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The Mantra of Anti-Catholicism

What is bigotry?

Ed. note: During the last year, the charge of "anti-Catholicism" has increasingly been a tool of political one-upmanship, in the U.S. political arena. The accusations being lobbed from both Democrats and Republicans have come in response to issues ranging from the House chaplain controversy to the uproar in the District of Columbia and on the Hill on insurance coverage for contraceptives. Besides the expected election-year political maneuvering, however, what's the bigger picture behind these allegations? Catholic theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether situates this trend in a broader cultural context.

It has become common among right-wing Catholics, such as the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, to pillory various cultural phenomena in the United States--ranging from movies such as Priest and Dogma--to Catholics for a Free Choice as "anti-Catholic." Significantly, this label is being used most frequently against liberal Catholics who hold views other than those of the Catholic League and other Catholic right organizations about what it means to be Catholic.

My own recent experience is a case in point. This spring I was invited to give the Swan lecture (an annual lectureship) at Nebraska Wesleyan University, a Methodist institution. My topic focused on my new book, Christianity and the Making of the Modern Family (Beacon Press, 2000). It had nothing specifically to do with Catholicism, nor was I invited as a Catholic. The chancery of the diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska mounted a major campaign against my speaking, declaring that I was "anti-Catholic" and "practiced witchcraft." The college itself was attacked as "anti-Catholic" for having invited me. The chancery threatened the college with dire consequences if they did not disinvite me: advising students in area Catholic high schools not to attend Nebraska Wesleyan and banning Nebraska Wesleyan students from practice-teaching in Catholic high schools.

There is no evidence of a rejuvenation of the old type of anti-Catholic bigotry in the United States, stemming from Protestant-Catholic conflicts of the Reformation.

The school did not back down on the invitation, but they were unable to clearly respond to the charge of "anti-Catholicism." During my visit, there I was repeatedly quizzed as to what I had done "wrong." The fact that this was a false charge related to an internal Catholic conflict, not a question of "anti-Catholicism," could not be publicly clarified. The school was intimidated by the attack.

What is going on here? Is there a rise in anti-Catholic bigotry in the U.S. from which groups such as the Catholic League need to defend the "rights" of Catholics?

There is a history of anti-Catholic bigotry in American Protestantism of some generations ago. In the 19th century, Protestant mobs burned Catholic convents. Right-wing Protestants, such as the leaders of Bob Jones University, still hold to the idea that the Pope is the anti-Christ and that the Catholic Church is "satanic." But these views are seen by almost all U.S. Protestants as odd fossils of old religious wars that are not to be taken seriously.

American Catholics, since the Kennedy administration, have become fully integrated into American society. They are generally treated respectfully by the dominant culture and media as a mainstream component part of American religious diversity, despite occasional exploitation of stereotypes of nuns. There is no evidence of a rejuvenation of the old type of anti-Catholic bigotry in the United States, stemming from Protestant-Catholic conflicts of the Reformation. Official Protestant-Catholic relations are ecumenical. Indeed, the Catholic Church and the German Lutheran Church have officially declared that they have come to an agreement on the chief doctrinal issue of the Reformation: justification by faith.

Rather, what is going on today is a new schism and conflict, stemming from the Second Vatican Council and new Catholic liberal thought, one that divides Catholics from each other. The mantra of "anti-Catholicism" from the Catholic right is primarily a reflection of this internal Catholic conflict. This term is being used by the Catholic right to claim that they and they alone are "authentic" Catholics, and Catholics that hold progressive views are not Catholics, are hostile to "authentic" Catholicism, and hence are "anti-Catholic." Furthermore, non-Catholics in the larger society who listen respectfully to the views of progressive Catholics are therefore also "anti-Catholic." In short, the charge of "anti-Catholicism" is being used as a scare tactic by the Catholic right in the service of repression of progressive Catholic views.

It might be useful in this context to sort out the fundamental difference between critical thought and bigotry. Bigotry, whether racial or religious, is a stereotyping of an entire other religious or racial group as essentially evil and demonic by nature. It is not factual and by nature cannot be factually proven. It sets up the other group as the antithesis of all that is good and godly, characteristics supposedly monopolized by the bigot's own group. Catholics have practiced this kind of bigotry against Protestants, claiming that they are "heretics." Both Catholics and Protestants have a long and evil history of using this kind of demonic language against Jews as a religious and ethnic group.

The Catholic right's misuse of the language of religious bigotry to repress progressive Catholics threatens both to cut the life line of renewal within Catholicism itself and to collapse the fundamental distinction between bigotry and critical thought that is at the heart of educated, civil society.

Critical thought is the fundamental opposite of such bigotry. Critical thought is based on nuanced judgments founded on historical reality. There is a world of difference between saying the Pope is the anti-Christ and making historically factual statements about the papacy as an institution as having been corrupt at various times, having abused power and wealth and having been less than truthful about its own history. Garry Wills new book, Papal Sin, is this kind of carefully documented critique of the papacy. Garry Wills is a Catholic. He makes his critique for the purpose of arousing critical thought among Catholics about these papal defects in the hope of promoting church reform. It is an insider's critique made by an esteemed Catholic scholar whose purpose is the improvement of the Catholic community's fidelity to its authentic values of truth and justice.

The name for such historically accurate critique of a community made from within for the purpose of calling it to reform is "prophetic" thought. This kind of insider's critique is the core of the Biblical tradition. The Hebrew prophets and Jesus called down stern critique of the leaders of their own community in order to recall them to their more authentic traditions. Civil discourse in any culture depends on being able to distinguish bigotry aimed at stereotypical demonization of the "other" from historically accurate criticism made for the sake of reform and renewal of authentic values.

The Catholic right's misuse of the language of religious bigotry to repress progressive Catholics threatens both to cut the life line of renewal within Catholicism itself and to collapse the fundamental distinction between bigotry and critical thought that is at the heart of educated, civil society. In the Catholic right's book, Jesus and Jeremiah would be "anti-Catholic" if the kind of criticism that they made at the religious leaders of their time had been directed against Catholic leaders. It is time for American cultural leaders to stop being intimidated by such language and start exercising critical public evaluation of the accuracy and context of the use of the term "anti-Catholic."

Rosemary Radford Ruether is the Georgia Harkness professor of applied theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. She is on the board of Catholics for a Free Choice and is editorial advisor to Conscience.

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