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Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Bias?
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2009-06-05 09:22:26
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A few weeks ago we were treated in the pages of Ovi to an article titled “Essay for a Post-Opus Dei United States”. The piece is presented as a conspiracy theory about a secret Catholic society named Opus Dei (yes, you guessed it, the very same one described in The Da Vinci Code which also pretends to be presenting objective documented facts). It charged this group with wielding disproportionate power in America with the aim of subverting democracy, modernity, and civilization itself. This is of course laughable when one considers that the numbers of Opus Dei members in the whole United States, a country of some 300 million people, is three thousand. It occurred to me that indeed, anti-Catholicism remains alive and well even today in the 21st century. It may well be the last bastion of acceptable bias and slander against religion and the Church within Western Civilization.

Indeed anti-Catholicism is nothing new on both sides of the Atlantic pond. It sometimes takes the form of a dogmatic principle, practically a profession of faith, of the extreme ideological left. It is as if one needs the espousal of anti-Catholicism to have one’s credentials as a politically correct enlightened modern person ratified. There is a book out which thoroughly describes this phenomenon in the United States. It is by Mark Massa, a Fordham University Theology professor, and is titled Anti-Catholicism in America: The Last Acceptable Prejudice. It is quite an eye-opener. Let me summarize it briefly with the hope that it may motivate the more curious and sensible readers of this magazine to pick it up.

Some of the most virulent anti-Catholic associations in the 19th century, Massa informs us, were the so called “No Nothing” party, the American imperialists Josiah Strong and Henry Bowers, the founders of the American Protective Association; also Maria Monk and the Rev. Lyman Beecher who in 1834 burned an Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts, and finally the society that best represents racism and bias in America: the Ku Klux Klan. Also in the 20th century we have the spectacle of a best-selling book by Paul Blanshard's American Freedom and Catholic Power, a 1949 bestselling “expose” so called of Catholic attempts to violate the separation of church and state during the campaign of Al Smith. Ten years later however a Catholic, John Kennedy, was elected president. Most people would assume that such an election put to rest once and for all any doubt that being a Catholic is incompatible with American democracy. Unfortunately, such is not the case. Massa writes that while the wall of separation between private faith and public action may have won Kennedy the election, it also initiated a privatization of religious belief which in the long run accentuated the bias against Catholics in American culture.

Massa makes a convincing argument that Kennedy emerged from the presidential campaign as "less than compelling as the spokesman for the two-millennia-old Roman Catholic conversation about the duties of Catholics in politics," as treated in many theological texts and Papal encyclicals, and that this conversation has been retarded ever since. As a result of Kennedy's secularization of the Oval Office, contemporary Catholic politicians are categorized either as "hypocritical opportunists" who deny the obvious social implications of their faith or "unthinking slaves of the hierarchy" who uncritically accept church teaching on sexual and reproductive issues. In a society that demands the privatization of religion, the American Catholic church has refused to cede its public authority, repeatedly taking ethical stands on controversial issues. As a result, it is often perceived as "fair game" by the media and cultural commentators. The last evidence of that phenomenon is the invitation of President Obama at Notre Dame that some saw as a betrayal of Catholic moral principles.

Indeed, this is not too dissimilar to what goes on in Europe where freedom of religion is guaranteed as long as it remains a private affair and the voice of religion continues to be muzzled in the public square. Philosophers such as Habermas are having second thought on how progressive such a stance is. Neverthless, progressives of many persuasions remain misguidedly convinced that such is the modern, “enlightened,” and indeed the “modern” and “politically correct” intellectual stance vis a vis religion in general and Catholicism in particular.

Massa offers an interesting insight into the distinction between the Protestant and the Catholic viewpoint of God’s Providence in the world, partly borrowed from David Tracy's distinction between the analogical and dialogical imagination. He argues that Catholics understand God and the world according to an analogical tradition that accepts that God's real presence in history and in the sacraments nourishes a fundamental trust in the goodness of humanity and institutions. Protestants, on the other hand, use dialectical language to emphasize the differences between God and humanity, and thus affirm private judgment and a distrust of authority. American society at its origins has been shaped by the Puritan and evangelical Protestant values that assume individuals need protection from the oppressions of community or the tyranny of the majority, and foster a rugged individualism a la Ayn Rand. This goes a long way in explaining why Protestants have often seen Catholics as not fitting into what Thomas Jefferson called the "lively experiment" that is the United States.

It bears pointing out that Catholics are no longer marginalized in contemporary America as members of other racial and ethnic groups are, and violence against Catholic Americans on the basis of religion is virtually nonexistent nowadays. To insist on its existence and its attendant victimhood, is to fall in the same misguided trap as those who fantasize that Opus Dei represents a conspiracy against American democracy. That having been said, it ought to be acknowledged with Massa that there is a divergence between Catholicism and general American culture and that Catholic otherness is not a bad thing for America. To continue insisting that the church be silent and powerless is in effect to deny the freedom extended to all religious groups by the First Amendment and the notion of inalienable rights.

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Emanuel Paparella2009-06-05 14:51:32
To answer the intriguing question on the cover; what in philosophy is called a loaded question which attempts to turn the table around: indeed it is as long as one accepts as the truth and nothing but the truth the slanders and prejudices of anti-Catholics. Unfortunately there are many more of those than there are Opus Dei members in the US; that is even more so in the EU and sadly they add no luster to democracy and freedom of religion on both sides of the Atlantic.

AP2009-06-05 18:22:06
It did damage you, didn't it?

Emanuel Paparella2009-06-06 06:31:37
If Plato’s “Apology” teaches us anything at all, it is that when Socrates was unfairly condemned by slanderous and false accusations, it was not he who was damaged but his accusers. Twenty three centuries later, we even know who they were. As Socrates aptly puts it, and I am paraphrasing: Gentleman the issue is not whether I die or live, for we all die eventually, the issue is whether corruption, which runs faster than death, will catch up with you, since once she has caught up and has you in her grip, she will be reluctant to let you escape. And Socrates, mind you, was not even a Catholic albeit most agree that he was a wise man and a sage, perhaps even a saint.

Josh I2009-06-12 00:51:35
If you want to see hate then read up on CT bill 1098 and the law suit over our protest.

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