Hey, Wait A Minute

The Myth of Anti-Catholicism

Or, how the establishment learned to stop worrying and love the pope. 

In a freshman dormitory of oddballs, he was one of the oddest: A tall, gangly kid who could be amiable one moment and aggressive the next. Real or feigned, his animosity toward me took on a strange sectarian coloration. He addressed me as “Micky,” and not as an abbreviation for Michael. I think he even called me a “mackerel snapper.”

This being 1969, no campus speech code existed to protect Catholic minorities like me. Besides, my dorm-mate’s Tourette’s-like eruptions seemed to me insane, not intimidating. I knew what serious anti-Catholicism was. My mother had gotten into trouble at work after being seen with her cousin, a priest. My father’s family had had a run-in with Catholic-hating Ku Klux Klansmen in West Virginia. My grandfather had complained that his promotion at a Presbyterian bank was thwarted by his lack of a Masonic ring.

Although I have yet to be victimized by anti-Catholicism, I can recount a few peculiar exchanges with Protestants. An older colleague once asked me what Pittsburgh’s “Catholic community” thought about such and such an issue, as if all the Catholics in town met regularly for instructions in a church basement. On a cruise a few years ago, a retired academic noted that we were heading for Rome and that “Mike has to check in, har har.”

Yet childhood friends—high-achieving Ivy League alumni among them—have claimed over beers that anti-Catholicism is endemic in America. (Funny, it hasn’t inhibited their advancement.) When the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, for which I work, published something about priestly misbehavior, I braced myself for the inevitable complaint that “you’d never write that way about blacks and Jews.” And in my reading, I encounter endless recyclings of Peter Viereck’s aphorism that “anti-Catholicism is the anti-Semitism of the intellectuals” (or, in some renderings, of liberals).

Anti-anti-Catholicism acquired a media face in 1993 when William A. Donohue, a contributor to the Post-Gazette’s op-ed pages in the 1980s when he was a professor in Pittsburgh, became president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. Donohue boarded the victimology bandwagon and rolled over predictable adversaries such as Planned Parenthood, People for the American Way, gay activists, and the liberal media. The league’s score of wrongs also included attacks on the church by fundamentalist types, but old-fashioned anti-Catholics were bit players. As Donohue wrote in a 1998 report: “When one thinks of activist organizations that are anti-Catholic, images of the Ku Klux Klan come to mind. But most of the bigotry that is heaped upon the church these days comes not from terrorists but from well-respected men and women in establishment organizations.” A little over the top, I thought, and I began incubating an essay with the playful working title: “Anti-Catholicism: Hoax or Scam?” Then came George W. Bush to Bob Jones University, which characterizes Catholicism as a cult. With an assist from the McCain campaign, anti-Catholicism became a campaign issue. Meanwhile, Republican leaders in the House of Representatives were reportedly prepared to override a bipartisan panel’s preference for a Catholic priest as the new House chaplain. (This week, after a firestorm of criticism, the leadership awarded the chaplaincy to a different Catholic priest, the Rev. Daniel Coughlin, after its Presbyterian choice withdrew.) The Catholic League promptly rerouted its anathemas from postmodern blasphemers such as Bart Simpson (dissed by the league for asking his mother, “Can we go Catholic so we can get Communion wafers and booze?”), Terrence McNally, Ted Turner, and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence to practitioners of what looked like Anti-Catholicism Classic. The chaplain controversy incited Donohue to warn of “a residue of anti-Catholicism embedded in the evangelical community.”

Are the Know-Nothings really back? Is anti-Catholicism, as one of my practicing Catholic friends puts it, the “last acceptable prejudice”? I think not. Behind the diagnosis of resurgent anti-Catholicism is a mix of conceptual confusion and political point-scoring. The confusion lies in the portmanteau term “anti-Catholicism,” which is being used to describe two distinct if historically linked attitudes: one theological, the other social and political.

In the first sense, BJU-style anti-Catholicism is just Protestantism with an attitude. Despite the trend toward ecumenical togetherness, some Protestants still believe that Roman Catholicism is a noxious superstition. This was once the mainstream Protestant position. One of my prized possessions is an 1846 edition of the Rev. John Dowling’s History of Romanism From the Earliest Corruptions of Christianity to the Present Time, which is approvingly blurbed by Episcopal, Lutheran, Congregationalist, Methodist, and Baptist clergymen.

Put on the defensive by the media blitz, Bob Jones University removed from its Web site the Catholicism-equals-cult reference, but then reinstated it. And why not, if it’s part of the Gospel According to Bob? A Catholic writer friend of mine offered this about BJU’s anti-Catholic Web page: “Insofar as the item engaged Catholicism on the level of truth and falsehood, I think Catholics might have welcomed it. … I think some Catholic should put the church’s truth up against Bob Jones’.”

The second strain of anti-Catholicism, the social prejudice that plagued my ancestors and hampered John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, still elicits complaints from lapsed or “cultural” Catholics. Trouble is, that sort of anti-Catholicism has mostly vanished. In my grandfather’s time, Pittsburgh Protestants pushed the buttons of corporate power. Today its commercial, legal, and journalistic establishments are thick with Catholics. It’s the same in a lot of former WASP strongholds. Meanwhile, in the mass media, Catholicism is a kind of cultural default mode. The House may need to be shamed into naming a Catholic chaplain, but Catholic priests are ubiquitous in movies and on television, and affectionate spoofs of “growing up Catholic” have a universal appeal. (Well, almost universal: The Catholic League cited a dinner theater production of Do Black Patent Shoes Really Reflect Up? as an example of Catholic-bashing.)

As for politics, papists such as Ed Muskie, Bruce Babbitt, and Alexander Haig have run for the White House without incident, and Mario Cuomo broke Protestant and Jewish hearts when he declined the opportunity. Brushing aside the objections of some of his fundamentalist Protestant supporters, President Reagan established diplomatic relations between the United States and the Vatican.

S ure, the occasional irruptions o f old-style anti-Catholicism still sting. In 1991, Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder reacted thus to the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas, a onetime Catholic seminarian: “The question is, ‘How much allegiance is there to the pope?’ ” But that comment cost Wilder his respectability, just as George W. Bush’s appearance at Bob Jones University provoked a backlash and forced him to confess to Cardinal O’Connor.

Because too many people I respect have been wounded by anti-Catholicism, I can’t dismiss it as a hoax and a scam. But neither is it a burning civil rights issue or a peril to American pluralism. Indeed, much of what the Catholic League would consider out-of-bounds Catholic-bashing—such as editorial cartoons attacking the hierarchy’s opposition to female priests or its slowness to address sexual abuse by some priests—is a reflection of how Catholicism has joined the American mainstream. If Catholicism were still regarded as an exotic sect, it would be treated with kid gloves. And while I disagree with Bob Jones University’s teachings about Catholicism, to put it mildly, I don’t think that First Amendment supporters should muscle true believers into muffling their religious convictions.

One more point: Many of the columns and cartoons that the Catholic League would consider anti-Catholic are the work of cradle Catholics, who are less inhibited about criticizing the church than a patronizing Protestant might be. These critics may be bad Catholics in the Catholic League’s view, but it isn’t fair to portray them as the modern heirs of the Rev. John Dowling. His mantle has passed to cranks like my old dorm buddy and, of course, the cultural conservatives at Bob Jones University.