Hostilities toward Catholics in the United States date back to this country’s founding and, some say, still persist today with anti-Catholic commentary appearing on Web sites, in art exhibits and on television. Catholics point to messages that compare Catholicism to Satanism on the Bob Jones University Web site and works of art, such as Chris Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary,” which appeared at the Brooklyn Museum of Art last year, as examples of anti-Catholic expression. Fordham’s Center for American Catholic Studies and Commonweal magazine set out to discuss charges of anti-Catholic bias and to distinguish bias from legitimate criticism during a conference titled “Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice?” on Friday, May 24.
Several prominent religion writers, researchers and commentators spoke to an overflow crowd of approximately 450 people, which spilled from the McNally Amphitheater into a classroom in the Law School where the conference was shown on video screens. Many presenters drew on the historical roots of current prejudice against Catholics, while others questioned the prevalence of anti-Catholic sentiment. Critics of the church often cite its hierarchical structure as a hindrance to human autonomy. According to research by Andrew Greeley, a priest, journalist and sociologist at the University of Arizona, 73 percent of Americans recently surveyed said they believe Catholics do what church leaders tell them to do and 52 percent said Catholics are not permitted to think for themselves opinions Catholics say are false.
“Anti-Catholicism is as American as Thanksgiving,” said Greeley, who spoke at the conference. “It’s bigotry to think that all Catholics take orders from [bishops].” Kenneth L. Woodward, the religion editor at Newsweek, said the large number of Catholics around the world, the church’s authority on moral issues and its influence in politics make it a target for scrutiny by the media. Woodward was critical of some of the media’s recent coverage of the church’s sex-abuse scandal, saying that its intensity and unrelenting nature have been driven by anti-Catholicism. Speakers cautioned the crowd to make a distinction between prejudice and criticism because the church is not without its faults. William A. Donohue, president and CEO of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, said that anti-Catholicism today derives from “conflicting visions of liberty.”
In today’s culture, he said, liberty is based on the “unencumbered self” and the notion that freedom is doing what one wants to do. Donohue described the Catholic sense of liberty as countercultural because it urges people to do what they ought to do, giving them the freedom to act within a moral framework. Rounding out the diversity of definitions and opinions was Alan Wolfe, the director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. Wolfe, the conference’s last speaker, challenged the whole premise of anti-Catholicism by putting it into perspective with other examples of religious bigotry. He cited the Mormons, who were ostracized for their religious convictions. He acknowledged that “since the U.S. was founded, there has been a strong strain of Catholic prejudice” that has woven its way into public policies.
However, the tremendous amount of religious conversions in this country and the growth of interreligious marriages have tempered this prejudice. Anti-Catholicism, Wolfe said, has a “history that is long gone in part because American religion has changed and America has changed.” The Center for American Catholic Studies, directed by the Rev. Mark Massa, S.J., was founded in 2001 to continue the University’s Jesuit tradition of serious intellectual engagement with religious ideas, its revered commitment to training “men and women for others,” and to provide new programs for the ongoing study of American Catholic thought and culture.