The idea that anti-Catholicism is a significant force in American life today is a complete canard, perpetrated by theologically and politically right-wing Roman Catholics–a minority among the Catholic laity–and aimed at anyone who stands up to the Church’s continuing attempts to impose its values on all Americans.
The people who scream “anti-Catholicism” at every opportunity use the same tactics as
right-wing Jews who charge that any criticism of Israeli policies is anti-Semitic. And just as the Jewish Right attacks liberal Jews, the Catholic Right attacks liberal Catholics as well as liberal non-Catholics.
The major organization promoting the falsehood that there is significant discrimination against Catholics is the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, whose president, William Donohue, has conned the news media into treating him as a “spokesman” for all American Catholics.
One of the biggest blind spots in much of the press’s coverage of religion is that it tends to treat groups like “Catholics” and “evangelicals” as if their members marched in lockstep. In fact, there are liberal Catholics and conservative Catholics, just as there are liberal Protestant evangelicals and conservative fundamentalist evangelicals. Liberal Catholics have much more in common with liberal Protestants than they do with the kind of Catholics whom Donohue’s organization claims to represent.
The majority of American Catholics, as demonstrated in repeated public opinion polls, reject the league’s arch-conservative views on such matters as the separation of church and state (the league wants as much religious intrusion into government as possible); abortion rights; and stem cell research.
Last month, Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, announced her resignation after 25 years as head of the organization. Here is a portion of the press release, charmingly titled “Good Riddance to Frances Kissling,” issued by Donohue’s mean-spirited Catholic soldiers:
“Ex-Catholics for Abortion would be a more accurate name for Kissling’s anti-Catholic front group, but we won’t quibble now that she is quitting. For a quarter century, Kissling has misrepresented herself to the public, pretending to be the head of a bona-fide Catholic organization. Twice condemned as a fraud by the Catholic bishops’ conference, Kissling would have found another job long ago had it not been for her friends in the establishment. The Ford Foundation, the Warren Buffet Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Packard Foundation, the Playboy Foundation–these are just some of Kissling’s donors…I hope she takes her tapestries of Tibetan Buddhist deities with her when she exits her office, as well as any New Age paraphernalia she may have acquired over the years…”
What really upsets the Catholic Right is not discrimination but disagreement.
Right-wing Catholic leaders would like to turn the clock back to the days when most American Catholics let their priests and bishops do their thinking for them. When I was attending parochial schools in the 1950s, priests were treated like gods by the laity.Those were the good old days (for priests who enjoyed being treated as deities). Those were the bad old days for Catholics who, in spite of the relentless propaganda to which they had been subjected, insisted on thinking for themselves.
Today, a majority of lay American Catholics have turned a deaf ear to a number of particularly benighted bishops who have attacked prominent Catholic politicians solely because they support freedom of reproductive choice and embryonic stem cell research.
There is indeed a long and ugly history of Protestant anti-Catholicism in the United States, dating from the dawn of the republic. Yet even at a time when Catholics still encountered significant social discrimination, the Church was extraordinarily effective at writing its social and sexual agenda into law through state statutes that obstructed access to contraceptives and contraceptive information. These laws were only struck down in the early 1960s.
But the church has still not given up trying to force its version of morality on other Americans. In alliance with right-wing Protestant fundamentalists, the Catholic Church supports such hospital practices as denying rape victims information about the morning-after pill. It is one thing to say that medical practicioners should not be required to provide treatment that violates their religious beliefs; it is quite another to say that they should not be obliged to provide referrals for patients with different religious beliefs–and still be supported by taxpayer dollars from Medicaid and Medicare.
Indeed, one of the most extraordinary political developments of the past thirty-five years, in view of the history of American Protestant anti-Catholicism, is the alliance between Protestant fundamentalists and the American Catholic Church. This alliance centers around the abortion
issue, but it also extends to many other “values” issues.
Let’s look at the facts. Five of the nine Supreme Court justices are now Roman Catholics. (How did that happen if there is so much “discrimination” against Catholics?) One Catholic justice, Anthony Kennedy, has been criticized by the Catholic Right because he has upheld various laws opposed by the Church (including Oregon’s physician-assisted dying law).
The other four Catholic justices–Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, John Roberts, and Samuel Alito–are extremely conservative. One of them, Antonin Scalia, has already said that if there is a conflict between church doctrine and American law, the Catholic office-holder should resign. Yet Roberts and Alito were basically given a pass during their confirmation hearings on the issue of potential conflict between their interpretation of their faith and the Constitution. They were given a pass because politicians, too, have been intimidated by the idea that to raise a question about conflict of loyalty is to be “anti-Catholic.”
President Bush (or, more likely, his advisers) knew what he was doing when he chose politically conservative Catholics rather than politically conservative Protestants for the Supreme Court. The Bush White House understood quite well that senatorial questioners would be mindful throughout the proceedings of accusations of “anti-Catholicism” waiting in the wings. If Bush had appointed a right-wing Baptist, he or she would have faced much stiffer questioning than Roberts and Alito did.
The Roman Catholic Church is unique because it is the only religious institution to claim that its leader, the pope, is infallible in matters of faith and morals and that loyal Catholics are
duty-bound to assent to the papal judgment. John F. Kennedy understood this issue very well, and that is why he declared unequivocally, “I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.” Of course, Kennedy’s position on the separation of church and state would undoubtedly make him a bad Catholic in the eyes of Donohue and his ilk.
No one can look at the immense social, economic, and political influence of American-born Catholics today and seriously think that anti-Catholicism is a real impediment to their progress. Heard anyone call Catholics “papists” lately? What about the pejorative “mackerel snapper” (a reference to the former Catholic prohibition against eating meat on Friday), once commonly used to denigrate Irish Catholics?
Most Americans under 40 don’t even know what these terms mean, because the widespread prejudice that gave rise to such ethnic/religious pejoratives has gone the way of of parents who disown children for marrying outside their faith.
Do some people make fun of certain Catholic beliefs and say things that the Church would find offensive? Of course. People also make fun of the Protestant fundamentalist belief that the earth was created in seven days. Depending on your point of view, these jokes reflect prejudice, skepticism about religious belief in general, or bad taste. What they do not constitute is discrimination.
Discrimination is denying someone a job, an education, or the right to live in a particular neighborhood simply because of his or her religion. Discrimination is refusing to vote for someone solely because of religion–and, I should add, irreligion. An overwhelming majority of Americans say that they would never vote for an atheist. If Americans felt that way about Catholics, those who charge “anti-Catholicism” would have a case. Their case is that they don’t want anyone to say anything critical of their religion.
The accusation of anti-Catholic discrimination, like the labeling of all critics of Israel as
anti-Semitic, is a cover for what is essentially a dispute between conservatives and liberals (both within and outside the Catholic Church). I wouldn’t vote for a Catholic like Donohue, but then I wouldn’t vote for an atheist, a Jew, a Muslim, a Protestant or (what was it?) a believer in “Tibetan Buddhist deities” who shared Donohue’s views.
A Catholic wit, looking back on the certitudes of American Catholicism in the fifties, once remarked that “it was the only THE church.” Not any more. And never, thankfully, in America. Catholicism, like every other religion, enjoys no immunity from secular criticism in our nation.