Maureen Dowd’s Catholic Problem
The latest innovation in a long line of bigotry


George Weigel

With Al Smith and the 1928 presidential campaign, American anti-Catholicism entered what might be called its Elmer Gantry phase, gleefully reported by H. L. Mencken in the Baltimore Sun of Aug. 6, 1928: “With the nomination of Al in the hell-bent city of Houston, I resumed an old vice: the reading of denominational papers. . . . As of July 10 I subscribed to all the Baptist and Methodist organs south of the Potomac . . . and [from] them I learn a great deal that is confidential and surprising about the plot of the Pope to seize the United States.” The Bad Boy of Baltimore cited numerous examples of anti-Catholic hyperventilating among conservative American Protestants; perhaps the choicest was the rant of Elder W. C. Benson, writing in the Arkansas Baptist and Commoner and instructing his readers to break with the Solid South tradition of straight-ticket Democratic voting in order to save, not only the Republic, but their families:

To vote for Al Smith would be granting the Pope the right to dictate to this government what it should do. A vote for Al Smith would be the sacrificing of our public schools. Rome says to hell with our public schools. A vote for Al Smith would be to say that all Protestants are living in adultery because they were not married by a priest. To vote for Al Smith is to say that our offspring are bastards. Are you ready to accept this?

While small pockets of Protestant anti-Catholicism can still be found in the fever swamps of the contemporary American religious world, the overall scene has changed dramatically over the past 50 years. Mainline/oldline Protestants may deplore the Catholic Church’s retention of classic Christian moral teachings that Protestant liberalism has long since abandoned; the occasional crackpot like Anglican Bishop John Shelby Spong may still hint darkly that Catholic opposition to abortion, “gay marriage,” and euthanasia is a danger to the Republic. But the liveliest parts of the American Protestant universe — the Evangelical churches and the Evangelical movements within the mainline churches — are firmly aligned with the Catholic Church on publicly disputed moral questions in public policy. Indeed, many Evangelicals wanted John Kerry to be more Catholic, not less, in his 2004 presidential run. For its part, the Thomas Nast/rationalist strand of anti-Catholicism has proven to have some staying power, and not only among unimaginative editorial cartoonists: The “New Atheists” have revived many of the old Enlightenment-rationalist critiques of Catholic doctrine (and, of course, orthodox Protestant doctrine); organizations like Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union can be counted on to blast the trumpet of secularist alarm whenever what they imagine to be “sectarian” Catholic ideas begin to encroach on the public square. Much of this is the same old same old.

Ecclesiastes notwithstanding, there is something new under the sun in the annals of American anti-Catholicism; and that something is the rise of the anti-Catholic Catholics, self-described Catholics who make a career (or at least part of a career) out of mounting endless attacks on the Church, its settled beliefs, its leadership, and its people. Like the Nast/rationalist anti-Catholicism of the past, today’s Catholic anti-Catholicism is a left-of-center phenomenon that, in secular guise, often reflects the critiques of the Church mounted by so-called “Catholic progressives”: The Church is hopelessly sexist; the Church is hopelessly sex-obsessed; the Church is cruel to women and gays; the Church is hypocritical. And, of course and most recently, the Church is a global criminal conspiracy of child rapists and their abettors, which “fact” validates the other charges in the standing indictment just cited.