Is America anti-Catholic? Well, the precedent set at its founding and beyond sure say so. Father Steve Grunow explores the history of anti-Catholic sentiments in the U.S. and where it leaves us today, on the Word on Fire blog.
In a February 24th article in the Huffington Post, professional provocateur Larry Doyle alleged that the Catholic faith of presidential aspirant Rick Santorum was a cannibalistic Jesus-eating cult and tactical arm of NAMBLA. Further, Santorum, like all Catholics, “takes orders from the pope” and as such if he was to win the presidential election “our real president will be Benedict XVI.”
Doyle’s strategic move to garner attention for himself and the Huffington Post worked quite well, as a firestorm of controversy was almost immediately sparked. He later responded to outraged readers with a chastening correction for all those who had, it seemed, made the mistake of taking his words literally. The piece had been intended as a satire. The anti-Catholic tropes that Doyle had employed should have been interpreted as the equivalent of Jonathon Swift's essay on the proper approach of the British Empire to the Irish Famine of 1729. I guess that interpreted as a satire, Doyle's commentary was actually intended as calling out the anti-Catholicism of Santorum's detractors. Go figure!
How could the Church’s supporters have been so dim to not understand Doyle’s intentions when they read into his screed the associations used for centuries by the Church’s detractors to marginalize and impugn the Catholic Faith? Maybe they were just numb after years of enduring the real experience of anti-Catholicism and could very well identify expressions of the longstanding ambivalence of American culture in regards to the Catholic Church. They weren't as dim as some might have thought, and had good reason to be concerned.
The history of anti-Catholicism in relation to the American experience is one of the most under-examined cultural dynamics in the United States. Perhaps the worst case scenario in this regard happened across two days in August of 1834. An Ursuline Convent in Charlestown Massachusetts was placed under siege, and then sacked and burned to the ground in what was remembered by some as one of the most egregious examples of anti-Catholicism in our country's history.
The violence happened, it is purported by some historians, as a result of a cultural crisis precipitated and sustained by an influx of Irish immigrants into the U.S. The appearance of large populations of Europeans seemed to threaten the status quo of social and political relationships, and the Catholicism professed and practiced by these immigrants seemed to be the factor that made these new residents sinister and suspect. You have at play in the events of Charlestown two dynamics that seem to be accepted as a persistent threat to American self-understanding: the foreigner and religion. Why Catholicism is the specific recipient of such opprobrium in both these regards is an interesting question to consider.
For perspective, one has to reach back through time and across the Atlantic to the England of Henry VIII and his successors, and the tumult that was created when, in an audacious act of state power, the Tudor monarch declared himself the founder and head of a new form of Christianity. In doing so he set himself in opposition to not only the claims of the papacy, but also the consciences of a multitude of the king’s subjects who believed that he did not have such power and that the religion he had created was a usurper to the one true Catholic faith.
Kicking at people’s consciences rarely has a peaceful outcome, and the refusal of Catholics in England to comply with the Crown’s aggressive moves, moves that many experienced as what we would describe as acts of cultural genocide, eventually provoked violent resistance. Catholics (called “recusants”) became a thorn in the side of the English monarch and a suspect minority in the years that followed Henry’s reign.
Laws to contain Catholic resistance created an ethos in which Catholicism was viewed as not only forbidden, but dangerous. English history was constructed to mask the origins of this aversion to Catholicism. Instead as originating in aggressive state power wielded to control the Church and seize its property, what was emphasized were threats of foreign domination of the English state by a sinister papacy hell-bent on taking over the world. Such a reading of history successfully positioned the Church as a victimizer. Echoes of this version of English history were still resonating during Pope Benedict’s visit to Britain in 2010.
The foundation of the English colonies in North America as a haven for persecuted religious minorities is well known. What is less known is how these colonies resisted adherents to the Catholic faith. Both Virginia and the Massachusetts Bay colonies expressly forbade Catholic immigration into their territories. In 1654, 10 Catholics were condemned to death for sedition (which meant “papistry”) and the meager property of the Catholic clergy was confiscated by the colonial administration.
The exception to this resistance to a Catholic presence in the English colonies was Maryland, founded for the express purpose of providing settlements for English Catholics. However, this magnanimous gesture was short-lived. In 1692, the charter granting rights to Catholics in Maryland was revoked and Catholics residing in Maryland were forced to pay taxes to support the Church of England.
When the revolt of the colonies against England resulted in a victory for the colonists and the formation of a new nation, English suspicions and censures against Catholics remained part of the cultural ethos. Thomas Jefferson asserted: “History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government.” Jefferson isn’t talking about Presbyterians. “Priest-ridden” means Catholics and his words insinuate that the Catholic faithful are inherently dangerous to the “novus ordo” that the founding fathers were seeking to establish. Their presence might be tolerated in the new republic but their participation would be harshly circumscribed. Few among the founding fathers would have disagreed.
The fear of Catholicism that originated in Henry VIII’s brutal assertion of his own power over and against the Catholic Church continued to be influential in regards to the American experience. The illustrator and political satirist Thomas Nast expressed this fear in his famous rendering of Catholic bishops, styled as crocodiles, threatening to consume America’s children. At the time of the printing of Nast’s cartoon, anti-Catholicism was considered a credible cultural position and engendered a great deal of political activism.
In subsequent decades, the fear of Catholic influence on American life deprived Al Smith of the Democratic presidential nomination in 1924, and a victory as his party’s candidate for president in 1928. The Catholic John F. Kennedy was compelled by the vigorous opposition of a consortium of Protestant ministers to make a public statement which assured America, that he, and not the pope, would be the bearer of the chief executive office should he be elected.
The statement of Kennedy, while many insist to be a positive development in terms of the assimilation of Catholics into the American cultural milieu, is rarely understood as an unprecedented imposition on a political candidate in regards to an issue of conscience. Nor is Kennedy’s accommodation often explained sufficiently in relation to the history of anti-Catholicism in the United States. It is instead presented as a moment when Americans came to accept that Catholics could be just like everyone else, the sign of which would be their willingness to qualify issues of conscience to satisfy cultural fears that they could not be “American” if they professed the Catholic Faith.
Unfortunately, Kennedy’s accommodation has become a bludgeon that is at time wielded at Catholics who don’t seem to appreciate or understand what it takes to properly profess and practice the Catholic Faith in America.
There are two forms of anti-Catholicism that continue to shadow the American experience. One, which is rooted in theological and ecclesiological objections to the Catholic Faith that emanate from Protestantism, has waxed and waned. Americans have a tendency to be Gnostics and generalists in terms of their profession and practice of religion and as such the protests of the Reformation have lost much of their cultural resonance even in those Protestant churches that include explicit theological and ecclesiological objections to Catholicism in their professions of faith. This isn’t to say that this form of anti-Catholicism is no longer a factor in American culture, but it holds less attention and support as a reason to fear the Church that it did in the past.
The form of anti-Catholicism that remains at play is one that fears that the influence of the Church will inhibit the ambitions of secular liberalism and the way of life that should be accepted as reasonable, and if not accepted, imposed so as to fulfill the destiny of the modern nation-state. It is hard not to identify this secularist anti-Catholicism in much of the rhetoric that has been advanced to support the Obama administrations recent Health and Human Services mandate requiring Catholic institutions to pay for certain insurance benefits that would violate principles of Catholic morality. Whether the anti-Catholicism that could be alleged in much of this messaging is intentional, or is evidence of a cultural undercurrent that is remains latent, history will judge.
The rancor that characterizes the current moment makes it likely that accusations of anti-Catholicism leveled against the HHS mandate will quickly be dismissed. Contributing to the unwillingness to consider that there might be more at work in the conflict between the Obama Administration and the Catholic Bishops of the United States than a disagreement over insurance plans, are the effects of the terrible child sex abuse scandals that has engulfed the Church for the past decade.
Because of the manner these crimes were handled by some bishops, appeals to anti-Catholicism will likely fall on deaf ears. It will be very difficult to make the case that Catholics are the victims of a cultural prejudice when the perception has been established by the sex abuse scandals that the Church is a victimizer. The facts of recent history have met fears that are generations old. Unfortunately, even if a form of anti-Catholicism has influenced the HHS mandate, it will be difficult to make that case or garner public sympathy.
Some will think that even if such prejudices are unfortunate they are deserved and confirmed by what they have come to believe about the Church as a result of the scandals. Besides, anti-Catholicism barely registers as a reality in the historical consciousness of the United States, it is so subtly ingrained in the culture that even many Catholics have internalized these prejudices without being aware of it.
The Church is now in a real dilemma vis-a-vis American culture as a result of the HHS Mandate, and the outcome of this predicament is uncertain. Throughout its history, American culture has struggled with a great deal of ambivalence in regards to the public role of the Catholic Church.
It seems that the rhetoric offered in support of the HHS mandate may be presenting a vision of a truth about the Church's relationship to the American experience that reveals fears and prejudices against the Catholic faith that are hidden in the shadows of the past.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.