Skip to comments.The Last Acceptable Prejudice? Anti-Catholicism in the United States
Posted on 01/05/2002 8:35:41 PM PST by Theresa
The advertisement for a student-loan company features a picture of a nun in a veil with the legend "If you're a nun, then you're probably not a student." The movie "Jeffrey" includes a trash-talking priest sexually propositioning a man in a church sacristy. One can readily venture into novelty stores and buy a "Boxing Nun" handpuppet or, if that's out of stock, perhaps a "Nunzilla" windup doll. "Late-Nite Catechism," a play that features a sadistic sister in the classroom, has become a favorite of local theaters across the country. Since last fall nine Catholic churches in Brooklyn, N.Y., have been vandalized; statues have been decapitated and defaced. In some instances hate mail was sent as well. The playwright Tony Kushner, writing in The Nation, calls the pope a "a homicidal liar" who "endorses murder." During one Holy Week The New Yorker displays a picture of the crucifixion on its cover; but in place of the corpus, a traditional Catholic icon, appears the Easter Bunny. On PBS's "Newshour With Jim Lehrer" a commentator discussing mandatory DNA testing for criminals identifies the following groups as "at risk" for criminal behavior: "teenagers, homeless people, Catholic priests." A Catholic priest highly recommended by a bi-partisan committee that spent "literally hundreds of hours" in their search for a chaplain for the U. S. House of Representatives is rejected with no adequate explanation. And the leaders of Bob Jones University, where Gov. George W. Bush appeared during his presidential campaign, call Pope John Paul II the "Anti-Christ," and the Catholic Church "satanic" and the "Mother of Harlots."
Examples of anti-Catholicism in the United States are surprisingly easy to find. Moreover, Catholics themselves seem to be increasingly aware of the specter of anti-Catholic bias. In the past, a largely immigrant church would have quietly borne the sting of prejudice, but today American Catholics seem less willing to tolerate slander and malicious behavior. In addition, the question of anti-Catholic bias has recently been brought to the fore by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. Emboldened by its public-relations successes, with attacks on television shows like "Nothing Sacred," Broadway offerings like "Corpus Christi" and last year's exhibit "Sensation" at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, this organization has made anti-Catholicism a hot political issue.
But this raises a critical question: How prevalent is anti-Catholicism in American culture? Is it, as some have termed it, "the last acceptable prejudice?" Is it as serious an issue as racism or anti-Semitism or homophobia? Or are rising complaints about anti-Catholic bias simply an unfortunate overstatement, another manifestation of the current "victim culture," in which every interest group is quick to claim victimhood?
In short, is anti-Catholicism a real problem in the United States?
It is, of course, impossible to summarize 400 years of history in a few paragraphs. But even a brief overview serves to expose the thread of anti-Catholic bias that runs through American history and to explain why the eminent historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. called anti-Catholicism "the deepest-held bias in the history of the American people."
To understand the roots of American anti-Catholicism one needs to go back to the Reformation, whose ideas about Rome and the papacy traveled to the New World with the earliest settlers. These settlers were, of course, predominantly Protestant. For better or worse, a large part of American culture is a legacy of Great Britain, and an enormous part of its religious culture a legacy of the English Reformation. Monsignor John Tracy Ellis, in his landmark book American Catholicism, first published in 1956, wrote bluntly that a "universal anti-Catholic bias was brought to Jamestown in 1607 and vigorously cultivated in all the thirteen colonies from Massachusetts to Georgia." Proscriptions against Catholics were included in colonial charters and laws, and, as Monsignor Ellis noted wryly, nothing could bring together warring Anglican ministers and Puritan divines faster than their common hatred of the church of Rome. Such antipathy continued throughout the 18th century. Indeed, the virtual penal status of the Catholics in the colonies made even the appointment of bishops unthinkable in the early years of the Republic.
In 1834, lurid tales of sexual slavery and infanticide in convents prompted the burning of an Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Mass., setting off nearly two decades of violence against Catholics. The resulting anti-Catholic riots (which included the burning of churches), were largely centered in the major urban centers of the country and led to the creation of the nativist Know-Nothing Party in 1854, whose platform included a straightforward condemnation of the Catholic Church.
By 1850 Catholics had become the country's largest single religious denomination. And between 1860 and 1890 the population of Catholics in the United States tripled through immigration; by the end of the decade it would reach seven million. This influx, largely Irish, which would eventually bring increased political power for the Catholic Church and a greater cultural presence, led at the same time to a growing fear of the Catholic "menace." The American Protective Association, for example, formed in Iowa in 1887, sponsored popular countrywide tours of supposed ex-priests and "escaped" nuns, who concocted horrific tales of mistreatment and abuse.
By the beginning of the 20th century fully one-sixth of the population of the United States was Catholic. Nevertheless, the powerful influence of groups like the Ku Klux Klan and other nativist organizations were typical of still-potent anti-Catholic sentiments. In 1928 the presidential candidacy of Al Smith was greeted with a fresh wave of anti-Catholic hysteria that contributed to his defeat. (It was widely rumored at the time that with the election of Mr. Smith the pope would take up residence in the White House and Protestants would find themselves stripped of their citizenship.)
As Charles R. Morris noted in his recent book American Catholic, the real mainstreaming of the church did not occur until the 1950's and 1960's, when educated Catholics--sons and daughters of immigrants--were finally assimilated into the larger culture. Still, John F. Kennedy, in his 1960 presidential run, was confronted with old anti-Catholic biases, and was eventually compelled to address explicitly concerns of his supposed "allegiance" to the pope. (Many Protestant leaders, such as Norman Vincent Peale, publicly opposed the candidacy because of Kennedy's religion.) And after the election, survey research by political scientists found that Kennedy had indeed lost votes because of his religion. The old prejudices had lessened but not disappeared.
But why today? In a "multicultural" society shouldn't anti-Catholicism be a dead issue? After all, Catholics have been successfully integrated into a social order that places an enormous emphasis on tolerance. Moreover, the great strides made in dialogue among the Christian denominations should make the kind of rhetoric used in the past outmoded if not politically incorrect. But besides the lingering influence of our colonial past, and the fact that many Americans disagree with the Catholic hierarchy on political matters, there are a number of other reasons for anti-Catholic sentiments. Most of these reasons are not overtly theological. (However, as the recent flap at Bob Jones University demonstrated, strong theological opposition to the church still exists among small groups of Baptists and evangelicals in the South.) Rather, these sentiments stem mainly from the inherent tensions between the nature of the church and the nature of the United States.
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Disclaimer - I'm neither Muslim, Christian, or Jewish.
This is true in my experience. I remember well my Irish grandparents telling stories about moving from St. Louis to Dallas,Texas (the South). They needed to rent a house. One thing they learned quickly was not to ask if there was a Catholic Church nearby or they would not get a rental. They were also afraid of the Ku-Klux-Klan.
By the time I was in school in the early 50's things had gotten much better. Those stories were ancient history to me. But then one day, I was about 7 or 8 I met this other little girl and I told her I was Catholic. She said, "My daddy is Baptist and he says the Catholic Church is the Whore of Babylon and the anti-Christ." I was just stunned!! I felt like some of dog or something for a minute or two. It did not know what a whore was but it sure sounded terrible to me!! LOL.
Everything went along fine after that. I never ran into prejudice. Oh peers in my early 20's who would tease me because I was a naive Catholic girl. But it was mostly in good fun. And anyway, they were right.
Then about two years ago I told some Bible Christian friends I was Catholic and they said to me that I should read Jack Chick so I would know that the Catholic Church is a cult and the Whore of Babylon. I was just floored. I was shocked. And what's worse by this time I KNEW what a whore was!! (LOL) Never had any of my rights denied over being Catholic and that's not my complaint. Gosh we have prominet leaders in all walks of life who are Catholic, things are vastly improved. Ecumenical meetings with our Protestant brothers and sisters are the norm now. Still there is a current of anti-Catholicisim America, it is small but is rising again. Just do a search on the Internet and you can find Catholic bashing sites galore. I don't include doctrinal disagreement (no matter how vigourous)with Catholic bashing. But you can spot sites where The Catholic Chruch is actually feared, loathed and insulted not just disagreed with.
Why is it okay to bash groups because of thier faith and not okay to bash groups because of thier race or sexual orientation? Anti-Semitism is frowed on but not anti-Catholicism. It is a double standard and it is not right.
if you don't get it, you don't get it...
Not to dismiss prejudice against Catholics, but Catholics are probably the biggest customers of this sort of thing.
BTW- The other day I saw a boxing-rabbi for sale. The nun could probably take him 2 out of 3 rounds.
Hey! I like those things!
Ever get one of those glow-in-the-dark St Michael statues? I had one by my bed when I was a kid.
Me too! My daughter bought me a Nunzilla and the Boxing Nun about 4 years ago for stocking stuffers. About 7 months later, she became a postulant at Mother Angelica's, and now she is a cloistered Nun.
Oh I agree. Geesh we used make fun of the nuns when I was at Ursuline Acadamy. And every year when it was time to sign yearbooks (Catholic yearbooks always have a picture of the current pope in them ) somebody would sign for the pope. One of my year books had the inscription, "Dear Theresa: Love ya, signed Johnny" by a picture of Pope John the XXIII. And I always liked Father Guido Sarducci on SNL. (Sometimes he got a little too nasty but generally he was funny.) I loved his "find the Pope in the pizza" bit. Who was that singer comedian who sang that song the Vatican Rag?:
Line up in that big processional.
Get into that small confessional.
Bow your head with deep respect.
I loved that!!
I think that was Tom Lehrer.
Well yeah but ya know it's not the same as when an outsider does it.
10. May I offer you a light for that votive candle?
9. Hi there. My buddy and I were wondering if you would settle a dispute we're having. Do you think the word should be pronounced HOMEschooling, or homeSCHOOLing?
8. Sorry, but I couldn't help but noticing how cute you look in that ankle-length, shapeless, plaid jumper.
7. What's a nice girl like you doing at a First Saturday Rosary Cenacle like this?
6. You don't like the culture of death either? Wow! We have so much in common!
5. Let's get out of here. I know a much cozier little Catholic bookstore downtown.
4. I bet I can guess your confirmation name.
3. You've got stunning scapular-brown eyes.
2. Did you feel what I felt when we reached into the holy water font at the same time?
1. Confess here often?
I recommend the following Guilt and Torment reading list:
I especially recommend Fr. F.X. Schouppe, S.J.'s book 'Purgatory - as Told by the Saints' (originally published in 1893, France)
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