Friday, May 4, 2012

Anti-Catholic Bigotry Is Not Dead: It Was Only Sleeping

On March 9, 2012, the New York Times printed a full page advertisement in its Friday edition that was a full-force, frontal assault on Catholicism. Styling itself an “Open Letter to ‘Liberal’ and ‘Nominal’ Catholics,” the advertisement urged Catholics to quit their Church. “You’re better than your church,” the advertisement wheedled, “so why stay?” Sponsored by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the ad attacked the Church’s stance on sexual issues--contraception, abortion, and gay marriage.
A scene from the Philadelphia Bible Riots
Source: The Granger Collection,
The Smithsonian
Catholics should be grateful for this insult, because it alerts us to this simple truth--anti-Catholic prejudice is not dead in the United States; it was only sleeping. Catholics may have lulled themselves into believing that anti-Catholicism died in 1960 when John F. Kennedy was elected President of the United States. If a Catholic can be elected President, we persuaded ourselves, then Catholics have been invited into full participation in the Nation’s public life.
In fact, however, it was probably a movie, not the election of John Kennedy, that signaled greater public tolerance for American Catholics. Going My Way, starring Bing Crosby as the amiable Father O’Malley, depicted Catholics as charmingly eccentric genuflectors who were basically harmless. Released in 1944, Going My Way was wildly popular, and Bing Crosby got an Academy Award for Best Actor.
Unfortunately, we now see that the decline in open anti-Catholic prejudice that we saw in the late twentieth century depended upon an implicit bargain. “We will tolerate you Catholics,” our post-modern secularist culture promised, “so long as you don’t take your religion seriously.”
For awhile at least, this is a bargain that Catholics appeared to accept. We began eating meat on Fridays, we slackened our zeal for Catholic schools, and many of us ignored Church teachings on sexuality and marriage. 
But not all Catholics agreed to the bargain. Joining with evangelical Protestants, some Catholics fought abortion and same-sex marriage, and many protested recently when the Obama administration sought to force Catholic hospitals and social-service agencies to fund contraception through their health care policies.  And in response, anti-Catholic prejudice stalks the land again--proclaiming its message in the New York Times.
Anti-Catholicism is as old as the nation itself; it crossed the Atlantic on the Mayflower. Indeed, in 1647, the Puritans banned Jesuits and all Catholic priests from entering Massachusetts Bay Colony and proscribed the death penalty for any priest who disobeyed the law.  Most American colonies adopted their own versions of the English penal laws, and Catholics did not gain their full civil rights in the United States until well into the nineteenth century.
From the seventeenth century through the early twentieth century, anti-Catholic bigotry has flared up again and again--often expressing itself in violence. The burning of the Charlestown Convent in 1834, the Philadelphia Bible riots of 1844, and the kidnapping of Catholic priests by Klansmen during the KKK revival of the early 1920s show anti-Catholicism in its ugliest and most violent form. But more genteel acts of anti-Catholic bigotry also form part of our nation’s history.  A 1921 Oregon law--promoted by the Ku Klux Klan--attempted to wipe out Catholic parochial schools in the state of Oregon.
Catholics might tell themselves these bad old days are gone forever, but the recent New York Times advertisement is a reminder that anti-Catholic prejudice is deeply rooted in our secular, post-Protestant culture--especially among the nation’s intellectual elites and in our universities.


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