Home/Articles/The New Know-Nothings

The New Know-Nothings

Philip Jenkins has written about many unpleasant things, including child molestation, terrorism, new-age religion, and modern Wales. He has now added anti-Catholicism to that list, which presents a problem to a few critics: while they are generous enough to acknowledge the existence of terrorism and Wales, they remain skeptical about anti-Catholicism.It is difficult not to notice a defensive tone in mainstream reviews of The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice, because the usual suspects who write on religion found themselves in Jenkins’s crosshairs. He proposes that anti-Catholicism is less the domain of know-nothings and Southern Protestants than it is of liberals, and that it is entrenched in the strongholds of the Left, especially the media and the academy.Jenkins offers a brisk history of American anti-Catholicism, if only to show that the new anti-Catholicism was not formed ex nihilo but drew upon a fertile American tradition. It began to take its present form during the sexual revolution, whose agitators found themselves increasingly at odds with the Catholic Church; meanwhile, conservative Protestant groups slowly eased up on their rhetoric against the Church, which was fast becoming their only ally in the struggle for America’s soul. The Second Vatican Council whetted the appetites of would-be activist reformers, but Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae placed the Church squarely against contraception and signaled that the Church’s sexual teachings were not about to be abandoned, dashing the radicals’ hopes for an October Revolution.

The resulting ressentiment proved as virulent as two centuries of nativist and apocalyptic jeremiads. Catholics began publicly to express dissent, especially on sexual matters, with extraordinary boldness. Others formed pressure groups to force the Church to reform, and soon a Catholic civil war was being waged in the media. Such open divisions among the faithful allowed outsiders to enter what previously had been considered internal debates. The result was an all-out assault on the Church—and especially its sexual morality—continuing into the present.

Those who assail the Church are often assured impunity by claiming that present attacks on the Church are justified by centuries of Catholic oppression, exemplified by the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the conversion of indigenous peoples. (Even human sacrifice, it seems, is preferable to Catholicism.) Another familiar defense is that any perceived assault is not against Catholics but against the institution of the Church. Jenkins counters that since the institution of the Church is a necessary and intrinsic part of Catholicism, denigration of it can constitute anti-Catholicism. And viciously contemning the Church more often than not entails a disdainful sidelong glance at the benighted faithful who persist in allegiance to her.Critics are quick to point out that some Catholics themselves take issue with central tenets of the Church. It becomes increasingly difficult to prove charges of anti-Catholicism when the meaning of Catholicism itself seems to be up for grabs; accordingly, Jenkins devotes significant energy to the contention that even soi-disant Catholics are not immune to charges of anti-Catholicism. (This is not an especially new claim, but it is very helpful to see it articulated by someone who has no stake in shilling for the bishops: Jenkins converted from Catholicism to Episcoplianism years ago.) This line of reasoning has incensed those accustomed to shielding themselves from charges of anti-Catholicism by pointing to supposed scars from nuns’ rulers or a Jesuit education.

Jenkins’s assertion is simple: one may disagree with the Church on any number of issues and still truthfully claim to be a loyal son. If, however, a Catholic rejects a fundamental tenet of the faith —something without which Catholicism ceases to be Catholicism, such as the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, or the universality of the Church—then one has ventured onto anti-Catholic ground. In a sane world, this would not be a controversial statement. To proclaim that one likes triangles very much, just not in their present form—limited to three sides—is to be anything but pro-triangle.

The dissidents Jenkins singles out sometimes cast themselves as loyal citizens in opposition to their government’s policies, a faulty and telling analogy. In America one may not only publicly criticize government policies, but also the form of government itself and the values on which America stands, and still count oneself a citizen in relatively good standing. In contrast, it is necessary (but not sufficient) to confess certain beliefs in order to remain a Catholic in good standing. The choice of analogy points to the influence of American values on Catholic dissent. It is not at all uncommon to hear Americans cloak their heterodoxy in patriotic language, or to call on the Vatican to fall in line with progressive American Protestant denominations. It is out of fashion to impose American values on anyone, unless those in question are Catholic bishops.

Comparing the Church unfavorably to American democratic institutions unsubtly implies that the Church, especially its hierarchy, is sinister and un-American. And if that raises the specter of a more nativist anti-Catholicism of bygone days, it is no coincidence—those days are far from bygone. A satisfying accomplishment of Jenkins’s study is his credible argument that the new anti-Catholicism draws heavily upon the legacy of the old know-nothing style of anti-Catholicism. One need only observe the treatment of the nomination of Alabama Attorney General William Pryor to the federal bench. Despite his history of applying laws he opposed, activists and lawmakers hint that he cannot be trusted because of what a few senators call his “deeply held personal beliefs” (read: Catholicism). His faith puts him at odds with the law of the land. If the Supreme Court continues to conjure up law along the lines of Roe v. Wade and Lawrence v. Texas, good Catholics will increasingly find themselves on the wrong side of “settled law”; and it will be even easier to point to Catholics as out of synch with America and possibly subversive.

Much of the language and imagery of the new Anti-Catholicism could have been lifted from 19th-century tracts: warnings about the subversion of American values by alien bishops, the dangers of the confessional, the lasciviousness of priests, the oppressiveness of the Church, and the like. During the recent sex-abuse scandals, editorial cartoons sometimes resembled poorly copied scribbles by Thomas Nast. Sensational posters warned parents not to allow their children into confessionals, an unsettling resuscitation of a common 19th-century theme in anti-Catholic polemics.

Other time-worn tactics borrowed from the nativists include the desecration of churches, spreading of anti-Catholic pamphlets, and even book burnings—few of which are met with the public outrage that invariably (and rightly) follows glaring acts of anti-Semitism or racism.

The scarcity of media attention to anti-Catholicism is part of a broader, exasperating double standard that has seeped into the culture. Homosexual activists have strewn soiled feminine-hygiene products in a church, and the press called it a political protest; one could only imagine the response had it occurred in a mosque or synagogue. Objecting to blasphemy in art or film is called prudery; objecting to “Amos & Andy” or “Charlie Chan” (recently pulled from the air by the Fox Movie Channel) is called sensitivity. Jenkins notes a sadly serviceable litmus test to determine whether government sponsorship of a work of art would breach the separation of Church and State: a devotional object is clearly unacceptable; submerge it in urine, and it passes muster.

One event absent from Jenkins’s book casts the double standard in high relief: the case of Mary Stachowicz. In November 2002, a 19-year-old homosexual confessed to responding to the middle-aged Catholic woman’s questions about his sexuality by beating and strangling her to death, then stuffing her body into a crawlspace. Some activists had the gall to sympathize publicly with her killer, and the media largely ignored the story. Police did not even consider it a hate crime. When Matthew Shepard was murdered for being a homosexual, he became a cause célèbre; today one would be denounced as a homophobe for even thinking of denying him a martyr’s crown. Jenkins could not ignore the sex-abuse scandal of the past year, which has proven to be something of a crucible for anti-Catholicism (not to mention Catholicism itself). There is no doubt that terrible things were done—and were allowed to occur—by some churchmen. Nonetheless, the flood of vitriol released against priests, the hierarchy, and the Church in general was astounding. Gross caricatures and stereotypes were rampant in cartoons, editorials, artwork, and television shows. Letters sections in newspapers became fora for anyone for whom the mere mention of a cassock is emetic. Such bile would not have been tolerated had it been channeled toward different groups. And (with the exception of the New York Post) the media have largely ignored sex scandals elsewhere. Recent reports of even more widespread sexual abuse in the public schools have occasioned fewer indignant headlines than attempts to display religious symbols in them.

Without downplaying the gravity of the crisis facing the Catholic Church, one must admit that some media attention was agenda-driven. Many activists, Catholics, fashionable apostates, and others used the opportunity to push their own agendas. Some secular newspapers presumed to advise the Church on matters of purely internal discipline, especially priestly celibacy, on the sensationalist grounds that it was a source of danger to the public. Such claims, as well as countless heated articles, cast suspicion on all priests, when about two-thirds of 1 percent were accused of misconduct. But when respectable studies showed that upwards of 90 percent of the abuse victims were male, the mainstream media still balked at using the word homosexual. At least we know that homosexuals receive treatment with kid gloves even if they happen to be priests.Even after the Sept. 11 attacks, few mainstream publications could muster as much energy to urge reform in the Muslim community as they did in the Catholic Church. In fact, several articles (including one tartly-worded screed by New York Times polemicist Maureen Dowd) even took the opportunity to place the Catholic Church in the same category as the Taliban and Mohammed Atta—obviously casting the Church as un-American again. The list can, and unfortunately does, go on.Even after presumably reading about all of this, Garry Wills, reviewing Jenkins’s book in the Boston Globe, claims that we live in a time of unprecedented tolerance, even toward Catholicism. The darling of the Catholic Left even claims that real anti-Catholicism can be found in bishops’ responses to critics of the Church. It is no wonder that Wills is a prominent exhibit in Philip Jenkins’s rogues’ gallery of anti-Catholic Catholics. In light of this (not unprecedented) charge, it certainly seems out of place to ask someone like Wills to review a book on anti-Catholicism. One may as well ask Michael Corleone to review a book on the Mafia. Whatever one’s opinion of Wills, the Boston Globe’s choice of him speaks volumes about the mainstream media’s opinion of the seriousness of anti-Catholicism—and it provides excellent justification for Jenkins’s efforts.

Even for someone who believes in the existence of anti-Catholicism before creasing the volume’s spine, its catalogue of outrages and profusion of useful notes make it a valuable resource. Jenkins’s lively style ensures that it is an enjoyable read even when one’s blood is boiling. Most importantly, he succeeds in framing the issue clearly to demonstrate that anti-Catholicism occupies a unique and enduring place as America’s last acceptable prejudice.


Joseph De Feo is a policy analyst at the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

leave a comment

Latest Articles