The Last Prejudice?
Philip Jenkins Argues That Anti-Catholic Bigotry Is on the Rise-Even Among Catholics
By Christopher Shea
July 27, 2003
GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY'S commencement ceremonies were a squirmy, uncomfortable affair this spring, and for once the sweltering D.C. weather had nothing to do with it. Picture the single mom, the gay uncle, the cohabitating field hockey player, sated from a celebratory Saturday breakfast, settling into the folding chairs on the quad to hear some heartening words from the honored speaker of the day. He was Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria, and his theme was supposed to be Muslim-Christian relations. Instead, the cardinal delivered a ferocious harangue on American sexual mores that singed his audience's ears.
"In many parts of the world, the family is under siege," Arinze railed, leaving little doubt about which part he meant. "... It is scorned and banalized by pornography, desecrated by fornication and adultery, mocked by homosexuality, sabotaged by irregular unions, and cut in two by divorce." A female theology professor got up and stalked off the stage. Previously unabashed fornicators in the crowd eyed one another uneasily.
Philip Jenkins, a professor of history and religious studies at Penn State, pretty much saw this coming. Last fall, in a much-discussed cover story in The Atlantic Monthly titled "The Next Christianity," Jenkins argued that the varieties of Christian faith thriving in the Third World were far more conservative than those in the United States. The next Christianity was on a collision course with the tolerant American creed, he wrote, and Catholic liberals in particular were demographically doomed.
"If we get an African pope, as we may before not too long, Americans may look back with nostalgia to the good old days of Pope John Paul II," Jenkins, reached at his office in State College, Pa., said recently. The Georgetown grads may have gotten a literal glimpse of the future: Cardinal Arinze has been named as a possible successor to the pontiff.
These days, Jenkins is promoting a book that will give Catholic liberals further fits. In "The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice" (Oxford), he argues that many leading Catholic critics of the church hierarchy-including the historian Garry Wills and the Globe columnist James Carroll-use such ferocious language that, in rhetoric if not in deed, they've become morally indistinguishable from Klansmen and 19th-century nativists.
"In modern American history," he writes, "no mainstream denomination has ever been treated so consistently, so publicly, with such venom." Today, he argues, an unholy alliance of feminists, homosexual activists, and radical secularists-together with a fifth column of people who call themselves Catholics but who hate the church deeply-has seized upon the sex-abuse scandal in order to drive the church out of public life once and for all.
Such arguments are not entirely fresh. The occasional church official lashing out in frustration during the abuse scandal has said as much. But what makes Jenkins unique is that he is himself a non-Catholic whose academic training lends his work an air of neutrality and makes him a favorite quoted source for church defenders. (A Welsh-born Anglican who briefly joined the Catholic Church during college and then drifted away, he has no objection to contraception, and he supports only limited restrictions on abortion.)
As a social scientist, Jenkins understands the priest-sex scandal as a classic example of a sociological phenomenon called "moral panic"-a phenomenon he's made a career out of studying. In such panics, he has long argued, conservatives as well as liberals manipulate public fears to further their own agendas.
"The only thing I don't like about the book is the title `The New Anti-Catholicism,"' says Father Richard Neuhaus, editor of the conservative Catholic journal First Things. "I'm not sure it's that new. It's an old prejudice and vice that weaves its way through American life and rears its heads in new forms."
Jenkins is certainly right that anti-Catholicism is a persistent strain in American history. (The historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr., once called it "the deepest bias in the history of the American people.") In the 19th century and into the 20th, American elites and, more broadly, white Americans of northern European descent disdained Catholics as feeble-minded servants of the pope. Many such attitudes had a "racial" component, since Catholics tended to come from southern Europe or Ireland. Some American Protestants came to believe the Catholic Church was actually the "mother of harlots" described in the New Testament's Book of Revelations-a view that still holds sway on the right-wing evangelical fringe.
In Jenkins's view, the traditional anti-Catholicism of small-town Protestants had its day in America roughly until the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960. With the sexual revolution, the main source of anti-Vatican vitriol shifted to liberals, who can't abide the church's rejection of modern sexual mores. A leading gay journalist calls the pope a "homicidal maniac." Public figures can no longer get away with slurs against gays and African-Americans, yet anti-Catholic gibes are commonplace. As the historian Peter Viereck once observed, "Catholic-baiting is the anti-Semitism of the liberals." The double standard "angers me, it distresses me," Jenkins says.
The Princeton historian Sean Wilentz argues that the convent burnings and widespread anti-Catholic lodges of the 19th century bear little comparison with the occasional church picketings and publicity stunts of activists today. "They are of different orders of magnitude," he says. But Jenkins believes that attacks on the church have reached a fever pitch during the recent abuse scandal-and it's at this point that he breaks out his One Big Sociological Idea.
Over the years, Jenkins has said that child kidnappings, recreational drug use, and serial killings have all set off "moral panics" in America and England. In the 1970s and `80s, according to his respected 1994 book "Using Murder: The Social Construction of Serial Homicide," there was a sudden, startling cultural fascination with serial killers. The fascination continues, even though such killings have never amounted to more than a fraction of a percent of all murders and have increased only slightly over the century.
Jenkins argued that the serial-killer fetish "coincided precisely" with the American public's increasing wariness about liberal explanations of crime: People were ready to believe that criminals were monsters, not simply hapless products of "social or economic dysfunction." Social conservatives played up the criminals-as-monsters talk to attract people to their lock-'em-up crime-fighting policies, and they did so brilliantly.
Like serial killers, Jenkins thinks, abusive priests do exist but also serve as convenient rhetorical weapons. A handful of clerics exposed in the sex-abuse crisis, including Paul Shanley and John Geoghan, are "all-too-genuine pedophile priest[s]" with "horrifying" records. Yet in most cases, he argues, the accused priests have been involved with teenagers. These relationships may be "inadvisable or dangerous" but they aren't examples of depraved pedophilia. (It is not unnatural, Jenkins says, for an adult male to be attracted to a sexually mature teenage boy or girl.) Editorial cartoonists, however, invariably depict priests ogling prepubescent boys. "The pedophile stereotype is so popular," Jenkins writes, "because it meshes with ancient images of Catholic perversion." Those ancient slanders always imply that beneath a cover of bogus celibacy lies a roiling cauldron of sexual deviance.
This line of argument, in particular, has inflamed Garry Wills. To say that abuse of adolescents is "not so bad since it is not `real pedophilia,"' he wrote in The New York Review of Books last summer, "is a further violation and abuse of the victims."
Whatever the definition of pedophilia-Jenkins and Wills have an ongoing semantic debate about this-Jenkins claims the public's impression of the scope of the crisis is overblown. The best data, he says, come from a 1992 study by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago that was prompted by an earlier wave of abuse cases. Using the standard of "preponderance of evidence," Bernardin's investigators found that perhaps 1.7 percent of the 2,252 priests who had worked in the Chicago archdiocese from 1951 to 1991 committed some sort of inappropriate sexual act. Distressing, but not an epidemic. In response to last week's report by Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas Reilly that the abuse scandal was "so massive and so prolonged that it borders on the unbelievable," Jenkins claims that Reilly's count of accused priests employed "a very low level of proof." He adds, "I would very much like to see some discussion of the age of the victims, partly because that is very important for some policy makers-are we dealing with 6-year-olds or 16-year-olds?"
Jenkins's main point is that, by now, the priest sex-abuse scandal is, to use academic jargon, "constructed." As soon as a priest abuse case appears, people slip it into a preexisting story line: predator priest. They don't do that with, say, teachers in public schools, even though, according to a 1998 report in Education Week, as many as nine sex-abuse cases occur in that setting each week. And just as the social conservatives used the crime wave (real and exaggerated) to ride to power in the 1980s, so the liberals are "deploying" the church's sex scandals for their own advantage, inside and outside the church. The abuse crisis, for them, is a convenient opportunity to push for relaxing restrictions on priestly celibacy, the ordination of women and gays, birth control, and even abortion.
Lisa Sowle Cahill, a professor of theology at Boston College, replies that Jenkins's interpretation requires a peculiar set of blinders. After all, she says, liberal and conservative Catholics alike support such changes as opening up the hierarchy's decisions to wider scrutiny and improving the discussion of sexuality in seminaries. Moreover, she adds, "There are traditional-minded Catholics who are equally using the crisis to advance parts of their agenda-for example, to condemn homosexuality or to try to remove homosexual priests from the priesthood."
Carroll takes issue with something more basic: Jenkins's premise that just about anyone who strongly or angrily disagrees with the Vatican is anti-Catholic. He says: "The Roman Catholic Church has a history of powerful argument within the community. It's only a very modern impulse to stifle the voices that disagree." Jenkins, he suggests, might have called Saint Augustine anti-Catholic for flouting the pope's rules against reading the pagan philosophers.
As one talks with Jenkins's friends and colleagues, the same assertion comes up again and again: He's not a conservative, he's a "contrarian." And it does seem to be the contrarian side of the Catholic Church that he finds attractive. "One of the things that makes the Catholic Church what it is," Jenkins says, "is that it doesn't necessarily go along with what everyone else in the world thinks is right at a certain point in time."
The church, however, is changing-at least in America. A recent Globe poll showed that fully 39 percent of local Catholics would support an American Catholic Church that cut its ties to the Vatican; a majority want the church to adopt more "modern" social attitudes. (So few American Catholics support the church's ban on contraception, Wills points out, that one could say it is Jenkins who is "anti-Catholic" for defending it.)
In Boston, at least, judging from the genuinely warm acceptance of Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley, who will be installed on Wednesday, the laity and the hierarchy seem to have reached a temporary truce. But it's clear there will be broader internecine cultural clashes for years to come.
Two things seem clear. First, calling one side in those fights "anti-Catholic" and beyond the pale won't resolve them any quicker. And second, things will get a whole lot more interesting if Cardinal Arinze, or someone like him, gets to be the referee.
Christopher Shea writes the "Critical Faculties" column for Ideas.
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.