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Anti-Catholicism Speech, Actions Contradict U.S. Society Of Tolerance

August 5, 2003

University Park, Pa. --- While facing legitimate issues, the Catholic Church nonetheless is unfairly demonized by liberal political groups, who themselves commit hate speech and crimes against Catholicism, says a Penn State historian.

"We see quick condemnation by community leaders when racist, anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim comments are made publicly," said Dr. Philip Jenkins, author of "The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice," (Oxford University Press. 2003). "But hostile or downright vulgar remarks about Catholics and the Church and outrageous demonstrations are conducted without repercussion. Many thought the election of John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president, proved that anti-Catholicism in America was dead, but it is flourishing strongly and may be the "thinking man's anti-Semitism."

In his new book, the historian examines anti-Catholic sentiment in American society and its causes, particularly gay and feminist anti-Catholicism, anti-Catholic rhetoric and imagery in the media, and the anti-Catholicism of the academic world. The media ranging from press to movies portray the Church as a stereotyped villain, with its leaders and doctrines the butt of harsh satire.

"Catholics and Catholicism are at the receiving end of a great deal of startling vituperation in contemporary America, though generally, those responsible never think of themselves as bigots," writes Jenkins, distinguished professor of religious studies and history. "The Pope is called 'a homicidal liar' by a dramatist, and at two protests, demonstrators desecrated local churches with graffiti and condoms.

“A similar attack on a synagogue or mosque would be denounced as a hate crime or even terrorism, but anti-Catholic acts draw almost no reaction,” he adds. “Since the 1950s, changing cultural sensibilities have made it ever more difficult to recite once-familiar American stereotypes about the great majority of ethnic or religious groups, while issues of gender and sexual orientation are also treated with great sensitivity. Yet there is one massive exception to this rule: Catholicism."

Jenkins draws an analogy between the history of anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism within the United States itself. In some periods, American anti-Semitism has been rampant and even violent, but religious prejudice in the United States has been directed at least as often against Catholics as against Jews, and anti-Catholic vitriol has more frequently been central to state and national party politics, according to the book.

In one crucial area, anti-Catholicism is different from other prejudices, and this difference is commonly used to justify the remarks and hostile acts. While a hostile comment about Jews or Blacks is directed at a community, an attack on Catholicism is often targeted at an institution and it is considered legitimate to attack an institution, he notes.

"But for African Americans, the NAACP is not central to Black cultural identity in the way that the Church defines Catholicism. The Pope may be head of a gigantic political and corporate entity, but for hundreds of millions of people, he also is a living symbol of their faith. If the church is so wicked, what does it say about its followers?" Jenkins says.

The Church offers a comprehensive social vision, far more than most churches or denominations, and claims the right to speak authoritatively on all issues affecting the human condition, contradicting a modern secular view of religion, the book says.

"But many people strongly oppose the positions of the Church without needing to attack or insult its theology," Jenkins says. "Issues such as abortion, contraception, genetic research and marriage annulments provoke dissent within the Catholic community itself. It is quite different to say that some essential features of a religion give rise to evil and that the evil cannot be prevented without changing the beliefs of the religion."

By demonizing Catholicism, "liberal, gay and feminist politics in the last two decades have developed 'barbarian images' such as the Pope and the cardinals to attract attention and sympathy to their causes," he adds.

The Penn State historian notes that the stereotyping of Catholicism blocks the fact that many of the people who make up the Catholic community may support issues shared by liberals and feminists. For example, Catholicism has been sympathetic to communitarian values and suspicious of unchecked capitalism, and has favored activist government but not militarism. Another example is health care reform in 1993-94 that might have succeeded but for the deadlock over the abortion provision.

"It's important for the general public not to accept such inflammatory language and tactics in a public debate over a specific issue, such as stem-cell research," he adds. "The stem-cell research debate should not be framed as a conflict between irrational Catholic dogma and the health of the severely disabled. By linking opposition mainly to Catholic bishops, activists can pose as advocates of progress, personal freedom, and the separation of church and state. "

Jenkins concludes, "The greatest single achievement might be to acknowledge its existence and to treat it as a form of prejudice quite as pernicious as any other. The public should not accept the recycling of ancient stereotypes about Catholics, similar to those about Jews, Blacks or other once-despised groups. Otherwise, Catholics will continue to face a particularly blatant double standard."

Jenkins is a prominent researcher on the underlying roots of perceived social threats and the public's responses. His books include "The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, “Pedophiles and Priests and Anatomy of a Social Crisis," and "Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America."

EDITORS: Dr. Jenkins is at jpj1@psu.edu or at 814-863-8946 by phone.
 
Contact:
Vicki Fong (814) 865-9481 vfong@psu.edu

 

 

 

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