up among them.

All religions have changed and suffered secular corrosions, despite signs of revival in recent years. The Catholic Church is even enjoying a certain popularity today among non-Catholics who feel a nostalgic tug of traditionalism, who feel that the church still represents values (family, moral discipline) that have tumbled and collapsed elsewhere in the society. Many Protestants and even agnostics send their children to parochial schools because they sense a moral safety there.

Forms of anti-Catholicism undoubtedly persist. The deeper conflict, however, is not between the Catholic Church and other religions, or between Catholics and people of other faiths. It is between religion and humanism, between the idea of a natural moral law and moral relativism. “All of Western law,” civilization which was assumes based that on the man is a postulate of creature a of God, natural argues moral Edward Hanify, a Catholic and a Boston lawyer. “The currently ascendant philosophy of humanism has an entirely different view of man: he is an autonomous being, with no external controls. Because Catholics happen to be conspicuous exponents of natural moral law, humanists see the church as their barrier, and they are bitter against it.” The threat to Catholics is not the snide and supercilious contempt of a casual bigot, but the idea, immensely powerful in the 20th century, that all religion is meaningless.

Lance Morrow

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