October 2003By Sean M. Wright
Sean M. Wright is a parishioner of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Santa Clarita, California.
The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice. By Philip Jenkins. Oxford University Press. 261 pages. $27.
Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. called anti-Catholicism "the deepest bias in the history of the American people," and scholar John Higham has aptly described it as "the most luxuriant, tenacious tradition of paranoiac agitation in American history." Indeed!
Reading The New Anti-Catholicism vividly reminded me of my first brush with anti-Catholic bigotry. I was 10, riding my bicycle past a used bookstore's outdoor shelf. Pausing to look at a paperback book, I noticed the papal tiara and crossed keys on the cover. A product of Catholic schooling, I was shocked to find that instead of the cross, a dollar sign topped the tiara and the handles of the keys were stylized skulls. Published earlier that year (1960), the book denounced John F. Kennedy, warning that voting a Catholic into the presidency would bring the pope to Washington and destroy American freedoms.
At home, I told my Father about the book's assertions that bore no relation to the Catholicism practiced at school or in our family. A converted grandson of a Baptist minister, Papa knew both sides. As a teenager in upstate New York, relatives nearly convinced him that the Holland Tunnel being dug to connect New York to New Jersey was really a subterfuge. Catholic Governor Al Smith was really digging under the Atlantic to Rome, he was told, so that after winning the presidency, Smith could secretly plot with the pope about how to take over the U.S. With this absurdity, Papa showed me that the same lies Smith faced, now being trotted out against Kennedy, could not be dispelled by common sense among some people raised with prejudice.
Pointing out similar simplistic propaganda from Great Britain that came to America with English colonists, Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University (and an Episcopalian), goes head-to-head with anti-Catholic bigotry in America and masterfully details its current manifestations. Proving his bold assertions with scrupulously fair research, Jenkins fills thirty pages with documentation, knowing that critics will accept nothing less from a historian defending Catholicism. Never mind that many of these same critics accept every Gnostic lunacy of the second century or the garbled hysteria of any medieval crank, so long as he was at odds with the Catholic Church. They will embrace the unhistorical assertions about Jesus propounded by liberal theologians such as Robert Funk or John Dominic Crossan with little research at all simply because such theories are appealing.
Jenkins convincingly demonstrates that modern attempts to blacken the teaching and history of the Catholic Church are related to the contorted rantings of Swift and Foxe in the 1700s, now tricked out in new attire. Jenkins reveals how smears, at one time limited to the Ku Klux Klan's attempts to play up American fears of "kikes, koons, and katholics," have now become lucrative sources of revenue for ordinary individuals and companies. The business of denouncing unchanging Catholic teachings as attacks on individual freedom in America is turning a tidy profit.
The author goes on to trace how Catholic solidarity, once powerful enough to prevent wholesale attacks on the Church in America from the 1930s to the 1960s, was shattered by widespread disagreement with Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae, which reasserted the evils of contraception. Joined to this rejection was the struggle by neo-Modernist nuns and priests to liberalize Catholic life, who also wanted to change concepts about Jesus to line up with Protestant biblical studies. This conflict caused some 50,000 nuns to leave their orders between 1966-76 and some 100,000 by century's end, while creating a horribly steep decline in priestly vocations. This decline was created in part by nuns and ex-nuns placed in charge of vocations offices who have choked off potential candidates who do not line up with their feminist ideas about the priesthood.
Jenkins demonstrates how this "Catholic Civil War" gave rise to a new phenomenon in America, where the chief instigators of Catholic hatred often remain nominal Catholics. They joined ideological terrorists -- homosexual, feminist, secular humanist, and even Christian fundamentalist -- with axes to grind, in questionable assaults on Catholic teachings at odds with modern assumptions about equality and democracy. These Catholics also accept distortions of Catholic history, dogma, and discipline taught as fact even in Catholic centers of higher education. Writes Jenkins, "Even Notre Dame, long the preeminent school of American Catholicism, became a haven for liberal dissidence." That University and other Catholic educational institutions have demanded liberation from Catholic authority, refusing the obligation to teach orthodox Catholicism in the name of "academic freedom."
Anti-Catholic polemical works, once thought of by most Americans as part of the lunatic fringe, are now being released by well-known publishers. The press, theatrical, cinematic, and televised productions all follow the same line. An example of this could be seen during Holy Week in the presentation of many questionable documentaries about Jesus, Mary, and the Twelve Apostles that appeared on the Discovery Channel, the History Channel, A & E, the Learning Channel, and the Travel Channel, all of them unapologetically at odds with Catholic orthodoxy. All of these cable networks are owned and operated by the AOL-Time Warner Entertainment conglomerate. All of these documentaries are produced by the same parent corporation. All are heavily larded with the same "talking heads" -- liberal theologians, professors, and members of the Jesus Seminar, all of whom dismiss the certitude of most of the words of Jesus and the historicity of most events in the Gospels. Why the U.S. bishops refuse to produce programming for a Catholic Channel to offset such attacks is a mystery.
Refusing to sweep the idiocies of anti-Catholic history under a rug, Jenkins ably demonstrates how these anomalies have been conflated into an absurd mythology pandered to by prominent journalists, playwrights, and screenwriters. They are abetted by equally influential television reporters and news commentators -- "entertainment companies are often owned by the same corporate networks that control the news...," notes Jenkins.
Copies of Jenkins's scathing portrait of American anti-Catholic bigotry should -- but probably will not -- stand with reference works on the desks of book publishers, theatrical producers, and news editors in all electronic and print news agencies. The New Anti-Catholicism should also be commented on in every pulpit and passed out after Mass on Sundays in every parish to every Catholic family to educate them in the dirty business of anti-Catholic hatred employed by the opinion-makers in the U.S. Perhaps then we can find a new unity of as Catholics, and rid ourselves of the dissidence once and for all.