During Lent and Easter this year, America’s anti-Catholics were out in force spreading misinformation and distortions in the hopes of toppling the pope and crippling the hierarchy of the Church.
The assailants – the usual suspects led by the New York Times – would have people believe that the sex-abuse scandals are widening. This is false. The Church in the United States has become a model for effectively dealing with the crisis. Our bishops implemented programs to protect children almost a decade ago: to train and screen clergy and to impose tough internal reporting regulations regarding suspected abuse.
But we have to remember that, throughout American history, truth has often not much mattered when opportunities have arisen to attack the Church. For over two hundred years, American Catholics have had to fend off assaults based on lies, half-truths, and innuendos from nativists, populists, progressives, eugenicists, reformers, and secular intellectuals. And it’s worth rehearsing some of this history.
In the 1840s, an underground anti-Catholic movement led by back-alley, low-life bigots flared into a full-fledged crusade that came close to leaving major northeastern cities in shambles. In 1843, Philadelphia Catholic churches and homes were torched and sixteen people killed because the ordinary, Bishop Patrick Kendrick, asked that the 5,000 Catholic children in the public school system be permitted to read a Catholic version of the Bible and that anti-Catholic textbooks be removed from the classrooms.
Riots spread to other cities including New York. Archbishop John Hughes warned the mayor, “If a single Catholic Church were burned in New York, the City would become a second Moscow.” The thought of the City looking like the Moscow Napoleon left in ashes in 1812 had the desired effect: nativist forces backed down.
1890s populists, who believeded in the supremacy of Anglo-Saxons, nurtured anti-Catholic sentiment and looked upon Catholic eastern, urban centers as “the enemy’s country.” The movement’s leader, William Jennings Bryan, used anti-Catholic code words on the campaign trail and told his agrarian followers he was “tired of hearing about laws for the benefit of men who work in shops.” He declared he was opposed to “dumping of the criminal classes upon our shores” – a/k/a, Catholic immigrants. This anti-Catholic fervor split the Democratic Party culturally and economically for two generations: agrarian-nativist-Protestant versus urban-immigrant-Catholic.
The progressive-reform movement was also fueled by anti-Catholicism. The urban upper crust began a crusade to take back their municipalities from Catholic pols and to reform what the elite believed to be their corrupt ways. As sociologist Andrew Greeley has observed, “reform was merely an attempt on the part of native-born Protestants to take back what they had lost to the Irish in a fair fight.”
To stop the vast hordes of Catholic immigrants that populated their cities and controlled the ballot-boxes, the reformers embraced the notions of Social Darwinism to rationalize their Anglo-centrism and promoted the pseudo-science of eugenics which called for disposing of undesirable human beings; individuals, ethnic groups or whole races. This movement which began in the 1890s, would take thirty years to secure a victory. Eugenics expert Daniel J. Kevles asserted that the “movement provided a rationale for the Immigration Act of 1924, which discriminated against immigrants from eastern and southern Europe.”
In 1928, Catholic Alfred E. Smith, the Democratic nominee for President, was accused of forming an “alien conspiracy to overthrow Protestant, Anglo-Saxon majority under which the country has achieve its independence and its greatness.” Mainline religious leaders denounced Smith from the pulpit and millions of warped, vicious anti-Catholic pamphlets, flyers, and newspapers were written, printed, and distributed by the Ku Klux Klan and other crackpot anti-Catholic organizations across America.
The Church had to cope with similar attacks during the 1960 presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy. An ad hoc group of 150 Protestants led by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, issued a statement criticizing the Catholic Church and accusing it of being a “political, as well as religious, organization [that has] specifically repudiated, on many occasions, the principle sacred to us that every man shall be free to follow the dictates of his conscience in religious matters.”
Such events prompted the distinguished historian John Higham, author of Strangers in the Land, to describe anti-Catholicism as “the most luxuriant, tenacious tradition of paranoiac agitation in American history.” Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. concurred calling it “the deepest bias in the history of the American people.”
In the twenty-first century, practicing Catholics in the public square are learning that while those who oppose the Church may appear more sophisticated or scientific, the level of hatred for Catholicism may not have changed much from previous eras. Catholics are still viewed by the secular humanists as public villains and in their salons, anti-Catholicism is, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it, still an acceptable prejudice.
Today’s anti-Catholicism is driven by smug secularists who want radical autonomy – and therefore frown upon Catholic values and despise authority. They want to destroy the Church because, unlike the mainline Protestant sects, it refuses to give in to the modernists’ views on abortion, celibacy, contraception, divorce, stem-cell research, and same-sex marriage.
But don’t despair. We have it on good authority that even the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church.