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Dealing with Anti-Catholicism
Bishop Donald Hying
Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a noted United States historian, famously opined decades ago that anti-Catholicism is “the deepest bias in the history of the American people.” Another historian, John Higham, calls it “the most luxuriant, tenacious tradition of paranoiac agitation in American history.” Given the intensity and even violence surrounding the volatile issues of abortion, homosexuality and transgenderism, the attacks on the Catholic Church in this country have markedly increased of late. Since May 2020, nearly 300 incidents of violence against Catholic Churches occurred in 43 states, including cases of arson, beheaded statues, gravestones defaced with swastikas, smashed windows, pro-abortion graffiti, theft and desecration of the Blessed Sacrament.1 Anti-Catholic hate crimes have risen noticeably in this country in recent years.
But anti-Catholicism has deep roots in U.S. history. Since “separation of Church and State” is American gospel these days, few realize that nearly all colonies had a state-supported Protestant church.2 These churches were favored in law (with Pennsylvania being the sole exception3), and Catholics were prohibited from voting or holding office.4 By the time of the Revolution, “Catholicism was hated in all the colonies, and legal in just three.”5 And the penalties for religious disobedience were hefty. For instance, the Penal Laws of Virginia enacted a month’s imprisonment and today’s equivalent of a $5,000 fine for attending Mass and come 1699 in Maryland, any priest found exercising his priestly duties or operating a Catholic school would be imprisoned for life.6
American anti-Catholicism found its roots in the European Protestant antipathy towards the tenets and power of the Catholic Church, centered in a rejection of papal authority, the importance of Mary and the saints, belief in the Real Presence in the Eucharist, and the necessity of sacramental confession. When Al Smith, the governor of New York, became the first Catholic to run for President, Methodist Bishop Adna Leonard of Buffalo memorably inveighed, “No governor can kiss the papal ring and get within gunshot of the White House.”7 This traditional prejudice, coupled with the fact that the vast majority of immigrants flooding America’s shores in the 19th and early 20th centuries were Catholic, fomented a virulent anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant hatred which became a nativist movement against anything perceived to be foreign to white, Protestant culture. At times this hatred spilled over into violence, as it did in May 1844 when “a Nativist mob burned two Catholic churches in [Philadelphia]. In the days that followed, Catholic homes were torched, and Catholics shot on their doorsteps and hung from lampposts.”8
As a result of the prejudice and hatred against them, American Catholics ardently demonstrated that their faith was not antithetical to being a patriotic, loyal U.S. citizen. They strove to fit in, serving in the military in higher numbers than their percentage of the population, becoming political and economic leaders on all levels, offering the vast energies and resources of the Church to serve the common good and the wider society. As a result, Catholics have “arrived” in America. Today 148 Catholics serve in Congress and 6 of the 9 Supreme Court Justices have some affiliation with the Catholic Church. In many ways, Catholics have so blended into our society, reaching the pinnacles of power, affluence, and influence, that their opinions and practices are indistinguishable from their fellow citizens. Today, a mere 30% of self-identified Catholics look primarily to their faith for guidance on right and wrong9 and Catholics’ views typically mirror Americans-at-large on controversial issues such as abortion.10 Initially radically excluded from America’s then fervently-Protestant culture, Catholics have been gradually absorbed into her now autocratically-secular culture. When it comes to religious and moral convictions, this homogenization is not a good thing. But, as America gravitates toward ever-more “progressive” ideas, this tenuous truce has started to crumble.
This brief history lesson lends context to the current spate of attacks on the Catholic Church, a violence not principally fueled by the old Protestant prejudices, but rather by our culture’s moral stands concerning abortion, sexuality, and gender. Those who push the pro-abortion, pro-homosexuality, pro-transgender agenda rightfully view the Catholic Church as the largest and most influential obstacle in their path of radical activism. Many, if not most, political leaders, media, social influencers, corporations, and religious bodies have acquiesced before the power of this agenda. The Catholic Church has not. With serenity, confidence, and love, she continues to proclaim and teach the truth concerning God and the human person. And when this leads to anti-Catholic bigotry, faithful Catholics must call it out wherever they find it, even as contemporary cultural outrage remains highly selective and biased.
Few could forget Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary, featuring lacquered elephant dung in place of a breast and the Mother of God surrounded by images cut from pornographic magazines, being displayed in the publicly-funded Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1997.11 It later sold for £2.9 million at auction12 (about $4.5 million) to an Australian fallen-away Catholic13—a sad ending to an ugly story. More recently, the Los Angeles Dodgers invited the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a group which has consistently and blasphemously mocked Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Church, to be honored at their LGBTQ night at the ballpark. After outcry from conservatives, the Dodgers withdrew the invitation, only to reinstate it after outcry from activists on the Left. Imagine any group, which mocks Muslims, Jews, or almost any other category of people besides Catholics, being publicly honored at a ballgame! It would never happen because the backlash would be mighty and fierce, as it should be. So why is it OK to embrace bigotry against Catholics?
In the face of society’s double-standard, we must remain faithful to Catholicism’s internally consistent doctrine. The Church teaches the truth about the human person, revealed by God through the Scriptures, Tradition, and natural law, not because we hate or exclude anyone, but because we love everyone and want them to encounter the fullness of life, love, and grace which the Lord offers us through a life of faith and discipleship. Every NO the Church utters against some practice or attitude in our society is only to proclaim an even greater YES to the truths and values that bring joy and peace to the human heart. There is a “coherence of the truths of faith among themselves and within the whole plan of Revelation” (CCC 114) such that no teaching can be jettisoned without destabilizing all the others. This is part of the reason why Catholics can’t blindly adopt ever-changing cultural attitudes or pick-and-choose among Church teachings. And while there is a hierarchy among those truths14 (and we should prayerfully prioritize our energies accordingly), Catholicism supports all authentic human goods.
Therefore, the Church says YES to human life and dignity, justice, compassion, forgiveness, solidarity with the poor, beauty, love, the gift of sexuality, marriage, family, friendship, the arts and literature, the value of work, the flourishing of the common good, the importance of political leadership and participation, sports, science, the natural world, joy, peace, and every other activity, value, institution, and experience which makes us authentically human and holy. There is nothing true, good, or beautiful, which does not find resonance and support in the heart of the Church.
How do we convince our fellow Americans of this truth? By becoming saints! The Catholic faith is most attractive when her children are vibrantly alive with holiness, reflecting God’s love to all they encounter. We might think of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, who dedicated her life to serving and evangelizing children, the poor, the sick, and countless immigrants by creating orphanages, schools, and hospitals. She made such a lasting impact that one hundred years after her death, Colorado decided to celebrate Mother Cabrini Day in place of Columbus Day. Or we might look to St. Damien de Veuster, who volunteered to minister to the leper colony in Molokai, an island of Hawaii. Despite the terrible deformities that came from untreated leprosy, Fr. Damien incarnated God’s love by touching the lepers, eating with them, and working side by side. He eventually contracted the disease and, while dying, wrote to his brother, “It is the will of God, and I thank Him very much for letting me die of the same disease and in the same way as my lepers. I am very satisfied and very happy.” What we need now is to better live out God’s love—because the more each of our lives reflects Jesus, the easier it will be for those around us to see that the Church isn’t the enemy of cultural progress, but that rather she is actually the greatest guarantor of human dignity and flourishing.
Donald J. Hying is the Bishop of Madison. He is currently a member of the USCCB’s Pro-Life Committee and is the author of Love Never Fails. This essay is revised and adapted from a column originally appearing in the Diocese of Madison’s Catholic Herald.
Maryland, too, began as a haven for Catholics, but the public practice of Catholicism was outlawed in 1688.
Charles A. Coulombe, Puritan’s Empire: A Catholic Perspective on American History (Arcadia, California: Tumblar House, 2008), p. 93.
Puritan’s Empire, p. 56 and p. 93 respectively.
New York Times, August 9, 1926.
Puritan’s Empire, p. 203.
The Catholic Register, “Catholics closely ‘mirror’ rest of U.S. population in support for abortion, survey finds,” August 13, 2019.
Dazed, “That time this ‘hip hop Virgin Mary’ really pissed off the art world,” April 27, 2018.
See CCC 90.