Anti-Catholicism in America: The Last Acceptable Prejudice

Article excerpt

Anti-Catholicism in America: The Last Acceptable Prejudice. By Mark S. Massa, S.J. (New York: Crossroads. 2003. Pp. x, 245. $24.95.)

Fordham University professor and Jesuit priest Mark Massa's provocative title implies that North Americans tolerate anti-Catholicism despite denouncing irrational biases, such as racism, sexism, and homophobia. Several others, such as historian Philip Jenkins and William Donohue of the Catholic League, have made similar accusations. Yet contemporary political debates about same-sex marriage, capital punishment, abortion, and stem cell research reveal significant moral differences between Catholics and other Americans. Massa's book successfully contributes to an important discussion about interfaith relations by distinguishing legitimate questions about Catholic culture from unfriendly bias against Roman Catholicism.

Where does Massa find objectionable anti-Catholicism in the United States? In the eyes of both seventeenth-century Puritans and twentieth-century secular intellectuals, Catholics owed loyalty to an institutional hierarchy that repressed individual autonomy. The Know-Nothing movement and the Ku Klux Klan employed similar arguments to justify opposition to both Catholic immigration and New York Governor Alfred E. Smith's 1928 candidacy for president. Since World War II, public intellectual Paul Blanshard increasingly characterized the undemocratic Roman Catholic Church as incompatible with the nation's liberal, constitutional standards. During John F. Kennedy's 1960 presidential campaign, Protestant minister Norman Vincent Peale also expressed doubts that sincere Catholics would defend religious liberty. More recently, some Protestant evangelicals, such as cartoonist Jack Chick and televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, have portrayed Catholicism as a global conspiracy to prevent individuals from achieving an authentic, personal experience of faith in Jesus Christ. Most disturbing, several academics have argued that Catholicism's suppression of creative, original thought fosters an under-representation of Catholics among those who earn doctorates in scientific disciplines at U.S. universities.

Rather than presenting this evidence as proof of Catholic victimization, however, Massa introduces Catholics who responded positively to this criticism. John Kennedy denied that religious obligations would affect his decisions as president. Prior to Kennedy's election, a Catholic sociologist,Thomas O'Dea, berated North American Catholicism as excessively formalistic, authoritarian, clerical, moralistic, and defensive. …