The New and Old Anti-Catholicism and the Analogical Imagination

Article excerpt

A NUMBER OF PUBLIC intellectuals tracking the relation of religious belief to North American "popular culture" have noted that the past few decades have witnessed a resurgence of what Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., once termed "the deepest bias in the history of the American people," more recently labeled by George Weigel as simply "new anti-Catholicism."(1) And almost all of the pundits charting this resurgence have noted that the social location of this new animus would appear to be a somewhat murky moving target, certainly more difficult to pin down than the militantly evangelical Protestant ministers, nativist groups such as the Know Nothings and the Ku Klux Klan, or even the "professional" Catholic haters such as Paul Blanshard, of our cultural past. (This being said, the ancient and revered vocation of "professional Catholic hater" has been quite credibly revived in the career of Jack Chick and his hate-filled cartoon empire.) More specifically, practitioners of a new Catholic apologetics as ideologically diverse as Andrew Greeley, George Weigel, and William Donovan increasingly have targeted the contemporary "secular culture" of the United States itself as the chief engine of anti-Catholic impulses, a culture termed by one especially smart commentator "the culture of disbelief."(2)


Some interpreters of this contemporary anti-Catholicism (Andrew Greeley) would say that, to begin with, the new anti-Catholicism is not all that new. Indeed, Greeley argues that recent anti-Catholic displays simply represent a contemporary form of an animus that never really went away. Other interpreters (George Weigel) have offered a gloss on the secularization theories of Peter Berger and Martin Marty, arguing that in North America (unlike, say, Germany) "secularity" does not mean the disappearance of religion, but rather its privatization--its removal from the public sphere into domestic quarters. Thus, so this interpretation goes, a resolutely public religion such as Catholicism--a very large institutional religion that refuses to keep silent on neuralgic public issues such as abortion--opens itself ineluctably to cultural criticism and derision. Both interpretations undoubtedly explain at least some of the impulses that "watchdog groups" such as Donovan's Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights have identified as "anti-Catholic" in contemporary culture. But a number of Catholic intellectuals across the ideological spectrum are united with each other and with Catholic apologists of a century ago in their complaint that Roman Catholicism and, in the last few decades, "official" Catholic positions on abortion, homosexuality, and the role of women in the community are targeted for cultural ridicule, media carping, and political litmus-testing so often, and so nastily, in comparison with other religious groups (say, evangelical African Americans, Orthodox Jews, and devout Muslims) who espouse analogously "non-mainstream" beliefs in the culture, that a looming if indefinable "something else" must be going on.(3)

And the cultural evidence supporting the fear of such a "something else" is arresting when presented in summary form. Sexually rapacious and physically abusive nuns and priests now appear as stock characters in TV soap operas and in prime-time shows such as "Ally McBeal," as well as in off-Broadway shows such as "Late Night Catechism" and "Jeffrey." Hollywood-made movies such as "Dogma" and "Stigmata," as anti-religious as much as specifically anti-Catholic, nonetheless consistently present religion itself in ways targeted to highlight and (and thus offend) Catholic sensibilities.(4)

Novelty stores now feature a meretricious "Boxing Nun" hand-puppet, while at the other end of the cultural spectrum the furor over a dung-covered picture of the Virgin Mary at the 1999 "Sensation" exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art merited articles in the religion column of the New York Times, articles that considered the charge of anti-Catholicism on the part of the museum. …