A Prejudice That Rarely Utters Its Name: A Historiographical and Historical Reflection upon North American Anti-Catholicism

By Kenny, Stephen | American Review of Canadian Studies, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

A Prejudice That Rarely Utters Its Name: A Historiographical and Historical Reflection upon North American Anti-Catholicism


Kenny, Stephen, American Review of Canadian Studies


In his recent critical essay on the history of the Catholic Church, Swiss-born theologian Hans Kung notes that assessments of the institution, both internal and external, vary significantly. A faithful but questioning priest, he opines that it is the most controversial of churches "subject to extremes of admiration and attack." (1) Claiming that at mid-twentieth century the common attitude towards it was one of benevolent indifference, Kung suggests that its current rigid and infallibly taught positions on matters such as abortion, homosexuality and euthanasia have now turned general opinion "into hatred, indeed public hostility." (2) The purpose of this article is not to suggest right or wrong, rather it attempts to delve antagonism in the United States and Canada towards Catholicism in historiographical and historical terms. Our times leave little space for tolerance of the church and its teaching. The current anger which infuses contemporary attitudes requires some explanation before historical understandi ng can be addressed. Moreover, one of the most difficult aspects of such an analysis is the paucity of the acknowledgment in the mainstream historical literature even of the existence of anti-Catholicism. It is a prejudice that rarely utters its name.

Given the seemingly endless disclosures in the United States of massive and predatory sexual assault on the part of its clergy and the willing silence of some American bishops, hostility to the Roman Catholic church has exploded. The muscular zero tolerance measures taken by the American Conference of Catholic Bishops at its annual meeting held in Dallas in June 2002 were modified by the Vatican's cautious response. Acting in the interest of justice to the accused rather than concern for the victim, Rome's reaction will likely increase antagonism.

Yet objections to Catholicism in America are not new. What changes from time to time is the nature, depth and extent of the virulence of anti-Catholic attitudes. Reflecting upon anti-Catholicism in America, the historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. once referred surprisingly to this prejudice as "the deepest bias in the history of the American people." (3)

Indeed it is hard to define anti-Catholicism. The raw intolerance of one person may be the honest objection of another. The difference between thoughtful criticism of the church and hoary prejudice continues to perplex historians. For example, in his recent study of Charles Chiniquy, former priest from Quebec and well-known nineteenth century anti-Catholic polemicist, Richard Lougheed struggles with that distinction. He reminds his readers that if there was indeed a fanatical and excessive brand of anti-Catholicism in Chiniquy's day, that of evangelical Protestants at least had a legitimate theological foundation, Moreover, in Quebec at that time the struggle against Catholicism was informed by a countervailing and powerful anti-Protestantism and triumphant clericalism symbolized by the preeminence and domination of Ultramontane Catholics. (4)

Historical Background: Canada and the United States

While cliche frequently suggests that what happens south of the forty-ninth parallel eventually occurs north of it, serious readers of the comparative literature in Canadian and American history realize that there is no perfect chronological fit between the two countries. There is no simple sequence of cause and consequence. For example, while antebellum America spiraled towards the fratricidal disaster of the Civil War, pre-Confederation Canada evolved hesitatingly away from colonial status to a greater measure of autonomy and national affirmation. Similarly, the experiences of the Catholic Church in the United States and Canada differed considerably in chronology, demographics and attitudes. What is more, within Canada the history of the Roman Catholic Church is also contrasted in that its French speaking component was overwhelmingly Roman Catholic while that of English speaking Canada was mostly Protestant. …

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