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Why Anti-Catholic Prejudice Ought to Bother Everyone

Last week two outrageously anti-Catholic outbursts took place in the public forum. The first was an article in the US News and World Report by syndicated columnist Jamie Stiehm. Ms. Stiehm argued that the Supreme Court was dangerously packed with Catholics, who have, she averred, a terribly difficult time separating church from state and who just can’t refrain from imposing their views on others. Her meditations were prompted by Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s daring to depart from feminist orthodoxy and to grant some legal breathing space to the Little Sisters of the Poor, who were objecting to the provisions of the HHS mandate. As even a moment’s thoughtful consideration would reveal, this decision hadn’t a thing to do with the intrusion of the “church” into the state, in fact just the contrary. Moreover, the appeal of American citizens (who happen to be Catholic nuns) and the decision of a justice of the Supreme Court in no way constitute an “imposition” on anyone. The very irrationality of Stiehm’s argument is precisely what has led many to conclude that her intervention was prompted by a visceral anti-Catholicism which stubbornly persists in our society. 

The second eruption of anti-Catholicism was even more startling. In the course of a radio interview, Gov. Andrew Cuomo blithely declared that anyone who is pro-life on the issue of abortion or opposed to gay marriage is “not welcome” in his state of New York. Mind you, the governor did not simply say that such people are wrong-headed or misguided; he didn’t say that they should be opposed politically or that good arguments against their position should be mounted; he said they should be actively excluded from civil society! As many commentators have already pointed out, Governor Cuomo was thereby excluding roughly half of the citizens of the United States and, presumably, his own father Mario Cuomo, who once famously declared that he was personally opposed to abortion. Again, the very hysterical quality of this statement suggests that an irrational prejudice gave rise to it. 

One does not have to search very far, of course, to find the source of this prejudice deep in the American national consciousness. Many of the founding Fathers harbored suspicions of Catholicism that came from their intellectual formation in both Protestantism and Enlightenment rationalism. Read John Adams’s remarkable reaction to a Catholic Mass that he attended in Philadelphia to sense the texture of this prejudice. As the waves of immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and southern Europe arrived on American soil in the nineteenth century, many figures in the political and cultural establishment feared that an influx of Catholics would compromise the integrity of American society. Accordingly, they organized political parties the platforms of which were specifically and virulently anti-Catholic. It is startling to realize that this political anti-Catholicism was not the exclusive preserve of yahoos and extremists. Prominent and mainstream figures such as Ulysses Grant and Woodrow Wilson were vehement in their opposition to the Catholic Church. Many have argued that the election of the Catholic John F. Kennedy to the presidency in 1960 signaled a sea-change in American attitudes toward the Church, but we have to be cautious, for Kennedy represented, more or less, a privatized Catholicism that posed no real threat to the societal status-quo. 

What is particularly troubling today is the manner in which this deep-seated anti-Catholicism is finding expression precisely through that most enduring and powerful of American institutions, namely the law. We are a famously litigious society: the law shapes our identity, protects our rights, and functions as a sanction against those things we find dangerous. Increasingly, Catholics are finding themselves on the wrong side of the law, especially in regard to issues of equality and sexual freedom. The HHS mandate is predicated upon the assumption that access to contraception, sterilization, and abortifacient drugs is a fundamental right, and therefore to stand against this, as the Church must, puts Catholics athwart the law. The same is true in regard to gay marriage. To oppose this practice is not only unpopular or impolitic, but, increasingly, contrary to legal statute. Already, in the context of the military, chaplains are encouraged and in some cases explicitly forbidden to condemn gay marriage, as this would constitute a violation of human rights. 

And this is why the remarks by Andrew Cuomo are especially chilling. That a governor of a major state—one of the chief lawmakers in our country—could call for the exclusion of pro-lifers and those opposed to gay marriage suggests that the law could be used to harass, restrict, and, at the limit, attack Catholics. Further, the attitude demonstrated by the son of Mario Cuomo suggests that there is a short path indeed from the privatization of Catholic moral convictions to the active attempt to eliminate those convictions from the public arena. I would hope, of course, that it is obvious how this aggression against Catholics in the political sphere ought deeply to concern everyone in a supposedly open society. If the legal establishment can use the law to aggress Catholics, it can use it, another day, to aggress anyone else.