No Longer an Ally: The New Anti-Catholicism
There has been a great deal of anti-Catholicism in various places and various periods of history, but I find particularly interesting the shifts in anti-Catholic prejudice over the past 100 years in America. In that period, we’ve gone from literally murderous hatred of Catholics in some regions, to heart-warmingly positive treatment in films and popular culture, to socio-political acceptance and encouragement, and now back to a vitriolic disdain in the mainstream media so common as to go unnoticed by equally prejudiced media consumers.
In the earliest part of this period, before around 1930, the intense hatred of priests in particular and Catholics in general which had been so common everywhere in the 19th century continued to be nurtured in the Fundamentalist and nativist South. This led to more than one unpunished cold-blooded murder. See again my review of Sharon Davies extraordinary book Rising Road (The Murder of a Priest).
This is all but forgotten, but most people today are at least somewhat familiar with the marked shift in sentiment that occurred after around 1930, at least outside the South, because they’ve seen or heard of the many Hollywood productions which made much of priests, nuns and their contributions to community life. Bing Crosby loomed large in these somewhat bland portrayals of Catholicism, which included such movies as Going My Way and its sequel The Bells of Saint Mary’s in the mid-1940s. Well into the 1950’s, Hollywood cast mainstream popular actors as priests, such as Crosby, Spencer Tracy, Frank Sinatra and Pat O’Brien, in enormously popular films.
At this time, the Church and her clergy were generally perceived as allies of American culture, interested in education, helping people deal with ordinary human problems, and generally expressing well the natural but rather generic American respect for God, faith and family. This would change as the culture shifted in the 1960’s and beyond, and especially as it became sex obsessed. In the 1970's and 1980's the lives of priests were much more likely to be explored from the point of view of passion or sexual deviance, as celibacy became increasingly difficult for the popular culture to understand.
At the same time, however, the treason of the Catholic intellectuals beginning in the 1960s made it appear that the Catholic Church was deeply supportive of many causes held dear by the American cultural elite. The Church had always been a strong force against racial prejudice and in favor of civil rights for racial minorities, of course, but now many of her professors, priests, and nuns became leaders in the movement to rethink morality to justify sexual “liberation”, to sacrifice doctrine for more “relevant” social action, and in general to justify rather than confront the new secularism that was sweeping America.
Here again the Church was generally seen as an ally by our cultural elite. The media was pleased to highlight stories which showed the Church in the vanguard of movements for what “everybody” believes or what “everybody” wants. The 1970’s and 1980’s were boom times for Catholic socio-political acceptance and encouragement. And when some bishops and priests attempted to make the real Catholic position known, nobody worried too much about it, because it was instinctively understood that this “old fashioned” vision of Catholicism posed no threat whatsoever.
In this context, I cannot fail to recall the enthusiasm with which “good Pope John” was greeted in secular circles as he “threw open the windows” and seemed, in his grandfatherly way, to want to make the Church “more like us”. Never was a Catholic pope so wildly popular in the media. But it would be naive to think it was his holiness that attracted the American media rather than the perception that he was a cultural ally. Later, after the “dark years” of Pope Paul VI (who had the temerity to condemn artificial contraception), I also recall the secular enthusiasm that greeted the election and brief pontificate of John Paul I, who was frequently commended for always smiling and for charmingly admitting that his favorite author was Mark Twain.
But since then, the long pontificate of John Paul II slowly and inexorably changed everything. While John Paul II was enormously popular and inspirational among committed Catholics (and his travels proved to innumerable weak local Catholic communities how many of these there still are), he created enormous problems for opinion makers in both the Church and the world, who could not stop talking about his provincial Polish myopia, so out of step with contemporary reality. But what had happened by the 1990’s, or at least by the 2000's, is that Pope John Paul II had managed to strengthen the episcopate and inspire a fresh generation of priests who know the difference between the mind of the culture and the mind of Christ.
This was a critical change. American (and I think European) elites realize once again that they can no longer count on the Church to endorse what “everybody” knows and to favor what “everybody” wants. The Church has ceased to be a reliable ally, and it is instinctively understood that this can only get worse—that the Catholic Church is slowly gearing up for a fight to take back its own.
Those of us who were in the trenches when the Church was loved by the culture have always known that pro-Catholic sentiment would change as soon as the Church became strong enough to be a cultural threat again. Well, now she is strong enough to be a threat—or strong enough, at least, to be a sign of contradiction. You can see the results. Everywhere she is misreported, mocked, dismissed and condemned. Once again, Catholics need not apply. But given what it signifies, this shift back to blatant anti-Catholicism is really a very good thing. It is enormously reassuring, and it inspires hope.
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