BOWING DOWN BEFORE THE WORLD
Why Do American Catholics Turn a Blind Eye To the Persecution of Fellow Catholics?

April 2001By Terence Gallagher

Terence Gallagher is a freelance writer living in New York City.

The worldwide persecution of Christians in the 20th century has become the oddest kind of open secret. With the recent events in East Timor — from the awarding of the 1996 Nobel Peace prize to José Ramos-Horta and Bishop Carlos Belo to the eventual U.N. rescue mission — and with the increasingly clear testimony of persecution and enslavement in Sudan, it is no longer possible for anyone with the remotest interest in world affairs to claim ignorance of the perilous state of Christians in much of the world. News services such as UPI, AP, and Reuters reliably carry the latest story: a Christian village sacked in Egypt, a priest murdered in India, an 81-year-old bishop imprisoned for the fourth time in China. Sometimes, not infrequently, these stories make their way onto the back pages of mainstream American newspapers. The facts are presented, for those who take the time and trouble to look. What is lacking is the breadth of coverage and depth of indignation that would attend similar treatment of almost any other species of mammal. But the facts are not ignored. That is perhaps all we should expect. At best we can hope for minimal, dispassionate coverage; at worst we must endure what can only be seen as Schadenfreude, as in the New York Times Magazine story (Dec. 21, 1997) on the work of the admirable Nina Shea, where a common reaction to the persecution of Christians was reported to run along the lines of: “Good, now they’ll see what it’s like.” The complete ignorance of history — e.g., the Communist persecution of Christians beginning in 1917 and continuing to this day — evidenced by this response is, of course, stunning; no less stunning is the deep malice it reveals. Nevertheless, neither ignorance nor malice should be unexpected. Christians, and perhaps especially Catholics, often complain about a hostile press; but pointing out media unfairness will not inspire contrition and change. The press is deliberately unfair, even hostile. Christians should address the unfairness and hostility, but we should not expect it to change. Most certainly, we should not be dependent on hostile sources for news.

The real anomaly — indeed scandal — is not the failure of the secular media to respond adequately to the persecution of Christians, but the failure of response on the part of Christians lucky enough to be living in security. This seeming unconcern of Christians for their fellows has provoked wonderment not only in those suffering persecution, but even among the rare friendly voices in the secular media, such as A.M. Rosenthal, the veteran columnist who wrote persistently about the persecution of Christians in China until his termination by The New York Times.

Perhaps at one time ignorance could be accepted as the excuse for Christian indifference to Christian suffering. That is no longer the case. But the degree of indifference does seem to vary. It is my impression that evangelical forms of Protestantism are more active in supporting persecuted Christians than mainline Protestant denominations. Be that as it may, the persecution of Catholics is basically ignored in the pulpits of Catholic churches (the only exception being Catholics persecuted by some right-wing pro-American regime). The attention paid to the persecuted Church pales in comparison to the attention paid to such vital enterprises as removing standard English from the missal and removing architectural coherence from the church building.

The question before us, put as baldly as possible, is this: Why don’t American Catholics care about the persecution of Catholics around the world? To many older Catholics, specifically to “pre-Vatican II” Catholics, the explanation given here will no doubt appear preposterous. But to those of us who witnessed firsthand the, shall we say, peculiar process of instruction that constituted Catholic education in the 1970s and 1980s, I expect that the explanation will appear quite plausible. Let us return, then, to the days when the Cultural Revolution was in full swing, when the “New Church” was being constructed on the ruins of the Old, when the New Christian Person was born, and let us see what we find.


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