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The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice
Anti-Catholic Prejudice
The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice
by Philip Jenkins. Publisher: Oxford University Press.

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Catholicism has had a long but often troubled history in the United States. Catholics have lived in America since 1634, when the colony ships Dove and Ark arrived. In many regions Catholics were discriminated against, and ever since there have been periods during which Catholics have been attacked, killed, or relegated to second-class status. But things have gotten better, haven't they?

One might assume so, but perhaps they aren't as "better" as everyone assumes - the anti-Catholic bigotry is still there, but has moved underground and is now expressed in more subtle and less overtly violent ways. That, at least, is the general argument made by Philip Jenkins in his recent book, The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice.

The title, of course, can only be read as hyperbole if we want to be generous because otherwise it is plainly and painfully false. Atheists who are regular readers here will know this to be the case; according to a 1999 Gallup poll, 94 percent of Americans would vote for a Roman Catholic for president while only 49 percent would vote for an atheist (even lower than the 59 percent would who vote for a homosexual).

No one would say that Catholics shouldn't be considered citizens or patriotic, but the first President Bush said just that about atheists. Had that comment been directed towards Catholics, we all know what sort of outcry would have been raised - but because it was about atheists, no one really cared. Anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable prejudice? Nonsense. Prejudice against atheists and gays, to name just two groups, is so widespread and accepted that they are well-entrenched norms in American society.

But perhaps Jenkins does have a point to make, a point that lies behind the hyperbole and which might inform us about something generally unnoticed about American society. Is there widespread anti-Catholicism in America? Is there prejudice against Catholics which is expressed in media and culture and which should be denounced, even as prejudice against gays and atheists is generally accepted as manifestations of traditional morality?

Well, no, not really - not if by "anti-Catholicism" we mean prejudice against Catholics (prejudice against individual people because of their religion which is akin to prejudice against people because of their race or sexual orientation) rather than prejudice against Catholicism the institution (prejudice against a hierarchical power system which is akin to prejudice against certain governments or certain corporations). One of Jenkins' fundamental problems is that he doesn't do enough to distinguish the two.

It's not as though he doesn't realize that there is a difference, but he denies that it is a difference that makes a difference. Because the Roman Catholic Church is so central to the self-identity of individual Catholics, Jenkins argues, any attacks on the Church are necessarily felt as attacks on Catholics personally. Therefore, attacks on Catholic institutions are functionally indistinguishable from personal bigotry and attacks on Catholics themselves.

There is something to be said for this - not much, but something. It is true that many if not most Catholics regard their Church as central to their identities, and thus attacks upon their Church will be taken personally. That does not, however, mean either that such attacks are wrong or that they are the same as personal bigotry towards Catholics.

For one thing, an individual's sense of what is important to them is an unacceptable basis for deciding what does and does not qualify as a legitimate target for critique - or even attack. It might be blasphemous to attack the pope, but that doesn't make those attacks wrong and it doesn't mean that such attacks should be treated the same as racism against blacks. Some people have deep emotional connections to the American government, but this doesn't mean that attacks on the government's actions are anti-American bigotry.

This brings us to the second point, which is that no matter how personally some Catholics may take attacks on their church, the intention and motivation of the attacks cannot be ignored. There can be a difference in intention and motivation between attacks on the intelligence or habits of black people and even the harshest attack on the Vatican - one is directed against a person while the other is directed against an institution.

However wrong the latter may actually be, it doesn't change the fact that it is not intended as an expression of prejudice against people. That matters because while respect for an individual may be expected, respect for beliefs and institutions cannot - no matter how important those beliefs and institutions may be to a person. Yes, there does exist prejudice in America against certain Catholic beliefs and institutions, but that prejudice is part of a general prejudice against similar beliefs wherever they occur and similar institutions whatever their goal. Anti-Vatican rhetoric is no more hate speech than are tirades against the American government or Bill Clinton's liberal policies.

Readers of this site will understand just how important this distinction is. Like many atheist sites, one can find all manner of critiques of religions like Christianity and Islam, not to mention of theism more generally. Is this, then, a sign that atheist authors such as myself harbor anti-Christian, anti-Muslim, and anti-theist prejudices? Again, insofar as we are talking about individuals, the answer has to be "no." I have heard that claim before and have argued against it many times.

It is wrong through-and-through, and I believe that it may often mask a fundamental insecurity on the part of at least some of those making the claim. Yes, the beliefs in question are very important to them; that does not, however, mean that basic respect for them as individuals requires others to also respect those beliefs. Beliefs do not merit automatic respect and consideration like other human beings should. Criticism of beliefs or institutions is not automatically prejudice against or disrespect of individuals.

One of the most import things to understand here is the subtext of power that runs through Jenkins' book - a subtext which he, unfortunately, fails to address openly (one wonders if he even notices it). Past prejudice against Catholics and held by American Protestants was generally predicated upon concerns of the power and authoritarianism of the Catholic Church; unfortunately, it was all too often directed more against generally powerless Catholics as individuals.

Today, individual Catholics are rarely, if ever, the targets of prejudice against the power of the Catholic Church; but whereas before those who were responsible for the attacks on the Church were powerful Protestant forces, today the critics are mostly those who rank relatively low when it comes to social and political power: gays, feminists, and artists. At no point does Jenkins address these disparities in power and it is possible that he doesn't recognize their significance.

He seems to want to equate prejudice against relatively powerless individuals with that against relatively powerful institutions, and I would be inclined to argue that that is in many ways an immoral position to adopt. Quite often the powerless only free themselves from their bonds by bringing to light the abuses and repression promoted by powerful institutions and individuals.

The battle against real prejudice is a battle to free those who are kept out of power by prejudice and bigotry; yet by opposing criticisms of a powerful institution like the Vatican, Jenkins actually positions himself on the wrong side of that battle. He is right insofar as he argues that one must be very careful not to allow criticism of the Vatican to elide into bigotry against individual Catholics, but little of his book addresses that.

The rest is an attempt to argue that marginalized groups like gays are being "incivil" and are engaging in "hate speech" when they attack the ways in which the Roman Catholic Church uses its great political and social power to keep such groups on the margins. This, according to Jenkins, is the real prejudice and the real bigotry - a profoundly Orwellian move that attempts to shift the debate in favor of the powerful and against the powerless. I do hope that it meets with no success.

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