October 5, 2020 (Edward J. Barr) – Anti-Catholicism has a long history in the United States. Restrictions against Catholics and the Church were part of the law in all jurisdictions of the British Colonies and the inherent prejudices instilled in the fabric of the nation proved challenging for the young Church in what would become the United States. Historian John Higham has identified three strains of anti-Catholicism in the nation; cultural, intellectual, and nativist. Immigrants from Catholic countries had a difference culture that was based on the intellectual tradition of the Church. As nearly all of the early arrivals were Protestant, Catholics weren’t a main part of the Revolutionary experience. In addition, they didn’t possess many of the Enlightenment views of the Protestant majority. Early Catholic Americans were noticeably different from the founding population.
Political parties are an expression of culture where anti-Catholicism has often played a role. The most infamous was the “Know Nothing party” of the mid-1800s. One of their policies was to prohibit Catholics from serving in public office. In their heyday the Know Nothing party boasted over 100 US congressmen as well as eight governors. There was a brief respite of anti-Catholic attacks after the Civil War, but by the 1880s over 30 states had adopted “Blaine amendments” which prohibited state funds going to Catholic schools. Many of these are still in effect, though thankfully recent Supreme Court rulings have reversed many of these unconstitutional laws.
Anti-Catholic attacks were surprisingly successful in spite of the First Amendment. The Constitution expressly guarantees freedom of religion. This guarantee was to protect the people from the government, not to protect the government from religion. The Free exercise clause enshrines the right of Americans to accept any religious belief and to engage in religious ceremonies and rituals. It includes actions made in support of religious beliefs. It expressly permits religion in the public square. Catholics embraced these freedoms and gradually broke into the cultural mainstream.
Catholicism’s assimilation into the American mainstream didn’t take full effect until after World War II. The common experience of American Catholics in both WWI and WWII lessened public hostility toward the faith. At the same time the nation strictly limited immigration into the US from 1924 to 1965. This allowed all immigrants to meld into the American culture.
Assimilation worked. Whereas the candidacy of Al Smith in the 1928 presidential race was hampered by anti-Catholicism, post WWII Catholic politicians gradually cemented themselves as legitimate members of US culture and society. Perhaps the most well-known example of this was President John F. Kennedy’s de-emphasis of his faith during the 1960 presidential campaign. During a speech at the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, Kennedy stated, “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.” Here we have a public statement emphasizing political affiliation over the Church. The age of the Catholic American had arrived. However, Kennedy’s claim of allegiance to Caesar didn’t convince everyone. At a private meeting on August 18, 1960 in Switzerland several prominent Protestants met to determine how they could prevent Kennedy from becoming president. It was organized by the Rev. Billy Graham.
The subsequent upheaval of the 1960s affected all aspects of American culture; most noticeably for Catholics was the tension within the Church over Vatican II and open hostility of many clergy to Humane Vitae and other “life issues.” In 1968 Catholic University professor Fr. Charles Curran led a dissent of nearly 100 theologians who opposed the teaching of Humanae vitae. Culture over Church made another great leap backwards when in 1984 NY Governor Mario Cuomo gave a speech at the University of Notre Dame where he argued one could be personally opposed to abortion while supporting laws that permit and enhance the activity (it must be noted that his speech was preceded in 1983 by Chicago Cardinal Bernardin promoting the “seamless garment” theory that has been used to conflate all issues that affect human life).
Of the three strains of anti-Catholicism noted above, the one that remains strongest today is the intellectual. This is due to the Church’s historical opposition to the secular humanism and materialism that was spawned during the Reformation and forms the philosophical basis for the Culture of Death. Those Catholics that support the philosophy of man’s preeminence in progressive development of humanity are seen as “enlightened.” They do not place their religion in front of their politics. They are “safe.” Hail Caesar!
The view that Catholics should not impose their moral values in the public square was again recently expressed by another New York Governor, the son of Mario, Andrew Cuomo. The younger Cuomo claimed that “religious values” should not “drive political decisions” in passing the most liberal abortion law in the country. He also stated in 2014 that Pro-Lifers have no place in New York. He is no threat to Caesar.
The challenges to Catholic teaching are not restricted to baptized Catholics such as Cuomo. As secular Humanism and the Culture of Death diverge ever more greatly from Catholic teaching, intellectual attacks have increased. During the 2018 Senate judicial confirmation hearing for Brian Buescher both Senators Harris and Hirono questioned his membership in the Knights of Columbus. Harris asked if Buescher knew, “that the Knights of Columbus opposed a woman’s right to choose when you joined the organization?” She also asked, “Were you aware that the Knights of Columbus opposed marriage equality when you joined the organization?” These are loaded questions that could be asked of any Catholic or Catholic organization faithful to the Church. They are attacks on Church teaching.
As the secular culture grew more hostile to God the consistent teaching of the Catholic Church became a more legitimate target. Equality under the law has recently been eliminated with legislation specifically designed to undermine the Church. The Church sexual abuse scandal gave the new anti-Catholic standard bearers the opportunity they needed. Over a dozen states have revised their laws in the past several years (2017-2020) extending or suspending statute of limitations on child sex abuse claims. No such laws were placed on any other institution, even though priests are far less likely to engage in sexual abuse than other power brokers, such as counselors and teachers. In 2019 the State of California nearly passed a law that would require priests to break the confessional seal (the state senate had passed the bill 30-2). Clearly, this attack is not on Catholics writ large; rather, on Catholic teaching and liturgical practices that contradict the secular humanist philosophy that is held by the elites in academia, the media, and schools, and increasingly, big business.
Current Anti-Catholicism is a confusing jumble of beliefs and buzzwords. We have secular Catholic politicians attacking faithful Catholic judicial appointees. We have secular Protestants attacking faithful Catholics appointees while Evangelical Protestants defend them. The Catholicism of Justice Brett Kavanaugh was not severely attacked during his nomination in 2018. However, the brutality of the assault on his character did result from his being faithful to the teaching of the Church, especially on the life issues. Supporting sexual assault fabrications was an easier road to go down for the secularists that really were incensed with his views on the sacredness of life and the realities of marriage as defined by the natural law and the Church.
Amy Coney Barrett has experienced similar assaults on her orthodox Catholic faith and will face more in the coming days. When she was nominated to the federal bench in 2017, she faced hostile questioning from several Democratic senators. Senator Dianne Feinstein said Barrett’s Catholic beliefs were concerning, as they might influence her judicial decisions on abortion. Others were concerned with how her Catholicism would influence her rulings in cases involving same-sex marriage. The message is clear from the secularists; follow the example of Kennedy and the Governors Cuomo and keep your religion to yourself! It is consistent with the view that the US should have “Freedom of Worship” vice the Constitutional mandated Freedom of Religion. Freedom of Worship means keep your beliefs behind closed doors. It is contrary to the Constitutional protections of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and the right of assembly.
Alas for the progressives, Amy Coney Barrett is not a Catholic American. She is an American Catholic. This scares them. The magazine “The Nation” wrote an article in September 2020 with the headline. “Amy Coney Barrett’s Extremist Religious Beliefs Merit Examination.” Her “extreme beliefs” are those held by the Catholic Church. The “Freedom from Religion Foundation” claims that she would be “a disaster for the constitutional principle of separation between state and church.” Why are they scared? Because she takes her Catholicism seriously and realizes that following the teaching of Christ is the best course of action one can take in life. She supports the Culture of Life over the Culture of Death.
Compare the grilling taken by Justices Kavanaugh and Barrett to the hearings on Justice Sonia Sotomayor. While there was some political wrangling, her appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit was approved by the Senate with only two dissensions. Her Senate confirmation to the Supreme Court passed 68-31. While there were debates over her record as a judge, there was no discussion on her being a Catholic. The secular culture is clear: Catholic Americans – good; American Catholics – bad. Being Catholic only matters when your views contradict the elite secular humanist culture.
This is the battle we all face. Will we be Catholic Americans or American Catholics? Will we support the Culture of Life over the Culture of Death? Eliminate all the rhetoric of the political campaigns, all the various Protestant denominations, and all the kinds of Catholics in America. Focusing solely on the issues we find that modern Anti-Catholicism is primarily based on the Culture of Death trying to crush the Culture of Life. Will it succeed?
Edward J Barr is a Catechist, an attorney, an intelligence officer, a Marine, and a university faculty member. He just completed his studies for a Master’s degree in theology from the Augustine Institute. Mr. Barr is a contributing writer for the Roma Locuta Est blog (www.RomaLocutaEst.com)