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The New Anti-Catholicism: Occupy the Vatican

The old anti-Catholicism found its expression in the mid-nineteenth century when the first large wave of Catholic immigrants arrived in the United States. Some of these immigrant groups had set up their own private religious schools. Many non-Catholic Americans, however, believed that Catholic schools indoctrinated students in superstitions that were inconsistent with the principles of American democracy. Therefore, in order to make sure that such schools would not receive government funding of any sort, federal and state legislation was proposed that forbade the use of public resources for “religious,” i.e. Catholic, purposes.

The most ambitious attempt to enact this sentiment into law was the so-called Blaine Amendment [1], which was named after the Congressman who proposed it. Its text read: “No State shall make any law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; and no money raised by taxation in any State for the support of public schools, or derived from any public fund therefore, nor any public lands devoted thereto, shall ever be under the control of any religious sect, nor shall any money so raised or lands so devoted be divided between religious sects or denominations.”

Although it never became part of the Constitution, some individual states passed Blaine-type statutes or constitutional amendments that still remain on the books. The spirit of such laws, and the anti-Catholicism motivated by them, did not begin to dissipate significantly until after the 1960 election of John F. Kennedy, America’s first Catholic president.

In fact, one of the great figures in the history of my own university, J. M. Dawson [2] (1879-1973), penned these words in his 1948 book, Separate Church and State Now:  “The Catholics. . .would abolish our public school system which is our greatest single factor in national unity and would substitute their old-world, medieval parochial schools, with their alien culture. Or else they make it plain that they wish to install facilities for teaching their religion in the public schools.”

Because Dawson’s sentiment was widely shared, Kennedy was forced to confront it with a speech [3] he delivered to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association during his campaign for the presidency.

The old anti-Catholicism, whatever its flaws and however it may have been driven by bigotry in some quarters, did not demand that the government force the Catholic Church to alter its practices and beliefs in the ways its various institutions served the wider American public. So, for example, it would have never occurred to an old anti-Catholic to suggest that the government levy a tax on, or otherwise penalize, Catholic hospitals, charitable organizations, and schools unless they engage in and/or pay for practices that the Church deems gravely immoral.

This is because the typical old anti-Catholic considered himself to be a custodian of the church-state separationist tradition advanced by James Madison [4] and Thomas Jefferson [5], best exemplified in these words authored by Jefferson [6]:  “Be it therefore enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

Choose one.

Because the old anti-Catholic embraced this Jeffersonian principle, he respected the rights of Catholics to exercise their religious liberty and develop their various academic, medical, and charitable institutions in order to practice and propagate what they understood to be the teachings of Christ and His Church. As long as the Catholic did not demand that the government extract money from the old anti-Catholic to underwrite these institutions, the latter was content in extending true tolerance to the Catholic and His Church, even though the typical old anti-Catholic regarded Catholicism as a false and repugnant faith.

Although the days of the old anti-Catholicism are long gone, there is a new Anti-Catholicism [7], as it has been aptly named by my Baylor colleague, the esteemed historian Philip Jenkins [8]. It finds expression in its hostility and deep loathing of many of the moral positions embraced by the Catholic Church. On abortion, euthanasia, homosexual conduct, same-sex “marriage,” women’s ordination, and contraception, the new Anti-Catholicism stands contra ecclesia.

But the new anti-Catholicism does not adopt the posture of a humble and teachable critic seeking to engage the Church on matters over which reasonable citizens from differing theological and secular moral traditions disagree. Rather, it seeks to employ the coercive power of the state to force the Church’s institutions to violate the Church’s own moral theology, and thus compromise, and make less accessible, the Church’s mission of charity and hope.

This is most evident in the recent refusal [9] by the Department of Health and Human Service to amend its new regulations [10] that would require all private health plans, including those offered by Catholic institutions, to provide contraception, sterilization, and some abortifacient pharmaceuticals without fee or co-payment. The religious exemption that exists in the regulations is so narrow that it does not prevent the government from coercing virtually every Catholic hospital, university, and charitable organization to cooperate materially in acts that the Church teaches are gravely immoral.

The new anti-Catholicism not only rejects the Jeffersonian principle; it turns it on its head. Rather than demanding that the Catholic Church leave him alone, as the old anti-Catholic preached, the new anti-Catholic will not leave the Catholic Church alone. The Old Anti-Catholic would have thought it unseemly, and downright un-American, to use state coercion to force the Catholic to support and pay for things that his conscience requires that he not support or pay for. The new anti-Catholic wants to lead an Occupy the Vatican Movement.


Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).