A review of The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice by Philip Jenkins

Speaking in 1959, Harry Truman expressed distrust of Catholics in high government positions because they "have a loyalty to a church hierarchy that I don't believe in…. You don't want to have anyone in control of the government of the United States who has another loyalty, religious or otherwise." Truman was hardly a political philosopher—or a deep thinker—so perhaps this is nothing more than a vague expression of age-old popular prejudice. Still, it is telling that a basically decent man and populist president as recently as 40 years ago felt free to remark on pernicious alien loyalties only in Catholics and not in Jews, Anglicans, unreconstructed Southern Baptists, or sundry other odd pieces of our American cultural mosaic. It confirms an old Catholic joke: of course the WASPs were in favor of separation of church and state—they were the state.

Truman was playing to a long history of anti-Catholic prejudice in the United States that in turn went back centuries to English polemics against the pope and the Church hierarchy. Some of the criticism was legitimate. The Catholic Church had a hard time coming to grips with modern democracy, for example, partly because it had been on the receiving end of no little violence in the French and other revolutions in Europe. Edmund Burke, a fair-minded observer, remarked at the time that the French Catholic bishops he had met were in no way morally inferior to their Anglican counterparts and that the British sympathizers with the revolution, like the revolutionaries themselves, were indulging in anti-Catholic prejudice under the cloak of democratic enthusiasm.

Other Anglophone objections to Catholicism reflected long-standing disagreements between Protestants and Catholics about the proper organization of the church and the role it should play vis-a-vis the state and the individual. Truman seems to have believed that a church, on the Anglican model, "interferes neither in a man's politics nor his religion." Whatever else might be said for or against Roman hierarchies and disciplines, they resisted the tendency, evident since the 17th century, to turn religion into a tame force in an essentially secular state. Relative indifference to denominational niceties seemed only commonsense while there was still a widespread consensus among Protestants about faith and morals. But as we have seen in recent decades, once that common horizon evaporates, all strong religious views are regarded by a militantly secular minority as "alien" loyalties.

So it is no surprise that there has recently been a remarkable rapprochement between Catholics, evangelicals, traditional Protestants, and even some Orthodox and Reformed Jewish congregations in the United States, which formerly felt at odds with one another. All of them now sense a threat from the same social forces that target John Paul II. Furthermore, the Catholic Church's own internal development toward and outright promotion of democratic procedures, human rights, and religious liberty throughout the world—staples of the Wojtyla papacy—has gone a long way toward undercutting traditional anti-Catholic charges.

But the story, alas, does not come to a happy end at this point. As Philip Jenkins luminously describes in The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice, the new anti-Catholicism reflects a shift in American social dynamics. The old anti-Romans were essentially a fragmented assembly of right-wing and nativist currents. The new anti-Catholicism is a panoply of leftwing social and lifestyle movements—from radical feminists, to militant gay organizations, to extremist historians of the Holocaust—who use the old prejudice to gain sympathy for various leftist agendas by creating a "grossly stereotyped public villain."

A former Catholic who is Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Penn State, Jenkins achieves almost miraculous balance of judgment. He allows for Catholic errors and outright crimes in the past and present, but also points out the unfair treatment and hostility to Catholicism as such that permeates large segments of the universities, the media, Hollywood, and government—the very institutions that pride themselves on fair and inclusive treatment of marginal and maligned groups. This trend, he says, is worrisome not merely because it often reflects unfair and ideological readings of particular issues. Anti-Catholic assumptions, unchallenged in our media, have become part of what every supposedly well-educated and right-thinking person "knows." And radical movements piggyback on those assumptions.

This dynamic becomes clearer if you look at some of the main features of American Catholicism. Although the Church is often portrayed as a reactionary institution, the American Catholic bishops are among the most reliable supporters of liberal policies such as welfare and the redistribution of wealth. Leaders from the pope to the local pastor oppose the death penalty and war, and speak warmly of international organizations. If it were not for the Catholic view on matters mostly sexual, the Church would be seen clearly for what it otherwise is, a moderately liberal institution. But there's the rub.

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Take the burgeoning homosexual movement in America. Homosexual activists have convinced themselves and large segments of the media that the church "kills homosexuals" by opposing condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS. Of course, the Church prohibits contraception for everyone, gay and straight, so this is not a particularly anti-gay stance. But such are the powers of self-righteous rage that gay activists in this country have engaged in "storming" (their own term) masses in churches as well as disrupting lectures by eminent church figures such as Cardinal Ratzinger. Pro-homosexual plays on Broadway and writings in leftist journals routinely pour invective on the pope and the Catholic hierarchy. The American media barely noticed when gay activists took communion at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York—a block away from their own offices—and spat it on the floor. If you have not heard about these or many other such incidents, it is because for virtually all the mainstream media almost anything seems tolerable in light of the hate crimes supposedly preached by Rome.

But on homosexuality, the good historian Jenkins rightly says, there was no disagreement whatever among Christian churches, who quarreled vehemently about many other things among themselves, until the past few decades. Scholarly attempts to discover acceptance of homosexuality in late antiquity or obscure medieval ceremonies have all been exposed as impostures. So the common perception that a bunch of old Italian celibates with too much time on their hands are the originators and mindless defenders of a woefully un-Christian or antiquated view lacks any basis in fact. Catholicism, as an already embattled faith, is merely the easiest target for attacking a view that really goes all the way back to ancient Judaism. It would not be an exaggeration to say that in the modern world it is the pope who takes the heat for Moses and much else in the Jewish tradition as well. But you would never know this from the American media.

Something similar has occurred in the media-abetted furor over Pope Pius XII's alleged silence and indifference to Jews during World War II. Jenkins allows that there are contradictory ways of reading the evidence. Yet most of the highly touted books ignore facts that do not support an a priori thesis. Even before he became pope, Eugenio Pacelli was described by the Nazis as "this Jew-loving cardinal" for his open repudiation of anti-Semitism. A host of more reputable witnesses during and after the war—Einstein, Golda Meir, even the New York Times—regarded Pius XII as an outspoken defender of Jews and others at a time when it was dangerous to speak out. Though in retrospect his statements appear to us less direct than we would want, in the context those most aware of the situation read them in quite another manner than do contemporary historians with an axe to grind.

It complicates the anti-Catholic case that some liberal Catholics (Garry Wills, James Carroll, John Cornwell) have played into these same charges, usually because they want to advance liberalism within the Church. The most slanderous book—Cornwell's cleverly titled Hitler's Pope—rings the usual charges on Pius's alleged silence. But the evidence offered is far from convincing, beginning with the cover. It shows a smiling Cardinal Pacelli emerging from a German government building surrounded by uniformed guards. The point is clear; he was cozy with the Nazi monsters. But there's a problem: the photograph was taken in the 1920s, before Hitler rose to power, and the cardinal is coming from a meeting with the democratically elected President von Hindenburg. Viking Press, Cornwell's publisher, would have been thoroughly discredited if it had pulled a similar stunt on any other figure. But the prestige media ignored this flagrant betrayal of one of the simplest rules of intellectual honesty, presumably because right opinion knows that the charge is right even if the facts are wrong.

On other issues, the Church has received similar treatment because its "rigid" dogmatism runs athwart the wishes of feminists and proabortion activists. The Church obviously has its own firm principles, but other institutions in our society are quite dogmatic, while receiving little or no public criticism. The Democratic Party, for instance, is no stranger to strict dogmatism and virtual excommunication. In an infamous case, Pennsylvania governor Robert Casey was not allowed to speak at the 1992 Democratic National Convention because in spite of impeccable liberal credentials Casey opposed abortion. At least for the moment, no pro-life Democratic candidates can survive the protests by extremist constituencies. Casey was invited to an independent forum where protesters shouted, "Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Governor Casey go away!" and "Murderers have no right to speak." It takes a certain kind of blinkered and dogmatic mind, indeed, to believe that these charges had anything whatever to do with the liberal Casey. The press basically ignored all this.

The press is not even aware of its own recent views on seemingly backwards Catholic positions. On March 22, 1931, the Washington Post ran an editorial following the Church of England's Lambeth Conference, which had approved of contraception. The Post commented: "It is impossible to reconcile the doctrine of the divine institution of marriage with any modernistic plan for the mechanical regulation of human birth. The church must either reject the plain teaching of the Bible or reject schemes for the 'scientific production' of human souls. Carried to its logical conclusion, the [Lambeth] committee's report if carried into effect would sound the death-knell of marriage as a holy institution, by establishing degrading practices which would encourage indiscriminate immorality. The suggestion that the use of legalized contraceptives would be 'careful and restrained' is preposterous." You may think that the Post was no more reliable then than now, but that it could come out swinging so broadly shows how strange is the view that only the retrograde Catholic Church could oppose so obviously rational a choice as birth control.

Recent world-wide pushing of condoms was premised on the idea that population was a threat. Now that it is in free-fall in many places—and threatening the very survival of Western Europe and several prosperous Asian countries—the note at the United Nations has shifted to "reproductive rights," exactly the kind of vague ideological notion that the Left has often coined to put one over on otherwise intelligent and well-intentioned people.

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The priestly pedophilia crisis that erupted in early 2002 has added vehemence to all of the issues outlined here, and it is not uncommon to see once again anti-Catholicism emerging in broad charges that pedophilia, the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch hunts—that's what the 2,000-year history of the Catholic Church is all about. Jenkins' earlier book Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis (Oxford, 2001) took the bold view that the gross incompetence of some Catholic leaders had compounded a rather well-known problem, not any more prevalent among Catholic priests than among the general population. But he also observed that indulgent attitudes about homosexuality and homosexual "initiation"—a common theme in gay literature —deserved far more discussion than they had received. The pedophilia "crisis" said little about celibacy, Catholic views of sexuality, or the other elements in the usual anti-Catholic litany.

Taken singly, the various expressions of anti- Catholic bias are bad enough. But they are not isolated instances, as Jenkins rightly says. In a culture quick to discern patterns of discrimination in the burning of black churches (a false alarm), the stifling of dissent (under the "conservative" John Paul, perhaps a half-dozen church dissidents have been muzzled), or latent anti-Semitism, there is no effort to connect the dots when it comes to a pervasive and growing anti-Catholicism. There are many reasons for negative attitudes about Rome in America, but these attitudes are now cresting in a wave that bodes ill for anyone who wishes to resist the currents they embody—or even to practice simple fairness: "If only because of the sheer numbers involved, anti- Catholicism must be seen as the great unknown 'anti-ism' or phobia, the most significant unconfronted prejudice in modern America."