Anti-Catholicism in America: The Last Acceptable Prejudice

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Anti-Catholicism in America: The Last Acceptable Prejudice. By Mark S. Massa, S.J. New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2003. x + 245 pp. $24.95 (cloth).

Recent headlines about the misdeeds of various Roman Catholic priests and bishops, which have focused so much attention on the failings of the American church and its hierarchy, have proved to be a boon to scholars interested in anti-Catholicism. The year 2003, for example, saw the publication of two significant (and almost identically titled) books on this subject: Philip Jenkins's The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice and Mark Massas Anti-Catholicism in America: The Last Acceptable Prejudice. As Massa, a Jesuit, notes in the conclusion of his book, one of the unfortunate features of the current uproar over clergy sexual abuse is its "availability as proof positive for those . . . already uneasy with Catholicism that their fears were well placed" (p. 195). Still, as his book ably demonstrates, the embarrassments of the present day also offer an exceptional opportunity for probing the nature of anti-Catholic prejudice.

Massa, who directs the Center for American Catholic Studies at Fordham University, is well qualified to undertake this study, and he has produced an engaging account that guides readers through several centuries of American religious history. Fears of papal Christianity, he shows, were so thoroughly imbedded in the hearts and minds of the first English settlers in the New World that it is difficult to separate anti-Catholicism from the origins of the American nation. "Break the Pope's Neck," for instance, was a popular game among children in Puritan New England, and when these same boys and girls memorized the alphabet, they began with the admonition to "Abhor that abhorrent Whore of Rome" (p. 19). Although violent acts of anti-Catholic hatred peaked in the mid-nineteenth century, as recently as the 1980s television evangelist Jimmy Swaggart openly condemned Roman Catholic teachings, warning Catholics that unless they renounced their church's "errant doctrines" (p. 141) they risked eternal damnation. While most mainline Protestants in the twentieth century neither shared the theological assumptions of their Puritan ancestors nor sanctioned the views of flamboyant preachers like Swaggart, they nevertheless remained highly suspicious of the Roman Catholic Church. It is no surprise, then, that one of the most egregious modern expressions of anti-Catholic bigotry-Paul Blanshard's American Freedom and Catholic Power (1949)-was published by Beacon Press, the stalwart liberal publishing house in Boston, and received accolades from establishment figures such as John Dewey, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Given all the evidence presented, one must agree with Massa's contention about the widespread nature of anti-Catholic prejudice among non-Catholic Americans.

Although Massa approaches his topic primarily from a historical perspective, he also employs the insights of theology and sociology to add further nuance to his argument. …