Politics and Catholicism

Al Smith and John F. Kennedy must be enjoying a good chuckle as they watch Democrats and Republicans engage in finger-pointing about anti-Catholicism. Though at one time being Catholic was a liability when running for national office, now candidates try to outdo each other by professing their abhorrence of anti-Catholicism. How times change!

It is especially Republicans for whom anti-Catholicism has become a political albatross. The current controversy began last year when House Republican Speaker J. Dennis Hastert chose a Presbyterian minister rather than a Catholic priest as House chaplain, despite the fact that the Catholic priest was the unofficial favorite of the bipartisan commission who interviewed the candidates. Next came George W. Bush speaking at Bob Jones University, which teaches that the Catholic Church is the "Mother of Harlots" and a satanic institution. Republican strategists grew frantic as they saw the crumbling of their plans to create a coalition of Catholics and evangelicals as the Republican Party at prayer. Republicans are now demanding that Democrats disown any organizations, especially pro-choice groups, that have engaged in Catholic bashing because of the church’s opposition to abortion.

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Frankly, most Catholics, perhaps naïvely, didn’t take Bob Jones University seriously enough to care if a presidential candidate spoke there until John McCain pointed his finger at Governor Bush and challenged him for cozying up to a bunch of bigots. Nor did Catholics care who became House chaplain until it looked like the Speaker was caving in to the anti-Catholic prejudice of some Southern Republican constituencies.

William Donohue, the nonpartisan pit bull of the Catholic League, clamped on to these events and refused to let go. But where once he was cheered by Catholic neo-conservatives for attacking the media, the entertainment industry and pro-choice groups, now he was excommunicated as a loose cannon because he was shooting at their allies. Mr. Donohue’s refusal to be controlled by either party is one of his most attractive qualities.

Mr. Bush appears to have extricated himself from the anti-Catholic charge by apologizing to Cardinal O’Connor (right before the New York State Republican primary) and by pointing out that yes, his brother and sister-in-law are Catholics. (Note to politicians and the media: The leader of the U.S. bishops is the president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishopscurrently Bishop Joseph Fiorenza, whose diocese is in Bush’s own state of Texas. A cardinal has no more right to speak for the church than any other bishop in the United States.)

Speaker Hastert has been less deft than Mr. Bush in extricating himself from the anti-Catholic morass, although he should be congratulated for setting up the bipartisan process for screening the candidates. Certainly he had the legal right to appoint anyone he wanted, but by ignoring the committee’s unofficial first choice he left himself open to criticism and passed up a historic opportunity to appoint the first Catholic as House chaplain, something his Catholic predecessor Tip O’Neill could never have done. He also grossly misjudged the mood of the House.

When he finally appointed a Catholic priest as chaplain, he bypassed any process. He simply chose a priest who came "with the highest recommendations" of Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago, a move that ironically may feed anti-Catholic paranoia and prejudice about the church’s political power. After all the controversy, it might have been wiser for the church to refuse to let any priest be chaplain until the House got its act together and ensured that the appointee would be selected through a bipartisan and ecumenically sensitive process.

How should Catholics respond to this brouhaha? First, The Catholic League is right: Catholics have a right to be treated with respect and courtesy, just like any other group in this country. As our associate editor James Martin, S.J., reported in these pages (3/25), anti-Catholicism is still alive in the United States. We should stand together with other groups (Jews, blacks, gays, Asians, feminists) and say no to any form of discrimination and prejudice.

On the other hand, we must beware of being exploited by politicians who simply want our votes and are willing to stir up group hostilities to obtain them. Having a Catholic appointed House chaplain was not worth endangering the tremendous progress that has been made in ecumenical relations in our country. Disagreements, even those expressed with heated rhetoric, do not necessarily reflect anti-Catholicism. Not all Southern Baptists, not all feminists, not all gays, not all in the media, not all entertainers, not even all pro-choicers are anti-Catholic. Most of them are not, and some are themselves Catholic. Anti-Catholicism is nothing like what it was in the time of Al Smith and John Kennedy; it is a prejudice that is in decline and should be buried, not brought back to life.

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