Anti-Catholicism in the U.S.: A hate much loved and lied about

Is a need to hate essential to the human condition? No. But history and contemporary life insist that hating has beguiling charms. Denying them is a main job of civilization. That job's not being done very well these days.

For the moment, put aside African-Americans, Jews, Latinos and other traditional hate targets and consider the Roman Catholic Church in the United States.


The most elegant description of anti-Catholicism I have read is John Highham's: "the most luxuriant, tenacious tradition of paranoiac agitation in American history." That surgically precise diagnosis is quoted in The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice by Philip Jenkins (Oxford, 288 pages, $26).

Jenkins is a chaired professor of history at Penn State and has written 15 previous books, several of them involving the Catholic Church and Christianity in general. Answering the inevitable question, he writes "I was a member of the Roman Catholic Church for many years, but I left without any particular animosity, and since the late 1980s, I have been a member of the Episcopal Church. ... I have never been a member of the clergy in any church, nor a seminarian, nor was I associated with any religious order." (And, no, lest you ask, I am not and never have been a Roman Catholic.)


Jenkins examines the phenomenon slowly, methodically, tracing its long history and its European origins, its often-disguised currency among orthodox liberals, the Church's treatment in novels, movies, television and the mainstream press. The array of issues on which anti-Catholicism can flourish today in the United States. is very powerful -- feminism, homosexuality, contraception, abortion are at the top of a longer list.

He builds with methodical patience -- to a conclusion that there prevails today in the United States. rampant, forceful, shameless and largely uncriticized anti-Catholicism.

He tells a tale of bigotry, of small minds and smaller hearts. But he also tells a more complex and important story of profound differences in values, attitudes, moral objectives and human standards that separate the Catholic Church from many non-Catholics. This is neither the basis nor an excuse for bigotry, but it is a wide window to understanding the passions.

Jenkins examines books, magazine articles and opinion columns by Maureen Dowd, James Carroll, Anna Quindlen, Garry Wills, Richard Sipe and many respected others. "Over the last fifteen years," he writes of them, "we have seen the massive revival of an ancient anti-clerical and anti-Catholic image that had largely been excluded from respectable discourse. Today, though, the priestly caricature has returned to the social mainstream. It remains to be seen whether the anti-clerical assaults will have consequences anything like those of [Martin] Luther's time."

Jenkins begins by pointing out that the appalling child sexual abuse scandals and the bungled, often corrupting responses by men high in the hierarchy have provoked expressions of anger in words unmatched since the 1920s. Those crimes are abominable -- as the anger of enormous numbers of Catholics, lay and clergy, dramatizes. But this book is about realities that go far deeper, in history and in social attitudes.

Referring to anti-Catholicism as "the thinking man's anti-Semitism" and "the anti-Semitism of the liberals," he recounts pre-scandal, politically motivated desecrations of St. Patrick's Cathedral, other Catholic holy places and vandalism of altars and shrines. He argues persuasively that they precipitated little protest in the mainstream news media, yet if such behavior were directed toward any other group, outrage would be explosive.

Jenkins examines in impressive detail the current scandals and recent demonstrations -- with other motivations -- in or near Catholic places of worship in the United States and Canada. He concludes: "In modern American history, no mainstream denomination has ever been treated so consistently, so publicly, with such venom [as has the Catholic Church]. To find parallels, we would have to look at the media response to fringe groups and cults, such as the Mormons of the mid-nineteenth century, the Jehovah's Witnesses of the 1940s, or the controversial cults of the 1970s. ... It is reasonable to cite this affair as a gross efflorescence of anti-Catholic rhetoric."

Citing recent stage plays, art exhibitions and articles published in journals including the Nation and the New Republic that have ridiculed the church or the pope, Jenkins writes, "It would be interesting to take a satirical or comic treatment featuring, say, the Virgin Mary or Pope John Paul II and imagine the reaction if a similar gross disrespect was applied, say, to the image of Martin Luther King Jr. or of Matthew Shepard, the gay college student murdered in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998."


Jenkins has taken on a topic that I thought on first blush would be annoying to the point of embarrassment, to either side, and hardly the stuff of a long and detailed book. To the contrary, he accomplishes a fascinating tale, exploring the depths of the consciousness of this country -- diverse forces that weave together the history of the civilization that we share.

His prose is energetic, assertive and blessed with a crystalline coherence. Packed with historic detail and intricate referential material, it is nonetheless crisp and easy to read. This is a book of powerfully convincing fairness, of impressive scholarship and of extraordinary courage -- Jenkins strips naked some of the most cherished hypocrisies of American ideologues from one extreme of the spectrum to the other.

Reading Jenkins convinces me that the reaction to sexual abuses by Catholic clergy -- appalling as those horrors are -- are greatly amplified by this latent anti-Catholicism. Among many voices of the U.S. left, there seems to be an almost triumphal sense of "gotcha!"

Jenkins gives particular attention to a 1979 play and later television show by Christopher Durang, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All, which received an Obie and has often been revived on stage. Its ridiculing of the Church and its values, he argues, might be legally prosecuted as a hate crime if the target were anything but the Catholic Church. And that leads him to the core essence of the entire book: "The case of Sister Mary provokes a simple question: why can Catholicism legitimately be attacked in such outrageous terms by the American media, while other racial, social and religious traditions remain exempt?"

In the end, he suggests it is possible that there will be a return of sensitivity and a diminishing of open anti-Catholicism, especially in the U.S. left, but he presents it as a wan hope -- a hope that civilization will supercede hatred.