e-mail us
Fordham panel debates anti-Catholicism

New York

When organizers were planning the conference “Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice?” last fall, they expected debate to focus on public perception of the church’s policies on such matters as abortion, euthanasia and stem cell research.

Little could Jesuit Fr. Mark Massa, who heads Fordham’s Center for American Catholic Studies, and Margaret Steinfels, editor of Commonweal magazine, have anticipated that allegations of sex crimes by clergy, cover-ups by bishops and clandestine compensation deals with victims would dominate news about the Catholic church for almost all of the new year.

So it was inevitable that some of the 13 presenters at Fordham University’s McNally Amphitheater in late May would raise the question of anti-Catholicism in light of the scandal. But most of those addressing the overflow crowd of nearly 500 took a longer historical view of the problem, differing over whether anti-Catholicism was alive and well in today’s culture or consigned to an earlier period.

Some speakers avoided defining “anti-Catholicism” in the charged atmosphere of recent headlines. Elizabeth McKeown, American studies professor at Georgetown University, posed a question that may have been on many minds: “Why are you people so interested in anti-Catholicism? And why now?”

She spotlighted the Catholic “iconography and grammar” of the events of Sept. 11 -- heroes, rescuers, last rites, requiem Masses, Catholic charity and the Catholic mayor announcing the distribution of first-class relics from ground zero -- “urns of dirt with the elemental presence of those destroyed in the fall.”

And just as suddenly the city turned its attention to the scandal of clerical misbehavior, and Catholicism began (again) to take on the dark role of cultural demon, she said. “How can you talk wisely about anti-Catholicism -- in this city in this year?” McKeown asked.

Anti-Catholicism has been part of America since its earliest days, said historian John McGreevy of the University of Notre Dame. William Brewster, a pilgrim father, carried a tract against the papacy onto the Mayflower in 1620. “Anti-Catholic asides” can be seen on the Web site of Bob Jones University today, he noted.

Some of the scorn heaped on official Catholic views on sexuality in the last two decades is the result of “cultural anti-Catholicism with enduring, if intermittent strength” in U.S. society, McGreevy said.

The inability of Catholic leaders to offer a compelling vision of sexual ethics, one that takes women’s experience seriously and one that honestly acknowledges the importance of sexual orientation for its leadership caste, has also invited criticism, he said.

As unpleasant as it may be, McGreevy is not surprised that some commentators on the current scandals have relapsed into stereotypical notions of Catholics as “authoritarian and backward” or even compared Catholic leaders with the Taliban. “Much of the analysis from Catholics and non-Catholics has rightly and appropriately focused on an appalling misuse of episcopal authority. … The Boston Globe did not create this crisis.” McGreevy said. He urged his audience not to confuse criticism with prejudice.

Fr. Andrew Greeley grudgingly agreed that “without the Globe’s reporting, the bishops would have continued to stonewall” on sex abuse. Greeley held that “anti-Catholicism is as American as Thanksgiving and apple pie. It’s been part of American culture from its beginning -- despite John Kennedy’s election.”

In answer to a question from the audience as to what percentage of Catholics, if polled, would agree that Catholics don’t think for themselves or that Catholics regard rosary beads and medals superstitiously, Greeley estimated “one-fifth to one-quarter” of them.

Greeley said that anti-Catholicism is as an important and deplorable form of bigotry as are anti-Semitism, racism, sexism and homophobia. “The same people who hate Jews, blacks and gays, hate Catholics.”

But political scientist Alan Wolfe, who directs the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, challenged Greeley’s assertions. The long history of “terrible anti-Catholicism … is long gone” no matter what the media thinks or what Harvard University thinks, Wolfe said.

The ways in which Catholicism has been practiced in the United States during the last four decades has provided an “insurance policy against anti-Catholicism,” he said.

Wolfe pointed to the phenomena of switching denominations and religions, of intermarriage and of suburbanization, maintaining all had contributed to religious tolerance.

In an odd way, he said, “the astonishing amount of theological ignorance” among religious practitioners has meant that theological and doctrinal differences between people have dwindled. “Most Americans don’t know what terms like liturgy and ‘Real Presence’ mean, and for most knowledge of the Bible is about as great as knowledge of foreign affairs,” said Wolfe, who is neither Catholic nor religious.

Just about everyone weighing in on the current sex abuse crisis, including the judges and district attorneys, are Irish Catholics, noted Mark Silk, a longtime journalist who now directs the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.

The Boston Globe is filled with Catholics of different species, he said. But the editorial line of the Boston Herald has been tougher on Cardinal Bernard Law than has the Globe. The Herald had done a better job of reporting inside the archdiocese, Silk said, because from the publisher on down, the Herald is more connected to the church than the Globe is.

So is anti-Catholicism still an acceptable prejudice? Silk, a Jew, noted that despite the “remarkable growth of acceptance of religious ‘otherness’ ” in U.S. society, there will “always be theological disagreement … that shades into acceptable prejudice.” He found that the “strongest hostility to Catholicism these days … comes from the Eastern Orthodox,” who have “various historical and doctrinal bones to pick with Rome.”

Patricia Lefevere is an NCR special report writer.

National Catholic Reporter, July 19, 2002