Prejudiced Still

Book cover
Anti-Catholicism in Americaby By Mark Massa, S.J.Crossroad Books. 224p $24.95I

Suddenly there are two books on anti-Catholicism, both of which have the same subtitle: The Last Acceptable Prejudice. The one by Philip Jenkins purports to describe a “new” anti-Catholicism; the other, by Mark Massa, S.J., portrays an “old” anti-Catholicism.

Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Penn State University, though not a Catholic, is one of the few Americans concerned with anti-Catholicism. His new book is a useful history and compendium of anti-Catholic lore. The “new anti-Catholicism” of which he writes is, he asserts, “liberal,” because it comes from gay rights and women’s rights activists and people who sympathize with those causes. But the activists do not necessarily represent most of those who support both movements. Moreover, there is no hostility between Catholics and those who represent other elements of the liberal agenda—peace, racial justice, Latinos, immigrants and the poor. My own in-depth “pretest” with a large number of cases, on which I reported at Fordham University last spring, shows that self-identified “liberals” and Gore voters were less likely to be anti-Catholic.


There is no such thing as a “new anti-Catholicism.” Rather there is a traditional anti-Catholicism that has lurked in the basement of American culture for two centuries. If you need an enemy to hate and all the other hate groups have been taken away from you, then you fall back on the last acceptable prejudice, especially if some of the stands of the official church seem to be opposed to your cause.

Jenkins wonders why behaviors that if directed against others would be hate crimes somehow are not hate crimes when they are aimed at Catholicism, like the attack by ACT-UP on St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He asks why there are no outcries against outrageous anti-Catholic statements, like Tony Kushner’s accusation that the pope kills gays, which would be denounced if other minorities were the targets. He knows the reason as well as I do. In the United States it has always been all right to hate Catholics. It still is. John F. Kennedy’s election by a hundred thousand votes—having lost five million because of his religion—changed nothing.

American Catholics of European origin have done very well in this country, are not affected directly by anti-Catholic prejudice and do not want to rock their comfortable boat by becoming “militants.” Such left-wing Catholic journals as The National Catholic Reporter cannot admit editorially that coverage by The New York Times of the sexual abuse crisis is strongly tainted by anti-Catholicism; the N.C.R.’s ideology insists that the crisis proves that there should be women priests and married priests, and nothing else matters.

Professor Jenkins is on the political right. He blames the Second Vatican Council for weakening Catholic loyalty and hence reducing Catholics to silence in the face of anti-Catholicism and for the appearance of such anti-Catholic Catholics as James Carroll (a kind of Catholic Sammy Glick). Yet unlike the Catholic League, he does not think that such films as “Dogma” or the no-longer-running television series “Nothing Sacred” were anti-Catholic.

His book Pedophiles and Priests, on the sexual abuse crisis, was an exercise in social constructionism. He argued that radical women and liberal theologians created the crisis by their propaganda in the press. In this book he backs off and admits that some bishops did indeed act irresponsibly—an understatement, to put it mildly.

Herein lies the flaw in his methodology. He must spend a lot of time in State College extracting clips from newspapers. This is an excellent way of studying what the media have said, but it is not a satisfactory method of extracting a view of reality. One cannot judge whether media quotes from Richard Sipe, James Carroll and Eugene Kennedy either represent informed opinions or have any effect on attitudes about Catholics, save perhaps to confirm pre-existing prejudices. One needs to know to what extent the anti-Catholic bias in the media reflects widespread attitudes in American society. My pretest (400 respondents) suggests that it does. Moreover, a recent Gallup study shows that 41 percent of Protestants have a negative view of Catholics, while only 14 percent of Catholics have a similar view of Protestants.

If it were not for the media pressures, however anti-Catholic they may be, the bishops would never have admitted to their mammoth failure in the reassignment of abusing priests. To his credit, Jenkins insists that The Boston Globe was balanced and professional in its reports on the Cardinal Law scandal.

On balance, then, The New Anti-Catholicism is a useful book, though limited by its methodology and its biases against liberalism and the Second Vatican Council. Most Catholics are not interested in the subject. I hope that Professor Jenkins’s book stirs up interest among Catholics, though right now those who ought to be interested are more likely to be pursuing bishops for their abuse of power than anti-Catholics who have enjoyed the feeding frenzy that the bishops have made possible.

Mark Massa, S.J., director of the Center for American Catholic Studies, at Fordham University, discovers the roots of anti-Catholicism in the difference between the Protestant and Catholic imaginations as described by the theologian Rev. David Tracy in his analysis of the “classics” of the two traditions. Briefly, and with apologies to Father Tracy for simplifying his presentation, Catholicism tends to emphasize the presence of the Creator in creation, in the objects, events and persons of daily life, while Protestantism tends to emphasize the distinctiveness of God from creation. The Catholic imagination is analogical or metaphorical or sacramental. Catholicism has statues and medals and holy water and votive candles and angels and saints and souls in Purgatory and especially Mary the Mother of Jesus. Protestantism not only has none of these “sacramentals” but denounces them as superstition and idolatry. Catholicism believes that humans interact with God as members of a supporting community. Protestantism believes in the individuality of the relationship between God and the soul.

Massa shows how these different preconscious perceptions of reality have shaped the reaction of Protestant America to Catholicism down through the years, through writers like Paul Blanshard and Norman Vincent Peale, evangelists like Jimmy Swaggart, theological cartoonists like Jack Chick and “scientists” like Kenneth Hardy in the prestigious journal Science (who argued that Catholicism was incompatible with scientific achievement). Catholics are superstitious idolaters whose hierarchal church won’t let them think for themselves.

My pretest demonstrated that such seemed to be a general view of Catholics held by other Americans. While they are not burning our convents any more and are prepared to admit that we can be good Americans, they still see us as superstitious and idolatrous ignoramuses. This is a dark side of American culture that has permeated the country’s history and is still very much alive, and not particularly new.

If one accepts Massa’s analysis, theological ecumenism is not likely to change these preconceptions, unless and until Protestant leaders—down to the level of the local churches—are willing to preach that Catholics have a right to their own imaginative style and should not be condemned for it. Devotion to Mary, to put the issue at its most obvious, is not idolatry. Such a change should not be anticipated any time soon.

A personal note: As Mark Massa reports, I tried in 1975 to respond to Kenneth Hardy (professor of psychology at Brigham Young University) with my own data that refuted his argument. The editor of Science magazine not only would not print my response, he would not even acknowledge it. Twenty-eight years later, the Board of Overseers of the General Social Survey refused to accept three of my pretest items for inclusion in the 2004 survey, an inclusion for which I would have paid. Plus ça change....

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

In her new memoir, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, Senator Kamala D. Harris, Democrat of California, positions herself as an underdog, a savvy “top cop” and, most of all, Shyamala Gopalan’s daughter.
Brandon SanchezJanuary 18, 2019

The fascinating premise of Mary Gordon’s lovely little book On Thomas Merton is that, except for his extensive correspondence with Evelyn Waugh and Czeslaw Milosz, Thomas Merton was without literary peers who could perceptively judge, critique and improve his writing.

Ron HansenJanuary 18, 2019
Sagal knows what it is to run away from problems, to need to be needed, and how much can be achieved through stubborn persistence.
Emma Winters January 11, 2019
The simple lessons of Jean Vanier on humility and Christian love always bear repeating.
Colleen DulleJanuary 11, 2019