Anti-Catholicism is far from new to  America, but there certainly is a new anti-Catholicism in America.  In the mid-19th century, anti-Catholic abolitionists, Know-Nothings, evangelicals, and Republicans railed against what the 1856 GOP platform derisively called the “twin relics of barbarism, slavery and polygamy.”  Today, anti-Catholic feminists, homosexuals, liberal Protestants, and Democrats hold fast to the twin relics of the sexual barbarism of the 1960’s, abortion and homosexuality.

When it comes to anti-Catholicism in America, it sometimes does come down to sex, doesn’t it?  Back then, the fevered concern was illicit sex, whether on slave plantations, in Mormon enclaves, or in Catholic convents and confessionals.  Today’s anti-Catholics are disdainful of a Church that dares to declare their fevered sexploits to be sinful.  

To be sure, anti-Catholicism was once grounded in serious doctrinal differences and driven by images of Catholics as ignorant drunks or un-American cultists.  Once upon a time, anti-Catholicism reflected the ingrained mental makeup of an entire gallery of Americans, from John Winthrop to Eleanor Roosevelt.  For his part, Philip Jenkins almost seems to be longing for the good old days when anti-Catholicism was confined to the pulpits and fever swamps of America or when it was simply hardwired to the worldview of the Protestant-American establishment.

It must be noted that Professor Jenkins is an ex-Roman Catholic and current Anglo-Catholic.  He offers no explanation for his decision to leave the one for the other, even as he takes pains to assure his readers that he writes without a “vested interest in defending the Roman Catholic Church.”  Those pains have no doubt contributed to a finished product that is short on animosity toward the Church he left behind and long on sympathy for its current plight.  

Jenkins seems bowled over by yet another “remarkable” example of anti-Catholicism at work.  He is especially astonished that the Catholic Church is “virtually the only major (American) institution” that is routinely “subjected to unjust abuse.”  Evangelicals and fundamentalists have received similar treatment, but they do not top Jenkins’ short list of institutional targets of “unjust abuse.” 

Jenkins’ list of abusers is long and growing.  It extends from erudite intellectuals who claim to be Catholic—Garry Wills most prominent among them—to crudely anti-Catholic playwrights, including Terrence McNally (of Corpus Christi and its sacrilegious homosexual “Jesus”) and Christopher Durang (of Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All to You infamy), to innumerable productions for television and film.  

Jenkins sees no end to the abuse, even though he is convinced that feminists and homosexuals have little to fear from Rome, let alone from the American Catholic Church.  This is partly owing, he believes, to the recent sex scandals that have seriously weakened the moral authority of the Church.  Jenkins also detects little political will in the country at large to limit abortion rights and to challenge the homosexual agenda, official Catholic positions on both notwithstanding.

Once again, it all seems to come down to sex.  Put simply, anti-Catholicism is alive and well in America because the Roman Catholic Church refuses to place Her seal of approval on the sexual revolution of the 1960’s and beyond.  And really, what should be so surprising about this?  

Chesterton once said that he became a Catholic because it was a Church out to move the world, rather than move with it.  When it comes to issues of sexuality, this is exactly the Church that Pope John Paul II has presented to the world.  Garry Wills may not approve, his Chestertonian past notwithstanding, but no matter.  

If a fashionably Catholic priesthood including active homosexuals and women should come to pass, Jenkins predicts that Catholicism will become indistinguishable from Anglicanism, in particular, and mainline Protestantism, in general.  In other words, a lust for relevancy will pave the way for death-by-irrelevancy.       

Jenkins is surely not suggesting that this version of liberalism will necessarily triumph in the Church, but he does suspect that, if left to Her own devices, the American Catholic Church would head in this direction.  And if She did, would the Church finally be liberated from the slings and arrows of anti-Catholics?  No, for just as antisemitism survives and occasionally flourishes because it provides a “useful demon figure,” so anti-Catholicism will similarly survive and flourish.  

What Jenkins labels “social facts,” after all, can be very stubborn things, especially when they provide useful fictions for those bent on establishing Catholic responsibility for the holocaust and papal complicity with Nazism.  And such “facts” are not likely to disappear any time soon.  Nor will what Jenkins calls the “black legends” surrounding the singularly Catholic evils of the Crusades and the Inquisition.

Today, however, these historical “social facts” are dwarfed by the modern “social fact” of the Church’s alleged intolerance of homosexuals and women.  Once again, we are back to sex.  Jenkins seems compelled to tip his hat to those feminist and homosexual propagandists who have mastered the sly art of portraying their differences with the Church as an innocent conflict between secular freedom and religious dogma.  Thankfully, he does not feel compelled to agree with them.

Here, Philip Jenkins is less amazed than he is determined to drive home a point that too many Catholics will find amazing.  Not so long ago, practitioners of anti-Catholicism were generally conservative.  Today, liberals eagerly fill that bill—despite their agreement with the Church on several social issues.  War and peace?  The income tax specifically and what are euphemistically called “social justice” issues generally?  More often than not, the American bishops and secular liberals are on the same page, if not in complete harmony.  Yet liberals automatically dismiss the Catholic Church as reactionary, solely because of its stand on homosexuality and abortion.  To Jenkins, this is “stark testimony” of the importance of sex and sexuality when it comes to defining modern liberalism.  

All of this brings us to the author’s key point: Modern liberalism, the elite culture, and anti-Catholicism constitute a kind of interlocking directorate.  Witness modern liberalism’s relentless campaign to abuse the Church and Her priests.  Such was not always the case, and we do not have to go all the way back to Hollywood’s decision to put Bing Crosby behind a Roman collar for evidence.  Return only to 1970 and Father Mulcahy of M*A*S*H.  Jenkins accurately characterizes M*A*S*H as an “aggressively left-wing film.”  And yet the worst that its makers dared to do to the good chaplain was to portray him as an amiable fool.

Not so in this day of pedophile priests.  Here, Jenkins demolishes yet another “social fact.”  The current crisis is not one of rampant pedophilia within the American priesthood but stems, instead, from the actual fact of an increasingly homosexual priesthood.  This is a crisis that the media choose to ignore, even as they celebrate the “courage” of those who dissent from Church teaching on the subject of homosexuality.  Meanwhile, others who maintain the orthodox Catholic perspective are dismissed as evil or, in the case of the Pope himself, made out to be little better than amiable fools.  

This cultural shift has been swift and stunning.  As Jenkins notes, before our very modern times, all churches regarded homosexuality as sinful.  Today, the occasion for grave sin is to harbor antihomosexual thoughts.  And you need only voice those thoughts or otherwise give evidence of something called homophobia (which often amounts to a failure to endorse the entire homosexual agenda) to have committed the unpardonable sin.

Neutral observer that he tries to be, Jenkins cannot avoid detailing the prevailing double standard of the media when it comes to covering attempts of “gay activists” to force hopelessly “homophobic” Catholic sinners to atone.  ACT-UP can willfully invade St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and the media’s response is either approval or silence.  Such invasions are treated as isolated incidents rather than as part of a troubling pattern.  Here Jenkins draws a telling nonparallel to the media-fed “wave” of black-church burnings—what amounted to a frantic effort to establish a pattern where none existed.

When it comes to spotting troubling patterns himself, a troubled and astonished Philip Jenkins is very good indeed.  But is he troubled enough?  After taking the reader through all of his remarkable evidence, he asks only that anti-Catholics acknowledge their prejudice, lest the Catholic Church continue to be subjected to a “particularly blatant double standard.”  But isn’t that the point?  Or is Jenkins still too astonished to see it?

Anti-Catholics are not likely to abandon a strategy that is working so well for them.  Witness, for example, the defensive posture of a Church hierarchy that is so fearful of being labeled homophobic that it refuses to be honest about the problems presented by a homosexual clergy.  Witness, too, the tepid conclusion drawn by the author of this generally fine book.  

There is hope, however, if only because there is always hope.  In the present instance, the hope is that enough orthodox Catholics, which is to say anti-anti-Catholics, will read this hard-hitting book and be so amazed—and awakened—that they will do a great deal more than meekly plead with their enemies to stop doing what they are doing and own up to their unacceptable prejudice.  And maybe anti-anti-Catholics will even be so bold as to ask their enemies to reflect on the universality of sin in this troubled world, including sinfulness in the hearts and acts of those who continue to hold fast to those twin relics of barbarism that are doing society so much damage today.


[The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice, by Philip Jenkins (New York: Oxford University Press) 258 pp., $27.00]