Is Anti-Catholicism The Last Acceptable Prejudice?
Editor's note: This article from 2000 by James Martin, S.J., continues to be relevant in U.S. culture today, as public figures ranging from presidential candidates to Supreme Court nominees face controversy over their Catholic backgrounds and beliefs.
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" handpuppet 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 favorite of local theaters 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 "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 behavior: "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 specter 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 behavior. 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?
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 traveled 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 centered in the major urban centers 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 rumored 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 immigrantswere 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.
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?
Fourth, in a culture obsessed by the newwhether in technology, entertainment, lifestyle or ideasthe church reaches back into ancient practices and beliefs. This creates another obvious tension.
Fifth, especially for intellectuals in a postmodern world, where the notions of "truth" and "texts" are suspect, the church proclaims its belief in eternal truths andas if to make matters worsetruths that can be found by meditating on texts.
Sixth, the church’s tendency to regulate belief, according to the rules of canon law and practices of the magisterium, often strikes many Americansespecially journalists and writersas "censorship." As Avery Dulles, S.J., has noted (Am., 10/1/94), this sentiment provides journalists with a built-in bias against the teachings of popes and bishops and organizations like the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Anti-Catholic bias in the United States is therefore something more than simply a historical legacy. It is the result of inherent tensions between aspects of the Roman Catholic worldview and a democratic, post-Enlightenment, postmodern American culture. And while all religions labor under this postmodern critique, Catholicism has been singled out as a highly visible, seemingly powerful andthereforeconsistently tempting target.
The Political Arena
Anti-Catholicism today is arguably less a political matter (manifesting itself in political venues and overt political action) and more a cultural one (expressing itself in various cultural arenas, most notably entertainment and advertising.)
This is not to deny its still-potent power in the political world. The recent furor over the rejection of a Catholic priest as chaplain in the U. S. House of Representatives is a case in point. Similarly, when church spokespersons offer commentary, for example on abortion, they are frequently dismissed as simply "parroting" Rome’s line. In a 1995 interview with America (7/1), the U. S. bishop’s spokesperson for pro-life issues neatly summed up this line of thought: "The Catholic part of you has disabled the thinking part of you," said Helen Alvaré.
The media also have a tendency to reduce the church’s positions to a single issue. In 1993, during the national health care reform debate, the U.S. bishops issued a thoughtful letter calling for universal coverage, strongly criticizing a "two-tiered" system that favored care for the rich over the poor, and opposing abortion. The media, however, focused only on abortionthe one area where the bishops were out of step with liberal Democrats. Still, this may simply represent myopic reporting, not anti-Catholicism.
The anti-Catholicism that one might deduce from observing the political world may stem less from deeply rooted prejudices than from disagreements with positions set forth by the hierarchy. In other words, not everyone who disagrees with the church is biased or malicious. So what may initially appear as antipathy toward the church may simply be political rhetoric that has exceeded the boundaries of civility. Occasionally, however, such disagreements can lead to genuine antipathy toward the church and constitute a real prejudicejust as strong disagreements with the political agenda of gays and blacks are sometimes expressed in gay bashing and racism. And when such rhetoric does cross the line, complaints of "anti-Catholicism" may be justified.
Indeed, it is groups that are most opposed to the church’s stance in the political arena that most often lapse into prejudices and stereotypes in their public rhetoric. The pro-choice organization Catholics for a Free Choice, for example, can be counted on to disagree with the church on almost any topic. Similarly, many vocal members of the gay community, who have found themselvesnot surprisinglyat odds with a magisterium that labels them "objectively disordered" are often virulent in their criticism. In an article in The New York Times Magazine (9/26/99), Andrew Sullivan recounted how, in the 1980’s, the "mainly gay" activist group Act Up desecrated Communion hosts at a Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. "Some of the most anti-Catholic bigots in America are gay," Mr. Sullivan opined.
Still, in the political sphere it is difficult to gauge whether criticism of the church represents an honest critique or is indicative of prejudice. Here, therefore, one should use the words "anti-Catholic" sparingly if at all. Where anti-Catholic tendencies seem to be strongeror at least more obviousis in the fields of entertainment and advertising.
Advertising and Entertainment
It is difficult to know where to begin a discussion of anti-Catholicism in advertising, so ingrained is it in the industry. Perhaps two quick examples will suffice. Last year Details magazine featured an advertisement for Diesel jeans showing a quintet of buxom nuns, hands folded primly, wearing Diesel jeans while, in the background, a polychromed statue of the Blessed Mother peers down at them from on high. And in an advertisement for Grateful Palate, a food and wine wholesaler, a nun named Sister Mary Lemon Curd is featured (in full habit) with the following quote: "I love Grateful Palate products, especially Burton & Co. curds.... Sometimes I just rub it all over my...oops. Never mind.... I’d rather eat curd than anything else, except the holy sacrament."
What is the purpose of this kind of advertising? The answer is contained in the very goal of advertisingthat is, to sell, to make money. Anything that sells the productanythingis useful. So, for example, if Diesel jeans wants to convince people that their products are daring or fashionable, their ads must convey this impression of daring. It doesn’t matter that sending up Catholic symbols is a hackneyed device; for certain consumers who decide to buy jeans on the basis of a magazine ad, a tired attack can still elicit the desired frisson of shock. And since there is almost nothing advertisers can do to shock anymore (sex? been there; nudity? done that) advertisers are desperately looking for new sacred cows to gore.
The entertainment industry, however, is of two minds about the Catholic Church. On the one hand, film and television producers seem to find Catholicism irresistible. There are a number of reasons for this. First, more than any other Christian denomination, the Catholic Church is supremely visual, and therefore attractive to producers and directors concerned with the visual image. Vestments, monstrances, statues, crucifixes-to say nothing of the symbols of the sacraments-are all things that more "wordoriented" Christian denominations have foregone. The Catholic Church, therefore, lends itself perfectly to the visual media of film and television. You can be sure that any movie about the Second Coming or Satan or demonic possession or, for that matter, any sort of irruption ofthe transcendent into everyday life, will choose the Catholic Church as its venue. (See, for example, "End of Days," "Dogma" or "Stigmata.")
Second, the Catholic Church is still seen as profoundly "other" in modern culture and is therefore an object of continuing fascination. As already noted, it is ancient in a culture that celebrates the new, professes truths in a postmodern culture that looks skeptically on any claim to truth and speaks of mystery in a rational, postEnlightenment world. It is therefore the perfect context for scriptwriters searching for the "conflict" required in any story.
Yet, paradoxically, the entertainment industry is where one finds the most obvious contempt for the Catholic Church. It is as if producers, directors, playwrights and filmmakers feel obliged to establish their intellectual bona fides by trumpeting their differences with the institution that holds them in such thrall. Chief among the laugh-getting scenes in the trailer for last year's lowbrow movie "Superstar," about a Catholic schoolgirl, is a scene where a nun gets kicked in the face during a kickline. The 1995 movie "Jeffrey," as mentioned, featured a scene in a sacristy where the priest gropes a male parishioner. When the parishioner expresses surprise, the priest exclaims, "Maybe you didn't hear me. I'm a Catbolic priest! Historically, that falls between being a florist and a chorus boy." The movie "Stigmata" featured a plot line implying that the corrupt Catholic Church is sitting on a secret Gospel. And last year's offering by the director Kevin Smith, the theology-obsessed "Dogma," displays its occasional anti-Catholic jibes as badges of intellectualism: Nuns are addled, cardinals nutty, the Mass irrelevant and so on.
But it is television that has proven the most fertile ground for anti-Catholic writing. Priests, when they appear on television shows, usually appear as pedophiles or idiots, and are rarely seen to be doing their jobs. (When was the last time, for example, that you saw a hospital chaplain on "E.R."?) On Fox-TV's "Ally McBeal," a show which also featured a sexually active nun, the show's writer David Kelley (who also gave viewers a foot-fetishist priest in "Picket Fences") featured a Protestant minister who is being prosecuted for having an affair with a church worker. "I realize that doesn't make me an altar boy," he says to one of the lawyers. "If you were an altar boy," the lawyer responds, "you'd be with a priest."
Of course, the purpose of television entertainment is not to inform but to increase network revenues; so it is misguided to expect sitcoms to be documentaries. "Ally McBeal," after all, is not "Frontline." And-as in advertisingwith few taboo subjects left, TV producers and writers are desperate for anything that will titillate, shock or amuse. So the Catholic Church is a particularly tempting target. We are at once in the mainstream (and therefore familiar enough to the average viewer) and out of the mainstream (and therefore am object of some suspicion and contempt). But the maliciousness of the humor can be startling, focusing as it does on the Catholic Church.
The Catholic League
The group that has had the most to do recently with bringing the question of anti-Catholicism to the fore is the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, a previously quiescent organization founded in 1975 by Virgil Blum, S J. It is a lay organization with no official ties to the Catholic Church. However, the location of its current offices in the New York Archdiocesan chancery building suggests it has at least the tacit approval of the archdiocese.
Under the leadership of Mr. William Donohue, a sociologist by trade and now a frequent commentator in the media, the Catholic League has experienced a series of stunning public relations successes, organizing protests over such entertainment offerings as "Nothing Sacred," "Priest," "Dogma" and "Corpus Christi." Arid they are obviously doing well financially: In October 1999 they purchased a full-page advertisement (at $35,000) in The New York Times denouncing Vanity Fair magazine for its alleged anti-Catholic slant.
By focusing attention on instances of anti-Catholic bias, the Catholic League serves an important function. Many of its critiques have been timely, accurate and on target. And the league's methods of publicizing its grievances have been successful in raising awareness of the issues surrounding antiCatholic bias. It is doubtful, for example, that the recent controversies over the Congressional chaplain and Bob Jones University would have received much media attention without the efforts of the Catholic League. But some important questions remain about its methods, questions about how the church operates in a particular culture, in this case the media culture.
In order to gain media attention today, one must be two things: first and loud. Indeed, the person or organization that is first to comment on a particular topic instantly becomes the resource for every succeeding news story on that topic. Unfortunately, being first frequently means that there is inadequate time for reflection on the issue. Even more unfortunately, the Catholic League, in its rush to issue press releases, sometimes doesn't take the time to study or even to see what it is condemning. Its critique of "Dogma," issued weeks before the show opened, included condemnations of lines of dialogue that did not appear in the final print. So while being first may be an effective way to increase one's chances of attracting media attention, there is a danger that the Catholic League reinforces the stereotype that the Catholic Church is at best unreflective and at worst unfairly biased and paranoid. And in the long run, this may do more damage to the church's reputation than a short-lived movie or play.
Similarly, the media today favor the loudest, that is, those best able to furnish controversy and argument. So rather than a measured, considerate and nuanced response to issues, many denunciations issued by the Catholic League are phrased in overheated and strident terms. (This was Particularly the case with the recent exhibit "Sensation," which featured a painting entitled "Blessed Virgin Mary" decorated with elephant dung and cutouts of pornographic photos.) The problem with this approach is twofold. First, more moderate and conciliatory voices are perforce passed over in favor of the more controversial ones. Second, the church may be seen, by association, as strident and reactionary.
When asked to respond to these critiques, the president of the Catholic League pointed to results. "Have we been loud and confrontational? Yes," said Mr. Donohue in an interview with America. "But when I took over this organization I was absolutely determined to get results and get them fast. So I was tough, but got the results: Anti-Catholicism is now an issue. Maybe down the road, when things are up and running, I'll change my style. But for now I am adamant about making anti-Catholicism an issue."
The Catholic League's insistence on claiming that other groups would not tolerate such prejudice is also a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it helps to focus needed attention on issues that might otherwise be ignored. The method of imagining how other groups would respond in a similar situation is a helpful mental exercise that can clarify the issues. Imagine, for example, the reaction that might greet a play called "Late-Nite Hebrew School," and you get the idea.
On the other hand, anti-Catholicism is clearly not as virulent or violent as the prejudice directed against blacks, Jews and gays. One does not find many Catholics facing difficulties in this country in obtaining jobs and promotions because of who they are, as do many blacks. Nor, like Matthew Shepard, the gay Wyoming teenager, are American Catholics today tortured, pistol-whipped and killed because of who they are. Attempts to claim parity with such groups leads inevitably to a misunderstanding of persecution, as well as to embarrassing public statements. In 1997 one archbishop publicly compared the critiques leveled against the church in "Nothing Sacred" to the persecution of Jews in the Holocaust. This is solipsism at its worst and most dangerous.
So while the Catholic League provides a useful service by focusing attention on a real problem, its sometimes illconsidered methods may ultimately prove damaging to the church at large.
Reason and Charity
Anti-Catholicism exists. As the Catholic League's annual report ably testifies, it manifests itself in a number of spheres in the culture, most notably in entertainment and advertising. Commentators who deny its presence ignore the historical record and perhaps succumb to a sort of creeping secularism that sees all aspects of the church as inherently risible.
On the other hand, anti-Catholicism in the United States is simply not the scourge it once was, nor is it today as virulent as anti-Semitism, homophobia or racism. Ignoring this fact only leads to misunderstandings. In a New York Times (11/2/99) article on the Catholic League, one of its benefactors remarked, "There aren't attacks on Jews." Really? What country does this person live in?
So what is called for? Overall, the best way for the church to respond to real or perceived anti-Catholicism is with an approach of reason and charity. It should be a stance based on an understanding of the history of anti-Catholic bias as well as the history of deeper-seated prejudices held against other groups. It must also be an approach that gives other persons or groups the benefit of the doubt, and is exceedingly careful in labeling others as "anti-Catholic" or as purveyors of "blasphemy." A response to anti-Catholicism needs to be measured, tolerant and considerate, and must be a response that reflects well on the church. It cannot be an approach of invective and suspicion, of overheated pronouncements and wholesale condemnations-all tactics that poorly reflect the charism of the church. It must be, in short, an approach of reason and charity: the approach of the thoughtful Christian and hopeful American Catholic.