Anti-Catholicism has long been a feature of both the high and the low culture in America. From the nineteenth-century to the middle of the twentieth-century, it was out in the open: many editorialists, cartoonists, politicians, and other shapers of popular opinion in that era were crudely explicit in their opposition to the Catholic Church. But then, in the latter half of the twentieth-century, anti-Catholicism went relatively underground. It still existed, to be sure, but it was considered bad form to be too obvious about it. However, in the last ten years or so, the old demon has re-surfaced. There are many reasons for this, including the animosity to religion in general prompted by the events of September 11th and, of course, the clerical sex-abuse scandal that has, legitimately enough, besmirched the reputation of the Catholic Church. I’m not interested here so much in exploring the precipitating causes of this negative attitude as I am in showing the crudity and unintelligence of its latest manifestations. Permit me to share two examples.
I’m continually amazed how often the “problem” of Genesis comes up in my work of evangelization and apologetics. What I mean is the way people struggle with the seemingly bad science that is on display in the opening chapters of the first book of the Bible. How can anyone believe that God made the visible universe in six days, that all the species were created at the same time, that light existed before the sun and moon, etc., etc? How can believers possibly square the naïve cosmology of Genesis with the textured and sophisticated theories of Newton, Darwin, Einstein, and Stephen Hawking?
The exorcism movie is now something like the gangster film or the cowboy movie or the romantic comedy, which is to say, a genre with fairly predictable characters, plot developments, and dialogue. In recent years, there has been a spate of exorcism films, including “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and “The Last Exorcist.” Now gracing (is that the right word?) the theaters is “The Rite,” a movie starring Anthony Hopkins as a grizzled experienced exorcist and Irish newcomer Colin O’Donoghue as his youthful and doubt-plagued apprentice. One novel feature of this film is that we get to see some of the training program that prospective exorcists pass through in the Vatican. We also get to witness the rather extraordinary theatrical exertions of Hopkins, who leaves not one little piece of scenery unchewed by the end of the film.
The practice of sacramental confession in the Catholic Church dropped off precipitously and practically overnight about forty years ago. Prior to the Second Vatican Council, Catholics came regularly and in great numbers to confess their sins to a priest, but then, just like that, they stopped coming. Analysts have proposed a variety of reasons for this sharp decline—a greater stress on God’s love, a desire to move away from a fussy preoccupation with sexual peccadilloes, the sense that confession is not necessary for salvation, etc.—but whatever the cause or causes, the practice has certainly fallen into desuetude. Fr. Andrew Greeley, the well-known priest-sociologist, once formulated the principle that whatever Catholics drop, someone else inevitably picks up. So, for example, we Catholics, after the Council, stopped talking about the soul, out of fear that the category would encourage dualistic thinking—and then we discovered, in the secular culture, a plethora of books on the care of the soul, including a wildly popular series on “chicken soup for the soul.” Similarly, the Catholic Church became reluctant to speak of angels and devils—and then we witnessed, in the wider society, an explosion of books and films about these fascinating spiritual creatures.
A few months ago, I was in a cab with some of my Word on Fire colleagues, heading to the Baltimore airport. Our driver, an African American woman, enquired who we all were. When I responded that we were part of a team working for the Catholic Church, she launched into an anti-Catholic diatribe that lasted, pretty much without interruption, until we arrived at the airport. She complained about many of the usual subjects—birth control, women’s ordination, the sex abuse crisis, the Pope, etc.—but her strongest and most passionate words were directed against the church’s prohibition of abortion. “Don’t you realize,” she asked, “that women have a right to choose what to do with their own bodies?” I’ll confess that, probably out of fatigue or cowardice, I didn’t really engage this lady in debate, but she came back to my mind rather vividly last week when I read some shocking statistics that came out of New York. According to a recent study, 41% of pregnancies in New York City end in abortion. That figure, of course, is breathtaking enough, but consider this specification: among black women, the number rises to 60%! My cab driver friend was complaining bitterly about a Catholic church that opposes itself to abortion, when a genocide of the unborn among her own people—fully sanctioned and protected by the law of the land—is proceeding apace. This kind of confusion is all too typical, I’m afraid, among the adepts of the anti-anti-abortion position.