Potent Popery

False confessions about the "New Anti-Catholicism"

(Page 3 of 3)

That same year, anti-Catholicism was such a politically potent force that one cartoonist and supporter of James K. Polk found it expedient to depict the candidate shooting what looks like bug spray at an evil bishop (who has a drunken Irishman for a corner man). In the 1850s, the anti-Catholic Know Nothing party gained control of the Massachusetts legislature and state house, and quickly established a "Nunnery Committee" charged with searching convents, schools and monasteries for children's remains or other evidence of Popish chicanery. (Fittingly, the Committee's reputation for spending the Commonwealth's money on booze and hookers led to its rapid disbanding.) To compare all of this history with the unkind comments liberals and lapsed Catholics are making about Catholic officials at the beginning of the 21st century is utterly bogus.

But then, it's not entirely clear that the most serious anti-Catholicism these days is even coming from liberals. The controversy over Mel Gibson's upcoming film The Passion kicked into high gear when a group of scholars, claiming to be affiliated with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops but apparently working for the Anti-Defamation League, stole a copy of the film's script and, after a read-through, declared it anti-Semitic. After shameless ADL national director Abraham Foxman publicized the issue, the Bishops' Conference rushed to distance itself from the group of scholars and apologize to the filmmaker. This set up the kind of light-bending dilemma only the era of infinite identity politics could produce: fake anti-Catholicism against fake anti-Semitism, a devout Catholic against what radio talk show host Laura Ingraham calls "the anti-Christian entertainment elite."

The reality is considerably more complex, and the bishops were right to be cautious not only about the film but about needlessly antagonizing Mel Gibson. As it happens, Gibson is not, strictly speaking, a Roman Catholic as we understand the term. This is not to question the star's faith, but to point out that he belongs to a "traditionalist" Catholic sect that rejects the reforms of Vatican II—reforms that included, among other things, absolving the Jewish of people of the longstanding charge of "deicide," of having killed Christ. Despite occasional efforts by the official church to deal with traditionalist schismatics in a conciliatory manner (efforts which the current Pope enthusiastically supports), these groups remain outside of the Roman Catholic community.

And often bitterly at odds with it. Early this year, New York Times Magazine reporter Christopher Noxon wrote a story on Gibson's Passion project in which he memorably quoted the filmmaker's father, the sedevacantist tract-writer Hutton Gibson, calling Pope John Paul II "Garrulous Karolus, the Koran Kisser." Many commentators chastised Noxon for sliming his subject's family members, but this glimpse of vehement traditionalist dissent—a topic Jenkins fails to mention in 216 pages—was the most interesting thing in the article.

The Vatican II reforms produced a substantial and varied lost generation of disgruntled Catholic conservatives: Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre's Society of St. Pius X, the more radical spinoff sect Society of St. Pius V, traditionalists who collect funny foto galleries of abuses under the Novus Ordo mass, followers of the wacky "Fatima priest" Nicholas Gruner, and many others. The 1965 reforms also inspired a much larger, non-organized group of "hold your nose" loyalists who have grudgingly gone along with the reforms but miss no chance to blame every vice and failing of the contemporary church on modernism and excessive liberality. Michael W. Cuneo's funny and energetically researched book The Smoke of Satan is an excellent study of traditionalist dissent, and after reading only a few pages, or looking at a few traditionalist web pages, you'll find sharper expressions of disgust with the Catholic church than you will in the columns of Maureen Dowd, the sketch comedy of Molly Shannon, or the oeuvres of any of the other liberal "anti-Catholic" strawpeople.

This effect deepens when we consider the so-called Orthodox Churches. Here I can speak from personal experience, as I spend more time around Orthodox Christians than is generally considered healthful. The most excessive, prurient and insistent expressions of anti-Catholicism I've ever heard have all come from Orthodox Christians.

This would seem strange if we accepted the template of liberal anti-Catholicism advocates peddle, because Orthodox Christianity (apart from never having required celibacy from its parish priests) is no less conservative than the Catholic Church. The Orthodox churches remain adamantine in their attitudes on divorce, women's status, belief in transubstantiation, sexual behavior, enforcement of communal standards, liturgical practice, and other areas. They are decidedly less liberal than the Roman church in their attitudes about Jews, and about ethnicity more generally. They are less committed than the Catholic Church to charitable efforts and to progressive politics, and have not made the same accommodations with Darwinian theory and other scientific matters that Catholics have.

If anti-Catholicism is the work of liberals, these guys should have no truck with it. Yet when the Pope visits Greece, the event sparks massive protests and a political scandal in that Orthodox country. The resurgent Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II—when he's not fighting off Harry Potter or spending time in an insane asylum—pressures the Putin administration to kick Catholic priests out of the country and uses his status as head of a state religion to prevent the Pope from setting foot in Russia. In the early 1990s, the Orthodox Serbs lost no chance to kill Catholic Croats in the disintegrating Yugoslavia. There are historical reasons for the animosities, but these can't be called acts of dissent. They're acts of anti-Catholicism.

Is the rap that the Catholic Church is too liberal a fair accusation? If we leave the arena of sexual matters where liberal dissenters and the proponents of the New Anti-Catholicism do most of their squabbling, it's striking how poor the case for the Catholic Church's "conservatism" really is. On economic matters, the Pope is a Keynesian at best. Environmentalists had reason to cheer the 1991 encyclical letter Centesimus Annus. As for private property rights, the Catechism of the Catholic Church pays due respect, but then teaches us, for example: "The right to private property...does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial..." To the extent that support for the invasion of Iraq was identified or misidentified as a conservative trait, the Catholic Church greatly disappointed conservatives. (Indeed, when a pro-war columnist wrote an article dripping with oily anti-Catholic innuendo, the heralds of the New Anti-Catholicism remained tellingly silent.) Nostalgic Cold Warriors are still fond of inflating the Pope's role in the collapse of the USSR, but experts know it was really the Blessed Virgin Mary who KO'd the Soviets.

It's more accurate to say the Catholic Church, as its very name indicates, is a big-tent synthesis, an attempt to include many, and preferably all, Christian factions, no matter how wildly they may disagree. Inevitably, this means there are many cases of averted eyes, agreements to disagree, topics left undiscussed for the sake of peace. (Even Father Phelan, in the homily mentioned at the beginning of this article, made clear that he was not addressing the content of the Vatican's gay marriage document, merely its tone.) The call to be conciliatory or "pastoral" in all relations (even to the point of failing to police sex offenders within its own ranks) is one that the Catholic Church heeds more often than not. So the Pope can disagree with the Orthodox on dogmatic matters while still reaching out to them. Mel Gibson has some outré ideas but should not be needlessly antagonized. Latin mass zealots may make vicious fun of the church, but they should be encouraged to return. Gays are disordered in their natures, but we still want them coming to church.

In this context, the wild accusations and condemnatory language employed by the chicken littles of the New Anti-Catholicism stand out as especially poorly chosen. That the anti-anti-Catholics are airing an intramural fight, that their strident manner may actually be hurting the church they claim to defend, is a matter for Catholics to worry about. That they depict these tiffs in terms involving religious tolerance, freedom of conscience and cooked-up scares about bigotry in contemporary America is something that should concern the rest of us.

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