The Magazine

The Papist Menace?

Philip Jenkins chronicles the last acceptable prejudice.

Jun 23, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 40 • By JUSTIN TORRES
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The New Anti-Catholicism

The Last Acceptable Prejudice

by Philip Jenkins

Oxford University Press, 272pp., $27

THE CENTRAL CLAIM of Philip Jenkins's newest book, "The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice," is that nobody thinks much of insulting the Catholic Church. It has become widely acceptable, Jenkins persuades, to denounce the Church, its leadership and adherents, as sexually twisted, hypocritical, and power-hungry oppressors of women, gays, and minorities--all slanderous terms that would provoke outrage if directed at any non-Christian religious or ethnic group. What's even more striking, he adds, is "the completely casual way in which these views are stated, as if any normal person should be expected to share these beliefs."

Jenkins makes some useful distinctions, in contrast to other watchdogs of anti-Catholicism who (somewhat understandably) possess more of a hair trigger. Satire of the Catholic Church, even devastatingly vicious satire, has a long and honorable history. "The Canterbury Tales" might get Chaucer arrested for hate crimes were it written today. Films such as Kevin Smith's "Dogma" or even the antics of the San Francisco gay group the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence seem to fit in this tradition. And portrayals of the failings of Catholic clerics or institutions--think of ABC's series "Nothing Sacred"--might make Catholics uncomfortable, but aren't necessarily anti-Catholic. Jenkins is at pains to distinguish himself from the uncompromising approach of groups such as William Donohue's Catholic League, and rightly so.

These useful distinctions make the book's litany of real anti-Catholicism all the more depressing. In art, theater, the news business, and political debate, Jenkins finds widespread anti-Catholic bigotry--and more importantly, widespread lack of concern about it. "What sometimes seems to be limitless social tolerance in modern America," Jenkins writes, "has strict limits where the Catholic Church is concerned."

Much of the bigotry Jenkins catalogues in "The New Anti-Catholicism" is quite juvenile--think of the Brooklyn Museum's show Sensation, with the dung-covered Virgin Mary. A good deal, however, is violent and perverse. In 2000, for example, Canadian feminists stormed the Cathedral of Marie-Reine-du-Monde in Montreal. Wearing ski masks, they disrupted Mass, spray-painted the altar with atheist slogans, threw condoms and soiled tampons around the sanctuary, and destroyed hundreds of hymnbooks and missals. Local authorities declined to press charges, saying they didn't want to get in the middle of a political debate.

OF COURSE, anti-Catholicism goes way back in American history. Protestant colonizers feared Romish infiltration from Spain, while the Know-Nothings of the nineteenth century feared Catholics pouring in from Ireland, Italy, and Eastern Europe would take jobs away from native-born Protestants and prove unassimilable. In 1920, when Al Smith ran for president, Protestant preachers whipped up crowds with lurid fantasies in which Smith as president would take orders from the pope; a rumor even circulated that Smith planned to build a tunnel from the White House to the basement of the Vatican. As late as 1960, John F. Kennedy was forced to assure Protestants that the pope wouldn't be calling the shots on American foreign and domestic policy in his administration.

This type of anti-Catholicism has largely gone by the wayside, however, relegated to backwoods rabble-rousers. What has replaced it is an attack on the Church as a defender of traditional mores, especially sexual. Modern anti-Catholicism, Jenkins notes, derives its vigor from the Church's unique position as an international institution that presumes to intrude on political and cultural debates. Catholicism understands itself to be a comprehensive system, and acceptance of the doctrines of the Church has implications for how Catholics conduct both their spiritual and temporal affairs.

More important, the Catholic Church claims the right to speak authoritatively on modern social issues, and has not shrunk from debates over abortion, homosexuality, birth control, euthanasia, and cloning, among other issues. Advocates for these practices frequently find that their most formidable opponent is the Catholic Church, and accordingly direct their rhetorical fire.