National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Spring Books
Issue Date:  February 6, 2004

By Mark S. Massa, S.J.
Crossroad, 245 pages, $24.95
Catholics remain ‘outsiders’ in America

Bias against Catholicism continues and is a paradoxical sign of strength


Invoking the nickname of a virulently anti-Catholic political party of the 1850s, Jesuit Fr. Mark Massa wryly observes that most American Catholics “know nothing” about the history of anti-Catholicism in the United States. For that reason alone, his thoughtful and often witty analysis of the subject is worthwhile. Along with the Know-Nothings, he surveys most of the 19th-century enemies of the church, including the Rev. Lyman Beecher, Maria Monk, the ruffians who in 1834 burned the Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Mass., American imperialist Josiah Strong, and Henry Bowers, the founder of the American Protective Association. Massa also describes the 20th-century manifestations of anti-Catholicism in the reinvigorated Ku Klux Klan, in the presidential campaign of Al Smith, in Paul Blanshard’s American Freedom and Catholic Power, a 1949 bestselling exposé of Catholic attempts to violate the separation of church and state, and in the presidential election of 1960.

Many American Catholics might expect a story about anti-Catholicism in America to end there, assuming that Kennedy’s election banished any remaining doubts that the church was compatible with American democracy. But Massa is only just warming to his topic. The election of 1960 does mark a decisive point in the history of anti-Catholicism in the United States, but not because it signaled its disappearance. The Fordham University theology professor argues that Kennedy’s establishment of a “wall of separation” between private faith and public action may have indeed won him the election, but it initiated a privatization of religious belief that has, ironically, accentuated the bias against Catholics in American culture.

Massa argues that Kennedy emerged from the presidential campaign as “less than compelling as the spokesman for the two-millennia-old Roman Catholic conversation about the duties of Catholics in politics,” and that this conversation has suffered ever since. As a result of Kennedy’s secularization of the Oval Office, contemporary Catholic politicians are categorized either as “hypocritical opportunists” who deny the obvious social implications of their faith or “unthinking slaves of the hierarchy” who uncritically accept church teaching on sexual and reproductive issues. In a society that demands the privatization of religion, the American Catholic church has refused to cede its public authority, repeatedly taking ethical stands on controversial issues. As a result, it is often perceived as “fair game” by the media and cultural commentators.

Although he discusses a variety of sociological, cultural and intellectual explanations for Catholic “otherness” in America, Massa relies on David Tracy’s distinction between the analogical and dialogical imagination to argue that Catholics and Protestants “see the world differently.” Catholics understand God and the world according to an analogical tradition that accepts that God’s real presence in history and in the sacraments, which nourishes a fundamental trust in the goodness of humanity and institutions. Protestants, on the other hand, use dialectical language to emphasize the differences between God and humanity, and this conceptual language affirms private judgment and fosters a distrust of authority. American society has been shaped by the Puritan and evangelical Protestant values that assume individuals need protection from the oppressions of community. Because Catholics take a much more optimistic view of community and stress unity over individuals, they do not completely fit into what Thomas Jefferson called the “lively experiment” that is the United States.

The heart of the book focuses on anti-Catholic commentators such as Norman Vincent Peale, Jimmy Swaggart and Jack Chick, the author of the infamous “Death Cookie” cartoons. Massa analyzes elements of the dialogical imagination, including their acceptance of the pervasiveness of sin, their assumption that an individual stands alone before an angry God, and their view of grace as the ability to pass through a narrow gate to where they can “gaze on an immense, faceless Redeemer -- an Other too different from humanity to see even in the afterlife.”

Unlike other commentators on anti-Catholicism in America, such as the Catholic League for Civil and Religious Rights and Philip Jenkins (the author of another recent book on the subject), Massa is neither hypersensitive nor whiny. He cautions that Catholics should by no means interpret antipathy toward their religious tradition as nourishment for a sense of victimhood. Catholics are nowhere near as marginalized in contemporary America as members of other racial and ethnic groups are, and violence against Catholic Americans on the basis of religion is virtually nonexistent. Given the frequency of hate crimes based on race or sexual orientation, overstating Catholics’ outsider status is seriously misguided.

At the same time, Massa does not minimize the disjuncture that has always existed -- and, he hopes, always will exist -- between Catholicism and American culture. He observes, “It is disingenuous for Catholics to feign surprise, anger or grief to learn that they are not in the mainstream of their culture, or that they are perceived as such by a number of their fellow citizens.” Catholic otherness is a good thing for America. While critics view the church’s persistent attempts to exert public authority as a threat to religious liberty, Massa argues convincingly that the opposite is true. To insist that the church be silent and powerless would deny the freedom extended to all religious groups by the First Amendment.

If Catholic otherness is good news for American culture, it is also good news for the church. In the last section of the book, Massa uses the sex-abuse scandal to show why the ongoing tension between Catholicism and American democracy can provide hope for the contemporary church. The “Be-trayal in Boston” (and elsewhere) occurred largely because of unchecked Catholic loyalties and blind trust in the institution. It is time for American Catholics, he suggests, to balance their analogical imagination with the dialogical tendencies exhibited by their Protestant compatriots and demand more accountability from the hierarchy.

Kathleen Sprows Cummings is the associate director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism and an assistant professor in the Department of History at Notre Dame.

National Catholic Reporter, February 6, 2004

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