You know that things must be rather bad indeed, when several atheist friends send you an article full of anti-Catholic nonsense from a prominent national publication, and ask you to comment on it. I am of course referring to an opinion piece by a formerly obscure author, recently published on US News and World Report’s blog. No doubt the editors of that publication are having a whale of time right now responding to the likes of the Catholic Anti-Defamation League, the Bishops’ Conference, and angry readers.
Far better writers than I, including Elizabeth Scalia at Patheos and Ed Morrissey over at Hot Air, have taken apart the arguments contained in the now-infamous article, and I direct the reader to their respective responses. Not only did the author of the piece exhibit a gross misunderstanding of Catholicism, but her factual and logical errors render her work practically unreadable. Yet however nauseating the piece was, it provides us with a tremendous teaching opportunity to remind Catholics and non-Catholics alike how far we have had to come in this country.
For those outside the Church, we Catholics may seem somewhat strange and mysterious. The “Pope Francis Effect” aside, apart from things like the annual screening of “The Sound of Music” on television, it is entirely possible to grow up in some parts of America having little or no exposure to Catholic life. It is why entertainments full of anti-Catholic lies and nonsense, such as the work of Dan Brown, can capture the imaginations of so many people. There is a regrettable, lingering perception in some corners of our culture that Catholics are practicing evil, secret rites revealed only to a few. Regrettably, these lingering doubts have had consequences in American cultural and political life.
Back in 1928 for example, when New York Governor Al Smith – a Catholic – was running for President against incumbent Herbert Hoover, many feared Smith would try to overturn the 18th Amendment, i.e. Prohibition, which itself had become law partially as the result of widespread American anti-Catholicism. Politicians, church groups, the Klan, and the mainstream media fell over themselves tossing out anti-Catholic vitriol.
The press in particular had a field day going after Catholics, printing scurrilous opinion pieces and vicious political cartoons, speculating that Smith was, among other things, intending to build a secret tunnel under the Atlantic Ocean to connect the White House to the Vatican, or that the Pope would attend Cabinet meetings to order Smith on how to act. Smith personally and Catholics in general were denounced in Congress, such as in this rather astonishing speech given on the floor of the Senate by Senator Thomas J. Heflin of Alabama:
Wake up, Americans! Gird your loins for political battle, the like of which you here not seen in all the tide of time in this country. Get ready for this battle. The Roman Catholics of every country on the earth are backing his campaign. Already they are spending money in the South buying up newspapers, seeking to control the vehicles that carry the news to the people. They are sending writers down there from New York and other places to misrepresent and slander our State, all this to build a foundation on which to work for Al Smith for President. The Roman Catholic edict has gone forth in secret articles, “Al Smith is to be made President.” Doctor McDaniel said: “Of all countries the Pope wants to control this country.” “The Knights of Columbus slogan,“ said Doctor Chapman, . . . ”is make America Catholic.” Here they tell you in their book that they will force the propaganda of Protestants to cease, they will lay the heavy hand of a Catholic state upon you and crush the life out of Protestantism in America.
Congressional Record (January 28, 1928), 1st Session, 70th Congress, vol. 69, pt. 2, 1654–55, 1658.
The tradition which the author of the U.S. News piece grows out of is, regrettably, rather a long one in American history. Fortunately, today reasonable Americans can presumably agree that there is something deeply disturbing about citing the religion of the majority of the justices of the Supreme Court as a basis for denouncing that body. Substitute “race” for “religion” in the forgoing, and you will see what I mean. It should therefore be very easy to dismiss such arguments out of hand as the labored ramblings of a poorly formed mind.
However for those of us within the Church, the challenge is a bit more difficult. It is easy to leap to the defense of Holy Mother Church, but it is perhaps not so easy to dispel lingering notions about Catholicism among our non-Catholic brethren in this country. There is still a pungent odor of anti-Catholicism wafting about certain corners of our society, which would permit a piece like this to be greenlighted and published in a mainstream publication. And I suspect it remains so, because we Catholics are simply not good at explaining who and what we are, and are not, not only to those outside the Church but even to ourselves.
Perhaps then here we need to close on a positive point, by encouraging Catholics to reach out to their friends and show them what Catholicism actually is, and what it is not. So for tomorrow’s blog post, I will share a positive example of how I was able to do just that in my own life, and perhaps provide some encouragement for you to try doing the same. There is nothing like first-hand experience for bringing people together.