Potent Popery

False confessions about the "New Anti-Catholicism"

Pope John XXIII, the last real wit to head the Catholic Church, put out clear instructions for his underlings in writing the introductory documents for the second Vatican council: The council was to deal in a spirit of charity and reconciliation, avoiding condemnatory language or divisive gestures. At one point, according to legend, the pontiff took a ruler and measured lines of text in an introductory paper. "I count 17 centimeters of condemnation," he said, sending the text back for revisions.

I learned that anecdote from a sermon by Father Edward Phelan, pastor of Most Holy Redeemer Parish in San Francisco, delivered last month in response to the Vatican's recent "considerations" regarding same-sex marriage. Speaking to a mostly gay congregation in the heart of the Castro district, Father Phelan criticized the strident language and lack of compassion in the document, earning a not-entirely-surprising standing ovation for his efforts. Practicing Catholics and practicing gays, by and large, see each other as purely theoretical abstractions, so Father Phelan's deft performance was fascinating on its own terms. But his invocation of the liberalizing Angelo Roncalli, the Pope behind aggiornamento, the non-Latin mass, and the host of changes in Catholic practice collectively known as "Vatican II," is a good place to begin our autopsy of the latest anti-Catholicism scare.

You've probably heard of the "New Anti-Catholicism," a concept which has gotten a boost from a variety of news stories in the past few months. Various knaves cite the media's interest in reporting on the ongoing church sex abuse scandal as evidence of anti-Papist bias by liberals. Some Republican senators and their supporters in the press depict the stalled Senate confirmation hearings on William Pryor as a newfangled version of Shaftesbury's Test Act. Negative reactions to the Roman Curia's gay marriage partypoop have prompted opportunistic hysterics about a creeping nativism in the land. The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice, a defense of Catholics and Catholicism by the tireless Philip Jenkins, appeared this spring. And since no controversy would be complete without a beloved Hollywood star, Mel Gibson's ancient-tongued New Testament picture The Passion has stirred up a conflict months before its premiere—and though we wait in joyful hope, it's hard to imagine the film itself matching the fiery artistry of the pre-release controversy.

The tocsin of anti-Catholicism gets sounded every few years; most of the arguments we're hearing now were advanced in, for example, Father Andrew M. Greeley's 1976 book An Ugly Little Secret: Anti-Catholicism in North America. Significantly, though, the liberal Greeley now gets regularly tagged as an anti-Catholic himself. That's because the contest over anti-Catholicism is in fact a contest within Catholicism, between radicals and reactionaries. It's no accident that today's alarmists endlessly recite Peter Viereck's delusional claim that anti-Catholicism is "the anti-Semitism of the liberals." To take such a claim seriously is to give news value to propaganda.

In the distant past, incidents of real anti-Catholicism produced first-rate defenders of the Church. The Anglican convert John Henry Newman's vastly popular body of essays, poetry, tales and sermons demolished the 19th century's snobbish brand of anti-Catholicism; his personal example revealed in a charitable and fraternal way the glaring truth that the Church of England has never been much more than a Roman Catholic junior varsity—a realization from which the Anglicans never really recovered. It's fair to say Newman's writings—not to mention his charitable line of "Newman's Own" condiments—were a major force in exorcising British anti-Catholicism.

Apologists writing in Newman's shadow were almost as brilliant. No Popery by the Jesuit Father Herbert Thurston renders apologetics as entertaining as a Tarzan adventure. (Thurston's recap of the hilarious career of anti-papal sensationalist Leo Taxil is alone worth the purchase price.) The Catholic Truth Societies of the late 19th century left behind a wealth of pro-Church polemic, of which Father Peter Yorke's "Ghosts of Bigotry" lectures—which with some poetic license trace all American religious tolerance back to George Calvert Lord Baltimore's original charter for Maryland—make an especially moving example.

And if you prefer the vita activa, consider the great Bishop John Hughes, who protected New York's Catholic population in its moment of peril by threatening to burn the city to the ground. A hard man for hard times!

That the current crisis in anti-Catholicism hasn't produced a similar caliber of defenders is pretty good evidence that there is no crisis. Surveying the herniated state of today's Catholic apologists, it's hard not to sigh, like Bill the Butcher, "Is dis da best da Pope can do?"

The brouhaha over the Bill Pryor nomination was certainly the hokiest of recent efforts to put anti-Catholicism back on the American agenda. National Review Online's Ramesh Ponnuru set a rare example for candor in his recent Bull on the matter, which more or less urged Republicans to employ better sophistry and more zealous demagoguery than the Democrats. The argument: If Democrats use Pryor's anti-abortion views to disqualify him from serving on a federal appeals court, they are employing a de facto religious test on any Catholic candidate who follows the church's "teachings." Republicans can thus profitably condemn the Democrats as bigots. (Ponnuru doesn't specifically mention the reign of King Charles II, but others have.) The charge need not be true; and a Test Act need not even be a necessarily bad thing. The attraction here is the issue's power to put Democrats on the defensive.

Like most good party-politics stratagems, this one's policy underpinnings are pure hogwash. That a strict and (more importantly) open adherence to Pope Paul VI's anti-contraception encyclical Humanae Vitae would make it unlikely for Pryor to get the support of Democratic opponents is true enough. It's also irrelevant. The last time a political figure's Catholicism became a nationally publicized issue was during the 1960 election; at that time, candidate Kennedy defused the issue not by reconciling voters to his faith but by effectively promising to suppress his religious beliefs should they ever interfere with his duties.

The rough standard established here—that while religious beliefs may fairly be treated as politically objectionable, simple religious affiliation may not—was enough to satisfy all but the most hardened bigots of the day. (Like many tales of 20th century anti-Catholicism, this one has grown in the telling; candidate Nixon never made an issue of Kennedy's religion, nor did most Americans.) The 1960 standard has served the country well; countless politicians have executed people, expanded abortion protections and bombed other countries in blithe violation of their own creeds.

It's true that in recent days the question of whether one can be both a good Catholic and a serviceable American politician has come up again; but it is Rome, not Washington D.C., that reopened this can of worms. The Vatican considerations on gay marriage end with a specific set of instructions to Catholic politicians to vote against same-sex unions. It's a measure of an exceedingly provincial Roman Curia that the authors would give such a specific order in a public document, without regard for how it would sound to a nation of freedom-loving people. (That a substantial number of Catholic politicians will almost certainly ignore the order makes it that much more pathetic.)

It's also true that there was one recent case in which a candidate of unusual religious persuasion was subjected to rough treatment—but it didn't involve a Catholic. The confirmation hearings for Attorney General-nominee John Ashcroft had some truly inquisitorial moments, with leading questions about Ashcroft's Pentecostalism coming from the Senate and a rash of archly neutral magazine articles asking whether a man can speak in tongues and still be in his right mind. Nevertheless, even here religious bigotry proved a remarkably meager force; Ashcroft passed easily and remains, for better or worse, the most powerful attorney general in recent memory.

On the topic of popular anti-Catholicism, we have more rich territory to farm, and here Philip Jenkins' The New Anti-Catholicism has managed to create a stir. Jenkins draws on historic anti-Catholicism, feminist and gay protests against the Catholic Church, over-the-top reactions to the pedophilia scandal, and the recrudescence of clerical villains in popular entertainment to make his case.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.


Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties