Does anti-Catholicism exist? Yes it does. Can we define it? Yes we can. It’s repugnance for things Catholic, both real and imagined. It’s the sort of thing Catholics and non-Catholics alike recognize when they see it.
Is anti-Catholicism, historically, as virulent as anti-Semitism, to which it is often compared? Not then. Not now. And likely not ever. But in the American experience anti-Catholicism is older than anti-Semitism, and it is still the more acceptable prejudice among academics and their illegitimate offspring in the chattering classes, among whom anti-Catholicism is less conscious, less stigmatized, and therefore less noticed.
Is anti-Catholicism as important to American Catholics as anti-Semitism is to American Jews for the maintenance of group identity? Not by another long shot. Jews are the least religious religious cohort in American society, if we exclude the Jewish Unitarians, Ethical Culturalists, and Buddhists, and so the most in need of prejudice, real or imagined, for the maintenance of group identity. Their only rivals are the Mormons, manqué Jews themselves. And I say that in full realization that my statement may be construed by some as itself anti-Semitic, if only because an outsider is saying it. Be that as it may, the American Jewish Committee and other communal organizations recognize its truth. They are my sources.
Some manifestations of anti-Catholicism are obvious. For example, I think Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s diatribe in the New Republic last January—“What Would Jesus Have Done? Pope Pius XII, the Catholic Church, and the Holocaust”—was a blatant example. But he is a known academic nut. More blameworthy, in my view, is Leon Wieseltier, the magazine’s powerful literary editor and the man who decided to run Goldhagen’s venomous piece, giving him more space than anyone has ever been allotted in the magazine.
Has some of the coverage of the current scandal in the Catholic Church been driven by anti-Catholicism? Indeed, in style, intensity, and the unrelenting nature of the coverage, some of it has. ABC’s prime-time news special, “Father Forgive Me, for I Have Sinned,” is a prominent example of what happens when producers choose a story line beforehand and use only the interview material that furthers it. Peter Jennings, who is usually sensitive to religious nuance, should have known better. Similar examples could be drawn from Vanity Fair, which, especially under Tina Brown, has been unblushingly anti-Catholic to such an extent that its editors must assume that the magazine’s readers are too.
And then there is the New York Times. Compared to the way the current crisis in the Catholic Church has been covered by, say, the Los Angeles Times, the coverage in the NY Times has been excessive and almost gleeful, revisiting old stories when no fresh news has been forthcoming and even treating parish councils as if they were radical innovations. No editor in his right mind would have printed the rant a while back by columnist Bill Keller, in which he likened Pope John Paul II to Leonid Brezhnev, unless that editor—Howell Raines—were himself anti-Catholic. It says much about the newsroom culture of the Times that it finds the views of a bitter ex-Catholic worth featuring on the op-ed page. But then, compared to other national newspapers, the Times’ op-ed page is the least ideologically diversified, with most of its columnists products of the paper’s own hothouse institutional culture. And the outside opinions they publish are almost equally narrow in standpoint. For example, when abortion is in the news, it is not unusual to find three or four pieces a week defending its legality. But in thirty-eight years of reading the Times I can recall—at most—only three op-ed pieces arguing a pro-life position.
Anti-Catholicism comes in different packages. By its own reckoning, the Times is an institution, not just a newspaper: in its own secularist fashion it is a kind of church, complete with its own hierarchy and magisterium. For many of its readers, the Times defines what is real and what is not, what is acceptable thought and behavior and what is not, thereby setting the boundaries between the secular polis and the religious barbarians pounding at the gates. In short, the Times evangelizes a wholly secular worldview, which bleaches out whatever—even in New York City—does not conform to that perspective. For instance, where a newspaper like the Chicago Tribune routinely includes parochial schools in its annual education supplement, the Times in its annual supplement has mentioned them only once in all the years that I’ve been reading it. Similarly, when it does its roundup of the year’s notable books—at Christmastime, yet—it includes no category for religion. Its news coverage of religion is spotty, though sometimes well done, but it frequently displays considerable uncertainty about what is important in this area. In short, to use David Tracy’s categories, if the Catholic imagination is analogical and the Protestant imagination dialectical, the religious imagination of the Times is dermatological—that is, skin-deep.
It is common for defenders of the Catholic Church such as Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, to substitute Jews or blacks or gays for Catholics and ask those who smear Catholics if they would dare ridicule these other identity groups in the same fashion. In general, I think that this is a fair test, and I am astonished to learn that his adversaries find his question repulsive. Clearly, Catholics are fair game, but why should this be so?
My guess is that most Americans—including most Catholics—do not know the history that John McGreevy has outlined for us in his forthcoming book on Catholicism and American liberalism. Harvard University, to take but one example, has courses dealing with anti-Semitism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and the like, and you can be assured that preoccupation with these sins is central to the not-so-informal curricula in the nation’s major divinity schools. But as a rule, the country’s elite institutions do not offer courses devoted to anti-Catholicism. Our elites have thus been shaped by institutions that exclude anti-Catholicism as part of the American experience. Charitably, we might say that in some cases we are dealing with vincible ignorance, not outright prejudice.
Some attempt to distinguish between religious anti-Catholicism and cultural anti-Catholicism. I can accept the former: there are doctrines and beliefs of various religious traditions that I personally find odious, and as a Catholic I am in no way bothered by the residual Reformation-style anti-Catholicism of, say, Bob Jones University—especially when I see that Bob Jones III, the university’s putative heir-apparent, chose to do post-graduate work at Notre Dame. But I must say that I am struck by the fact that Protestants—including evangelicals—have been noticeably sympathetic toward Catholics during the recent scandal. As well they might, since a recent story of child abuse in Protestant churches shows an average of seventy such allegations a week, though you won’t find that mentioned in the Times.
As for cultural anti-Catholicism, I am surprised by the persistence of old stereotypes. One expects such crudities among academics, because the academy, particularly in the humanities, has become so ideologically driven and allergic to institutions and forms of authority other than its own. But I’d be surprised if it were prevalent in the business world—or even in country clubs—and I must say I have not found much of it at Newsweek. Quite the opposite.
Looking back over some 750 articles I have written for the magazine, I find that less than four percent deal with mainline Protestants. Over these years, Newsweek’s top editors—all of them but one in the past forty years Protestant or Jewish by background—have manifested certain preferences in the coverage of religion. (Religion covers, by the way, have for twenty-five years always been among the annual best-sellers on the newsstand, though the biggest draws are usually cover stories about some aspect of the figure of Jesus.) In order, the editors have preferred: First, stories about Catholics. Second, stories about Catholics. Third—at least since the rise of Jerry Falwell in the late 1970s—stories about evangelicals. Fourth, Catholics. Fifth, everyone else. Yet Protestant readers, including clergy, very often compliment the magazine on its coverage of religion—even though their own traditions are rarely covered. Here, I think, we can get into some of the ambiguities of cultural anti-Catholicism, ambiguities that make the Catholic Church at once attractive and suspect in a nation that is still, historically and numerically, more Protestant than anything else.
Size. A quarter of Americans identify themselves as Catholics. And like evangelicals, they are perceived as having political weight, at least in local elections. This is reason enough to pay attention, and certainly reason enough to worry if you don’t like what the Church teaches.
Authority. Friends would say authoritative, foes would say authoritarian, and in the Church you can find Catholics in both camps. Authority means that the Church makes truth claims that some elites find onerous—including many Catholics. It also means there are moral norms—a claim that some elites, especially those who came of age since the 1960s, refuse to accept, unless they are thought of as being the product of human agency. Hence the popularity of the word “choice.”
Authority also implies Hierarchy, another structural mark of the Church that antagonizes many. The irony is that Americans readily accept the need for hierarchy in corporations, the military, and even to some degree in sports. But in religion, most Americans are female in the sense in which Carol Gilligan uses the term: we like circles, not pyramids. That the Catholic Church is a pyramid that allows a lot of circles to be formed inside it seems to escape most observers.
And then there is Sex. The Catholic Church also takes sex and gender seriously—maybe too seriously—which means it holds that here, too, norms ought to be observed. But on matters of sex and gender, our society has by now become normless—a society that, on both the popular and elite levels, also takes sex too seriously, but for very different reasons. Here there really is a culture war—and institutionally, the Catholic Church is the biggest, easiest target.
Identity. Despite qualifiers like liberal and conservative, progressive and reactionary, lapsed, collapsed, and relapsed, the public at large still thinks that the word “Catholic” has explanatory value that words like Protestant, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Methodist, and even Jewish do not. The word may conjure stereotypes, but at least Catholics and their Church get noticed. Put another way, when was the last time—at least since the novels of Peter DeVries—you saw the rituals and symbols of, say, Congregationalists burlesqued? For the media, “Catholic” means, in words said of Willy Loman after his suicide, “attention must be paid.”
Noticeableness. The Church stands for something—many things—and is not afraid to speak out in the public square. The Catholic Church is certainly not alone in this regard, but it is not in the nature of Catholicism to privatize religion in the ways that some others, especially secularists, would prefer. And when it fails, as its bishops most spectacularly have, its dirty underwear is there for all to see.
For all of these reasons, there will always be anti-Catholicism, intermittent but enduring in its manifestation. What we see today is not as virulent as it has been in the past. Speaking for myself, I am always nervous when too many people agree with me, which doesn’t happen often. I think the Church should be the same way, or else it will cease to be the Church. Anti-Catholicism isn’t always hatred and prejudice; sometimes it’s being liked for all the wrong reasons. The challenge for any tradition that claims to be Christian is accepting dislike for all the right reasons. On this view, ironically enough, some anti-Catholic prejudices are not only acceptable but welcome.
Kenneth L. Woodward is a Contributing Editor at Newsweek, where he has been Religion Editor for thirty-eight years. This essay is adapted from an address given at a conference on anti-Catholicism at Fordham University, hosted by the Center for American Catholic Studies and Commonweal magazine.