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Book Reviewed:

Philip Jenkins, The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice. Oxford University Press, 2003.

The book can be purchased from Amazon.com.

Review by John Day. All copyrights are held by the author.



In starting, two personal observations must be clearly made and clearly understood. The author of this book was raised as Roman catholic, but became an Episcopalian some decades ago. The writer of this review was also raised as a Roman Catholic, and continues to be one. This last point may not prevent the reviewer from being critical of his church in ways that the book's author may not be in agreement.

It is not necessary to agree with the book's argument in order to find considerable value in it. It is not difficult to find other instances in which old prejudices change into new ones in ways not consciously held or recognized by the prejudiced. This book is very valuable in laying out the questions and considerations necessary in deciding whether a point of view has become an unreasonable and unthinking bias. The writer becomes quite heated at times (academics prefer the term "polemical"), but follows a careful method, is at all times clear-headed, and very searching in his investigation. It is also well written, and gives one some hope for the future of the English language.

The title of the book is a good summary of its central themes. Anti-Catholicism has a long history, and quite crictically so in American history. The forms in which it is best remembered still survive. In 2000, when President Bush was campaigning for his first term, he aroused considerable comment by addressing convocation at Bob Jones University. It was then noted that in unguarded moments, the family of the first Bob Jones still describe the Pope as Antichrist. But by any measure, that from of hostility is not what it used to be. In Dr. Jenkins' opinion, it has mutated into a completely different form. This new form is largely held by the liberal American left.

At one time, Senator Huey Long of Louisiana was asked whether he thought Fascism could ever come about in the United States. He replied, "Sure. Except we'd call it anti-Fascism." The "Kingfish's" observation is useful in grasping this point. So is some consideration of a sort of anti-Semitism becoming painfully familiar to the Jewish community.

The origins of "politically correct" anti-Catholicism can be traced in the United States to the 1930s. This does not include Marxists, who had a general aversion to religion of any sort, but was to be found among mainstream liberals. The most noteworthy example of these was Paul Blanshard, but he had supporters, among whom was Walter Lippman. During the course of the 1960 Presidential campaign, they actually created more problems for John Kennedy than did conservative Protestants or reluctant Democrats. The latter were largely concerned about the electability of a Catholic candidate, and the former raised issues which could be met fairly straightforwardly. The professional liberals of the day had many more serious qualms than is now realized: indeed, they were more likely to have visions of the country being run from a confessional than conservative Protestants. Some can argue that only the machinations of big-city bosses (many, of course, were Catholic) prevented the 1960 Democratic convention to Adlai Stevenson.

Before leaving this historical background behind, a number of the criticisms made then have much currency now, and many of them would still be accepted as sound now. The Catholic Church's views on abortion and birth control come to mind. Some derived from what were quite standard liberal opinions which are now largely discredited. Sterilization of the genetically unsound and disposal of the seriously disabled come to mind there. What is self-evidently certain as being good policy and morality can change over time - at least in popular estimation.

Professor Jenkins began to explore this form of "politically correct" prejudice when he was studying the problem of clergy who were, who were believed to be, sexual predators. At an early stage, he found that while it was assumed to be specifically a Catholic problem, it was not. He found it to be an ongoing problem not merely with clergy in other denominations and religions, but among persons in authority generally. He found himself forced to conclude that there was a deeply-engrained double standard which was impervious to contrary evidence. Both the Catholic Church as an institution and its wayward adherents as individuals were almost invariably presumed guilty. The assumption that basic corruption was a give fact of life followed from it. In the end, Jenkins concluded that this was not a response to the particular issue, but a new statement of a basic belief taken as fact, and not open to review.

It is not difficult to draw a parallel with a new form of anti-Semitism. It is, of course, possible to have basic disagreements about Judaism in general, Zionism in particular, the behaviour of the state of Israel in more particulars, and the policies of whomever happens to be governing Israel at the moment, without having any particular ill-will. It is also quite possible to disagree with, for example, the policies of Mr. Ariel Sharon, and have none with Israel, Zionism or Judaism. Certainly it is not difficult to find members of the Jewish community who quite openly and publicly make some hard criticisms at all these levels. All this is readily granted. But, at some point, some less admissible things begin to appear.

The standards of legitimate disagreement and legitimate criticism have to be applied in all directions, and not one. The state of Israel gets it coming and going. Many of its friends, and many of its opponents, will not use the same yardstick in measuring others. Justifications for using two measuring sticks are made. They frequently require much rewriting of history if not outright falsification. A lot of what is generally believed to be about the Middle East is myth, and myth in the worst sense of the word.

Similarly, an otherwise reasonable disagreement at one level can be used as a mask for deeper and less reasonable dislikes. That can be a projection of a lower level of dislike which builds into a larger one. Take an example. One may take a poor view of the most recent speech by Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu, and its content may lead one on to question larger things. One's dislike of Mr. Netanyahu grows to be a dislike of the Israeli government, to Israel, and ultimately to Jews generally. But it can work the other way too. One may disguise a basic animus against Jews generally by claiming solely to dislike Mr. Netanyahu's most recent speech. This last position is arguably official policy of a number of countries, and a number of avowedly progressive and liberal groupings.

And there are the dissidents. Most are perfectly serious and acting in perfect good faith. But there are people who, when they leave something, feel a need to completely and unreasonably in the other way. There is a lot of truth in the observation that the worst Anti-Semite is a rabbi's son or grandson, or that the the worst gay-basher is somebody deeply troubled by his own sexuality. They become very useful and committed allies to those inclined to believe the worst of a community.

All these observations can be applied to views about the catholic community and Church. There are some reasons why it is a more readily acceptable from of prejudice. For the most part, the Catholic community is not particularly hurting, and does not appear to be particularly powerless. For that reason, Catholic organizations which take on the roles of B'Nai B'rith or the Gay-Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation have very marginal support within the Catholic community. They have also shown some very questionable judgement, reinforcing the opinion held both by Catholics and non-Catholics that they are a pack of religious zealots. With the very significant exception of Hispanics, Catholics are no longer seen as an immigrant community, and are largely integrated into American society. Hispanics are indeed under attack, but for other reasons above and beyond this one.

Secondly, among liberals, there is a sense that the Catholic Church is a fair target as a power structure. This is not, in fact, a bad point. Anti-clericalism is not the same as anti-Catholicism, a distinction finely and thoroughly explored by Professor Jenkins. It is also true that a great many Catholics, both liberal and conservative, will readily agree that church authorities have done some singularly stupid, if not worse things. But it is a distinction which can be easily erased, and on a great many occasions the distinction disappears.

Jenkins finds a lot of liberal anti-Catholicism derives from the same roots as theolder conservative anti-Catholicism. One root comes from the hierarchical nature of the Catholic Church. Anything so organized is going to at least appear anti-democratic, especially if it keeps arguing that transcendental matters of right or wrong are not subject to majority vote at any given time. The Catholic Church is also an international organization, and its concerns about an international membership can make it appear very unresponsive to American society. If not worse. Things which might be simply occasions for disagreement elsewhere are sharpened by a basic sense that the Catholic Church is un-American.

There are some specific ideological agendas, and Jenkins spends a lot of time in looking at two of them in detail. These are the more extreme segments of the feminist and gay movements. To these segments, the Catholic Church is not merely an enemy, but THE enemy. It may be that Catholic opinions about sex and sexuality are mistaken; here it is a given that they are evil. Thus nearly anything can be justified as defending enlightenment and progress. These include sacking and desecrating churches (Montreal, 2000) and breaking up church services (New York, 1989, London, 2004). These events aroused no media interest, and the authorities have chosen not to regard them as hate crimes. These are extreme examples, to be sure, but the lack of outrage or even concern by larger society is alarming.

A (non-Christian) friend, with whom I was discussing this book, made the observation that while he agreed with the basic thesis , he thought it was a manifestation of an anti-Christian bias. I think there is some truth in this. In the immediate wake of Matthew Shepard's murder, it some considerable moral courage for a believer of any variety to take part in discussions devoted to Matthew's memory. That Matthew was himself a committed Anglican did not matter. A lot, most in fact, was easily understandable as anger, fear and hurt. But underneath these normal, natural and understandable recations, there were deeper layers which could only be described as trying to substitute one hate for another.

In an ironic sense, this form of anti-Catholicism pays the Roman catholic Church a great compliment. It grants the Catholic Church its claim to being THE Christian Church. There are, to be sure, enlightened dissidents (such as Bishop J.H. Spong), and there are split-offs which may well be even worse (such as the Rev. Fred Phelps). That proposition is not readily admitted, and I suspect it will strongly denied once stated. But the implicit assumption is there.

In reading the book, I found myself much less alarmed about political manifestations than I was the cultural and scholastic ones. Most of the former appear to me an extension of overheated political rhetoric with its normal hyperbole. I am far from thinking that this does not present real difficulties: it does. But it is possible to apply a discount here which is harder to apply when culture and scholarship comes into play. I should confess to a personal bias here: as a historian, I find the deliberate distortion of history and the acceptance of distortion as proven fact to be particularly disturbing.

But I am equally troubled by the cultural biases, and they are quite insidious. I first personally noticed it with Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" which completely rewrote the relationship between the Don's family and the Catholic Church, in every way to the discredit of the Church. It's a different story in the novel, and it's the one issue where the movie does depart from the novel. I have not seen the sequels: Jenkins holds that it has become much worse. The same applies to another movie where I had also read the book (in this case, a memoir), "Papillon".

There is one play, "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All To You", which, whatever its artistic merits, is impossible to describe as anything but bitterly hateful of everything Catholic. Criticism of it on that ground, however, has been forcefully repudiated and ridiculed by mainline critics, who seem to think it quite admirable. And I find the following quotation from this book needs to be cited:

"'Sister Mary' raises critical questions about the nature of censorship and hate speech, which can be understood if we imagine a comparably hostile or offensive work about some other group. As a hypothetical example, imagine a new farce about Matthew Shepard...Imagine, also, that the play presented Shepard as a ludicrous comic character and his death as high comedy. The whole concept is loathsome and unacceptable in the highest degree, but it is scarcely more repulsive than some recent anti-Catholic treatments. In reality, the Shepard play would not be written, would not be produced, and would not survive the tidal wave of protests. Cable television companies would know better than to revive it. Reviews would assuredly not praise it while warning mildly that 'the show is definitely not for people who are sensitive about hate crime'. Nobody would cheerily remark that 'the show will give gay righters fits!' In this instance, protesters would not be advised just to 'lighten up', to 'get over it.' Any number of similar analogies could be suggested each in its own way offensive to other groups. The only justification that might be advanced for Durang's work, as opposed to plays about hate crimes or lynchings, is that Catholicism is not like other religious or political systems because it is an oppressive weapon of the overmighty. That belief in itself represents anti-Catholic bigotry.

"The play and film of 'Sister Mary' encapsulates the arguments about hate speech in the media. If this particular work is tolerated, if the play is produced and the video is rented or sold, then no logical grounds exist for excluding or banning any literary works or films deemed offensive by other ethnic, religious, or social groups. Consistency demands that there should be no restrictions on misogynistic or anti-homosexual polemic...The case of 'Sister Mary' provokes a simple question: why can Catholicism legitimately be attacked in such outrageous terms by the American media, while other racial, social, and religious traditions remain exempt?"

Despite the high standards of this book, it is not without its faults. The most important one is that it is concerned specifically with the United States, and comparisons with other societies and countries are not there. Many of the issues raised seem to be particular to the United States. Whether this is actually the case, and why it should be the case are not explored. I expect, though, that it would have made the book too long. He was harsher in his treatment of John Boswell's "Same-Sex Unions" and John Cornwell's "Hitler's Pope" than I would have been, although I am largely in agreement with his conclusions. There are at least two factual inaccuracies. One concerns the events surrounding Matthew Shepard's murder (the killers attacked other males, but no females), but is less significant that his describing Ignaz Dollinger as a bishop. Dollinger was a very important and well-known church historian, but he was not even a priest, let alone a bishop. The polemical tone of the book can be overdone.

Still, it is an important book, and one well worth reading.