Is anti-Catholicism on the rise once again in the U.S.?
By Martin E. Marty|December 9, 2019
The editors of The Economist chose “The World in 2020” as the theme for its end-of-the-year “Visions” issue. Among the highlights, they titled the chapter on Great Britain, “Divided, Damaged, Diminished”—three words that probably could have headed several chapters in that issue. More importantly for our purposes, the editors slighted “religion,” devoting less than a page to the subject, focusing on their chosen subject, “a papal anti-Davos,” referencing Pope Francis’s 2018 message to the World Economic Forum, in which he advocated the need to prioritize fighting injustice and poverty above “economic freedom.” While those editors had cheered Pope Francis for Laudato si, his 2015 papal encyclical on climate change, they have nothing good to say on the new treatise on economics. They wish that the pope would use “the world’s most prominent pulpit” to deal with the ethics of business rather than, as they see Francis doing, “proposing half-baked policies that any thinking economist can quickly rubbish.”
We gather that the editors of The Economist do not think much of Pope Francis on the topic of economics, but they are quite calm when dealing with him in general. Not so serene and fair are many other editors and writers, including many on the Catholic right. My (figurative) bulging “internet clippings” file features numerous reports or editorials with headlines that harken back to the anti-Catholic controversies in our national past. Here are examples from the past few years: “Fears of anti-Catholic bias rise on both left and right” (Crux), “Bannon and Feinstein remind us that anti-Catholic bigotry is a bipartisan problem” (America Magazine), “Brett Kavanaugh will face anti-Catholic bigotry” (USA Today), and, leaving us with a question, “Is Anti-Catholicism Dead?” (The New York Times). These are just a few of the headlines that fill my folder.
And there are some that not only identify anti-Catholic suspicions but actually stoke them. One sample: Maureen Mullarky, “Why Anti-Catholicism Will Rise,” The Federalist, March 1, 2016. “When the future looks back on this pontificate, Pope Francis might well be credited with having wakened the sleeping bogey of anti-Catholicism. … Francis’ Marxoid [!] rhetoric, advancement of deceptive climate changes narratives … rekindle old suspicions that popery is the enemy of free institutions.”
Of course, the prefix anti- here alerts us to a phenomenon that has haunted all moments and cultures in which Catholicism has threatened to become present and powerful. Now: is anti-Catholicism “dead” or “rising” as a problem? Readers can be sure that the subject will on occasion appear in this column, as colleagues and I do our “sightings” of religious happenings out in the world. As a historian I have written and read many (many and many more) stories about the realities of anti-Catholicism. It has haunted and blighted cultures where popes and prelates, scholars and victims, and wherever what The Economist calls “visions,” have appeared.
Not wanting to settle placidly or morosely for a world in which anti-Catholicism ascends again, let me recall for our readers some counter and qualifying signs to the rise of anti-Catholicism that might light our path forward. What are some forces or who are some people that have led to some minimizing of this particular anti- force? Consider these as starters: a century of ecumenical achievement and coalition building, the creation of interfaith organizations, the manifest efforts of tireless men, women, and children to utilize their faith as a force against every form of religious (or non-religious) anti- movement, plus the generations of scholars, clerics, pontiffs, visionaries, exemplars, artists, and worshippers who resist the call of haters and rousers of suspicion and mistrust.
I have no doubt that Sightings authors will keep a watchful eye out for developments on this front, and they will conscientiously share their findings and analysis in this column. I get excited enough about visions of peace and good will that I will sometimes risk acquiring the reputation of being “soft” and illusionistic. But in a time of everything anti-, it’s perhaps proper at this time of the year to entertain instead the possibilities of the pro-.
Sightings is edited by Joel Brown, a PhD Candidate in Religions in the Americas at the Divinity School. Sign up here to receive Sightings via email. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Marty Center or its editor.