If you’ve spent any amount of time in the Catholic blogosphere, you know that the term “anti-Catholic” is bandied around like it’s going out of style. We’re constantly being told that the mainstream media is anti-Catholic, that this or that artistic work is anti-Catholic, that the Affordable Care act is anti-Catholic because of the contraception mandate, and so on and so forth. When I considered myself “orthodox,” I used to believe in the notion of rampant anti-Catholicism, but now I’m more skeptical.
First of all, let’s provide a definition of anti-Catholicism. Wikipedia defines anti-Catholicism as:
hostility towards, or opposition to Catholicism and especially against the Catholic Church, its bishops and clergy, and its adherents. Ending religious services and seizure of church lands have been common themes. The term may also apply to the religious persecution of Catholics or to a “religious orientation opposed to Catholicism”
From the Reformation until the late 1980s or so, it was a common Protestant belief that the Catholic church was the “whore of Babylon” and the pope the Anti-Christ. Thus, the Catholic church had to be opposed because it supposed perverted the “pure teachings” of the early church to create abominations like indulgences, the Marian doctrines, and a class of “parasitic” celibate super-Christians. While some of the more hardcore Protestant groups like the Independent Fundamental Baptists and the neo-Calvinists still believe that Catholics aren’t Christians, more Protestants (at least in the US) are willing to grant that Catholics are Christians of a sort, and useful allies in the war against feminists, atheists, and gays (oh my!).
Another form of anti-Catholicism that used to be common in the United States was the belief that Catholics were bad citizens because they held illiberal ideas, took their marching orders from the Vatican, and were trying to impose their morality on the Protestant majority. Basically, Catholics were once viewed with the same suspicion that Muslims are today, and ironically, some of the biggest anti-Muslim bigots are Irish Catholics. This mutual fear of Vatican influence on American politics used to bring nonbelievers, Jews, and Protestants together, until conservative Protestants decided to team up with Catholics in the culture wars. Today, the ones complaining about Catholic influence on politics are more likely to be some flavor of secularist, which is probably why these criticisms are ignored by conservative Protestants, who won’t accept any criticism of their new BFFs, the conservotrads. It used to be that a Catholic candidate admitting that he was going to govern based on Rome’s dictates would never get elected by the Protestant majority, and now conservative Protestants can’t get enough of someone like Rick Santorum who openly expresses his contempt of church-state separation. Oh how the times have changed.
Today, conservotrads would say that the main source of anti-Catholicism is not from Protestants with theological objections to Catholicism, but liberal Catholics and atheists who never miss a chance to take a swing at the church. Most recently, conservotrads have been complaining that the PBS series “Wolf Hall” based on the books by Hilary Mantel are anti-Catholic, because they portray Thomas More in an unflattering light. Is this justified? Let’s see.
With regard to “Wolf Hall,” how you view Thomas More will depend largely on whether you are Catholic or Protestant. This is true of all of the characters in “Wolf Hall,” from Henry VIII to Thomas Cramner to Elizabeth I and so on. If you’re Catholic, then Henry VIII broke union with “the True Church” so he could get a divorce. If you’re Protestant, he was “freeing” the Church of England from its “captivity” to Rome. Was Mary I really that much “bloodier” than her half-sister Elizabeth I? Probably not, but since Protestants have been the ones writing British history until recently it’s Mary who ended up with the sobriquet of “bloody.” None of the characters in “Wolf Hall” are “saints”; rather, they were canny political players in a real-life “game of thrones” who used religion as a way of justifying their own desires and vilifying their opponents.
I think it’s safe to say that most of the bad publicity that the Catholic church has generated in the past fifteen years is the result of the clergy sex abuse scandal and other acts of ecclesiastical malfeasance, like getting in bed with dictators, selling babies, and the chronic mess that is the Vatican Bank. There is nothing any of the “New Atheists” could have said or done that could have blackened the Catholic church’s reputation more than the fact that the hierarchy hid and coddled serial child abusers. And when arch-defenders of orthodoxy like Richard John Neuhaus defend monsters like Marciel Maciel or accuse teenage male abuse victims of “seducing” priests as Bill Donahue often does, then it becomes obvious that the church and its guard dogs have an extraordinary knack for making themselves look bad. As Jon Stewart said in response to his conservative critics, you poisoned that well yourself.
But it is true that atheists, new and otherwise, do have some harsh things to say about the church and do exhibit animosity towards the hierarchy. Should they be considered anti-Catholic? I would say no. Simply disagreeing with the pope and the Catholic hierarchy isn’t enough to be considered anti-Catholic. After all, the vast majority of humanity is not Catholic, doesn’t recognize the authority of the pope, or believe in Catholic tenets, but cannot be considered “anti-Catholic” because of this. While many atheists may believe that the world would be better off without the Catholic church (and without religion in general), you won’t find anyone advocating for Catholic churches to be shuttered, for Catholic clergy or religious to be killed or jailed, for Catholic land to be confiscated, or for members of the Catholic laity to be oppressed for their beliefs. The places where these violent actions are actually occurring are in places like Nigeria, Iraq, and Egypt, where people take religion so seriously that they’re willing to kill over it. Atheists may criticize the Catholic church in unforgiving terms, but these critiques haven’t stopped the church from doing what it does. I think that it would be more accurate to describe atheists as anti-clerical, rather than anti-Catholic, since most nonbelievers are concerned about the undue influence of the hierarchy, rather than what rank-and-file members of the laity do or believe.
And what of liberal Catholics who dare criticize the hierarchy on the abuse scandal, church governance, or liturgy? Simply being critical of someone or something doesn’t necessarily mean that you are against that person or thing. Most Catholic critics of the church do so because they love the institution and think it could and should do better, and this is true whether the critic in question is Sister Joan Chittister or Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. Perhaps this is why the sharpest and most interesting criticisms that I’ve seen of the Catholic church have not come from atheists or liberal Catholics, but traditionalists. This could also explain why conservotrads won’t even seriously consider the complaints of of liberal Catholics and atheists, but obsess over the radtrads in a way that is out of proportion to their relatively tiny numbers. Classic works of medieval and Renaissance literature, such as The Canterbury Tales, The Inferno, and The Decameron contained unflattering and often raunchy portraits of priests and religious behaving badly that would put the polemics of today’s “New Atheists” to shame, but no one would suggest that the authors of these works were anti-Catholic. In any case, I don’t see how intra-Catholic criticism of the church can be considered “anti-Catholic.”
I’ve concluded that when First Things, Crisis, or the Catholic League accuses someone or something of being “anti-Catholic,” what they actually mean is that the actions of the Catholic church and its ministers should be above criticism. I think this goes back to the idea that “error has no rights” that ones sees in the writings of the nineteenth century popes in particular, that the Catholic church as the “true Church” should not be bound by the same rules and expectations that other, lesser organizations must abide by. But the days when the Catholic church could act as an unelected wing of the government are over. However much conservotrads may dislike it, we live in a pluralistic society and the Catholic church is just one of many voices in it. The Catholic church has to contend not just with Protestant and Jewish voices, but with atheists, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Wiccans, LGBT people, and other groups that weren’t on the radar fifty or sixty years ago. If conservotrads want to participate in the public square, they’re going to have to grow a thicker skin and improve their debating skills, because “the church says…” isn’t going to cut it any longer.