On the Lingering Stench of American Anti-Catholicsm

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.

Illustration from Harper’s magazine of Catholic Bishops as crocodiles, 1876.

St. Luke and the Smashed Statue

Today the Church celebrates the Feast of St. Luke the Evangelist, the Gospel writer and good friend of people like St. Paul and the Blessed Virgin Mary, who among other things is honored as the patron saint of artists. It is also a good opportunity for us to reflect on the importance of art to Catholics, particularly in light of what happened over the weekend with the scandalous destruction of a statue of the Virgin Mary by members of the Occupy Wall Street movement. As has been reported elsewhere, though of course not in the so-called mainstream media, the group broke into a church in Rome, smashed the doors of the sacristy, and desecrated a crucifix. They then carried a statue of Our Lady out into the street, smashed it into the pavement, and then jumped on it to smash it even further.

Those who have visited my ongoing web project Catholic Barcelona where I am cataloguing the interesting churches, chapels, and other Catholic sites in Barcelona – a project currently on hold as I await my next trip to that city in December – know that such actions infuriate me both as a Catholic and as a lover of art. People of the same political persuasions as today’s current batch of “protesters” escalated their movements into a virulent form of anti-clericalism in Spain in the 1930’s, and did tremendous damage to the Christian fabric of Barcelona in particular. One need only see what was done to sites such as the formerly magnificent Jesuit church on the Ramblas to begin to imagine what artistic losses we have suffered as a result of such actions.

Interestingly enough, in the late 19th century a number of Catalan cultural figures were seeking to bring together like minds to try to integrate their artistic careers with the Christian faith and combat such secularism, and decided to seek the patronage of St. Luke. In 1893 they formed The Artistic Circle of St. Luke, and sponsored lectures, exhibitions, courses, and the creation of a study archive for their members and the benefit of the public. The group thrived during the same period that Barcelona was undergoing a phenomenal artistic and cultural renaissance, with the work of architects like Gaudí, painters like Miró, writers like the Folch i Torres brothers, and political cartoonists like my own great-grandfather – all of whom were members of the Circle. Because of their Catholic association, the Circle of St. Luke was forcibly closed for several years by the leftists beginning in 1936, as part of their efforts to stamp out the Christian faith in Barcelona.  Although they later reopened, they have gradually lost some of their focus, and have become today something less than what they once were, i.e. cultural figures who sought the patronage of the patron saint of artists and the integration of their Catholic faith with their artistic output.

Those of my readers who are not Catholics may not have a full understanding as to why the iconoclasm displayed by the individuals shown in the Occupy Rome vandalism is so appalling to those of us of the Catholic faith. From an artistic point of view, the particular statue that was destroyed in the attack was not of any great intrinsic significance. The image is a fairly standard, mass-produced one, probably made of molded and painted plaster, that one could purchase from a religious supply house. It is not as though the protesters broke into one of the great Roman churches and smashed a sculptural masterpiece by Michelangelo or Bernini.

Nor, must it be said, do Catholics need art in order to be able to worship God, which is a common misconception. The Church recognizes that, for many people, an image is a tool can help focus one’s prayer life. Yet the images themselves are neither worshiped nor necessary, as such images are in pagan or animist religions. After all, the same religion that built the lavishly decorated Jesuit churches in Rome – full of statues, pictures, and so on – also built the stark, minimalist churches of the Cistercians and Trappists, where there is little or no decoration at all.

The Catholic view of such artistic objects is that they are the equivalent of family portraits and photographs, which most of us display proudly in our homes to remind us of our departed loved ones, whom we hope to meet again in the next life. We do not worship the photo of grandpa on the bookshelf in the family room, nor the portrait of a great-great-aunt that hangs in the upstairs hallway. These things are simply reminders of our connections to these people, and they work as visual stimuli to cause us to remember them and to think about them, and probably more frequently than we otherwise would, if these images were not on display before us.

Similarly, while I was not fortunate enough to have met someone like St. Dominic, the great 12th century Spanish religious founder and preacher, I can have a statue or picture of him on my desk as a reminder.  The image of him, as imagined by an artist, helps me to recall his life, his preaching, and the work he did for Christ. And with that reminder, hopefully I will also be reminded that I should try to follow his example of obedience to God’s Will, and to speak out on behalf of the Faith when given the opportunity to do so.  Should the statue be broken or the picture destroyed I will regret its loss, of course, but it is not by any means necessary that I should have one.

Whether through acts of blasphemy, scandal, or the like, the destruction of an artistic image of Jesus, or one of the saints like the Virgin Mary, cannot destroy God or His Church. Catholics do not need images to worship God, or honor the men and women who have served Him, any more than, in a secular context, we Americans need things like gravestones, memorial plaques, the Lincoln Memorial, or Mount Rushmore. In the end, the destruction of this particular image by leftists in Rome only hurts those who actually destroyed it, for unless they repent of their malice they will someday have to answer for what they have done.

For those of us who are Catholics, perhaps we should ask St. Luke, as the patron of artists, to encourage this parish community in Rome to come together after this act of destruction, and see whether someone can get them a replacement statue for the parish church, so that the parishioners will once again be able to reflect on the life of the Blessed Virgin – someone whose life story so captivated the interest of St. Luke himself – and pray for the conversion of those who sought to harm God by such shocking, but ultimately futile efforts.


Detail of “St. Luke” by El Greco (c. 1605)
Cathedral of Santa Maria de Toledo, Spain

Review: “Prohibition”

Having now seen all three segments of Ken Burns’ latest documentary, “Prohibition”, which concluded last evening on PBS, I have the chance to share some of my thoughts about the film, with those among my readers who give some passing deference to my opinions on such matters (a fact which continues to astonish me no end.)  In the case of this particular film, Mr. Burns not only captured my interest in a subject which, like many Americans, I thought I already understood, but he also opened up new areas of inquiry for me to examine now that the film is over.  And because of this, I have to tip my hat to him and his team for producing a piece that was not only educational and entertaining, but which will have legs long after the memories of specific moments in it have faded away.

I suspect that most of my American readers, when it came time to study the Prohibition era in American history class in secondary school, focused more on some of the easier questions and answers about this period, and had more interest in its cultural aspects.  We looked at the Temperance movement and women’s suffrage, the miseries of crowded slums and rapid industrialization, and thought that we understood from a sociological perspective how Prohibition came to be.  We then topped off that very general knowledge with a smattering of information about characters such as Al Capone, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Warren Harding, and Duke Ellington, and believed that we “got” that time period.

Prohibition turns out to have been a far more complicated story than what Sister led me to believe, pressed for time as she was with lesson plans which insisted she get us at least to the Vietnam era by the end of the academic year.  For example, from a purely practical perspective, Prohibition would not have been possible without the creation of an alternative dedicated revenue stream.  For many years prior to the passage of the Volstead Act, enshrined as the 18th Amendment, a gigantic amount of government revenue came from taxes levied on the production and sale of alcohol.  It was, in effect, a sort of cash cow of sin, which the government could milk whenever it needed, somewhat like state and local governments do with the tobacco industry today.

President Abraham Lincoln, who actually sold alcohol himself when he was a shopkeeper, turned to taxation on alcohol in 1862 and again in 1864 to help pay for the costs of the Civil War.  When we consider not only the enormous quantities of alcohol people drank in that era, from breakfast through dinner, due to the lack of a clean water supply, but also that in many cases alcohol was the only medicine available to use as a pain killer for huge numbers of men wounded in the fighting, this amounted to a very large sum, indeed.  This was also an era when distilleries, brewers, saloons, taverns, and so on were ubiquitous, in what from the film’s images and descriptions show to be infinitely greater numbers than exist today, when zoning regulations keep both the production and sale of alcohol under strict geographic control.

When the 16th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1913, giving Congress the power to levy individual income tax across the country without using apportionment to “spread the pain”, as it were, the revenues collected from alcohol were no longer an issue.  Bureaucrats could no longer stress to temperance lobbyists the importance of that particular area of taxation as being the single largest funder of government programs: a kind of Sword of Damocles hanging over the Republic which must never be interfered with.  The combination of this change in the law along with other factors – World War I, direct election of U.S. Senators via the 17th Amendment, and so on – are all part of the mechanism that kept the temperance movement rolling like a juggernaut towards Prohibition.

Yet far deeper than the legal practicalities and policy factors which led to the implementation of Prohibition, the ugly truth behind the movement is that it was inextricably tied up with Anti-Catholicism, something of which I was only dimly aware before this film.  It surprises me that the nuns in my private school did not make me more aware of this fact when we studied the Prohibition era, but then perhaps they thought my classmates and I too young to understand a world in which we could be discriminated against for being a Catholic. Mr. Burns’ film has to tell many stories of course, and so he cannot focus exclusively on what we might call the “Catholic angle” of the story.  However, given that I am a proud practitioner of popery, allow me to point out that Prohibition would never have happened but for an enormous and vocal group of Protestant Evangelicals, who outright hated Catholics, as well as anyone who was not of Anglo-Saxon descent.

This is not a pleasant thing to say, of course, but then many truths in history are unpleasant. The documentary clearly shows how a real loathing and mistrust of Catholic immigrants, not only for their religious practices but also because their attitudes towards the use of alcohol, completely took hold of the white Protestant Low-Church wing of the National psyche. If you were a fervent Baptist in 1898 America and saw your new German or Italian neighbors celebrating the First Communion of their child in the front parlor, with a big family party full of strange music and plenty of beer and wine, you probably felt as though the world was coming to an end – or that at the very least that the arrival of the Antichrist was getting closer.

As time went on following the implementation of Prohibition, things did not improve. For example, the anti-Catholic, racist Protestant Evangelist Bob Jones, Sr., founder of the university which bears his name, told the Associated Press during the Presidential Campaign of 1928: “I would rather see a saloon on every corner than a Catholic in the White House. I would rather see a n—— as president.” This was in response to the Presidential campaign of former New York Governor Al Smith, a Catholic and an outspoken challenger of Prohibition. A great irony of history, as Mr. Burns points out in the film, is that one of Governor Smith’s most vocal opponents, a prominent U.S. government prosecutor of Prohibition scofflaws who spoke at a convention of Protestant ministers and, as described in the film, appeared to be calling for religious warfare against Catholics, eventually became disillusioned with Prohibition and converted to Catholicism herself.

Such stories as these are woven throughout the film, enough so to make everyone in the audience feel a bit uncomfortable about what their ancestors did, regardless of their religion, politics, or ethnic background. It is an enthralling tale, well-told, which provides the viewer who has an interest in American history, law, and culture with an infinite number of avenues for subsequent exploration. Some of the stories told by Mr. Burns in the film have become lodged in my brain, and will lead me to read and explore more about the people and themes which he treated in this documentary. In the end, perhaps this is the best indicator of the value of his work, and why you should see it: you will come away wanting to know more.


“Speakeasy, New York City” by Margaret Bourke-White (1933)