Anti-catholicism and Bishop Sheen

North Country Public Radio
December 10, 2009

A few days ago, I posted on the struggle of the Roman Catholic church to deal with sexual issues, from its own pedophilia and sex abuse scandal to the complex moral landscape of abortion and gay marriage.

Some of the comments suggested that my views were prompted by anti-Catholicism.

It's an accusation that journalists and others have faced repeatedly in the years since the priest-abuse issue was revealed.

In that context, I found this NY Times article on the life of Bishop Fulton Sheen fascinating.

To a Catholic boy like Tim Dolan, growing up in the heartland when Protestant neighbors still made casual jokes about the “papists” next door, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen rode into town in the 1950s on the new main street of the United States, the television set, like a true-blue American hero.

“He showed the broad American public that the truths of our faith were consonant with the highest values of the society: patriotism, God, family and the struggle against Communism,” said that boy, now known as Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York.

It's easy to forget that there was a time, not so long ago, when anti-Catholicism was rampant in the U.S.

The Ku Klux Klan and other groups reserved much of their irrational hatred for "Papists" and the "Whore of Babylon."

There were anti-Catholic pogroms and murders, led by Protestant extremists.

But it wasn't just the cross burners and radicals. A quiet, pernicious anti-Catholicism pervaded American society.

Bishop Sheen was one of the Catholic evangelists who helped to change all that. You can see a sample of his popular lectures here.

I am convinced that the public reaction to the priest-abuse crisis hasn't been shaped significantly by that old and ugly legacy.

On the contrary. I think it is shameful that in many parts of the U.S., including the North Country, clergy accused of abuse have largely avoided criminal prosecution.

And there is now incontrovertible evidence that the Roman Catholic hierarchy itself inflated and inflamed the crisis, through neglect, denial, and an attempt at cover-up.

But it is understandable that many Roman Catholics see this differently.

They view the popular outrage and intense media scrutiny of recent years in the context of years of prejudice and bias.

They don't see a good-faith attempt to discover the truth and aid the children who were victims.

They see yet another anti-priest pogrom and an attempt to dun the Church out of hundreds of millions of dollars.

It's hard to bridge this sort of divide. As a journalist, the best I can try to do is understand and convey as best I can the facts and the differing points of view.

Helping me to reach a better understanding are men like Bishop Sheen, who made the case beautifully that Roman Catholicism is an essential part of the American experience.


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