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.

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.

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.