Anti-Catholicism in America: The Last Acceptable Prejudice, by Mark S. Massa SJ

Anti-Catholicism in America: The Last Acceptable Prejudice, by Mark S. Massa SJ

Michael Daniel

ANTI-CATHOLICISM IN AMERICA: The Last Acceptable Prejudice
by Mark S. Massa SJ

(Crossroad, 2003, 198 pp, hardback, $49.95. Available from AD Books)

We live in a society which not only proclaims freedom from discrimination for all its citizens, but has gone to the extent of enshrining this principle in law; however, all too often sections of the media make statements about Catholics or the Catholic Church they would not dare make about any other group in society.

Fr Massa's new book, Anti-Catholicism in America, is one of a few published in recent years on this topic. Investigating aspects of anti-Catholic ideology in America in chronological order, Fr Massa argues that, despite the separation of Church and State and the freedom of religious expression that underpin the American constitution, anti-Catholicism remains part of the American cultural mind-set.

The American ethos was grounded by 17th century immigrants who settled America at a time not only when "no popery" sentiment was at its height in England, but by groups of non-conformist Christians who were more anti-Catholic than others in English society.

The early American republic imaged Catholicism as the antithesis of its values, believing it repressed the rights of individuals to think and speak for themselves, citing the Inquisition as evidence to support such a belief. Furthermore, the Church's hierarchical, undemocratic structure was seen as in opposition not only to the American political structure, but also the church government structures of many Protestant denominations, where the community elected pastors and representatives to church governing bodies.

Anti-Catholic sentiment became more apparent in times of difficulties, for example, during depressions when some Protestant Americans blamed Catholic immigrants for taking their jobs.

Religious basis

Much earlier anti-Catholic sentiment had a religious basis: Catholicism was considered to be the "whore of Babylon" and lurid tales of priests and nuns such as Maria Monk were best-sellers.

Fr Massa examines modern day versions of this phenomenon, such as televangelist Jimmy Swaggart who, as the highest rating televangelist (before egregious details of his private life became public knowledge), proclaimed that Catholics were not Christian.

Similarly, tracts by Jack Chick reproduce in comic book form anti-Catholic rhetoric associated with an earlier age. The reader is told, for example, that asking Mary's intercession is really the Babylonian practice of worshipping Semiramis and that the mastermind behind the Holocaust was the Vatican, Adolf Hitler being a loyal son of the Church who carried out this crime against humanity on their behalf! And despite clear evidence that Chick's portrait of Alberto Riviera as an ex-Jesuit priest is patently false, such material is still readily available in print form or on the internet.

However, much modern anti-Catholic rhetoric is secular in nature and has been focused on the concern that Catholic politicians would merely be taking orders from the Church, concerns that peaked before President Kennedy's election. Fr Massa argues that his response drove a deeper wedge between Church and State than those advocated by his Protestant predecessors. The conduct of some Democrat politicians who in recent years have supported pro-abortion stances has put paid to this myth.

The final chapter is an insightful consideration of the recent child abuse cases, particularly those in the Archdiocese of Boston. Fr Massa rightly concludes that they have had a significant impact upon the public's perception of the Church, but he also suggests that the inappropriate way many complaints had been handled in the past will serve only to reinforce suspicions that the Church as an hierarchical institution, placed its reputation and the careers of errant priests above those of the people and dealt with these matters with undue secrecy.

Fr Massa's analysis makes interesting reading and there are obvious parallels with the situation in Australia. Despite contemporary legislation, one wonders about future trends of anti-Catholic sentiment, particularly given the reticence of Catholics as a body to oppose publicly flagrant anti-Catholic reporting aired in the public domain.

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