Deal W. Hudson
November 1, 1999
In the past six months, Bill Donohue and the 350,000 members of the Catholic League have been battling movies like Stigmata and Dogma, the smear campaign against Pius XII, and the sin against both faith and beauty at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Mayor Guiliani’s decision, surely prompted by Donohue’s growing influence, to defund the museum is a major step toward breaking the silence about pervasive anti-Catholic behavior. The question remains: Why have most Catholics put up with Catholic bashing for so long?
I recently polled Crisis writers on the subject, and their responses paint a picture of American Catholics caught between the habit of disappearing into the fabric of American society and the assumption that the ancient Church will easily weather the rages of its despisers. Some trace the indifference to assimilation, others to ignorance, others to history, and others to an essential disconnect between Catholicism and America.
Certainly, poor catechesis has taken its toll in encouraging assimilation: As Fr., Schall comments, “So many are weak in their faith they do not see the very fact of Catholic bashing.” Hadley Arkes further argues that Catholics have not only succeeded in disguising themselves but also handed over the substance of their interior beliefs: “So many Catholics are untutored in their faith that they respond positively to the cultural cues of modern liberalism.”
Everyone knows the catechetical training of the last 25 years has been a disaster: Catholic morality has been reduced to squishy axioms about unprincipled tolerance, it’s social teaching to statist remedies for the poor, and theology to a rejection of anything labeled “pre-Vatican II.”
No wonder, thinks Ralph McInerny, that American Catholics are now infected by a deep “self-loathing” disposing of them “to start apologizing the moment you hear any criticism.” Everything they have been taught breeds doubt about the truth handed down through the centuries. It is as if a young man born to great wealth were suddenly to find out that all the millions handed on to him by his parents were the product of criminal activity. That young man would very likely live the rest of his life trying to atone for the sins of his father. Catholics, as Fr. Rutler says, cut off from their history, find it “very threatening to be considered countercultural [or to] rock the boat any more than is necessary.”
The situation in America is aggravated by the Protestant character of its founding. Without forgetting the contribution of Maryland’s Catholics, Michael Uhlmann rightly points out that “nativism” has always been alive in our political culture. For Uhlmann, the problem lies in the historical roots of America: “Nativism resurfaced with the Blaine amendment to the pan-public funding of private schools, but the real target was Catholic schools.” This attitude still shows its head in the resistance to school voucher programs, which are presently being challenged on the grounds that they breach the “wall of separation” by funneling children into religious schools.
Beyond the history of this country, the Church, as Michael Novak says, has become the pivotal point and measuring stick of civilization: “It would be surprising if they didn’t hate the Church. Most people define themselves in relation to Catholicism. They call themselves ‘enlightened’ in relation to the Middle Ages. ‘Protestants’ are defined in relation to the Catholic experience. Both unbelievers and other Christians define themselves in relation to the Church. All of our history books have a built-in anti-Catholic bias.”
This transcending notion of the Church’s presence to history and culture leads several of our writers to speak, rather surprisingly, of high- mindedness toward Catholic bashing. For example, Ann Burleigh comments, “Catholics are often confident that they have a fuller truth, so bashing doesn’t seem to really matter…. The prejudice is very real, but you can’t allow yourself to get bitter.”
This confidence points us in the very direction that most elicits the hatred. The Church attracts hatred because its very existence proclaims an Absolute standard to all. Cultural critic and Holocaust scholar George Steiner once said this belief in the Absolute was the essential cause of anti-semitism. The revelation to the nation of Israel of one God and one Law in the midst of polytheism made them a target for all times. Catholics are kidding themselves if they think the prejudice aimed at them comes from any lesser source.