No matter how quiet or friendly Anna is, she eventually faces a chilling question from her Christian peers. To an outsider, the question seems as harmless as a hand-grenade looks to a two-year-old. But to Anna, it rolls into a conversation with as much destructive power as a live grenade tossed into a barracks.
“So, Anna, what’s your faith background?”
“Oh, I’m Catholic.”
Stunned silence. Suspicious stares. Words are unnecessary. Their faces say enough: “Catholic? I thought you were a Christian. Don’t you love God enough to…?”
* * *
Unfortunately, Anna’s story is a microcosm for Catholic and Protestant relations in the United States. To many, the Catholic Church seems like a diabolical Forrest Gump, ostensibly at the scene of every major crime and calamity of the last two millennia. What right-thinking, contemporary USAmerican isn’t unnerved by the concentration of power and money in Rome? Couldn’t much alleged anti-Catholicism simply be a healthy fear of absolute power corrupting absolutely? Perhaps.
The problem is that words like “seems” and “ostensibly” capture the approach most Protestants take to Catholics: prejudice. Truisms about absolute power corrupting absolutely justify an otherwise simple prejudice. Most anti-Catholicism, like most bigotry, arises from sheer ignorance.
Robert, a first-year law student in Virginia, admits, “My only contact with … [Catholicism] was through school…. I had never before really discussed or been involved personally with any Catholics … [and] I am still not in close relationships with a large number of Catholics.” Leah, a former Catholic, realizes that most Protestants react to “stuff they don’t fully understand” or based on “things they just hear” about Catholicism. And Nick, a Catholic elementary school teacher in Georgia, feels “most people … couldn’t tell you why they dislike Catholics with any real reasons.”
Not surprisingly, G.K. Chesterton, the English journalist and agnostic-turned-Catholic, had some choice words on this subject. In his 1926 essay, “The Catholic Church and Conversion”, Chesterton examined anti-Catholicism in his typically wry and prescient manner. Potentially fueling anti-Catholic fires, Chesterton admits,
[The Catholic] Church is always the only thing defending whatever is at the moment stupidly despised. … [The] Church really is like Antichrist in the sense that it is unique as Christ. Indeed, if it be not Christ it probably is Antichrist….
He argues that anti-Catholicism, by and large, has less to do with sound reasoning or good theology than it has to do with a visceral fear of the Pied Piper or of the Sirens. “It is,” he says, “impossible to be just to the Catholic Church. The moment men cease to pull against it they feel a tug towards it. The moment they cease to shout it down they begin to listen to it with pleasure.” So, even while the younger, agnostic Chesterton “never dreamed the Roman [Catholic] religion was true,” he knew that its accusers were “curiously inaccurate.”
In addition to ignorance there is a stronger, more intentional impulse behind anti-Catholicism. Robert Lockwood, Research Director for The Catholic League, has written extensively about this impulse. Lockwood edited the book, Anti-Catholicism in American Culture (2000) and has published a number of articles on the Internet about anti-Catholicism. He says, “The amount of anti-Catholic sites on the Internet is overwhelming and shocks any serious researcher.” He finds support for this claim in a 1998 article submitted to The Fifth Biennial Conference on Christianity and the Holocaust by Mark Weitzman of The Simon Wiesenthal Center. Weitzman, discussing the biggest targets of bigotry in the U.S., notes, “One group that was conspicuously present in the list of traditional American targets is conspicuously absent when we think of targets. I am referring, of course, to Catholics, particularly [USAmerican] Catholics…” (my emphasis).
Weitzman’s remarks refer especially to blatant anti-Catholicism. While they are an unwelcome minority, blatant anti-Catholics are nevertheless a minority; they fit on a larger spectrum of reactions to Catholicism. If they are not Weitzman’s overt anti-Catholics, many non-Catholics express two dominant attitudes towards Catholicism. First, many feel a confused pity, bordering, at times, on contempt, for Catholics. Second, many non-Catholics are sympathetically disappointed by the mass media’s negatively biased portrayal of Catholics.
* * *
Expressing non-Catholics’ confused pity, Robert, the law student, insists that Catholics are Christians, but he does “not believe that Catholicism is as biblical as Protestantism.” Leah, the disaffected former Catholic, regrets the lack of clear preaching in her parish. She believes contemporary Catholicism has a “misplaced center”: more ritual than the gospel.
Elizabeth, a Baptist and an English major at UNC Chapel Hill, says her first impressions of Catholicism were “[m]onotonous chanting, kneeling, standing, sitting, and singing songs with no music…. Catholicism was not beautiful to me when I was younger – it was terrifying.” At the same time, Elizabeth is frustrated by “how much airtime North American media has [sic] given the Catholic Church’s sex scandals. … I don’t want to diminish the pain of the victims … but the Catholic Church often comes under unrelenting persecution … [without] praise for its good deeds.” Elizabeth embodies the internal conflict many non-Catholics have regarding Catholicism. On the one hand, she chides Catholicism’s ritualistic weirdness. On the other, she longs to redress the hostility her fellow Christians endure due to the media.
Kathie, a Presbyterian occupational therapist in Florida, conveys a similar disappointment with the media’s treatment of Catholics. She feels that “anti-Catholicism seems most acute when religion is portrayed in films. American films often make Catholicism – the Church – appear hypocritical, rigid, cruel, … or comical, an easy target for satire and parody.” Nick, the Catholic schoolteacher, agrees: “Catholics have been poorly portrayed in popular culture. Gangsters, whores, [alcoholic] Irishmen, etc. have all been seen as [evil] Catholics. There are no Baptist Corleones that I know of, but they have the KKK to deal with.”
* * *
But how bad can it really be to be a Catholic in the United States? After all, Catholics comprise 22% of the U.S. population and 17% of the global population. How can such a large group honestly be considered an oppressed minority? In his speech, “In Search of a Minority”, the late James Baldwin says, “the word ‘majority’ does not refer to numbers, and it does not refer to power. It refers to influence. … [W]hat is honored in a country is cultivated there.” Thus, a numerical majority can be a social minority, as long as the dominant cultural values marginalize that group’s values.
For example, what three groups did the Ku Klux Klan target? Most people I’ve asked answer quickly, “Blacks, Jews, and …” – and then they pause. Homosexuals? Yankees? Communists? Only the smallest handful of people answers correctly: Roman Catholics. When I tell this to most people, however, most people call it “just a KKK thing.” Perhaps. But what about Anna? Her experience – among educated friends at a major university – suggests that anti-Catholicism is a vital, pervasive force in the United States. Lockwood believes that anti-Catholicism is so persistent because it is not merely the perspective of the uneducated or the ill informed. Anti-Catholicism remains an effective tool of America’s elite. … [I]t is allowed to persist because it remains acceptable. The anti-Catholic bigotry of a Jack Chick and a Michael Hoffman [and the KKK] are [sic] easier to condemn.
Of course it is unfair to project the atavistic hatred of the KKK onto the face of the entire country. But it is certainly more unfair to limit this nation’s anti-Catholic tendencies to a group like the KKK.
* * *
A concrete and very poignant case of anti-Catholicism is that of Linda Portál. Linda is director of The Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults program at a parish in Gainesville, Florida. She was raised as a Catholic in Michigan and in college she made the faith “her own.” Sadly, her spiritual journey has been punctuated by anti-Catholicism. In junior high school Linda was kicked out of class by her teacher, who explained, “No one should have to go to school with a Catholic.” At the same school, Linda was often beat up by her classmates. Local custom forbade Catholics to date Protestants. Linda also recalls neighborhoods – suburban ghettoes, as it were – where only Catholics could live. Protestants seeking a house were simply steered past these areas.
Years later, Linda applied for a job at a major electrical company. She learned that she had been hired and would begin working within a few weeks. But after several weeks without a call from the company, she grew anxious. Apparently, a high level executive in the company had been systematically firing all Catholics (approximately twenty) beneath him – and he had quashed Linda’s application before she was officially contracted. Despite all this, Linda views anti-Catholicism an admirable aplomb: she sees it as a pitiable “fear of the unknown” in this, our “predominantly Protestant country.”
How is such calculated bigotry possible in our “democratic” society? Why is anti-Catholicism so persistent, so insidious, in the U.S.? “The primary reason,” argues Lockwood, “is that anti-Catholicism is a part of our cultural inheritance.” He cites William Bradford’s “Of the Plymouth Plantation” – an eyewitness history of the Plymouth Colony from 1620-1647 – as evidence. Bradford’s history, Lockwood notes, “is considered a seminal document of American thought and culture, giving tremendous insight into the ideas that helped to create America. … Yet, in its very first sentence, it refers to ‘the gross darkness of [Catholic] popery which had … overspread the Christian world.’ ” Lockwood insists “this anti-Catholic mentality has never disappeared from American thinking….”
Whatever the causes of anti-Catholicism, millions of Catholics must face its effects every day. “I don’t like knowing it’s there,” Anna admits, “but I need to. It’s the truth, you know. It hurts. A lot.”