Politics & Policy

Tolerance Has Its Limits

People of faith have some secular work to do.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Philip Jenkins was talking with some academic colleagues about the recent history of anti-American terrorism. He mentioned that one Islamist plot in the mid-1990s had planned the assassination of the Pope. The remark inspired high humor — “not because my listeners doubted that such a scheme had existed, but because everyone else present agreed that killing such an obviously pernicious figure would be a highly desirable act.”

“I make no assertion that this depth of hostility is in any way representative of academe,” Jenkins adds, “but it is a useful reminder of the incredible loathing that the Church and its leadership inspire in some liberal circles.”

In The New Anti-Catholicism, Jenkins, a professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University, marvels at the American media’s tolerance for swipes against the Catholic Church — especially in a time otherwise marked by hypersensitivity to possible offenses. “What sometimes seems to be limitless social tolerance in modern America,” he writes, “has strict limits where the Catholic Church is concerned.”

Jenkins is an unlikely defender of the Catholic Church: He left it for Episcopalianism in the late 1980s, albeit “without any particular rancor.” But he’s on something of a roll with the theme. His 1996 book Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis was a rare and somewhat daring study, documented the relative uncommonness of pedophilia in the priesthood. (While every single abuse of a child is abhorrent — perpetrators must be punished and rectories and seminaries need be cleansed of any and all apologists for such criminal, terrible sins — the fact remains that the media rarely have the whole or true story.)

In The New Anti-Catholicism, Jenkins points to numerous episodes in which media coverage has clearly been swayed by a bias for anti-Catholic story lines. But his chronicle of the virtual inculturation of anti-Catholicism never descends to whining: He’s not arguing that the Catholic Church is beyond reproach. “Of its nature, the Catholic Church is … more exposed to criticism because of the breadth of outlook that in other respects is one of its proudest boasts,” he writes.

Nor does he encourage Catholics to cry foul over every negative portrayal of their beliefs and practices. He seems more interested in exposing the shifting societal attitude as a force the Catholic Church must reckon with — or confront — if it is to maintain a voice in the public square: “Contemporary anti-Catholicism is not usually directed against Catholics as individuals or as population groups … but rather against the ideas and teachings of the Church.”

What’s so new about the “new anti-Catholicism” is that it is no longer based on a know-nothing, nativist, xenophobic fear. Now it’s more ideological: The left-leaning powers that be are too sophisticated to take Catholics seriously. In fact, Jenkins argues, the critics aren’t so much interested in theological disputes but simple politics. Women priests. Abortion. Homosexual unions. The hot political topics of the day.

Curiously missing from Jenkins’s latest is a prescription. He’s well-diagnosed the problem of anti-Catholicism but offers no strategy for combating it. Then again, that’s not his job. Catholics need to get to work on that. And Jenkins has already done the bulk of the research. With The New Anti-Catholicism as a guidebook, faithful Catholics can get to work on making their presence known with new vigor.

This review originally appeared in The National Catholic Register and is reprinted with permission.

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