Anti-Catholicism is arguably the oldest bias in the history of the American people. Or so Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr.—who had no dog in the fight—once told the dean of U.S. Catholic historians, Fr. John Tracy Ellis. Over the centuries, however, anti-Catholicism in America has taken on several forms.
In its classic New England iteration, anti-Catholicism was shaped by Protestant and, later, Enlightenment-rationalist assumptions. Both were neatly summarized in a letter from John Adams to his wife, Abigail, written during the First Continental Congress after Mr. Adams had undertaken an anthropological expedition through the streets of Philadelphia:
This afternoon, led by curiosity and good company, I strolled away to mother church, or rather grandmother church. I mean the Romish chapel….[The] entertainment was to me most awful and affecting: the poor wretches fingering their beads, chanting Latin, not a word of which they understood; their pater nosters and ave Marias; their holy water; their crossing themselves perpetually; their bowing to the name of Jesus, whenever they hear it; their bowings, kneelings, and genuflections before the altar. The dress of the priest was rich white lace. His pulpit was velvet and gold. The altar piece was very rich, little images and crucifixes about; wax candles lighted up….
Here is everything which can lay hold of the eye, ear, and imagination—everything which can charm and bewitch the simple and ignorant. I wonder how Luther ever broke the spell.
Adams, it should be noted, contributed handsomely to the building of a Catholic church in Boston in the years after the Revolution; the passionate support for the cause of American independence displayed by such Federalist leaders as Charles Carroll of Carrolton had, evidently, caused the Sage of Quincy to reconsider. But in that 1774 letter to Abigail, he neatly summed up an indictment against Catholicism that would show remarkable staying power in the United States over the centuries: Catholicism is superstition; Catholics are ill-educated, priest-ridden boobies; the Church is a vast, money-making machine that sucks the lifeblood of the poor and ignorant; no educated person could possibly take the doctrines of the Church seriously.
In the early 19th century, the indictment against Catholicism was expanded to include the charge of sexual slavery in convents and Catholic schools. No one today would be surprised to be told that antebellum America’s bestselling book was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin; it’s probably a safe bet that 99 percent of the country doesn’t know that Number Two on the pre-Civil War bestseller list was a potboiling fiction, Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery of Montreal, which purported to be the memoirs of an escapee from this sexual Devil’s Island, one Maria Monk, but which was in fact written by two Protestant ministers. The Maria Monk trope—the Catholic Church as haven for sexual predators—was later revived in secular form in the cartoons of muckraker Thomas Nast, who regularly portrayed the miters of Catholic bishops as alligators’ jaws opening to attack children; it says something about the lack of imagination of today’s editorial cartoonists that this tawdry and tired image is regularly repeated on 21st-century editorial pages.
With Al Smith and the 1928 presidential campaign, American anti-Catholicism entered what might be called its Elmer Gantry phase, gleefully reported by H. L. Mencken in the Baltimore Sun of Aug. 6, 1928: “With the nomination of Al in the hell-bent city of Houston, I resumed an old vice: the reading of denominational papers….As of July 10 I subscribed to all the Baptist and Methodist organs south of the Potomac…and [from] them I learn a great deal that is confidential and surprising about the plot of the Pope to seize the United States.” The Bad Boy of Baltimore cited numerous examples of anti-Catholic hyperventilating among conservative American Protestants; perhaps the choicest was the rant of Elder W. C. Benson, writing in the Arkansas Baptist and Commoner and instructing his readers to break with the Solid South tradition of straight-ticket Democratic voting in order to save, not only the Republic, but their families:
To vote for Al Smith would be granting the Pope the right to dictate to this government what it should do. A vote for Al Smith would be the sacrificing of our public schools. Rome says to hell with our public schools. A vote for Al Smith would be to say that all Protestants are living in adultery because they were not married by a priest. To vote for Al Smith is to say that our offspring are bastards. Are you ready to accept this?
While small pockets of Protestant anti-Catholicism can still be found in the fever swamps of the contemporary American religious world, the overall scene has changed dramatically over the past 50 years. Mainline/oldline Protestants may deplore the Catholic Church’s retention of classic Christian moral teachings that Protestant liberalism has long since abandoned; the occasional crackpot like Anglican Bishop John Shelby Spong may still hint darkly that Catholic opposition to abortion, “gay marriage,” and euthanasia is a danger to the Republic. But the liveliest parts of the American Protestant universe—the Evangelical churches and the Evangelical movements within the mainline churches—are firmly aligned with the Catholic Church on publicly disputed moral questions in public policy. Indeed, many Evangelicals wanted John Kerry to be more Catholic, not less, in his 2004 presidential run. For its part, the Thomas Nast/rationalist strand of anti-Catholicism has proven to have some staying power, and not only among unimaginative editorial cartoonists: The “New Atheists” have revived many of the old Enlightenment-rationalist critiques of Catholic doctrine (and, of course, orthodox Protestant doctrine); organizations like Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union can be counted on to blast the trumpet of secularist alarm whenever what they imagine to be “sectarian” Catholic ideas begin to encroach on the public square. Much of this is the same old same old.
Ecclesiastes notwithstanding, there is something new under the sun in the annals of American anti-Catholicism; and that something is the rise of the anti-Catholic Catholics, self-described Catholics who make a career (or at least part of a career) out of mounting endless attacks on the Church, its settled beliefs, its leadership, and its people. Like the Nast/rationalist anti-Catholicism of the past, today’s Catholic anti-Catholicism is a left-of-center phenomenon that, in secular guise, often reflects the critiques of the Church mounted by so-called “Catholic progressives”: The Church is hopelessly sexist; the Church is hopelessly sex-obsessed; the Church is cruel to women and gays; the Church is hypocritical. And, of course and most recently, the Church is a global criminal conspiracy of child rapists and their abettors, which “fact” validates the other charges in the standing indictment just cited.
The principal example of this new, Catholic anti-Catholicism—indeed, the Platonic form of the new Catholic anti-Catholicism—is Maureen Dowd, op-ed columnist of the New York Times. Six times since February, and thrice in the past three weeks, Ms. Dowd has lifted her poison pen and, serially, mocked the Church’s practice of sacramental confession and its settled conviction on the inadmissibility of women to Holy Orders; portrayed the cases of abuse recently brought to light in Philadelphia as part of an ongoing pattern of crime in the Church; deplored the beatification of John Paul II on the grounds that he failed “to protect innocent children”; charged that the Vatican “preferred denial to remorse” and was deliberately stonewalling the reform of the Church in Ireland; mocked the conversion to Catholicism of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich while suggesting that prominent churchmen, who “have a fuzzy grasp on right and wrong,” had been Gingrich’s toadies; and then committed calumny against New York archbishop Timothy Dolan in a Fathers’ Day column that took anti-Catholic-bitchery-as-commentary to a new low.
Dolan, you see, opposed New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s attempt to get the New York state legislature to adopt “gay marriage,” of which Ms. Dowd approves. But Dowd was not content to register her disagreement with the archbishop, who had properly described such legislation as a quasi-totalitarian extension of state power. No, the Catholic girl raised in Blessed Sacrament parish on Washington’s Chevy Chase Circle lit into Dolan—”the Starchbishop”—and the Church as a gang of hypocrites who defend marriage but deny it to gay couples; who worry about the young leaving the Church but then don’t protect the young from sexual predators; and who have tried to slough off responsibility for clerical sexual abuse by blaming it on a toxic ambient culture, a tactic Ms. Dowd unoriginally described as “Blame Woodstock.”
The last is, in fact, the key to understanding Maureen Dowd’s particular form of virulent anti-Catholicism. Ms. Dowd believes in the sexual revolution as fervently as Archbishop Dolan believes in the Creed in which he leads his congregation at St. Patrick’s every Sunday. The difference between them is that Archbishop Dolan can rationally defend the articles in the Creed, while Maureen Dowd is impervious to the massive empirical evidence that demonstrates that the sexual revolution has been a snare and a delusion for a) women, b) children, c) men, d) marriage, e) family stability, and f) the country’s political culture (cf. Clinton, William Jefferson [whom Dowd helped save in 1998]). Interestingly enough, and in this respect, Maureen Dowd is not the linear descendant of Nast and the rationalist anti-Catholics, who were more often than not the “progressives” of their day. Rather, she is the rhetorical great-great-granddaughter of Elder W. C. Benson and his 1928 anti-Catholic screed, the difference being that Benson’s fundamentalism involved notions of Biblical inspiration and inerrancy, while Dowdian fundamentalism involves an irrational and empirically unsustainable belief in the sexual revolution.
Which means, among other things, that Maureen Dowd is unwilling to take the slightest measure of responsibility for helping sustain the toxic culture of an America in which the sexual abuse of the young is a general societal plague, not some Catholic-specific perversity. And because of that she cannot concede what every fair-minded observer concedes: that the Catholic Church in America today is quite likely the country’s safest environment for children and young people. The Church has cleaned its house while Maureen Dowd and other prophets and prophetesses of the Sexual Free-Fire Zone have blithely ignored the evidence of the broken and crippled lives caused by the sexual license they applaud as liberation.
Given the other detours from reality that regularly appear on the Times op-ed page, Maureen Dowd’s Catholic anti-Catholicism is, perhaps, not all that odd. Such prominent placement for irresponsible and increasingly ad hominem anti-Catholic rants does, however, suggest a residual fear among Times editors that the Catholic Church just might remain a formidable foe in the battle against that lifestyle libertinism the Times editors regularly commend to their (shrinking) readership. The editors’ fears, we may hope, are not without foundation, even if their sense of journalistic fairness is, to put it gently, questionable.
As for Maureen Dowd, well, the Light is always on for her, too—as she would discover if she ever took the trouble to get to know men like Archbishop Timothy Dolan.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.