Anti-Catholicism is arguably the oldest bias in the history of the American people. Or so Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. — who had no dog in the fight — once told the dean of U.S. Catholic historians, Fr. John Tracy Ellis. Over the centuries, however, anti-Catholicism in America has taken on several forms.
In its classic New England iteration, anti-Catholicism was shaped by Protestant and, later, Enlightenment-rationalist assumptions. Both were neatly summarized in a letter from John Adams to his wife, Abigail, written during the First Continental Congress after Mr. Adams had undertaken an anthropological expedition through the streets of Philadelphia:
This afternoon, led by curiosity and good company, I strolled away to mother church, or rather grandmother church. I mean the Romish chapel. . . . [The] entertainment was to me most awful and affecting: the poor wretches fingering their beads, chanting Latin, not a word of which they understood; their pater nosters and ave Marias; their holy water; their crossing themselves perpetually; their bowing to the name of Jesus, whenever they hear it; their bowings, kneelings, and genuflections before the altar. The dress of the priest was rich white lace. His pulpit was velvet and gold. The altar piece was very rich, little images and crucifixes about; wax candles lighted up. . . .
Here is everything which can lay hold of the eye, ear, and imagination — everything which can charm and bewitch the simple and ignorant. I wonder how Luther ever broke the spell.
Adams, it should be noted, contributed handsomely to the building of a Catholic church in Boston in the years after the Revolution; the passionate support for the cause of American independence displayed by such Federalist leaders as Charles Carroll of Carrolton had, evidently, caused the Sage of Quincy to reconsider. But in that 1774 letter to Abigail, he neatly summed up an indictment against Catholicism that would show remarkable staying power in the United States over the centuries: Catholicism is superstition; Catholics are ill-educated, priest-ridden boobies; the Church is a vast, money-making machine that sucks the lifeblood of the poor and ignorant; no educated person could possibly take the doctrines of the Church seriously.
In the early 19th century, the indictment against Catholicism was expanded to include the charge of sexual slavery in convents and Catholic schools. No one today would be surprised to be told that antebellum America’s bestselling book was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin; it’s probably a safe bet that 99 percent of the country doesn’t know that Number Two on the pre–Civil War bestseller list was a potboiling fiction, Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery of Montreal, which purported to be the memoirs of an escapee from this sexual Devil’s Island, one Maria Monk, but which was in fact written by two Protestant ministers. The Maria Monk trope — the Catholic Church as haven for sexual predators — was later revived in secular form in the cartoons of muckraker Thomas Nast, who regularly portrayed the miters of Catholic bishops as alligators’ jaws opening to attack children; it says something about the lack of imagination of today’s editorial cartoonists that this tawdry and tired image is regularly repeated on 21st-century editorial pages.