Is Anti-Catholicism Dead?

By Sewell Chan
New York Times
July 23, 2008

When Gov. Alfred E. Smith ran for president in 1928, his candidacy was derailed in large part by anti-Catholic prejudice. It has been nearly 48 years since John F. Kennedy became the first (and so far only) Roman Catholic president, but experts say that anti-Catholic sentiment — much of it originating in, or as a response to, immigrants in New York — remains an enduring force in American culture.

Alfred E. Smith, former governor of New York and former presidential candidate, gave Prime Minister Pierre Laval of France a tour of the Empire State Building in 1931.

That was the consensus of a panel assembled at the Museum of the City of New York on Tuesday night to consider the question, "Is Anti-Catholicism Dead?"

The panel is part of the exhibition, "Catholics in New York, 1808 to 1946," which runs through Dec. 31.

Like the exhibition, the 90-minute discussion — moderated by Paul Baumann, editor of Commonweal magazine, a Catholic biweekly opinion journal — was heavy on history, but the speakers also raised questions of contemporary significance.

Mr. Baumann noted the role that Catholics have played in fundamental debates in American public life — in immigration, education, nationalism, the family, sexual morality and freedom of conscience.

George J. Marlin — an investment banker, amateur historian, onetime mayoral candidate and former executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey — offered a rapid-fire overview of anti-Catholic sentiment in New York.

From colonial times, he said, tolerance has co-existed uneasily with prejudice. In debates over the New York State Constitution of 1777, Gouverneur Morris argued with John Jay, who was ardently anti-Catholic, on the issue of religious toleration.

Fears of Catholic conspiracies to take over the government endured from the 1820s to 1840s, prompting deadly riots in cities like Boston and Philadelphia. (In 1844 — the same year New York elected a nativist mayor, John Harper — John J. Hughes, who was New York's Catholic archbishop from 1842 to 1864, got the authorities to cancel a nativist rally by warning that New York would become a "second Moscow," as in, burned to the ground by its own citizens, if a single Catholic church were burned.)

Mr. Marlin also went through other milestones of anti-Catholic prejudice: the Know-Nothing Party (founded by a New Yorker, Charles Allen) in the 1850s, the American Protective Association in the 1890s, the eugenics movement in the early 20th century, Paul Blanshard's anti-Catholic writings in The Nation in the 1950s.

The next speaker, James P. McCartin, a historian at Seton Hall University, said that "anti-Catholicism in a sense is at the center of Western modern history," emerging from the "crucible of violence and hatred" that characterized the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries. Among the major themes of anti-Catholic sentiment, he said, were a revulsion toward that violence; a "long memory of real and imagined Catholic oppression"; a persistent anti-clericalism; and a prurient interest in the sexuality of nuns and priests.

Sister Mary C. Boys, a Catholic theologian at Union Theological Seminary and an authority on Jewish-Christian relations, noted that Catholic schools have long been a target of anti-Catholic movements.

Alarmed by the influence of Catholic schools, some states, like Oregon, tried to mandate that children attend public schools. (Such laws were declared unconstitutional in a 1925 Supreme Court decision, Pierce vs. Society of Sisters.)

"What these cases reveal is that anti-Catholicism is not a singular phenomenon," Professor Boys said. "Rather I think of it as a kind of amalgamation of ideologies and perspectives in which regional differences and cultural shifts give anti-Catholicism, if you will, a kind of kaleidoscopic character."

At the same time, Professor Boys said that Catholics too "have a long history of denigration of the religious other, particularly the vilification of Judaism for almost 2,000 years" — a tradition exemplified, in modern times, by the Rev. Charles E. Coughlin, the antisemitic priest who was a popular radio figure of the 1930s.

Professor Boys argued for a "textured particularism," a humble immersion in Catholic practices, teaching and history, and for greater tolerance among Catholics of differences in their ranks. "I have received more hate mail from Catholics than I ever have from people who are not Catholics," she noted.

The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus — a leading conservative intellectual, a former Lutheran pastor and the editor of the leading Catholic journal First Things — offered a surprising view on the question.

"To be a Catholic is not to be refused positions of influence in our society," he said. "Indeed, one of the most acceptable things is to be a bad Catholic, and in the view of many people, the only good Catholic is a bad Catholic."

Father Neuhaus dismissed the notion that anti-immigrant sentiment was related to anti-Catholicism, since many Latino immigrants to the United States are Catholic. (But he did note that the church, which has been strongly pro-immigrant, could be seen as having a vested interest in the immigration debate, since immigrants are a major source of members.)

He added that anti-Catholicism was as likely to come from the left — sometimes from commentators who believe that a "threatening theological insurgency is engineered and directed by Catholics," with evangelical Protestants merely as the movement's "foot soldiers."

Peter Steinfels, a Fordham professor who writes the Beliefs column for The Times, spoke last.

Like Professor McCartin, he attributed anti-Catholic sentiment to long-standing historical traditions, including English nationalism that vilified the papacy and Catholic powers like Spain, and the anti-Catholic polemics of the Enlightenment, particularly in France. (The first tradition gave us the controversial Christian evangelical pastor John C. Hagee, and the second the television talk-show host Bill Maher, Mr. Steinfels quipped, to laughter.)

"American society loses whenever Catholic wisdom is excluded form the national dialogue thanks to anti-Catholic reflexes, images and instant dismissals," Mr. Steinfels said.

"And I'm not referring to the faith-based wisdom about the eternal word made flesh," he said, "but the human wisdom about human nature and conduct that the church as gained over many centuries, undeniably mixed with its own flaws and prejudices, but nonetheless of enormous relevance to the fundamental problems humanity now confronts."

He added, however, that "untruths and half-truths" make it harder for Catholics to transmit their teachings to the next generation.

It was only during the question-and-answer session that the church's child sexual-abuse scandal came up. Mr. Steinfels said the scandal put fundamental issues about "sexuality, celibacy and the priesthood" before the public, while Father Neuhaus received applause when he said that Catholic bishops should have responded early in the scandal by acknowledging the extent of the scandal and begging for forgiveness.


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