It has often been commented that the last acceptable form of prejudice is anti-Catholicism. Last week, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein confirmed this when she told Notre Dame law professor Amy Coney Barrett, a 7th Circuit Court of Appeals nominee, that the "Dogma and law are two different things. And I think whatever a religion is, it has its own dogma. The law is totally different. And I think in your case, professor, when you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you, and that's of concern."
Most media, and many in the public sphere at-large would never have tolerated such an antagonistic statement toward a person of Jewish or Muslim faith. Yet for a Christian of the Catholic religion, this is presumably acceptable to articulate.
The United States of America — and Maryland, in particular — has had a storied history with Catholicism, alternating between tolerance and outright violence. Historians have argued that in the 1640s, a case could be made that the then-colony of Maryland was the most religiously tolerant place on Earth. Yet, changes in British government and colonial sentiment had radically altered such tolerance to a kind of disdainful neglect, at best, by the 1770s. The sole Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll of Maryland, faced tremendous prejudice and exclusion through the course of his life: he could not practice law, hold office or even vote because of his faith.
Neither the American continentals nor the British Crown seemed enthusiastically disposed to grant any kind of real religious toleration — though men like Thomas Jefferson ultimately changed that. Carroll could have sat out the war — or even left — but he chose to side with the Americans early on not because of what America then was, but what he knew it would be. And Carroll himself did finally come to play an important role in the American story. Yet even then, not until John F. Kennedy almost 200 years later, did a Catholic gain the White House — and then still, Kennedy's Catholicism was suspect.
While not all Americans were opposed to Catholics, and while some Americans genuinely misunderstood (and still do) the Catholic Church, the general sentiment against Catholics had its roots in European history — some of which the Church was a part, tried to stop or sought to avoid being drawn into. History was coupled over time with deliberate lies and propaganda manufactured against Catholics and Catholicism — such as the untruth that a Catholic would owe allegiance to Rome rather than God or America, or that convents were places of sexual deviancy and sin; or the horrendous lie that the Catholic Church did nothing during the Holocaust. Add to that actual reality, like the horrific sex abuse scandal, and anti-Catholics are in full force.
But dark history is not the entire sum of our Church. Though not perfect ourselves, we Catholics know that the Church has been a force for good in the world: that it has undertaken relief efforts around the globe, that it defends moral life, that it has fostered the arts and the sciences, that it defends human life, human rights, the environment, that it brings people together in community, that it builds communities, that it offers solace, comfort, compassion, and above all, that it draws people to God through Christ, and teaches we Catholics in Christ's image and example about love and forgiveness, about practicing these in our daily lives.
Still, anti-Catholic sentiment exists. We hear all the time about "ultra-conservative Catholics," "hardline Catholics," and "dogmatic Catholics" — with the false implication being the Church does not practice compassion, forgiveness or is purely political. True, some Catholics align with the conservative core of the Republican Party politically (such as myself). That does not mean all Catholics do, or that Catholics focus only on those aspects of our faith with political ramifications. My faith is my being; my politics are secondary.
Likewise, even the idea of a "conservative" or "liberal" Catholic is a misnomer: there is the faith, and how well we adhere to it or practice it. I use myself as an example: I freely admit I do not attend Mass as I should, that this is a failure of my own — but nothing can shake my support of the Church, or my faith in Christ. My failure to regularly attend church does not make me "conservative" instead of "ultra-conservative;" it means I must grow and improve. I am an imperfect Catholic. I am imperfect as a man; I am human; but I find myself, and seek to better myself, through Christ.
Interestingly enough, I have faced and encountered anti-Catholic expressions and articulations from people in every political corner — though in my experience, many on the Left are usually most vocal about it, including in my own family. These particular members of the American Left can only see the Church in terms of the faith in translation as politics. This is certainly the case with Sen. Feinstein, who seems to believe that a judicial nominee is incapable of ruling on secular law because that nominee happens to be devoutly faithful to the Catholic Church. Those I have encountered on the political Right with anti-Catholic sentiments take issue with the Church on theological and doctrinal grounds — yet their derision is no less clear. I was once forced to endure a merciless joke by a conservative religious speaker at a public event in which some situation caused a Catholic priest to "choke on his wafer" — a mockery of the transubstantiation of the Eucharist.
Regardless, I know that most do not hold such prejudicial regard for Catholicism. It lives now primarily among only certain elitists, certain liberals and some of those of other faiths. But in an age where extremism is becoming fashionable, it would not be a surprise to see anti-Catholicism increase. We must, all of us of all faiths and without, be prepared to stand beside one another in the face of cruelty while exercising compassion where we can. We are always a nation in becoming. Like Charles Carroll, I am proud to belong to Christ, and proud to be Catholic. And like Charles Carroll, I am proud to be an American.
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Joe Vigliotti is a writer and a Taneytown city councilman. He can be reached through his website at www.jvigliotti.com.