Creed and Prejudice

Article excerpt

CREED AND PREJUDICE The New Anti-Catholicism The Last Acceptable Prejudice BY PHILIP JENKINS OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS/272 PAGES/$27.00

"Twenty ski-masked members of a feminist autonomous collective interrupted a mass in the Catholic cathedral of Marie, Reine du Monde. They ... sprayed atheist and anarchist graffiti on the altar and tried unsuccessfully to overturn the tabernacle. . . . Demonstrators stuck used sanitary napkins on pictures and walls, threw condoms around the sanctuary, and shouted pro-abortion slogans."

The New Anti-Catholicism is not what I expected, thank Heaven. I envisioned nothing more than a litany, so to speak, of anti-Catholic outrages. There are some eye-popping examples, to be sure-like the incident above, in Montreal in 2000, drawn from an account by Mark Steyn in THE AMERICAN SPECTATOR. But Philip Jenkins's book is much more: a serious effort to understand current anti-Catholic ideas in the context of historical prejudice and contemporary social and political battles.

Can arguments against the Roman Catholic Church, its hierarchy, its clergy, and its moral teachings really be considered anti-Catholic prejudice? The answer Jenkins finds is often-though by no means always-"yes."

The "new" anti-Catholicism Jenkins focuses on comes from the Left and focuses on issues of gender and sexuality. The pivotal year was 1968 when Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, including a reaffirmation of the church's opposition to artificial contraception. To many Americans caught up in the political and social upheavals of that time-Catholics included-the encyclical seemed to call a halt to the reforms ushered in by Vatican II.

The new "progressive" anti-Catholics might be surprised to know that they are merely repeating hoary nativist calumnies, from secret allegiance to a foreign power to priestly seductions in the confessional. But Jenkins-a professor at Penn State and a self-described former Roman Catholic who left "without any particular rancor" and is now an Episcopalian and "a small-c catholic"-cites three forces that make the new anti-Catholicism more powerful: voices of dissent among Catholics themselves; issues of sexual morality on which the American press naturally lines up against "repression"; and a loss of clout by the U.S. Catholic Church to squelch anti-Catholic messages in the media.

If Catholics are among the church's critics, Jenkins asks, can the criticism really be "anti-Catholic"? That's the rhetorical trump card played by those who attack the church, its clergy, or its teachings. Jenkins's conclusion is that many self-proclaimed Catholics hold positions that are in no meaningful way Catholic. I'd suggest a simpler argument. John Walker Lindh is both American and anti-American. Just because a "Catholic" says something doesn't mean it's not anti-Catholic.

Indeed, as his subtitle suggests, Jenkins argues that the kinds of prejudice expressed toward Catholics would never be tolerated against other religions or social groups. After the Montreal attack, he notes, "Quebec police announced that the province's stringent hate-crime law would not be invoked against people who 'in good faith' attempt 'to establish by argument an opinion on a religious subject.'"

But Jenkins also argues that such laws are "already far too wide ranging and ill defined." (How about just enforcing ordinary laws to protect the rights of worshipers and owners of church property from violence?) Instead, he calls for not less but more rough-and-tumble debate, arguing that society has become too timid about challenging the views or actions of protected groups-pretty much everyone but Catholics, it sometimes seems. Catholic positions on social questions, the conduct of priests and bishops, and other issues of public interest are subject to vigorous public scrutiny and debate. …