Potent Popery

False confessions about the "New Anti-Catholicism"

(Page 2 of 3)

To call Jenkins' arguments canned would be an insult to cans. Unsurprising anti-Catholic figures well past their prime, including playwright Tony Kushner and columnist Michelangelo (or as he's now known, "Mike") Signorile are duly trotted out, as is ACT-UP's infamous 1989 assault on a mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral—a grotesque act, but only "new" if the Gorbachev administration is your idea of a hot thing. The old trick of drawing invidious comparisons—"If they said the same thing about group X it would be considered bigotry"—gets a thorough workout; I counted more than 30 such comparisons before I gave up. Repeatedly, claims of a rising tide of anti-Catholicism are tautologically presented as evidence that such a rising tide really exists.

Dismayingly, Jenkins' best arguments repeatedly undermine his own thesis. His recitation of anti-Catholic entertainment vehicles, for example, doesn't mention the complete failure of such vehicles to find an audience. The films Stigmata, Primal Fear and Agnes of God all played to theaters as empty as a weekday mass. The Godfather III trafficked in anti-clerical sensations (including, unmentioned by Jenkins, the ill-advised choice of having Don Novello do a straight version of his Father Guido Sarducci routine), but the film was a widely reviled stinker that disgraced, and probably ended, the beloved Godfather franchise. (I'm always sad that these catalogues of popular anticlericalism fail to mention James Clavell's bestselling Shogun, which luridly shows its Jesuit villain feasting on capon in one important scene.) The problem with anti-church entertainment, like the problem of the church itself, isn't that the public is scandalized or titillated; it's that the public has long since stopped caring.

Most unforgivable is Jenkins' treatment of the sexual abuse scandal. In this book and his earlier Pedophiles and Priests, Jenkins paints the public outcry over child molestation by church officials as a "moral panic" that has been "constructed" in the public mind, post-modern-style, without regard to the actual facts. Part of his argument—establishing that the actual percentages of abuse cases in the priesthood are much lower than popularly imagined—is legitimate. The crux of his case, however, is a fancied-up version of the old high school lothario's motto, "If there's grass on the field, play ball." Since most of the victims are fully adolescent, he argues, the term "pedophile" is a misnomer (except in the celebrated cases of Paul Shanley and the recently murdered John Geoghan).

This may or may not be more than a semantic difference, but it does not address the real public outrage, which has never been directed at priests as a group but at an executive class that routinely opted to avoid embarrassment and save money at the expense of vulnerable minors. Jenkins plays with the common argument that the hierarchy is so central to Catholicism that an attack on it is an attack on all Catholics, but this is a dodge. There is a long and honorable history of outrage at abuses of high church office—an offense even more scandalous to believing Catholics than it is to outsiders.

In any case, this outrage has never been generalized into an all-out attack on church authority. Since he arrived in his Capuchin robes to take over the ailing Boston Archdiocese, Bishop Sean O'Malley has been well received by both the media and the public—perhaps because people tend to like Franciscans, but mostly because O'Malley has taken pains to treat the sexual abuse scandal as the grave matter it is.

Nor has the current scandal produced a "moral panic" in any true sense of the word. Priests have expressed understandable reservations about wearing clerical garb in public, but there have been no serious assaults by random zealots. The media—most notably the Boston Globe, which was at the front of the recent scandal—have been circumspect in bringing accusations. There certainly hasn't been any prosecutorial abuse on the order of the McMartin Pre-School case of the 1980s. Geoghan's horrific jailhouse murder should raise serious questions about prison administration, but there's no case to be made that he didn't belong behind bars. The reaction to the abuse scandal is in fact the exact opposite of the 19th century panic apologists try to invoke.

Jenkins and others like to draw a comparison between popular media depictions—in editorial cartoons, comedy sketches, etc.—of the current scandal, and anti-clerical iconography from the 1800s. To make this assertion, of course, is to prove it, since few of us keep our back issues of 19th century nativist tracts within easy reach. But as it happens, nativist anti-Catholic propaganda had a very distinctive style and iconography. A nice sampling of it is collected in Ray Allen Billington's wonderful 1938 book Protestant Crusade, 1800-1860: a Study of the Origins of American Nativism, from which the illustrations for this article are gratefully taken. And there is absolutely no similarity between current cartoons of Cardinal Law and company and the pictures we see here.

The most obvious difference is that 19th century tales of Catholic sexual abandon involved women, not children—and certainly not boys. Spicy tales of confessional hanky panky, involving nuns or young women submitting to the coercion of priests, were a standard feature of nativist propaganda (and, to be fair, of Catholic in-jokes), as were scenarios involving the sexual mysteries that allegedly unfolded inside convent walls.

What these two genres share is a setting that is off-limits to outsiders. That is a central part of their pornographic appeal (which was revisited, with a lesbian twist, in the nunsploitation film fad a few decades ago). To put it bluntly, nativist propaganda stemmed from what dirty-minded bigots imagined was going in inside secretive Catholic institutions; the editorial, popular, and cartoon reactions to contemporary church scandals (even The Godfather III, which drew heavily on the Vatican Bank scandal) involve reactions to actual news events.

About the only common feature between then and now is an emphasis on endangered children; another trope of nativist propaganda involved pregnant nuns forced to abort or murder their offspring. But it bears repeating that in the current abuse scandal, children actually have been endangered—perhaps not mortally, and perhaps not in the numbers some scandal doomsayers would have you believe, but at a sufficient enough rate to merit every ounce of outrage the public has discharged. One of the terrible features of pre-Civil War nativism is that it was built almost entirely on cognitive dissonance. There was even a cottage industry of "escaped nun" stories, with women posing as victims of predatory monks and bishops—the most famous of these being 1836's Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk.

It was a panic over an escaped nun rumor that sparked the most notorious anti-Catholic incident in American history—the 1836 burning of the Ursuline convent and girls school in Charlestown, Massachusetts. Which brings us to what is most offensive about facile comparisons to early American anti-Catholicism: It ignores how serious that anti-Catholicism really was. To give just a few items: There were several incidents of accused priests being lynched in the colonial period, and it was not until a few decades into U.S. history that all the states had eliminated their own test acts. A series of riots demolished the Catholic sections of Philadelphia in the summer of 1844; though police were eventually brought in to calm things down, the city government allowed several weeks of sporadic looting and arson to go unchecked.

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