Fordham Panel Debates Anti-Catholicism: Does It Flourish Today, or Is It Just a Remnant of Bygone Era? (Nation)

By Lefevere, Patricia | National Catholic Reporter, July 19, 2002 | Go to article overview

Fordham Panel Debates Anti-Catholicism: Does It Flourish Today, or Is It Just a Remnant of Bygone Era? (Nation)


Lefevere, Patricia, National Catholic Reporter


When organizers were planning the conference "Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice?" last fall, they expected debate to focus on public perception of the church's policies on such matters as abortion, euthanasia and stem cell research.

Little could Jesuit Fr. Mark Massa, who heads Fordham's Center for American Catholic Studies, and Margaret Steinfels, editor of Commonweal magazine, have anticipated that allegations of sex crimes by clergy, cover-ups by bishops and clandestine compensation deals with victims would dominate news about the Catholic church for almost all of the new year.

So it was inevitable that some of the 13 presenters at Fordham University's McNally Amphitheater in late May would raise the question of anti-Catholicism in light of the scandal. But most of those addressing the overflow crowd of nearly 500 took a longer historical view of the problem, differing over whether anti-Catholicism was alive and well in today's culture or consigned to an earlier period.

Some speakers avoided defining "anti-Catholicism" in the charged atmosphere of recent headlines. Elizabeth McKeown, American studies professor at Georgetown University, posed a question that may have been on many minds: "Why are you people so interested in anti-Catholicism? And why now?"

She spotlighted the Catholic "iconography and grammar" of the events of Sept. 11--heroes, rescuers, last rites, requiem Masses, Catholic charity and the Catholic mayor announcing the distribution of first-class relics from ground zero--"urns of dirt with the elemental presence of those destroyed in the fall."

And just as suddenly the city turned its attention to the scandal of clerical misbehavior, and Catholicism began (again) to take on the dark role of cultural demon, she said. "How can you talk wisely about anti-Catholicism--in this city in this year?" McKeown asked.

Anti-Catholicism has been part of America since its earliest days, said historian John McGreevy of the University of Notre Dame. William Brewster, a pilgrim father, carried a tract against the papacy onto the Mayflower in 1620. "Anti-Catholic asides" can be seen on the Web site of Bob Jones University today, he noted.

Some of the scorn heaped on official Catholic views on sexuality in the last two decades is the result of "cultural anti-Catholicism with enduring, if intermittent strength" in U.S. society, McGreevy said.

The inability of Catholic leaders to offer a compelling vision of sexual ethics, one that takes women's experience seriously and one that honestly acknowledges the importance of sexual orientation for its leadership caste, has also invited criticism, he said.

As unpleasant as it may be, McGreevy is not surprised that some commentators on the current scandals have relapsed into stereotypical notions of Catholics as "authoritarian and backward" or even compared Catholic leaders with the Taliban. "Much of the analysis from Catholics and non-Catholics has rightly and appropriately focused on an appalling misuse of episcopal authority.... The Boston Globe did not create this crisis. …

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