- Anti-Catholicism in America: The Last Acceptable Prejudice
Fordham University professor and Jesuit priest Mark Massa's provocative title implies that North Americans tolerate anti-Catholicism despite denouncing irrational biases, such as racism, sexism, and homophobia. Several others, such as historian Philip Jenkins and William Donohue of the Catholic League, have made similar accusations. Yet contemporary political debates about same-sex marriage, capital punishment, abortion, and stem cell research reveal significant moral differences between Catholics and other Americans. Massa's book successfully contributes to an important discussion about interfaith relations by distinguishing legitimate questions about Catholic culture from unfriendly bias against Roman Catholicism.
Where does Massa find objectionable anti-Catholicism in the United States? In the eyes of both seventeenth-century Puritans and twentieth-century secular [End Page 355] intellectuals, Catholics owed loyalty to an institutional hierarchy that repressed individual autonomy. The Know-Nothing movement and the Ku Klux Klan employed similar arguments to justify opposition to both Catholic immigration and New York Governor Alfred E. Smith's 1928 candidacy for president. Since World War II, public intellectual Paul Blanshard increasingly characterized the undemocratic Roman Catholic Church as incompatible with the nation's liberal, constitutional standards. During John F. Kennedy's 1960 presidential campaign, Protestant minister Norman Vincent Peale also expressed doubts that sincere Catholics would defend religious liberty. More recently, some Protestant evangelicals, such as cartoonist Jack Chick and televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, have portrayed Catholicism as a global conspiracy to prevent individuals from achieving an authentic, personal experience of faith in Jesus Christ. Most disturbing, several academics have argued that Catholicism's suppression of creative, original thought fosters an under-representation of Catholics among those who earn doctorates in scientific disciplines at U.S. universities.
Rather than presenting this evidence as proof of Catholic victimization, however, Massa introduces Catholics who responded positively to this criticism. John Kennedy denied that religious obligations would affect his decisions as president. Prior to Kennedy's election, a Catholic sociologist, Thomas O'Dea, berated North American Catholicism as excessively formalistic, authoritarian, clerical, moralistic, and defensive. These Catholics nonetheless attributed such negative characteristics to the historical context of the Catholic experience in North America rather than to the fundamental principles of Catholicism.
This notion—that Catholic culture can change without perverting theological truth—allows Massa to suggest that the recent sexual abuse scandal justifies prejudice, or skeptical pre-judgment, toward Catholicism in the United States. Instead of blaming the current crisis on Catholicism's sexual teachings, liberal or conservative Catholic theology, Massa encourages Catholics to re-examine the Church's institutional norms and practices. In Massa's assessment, the Catholic community must adopt North American values, specifically personal accountability to temper traditional loyalties to community and church.
This book has some limitations, such as Massa's portrayal of John Kennedy as devoted to church-state separation throughout his career. Such an assessment fails to account for the Massachusetts politician's earlier advocacy of government aid to parochial schools and federal compensation for damages to the Vatican caused by Allied bombing during World War II. Even as president, Kennedy sought a compromise on federal aid to education that would include Catholic schools in some manner. Although Massa blames Kennedy's "hard-line separationist" positions for secularizing political discourse, the acceptance of a Catholic president supports Massa's thesis that Catholics should answer legitimate suspicions rather than merely denounce strong criticism as tainted by bias.
Undergraduates, seminary students, and the general public would benefit from this book's optimistic perspective (despite the pessimistic title) on Catholicism's position in contemporary U.S. culture. In less than 200 pages of [End Page 356] text, this book demonstrates lessons from the Protestant Reformation and European Enlightenment for contemporary Catholic culture in the United States. Instead of blaming the media, church dogma, or specific individuals, Massa challenges the Catholic public to require accountability from the clerical leadership. Such changes could reaffirm Catholic and non-Catholic confidence in North American religious institutions. This message of personal responsibility for community actions also offers hope...