The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice

by Philip Jenkins
ISBN: 0195154800

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A Review of: The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice
by Jeremy Lott

The last few years have not been kind to the American arm of the Catholic Church. Aggressive reporting by the Boston Globe exposed Cardinal Bernard Law as a prevaricator, a bully, and a protector of sexually abusive clerics. The success of the Globe prompted journalists across the country to dig into the histories of the local white collar set. Many of these excavations uncovered skeletons. By the time The New Anti-Catholicism went to press, bishops in Boston, Milwaukee and Florida had resigned over accusations that they mishandled what one newsroom editor ingeniously dubbed the "pedophile priest crisis," or were implicated in sexual misconduct themselves.
While he believed the investigations fully warranted, Pennsylvania State University historian Philip Jenkins was frustrated by the media storm that rained down on the Church. Necessary criticism of corrupt priests and bishops, he says, "segued effortlessly into grotesque attacks on the Catholic Church as an institution, together with a sweeping denunciation of Catholic faith and practice." These attacks were much more extensive than a few nasty editorial cartoons or the ribald jokes of late night talk show hosts. Some priests quit wearing their trademark black and white in public to avoid unprovoked insults and saliva. A few states introduced disclosure legislation that would have subjected the confessional seal to legal challenges; none of them passed but Connecticut was a close call.
It may have been a close call, but the bile was neither unexpected nor unprecedented. Anti-Catholicism as a powerful influence in the U.S. may pre-date even the Revolutionary War. During a recent stint at a Canadian newsmagazine, this reviewer learned the local high school history texts point up the role the Quebec Act played as an instigator in that conflict. I am not a trained historian, but it sounds plausible. The Puritan colonists' own religious sensibilities were too radical for the Church of England. That they would object violently to the Crown recognizing the Catholic Church as an official religious body in their own backyard does not strain the bonds of credibility overmuch.
Over the course of ten tightly written chapters, Jenkins does not attempt a comprehensive or chronological history of anti-Catholicism in America. Instead, he hits the high points-or, rather, the low points-by subject. Several chapters lay out the case against the Church's position on x, including plenty of hysterical and overheated remarks (e.g. "The Church Hates Women," "The Church Kills Gays"-actual chapter titles) but also the saner substantive arguments. Jenkins then rebuts the claims that can be rebutted and adds some insight to those that cannot be brushed away so easily. Other chapters look at how the Church is covered in the press and by the entertainment industry.
In terms of book sales, it's probably good that The New Anti-Catholicism does not try to be comprehensive; the impressionistic portrait that we see is depressing enough. Start with nineteenth century ravings from Protestant pulpits against the "whore of Babylon" and the "mother of all harlots." Newspaper cartoons dramatized the various Catholic migrations with cartoons such as "The American River Ganges," in which the bishops' mitres become crocodile jaws, as they slithered from the water to menace innocent Protestant children. In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan struggled against "Kike, Koon and Katholic." The reactionary and anti-modern critics of the Catholic Church were often joined by liberals and progressives, who questioned the compatibility of Catholicism with "American values." In the 1940s, the left-liberal Nation ran a series of hard-hitting articles that became the basis for Paul Blanshard's American Freedom and Catholic Power. The bestseller imagined a dystopian future only slightly less grim than Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, in which the second half of its title effectively extinguished the first. "While Blanshard does not actually conjure up crocodilian bishops," writes Jenkins, "the image is certainly implied."
Given some of the most recent charges against the Church, crocodilian caricatures of bishops may be the least of her worries. Several prominent academics and intellectuals have replaced the historical picture of Pius XII with a stick figure who, as Daniel Goldhagen said in the New Republic's excerpt from his new book, was in league with the Anti-Christ. Events from the Crusades to the Inquisition(s) to the trial of Galileo are routinely ripped from their historical contexts and used as a bludgeon with which to beat the Church. The explosion of sex abuse cases has tapped into old anti-clerical propaganda of priests as cowardly effeminate predators who prey on children; thus, the moniker "pedophile priest crisis."
As the author of what may be the benchmark book on priest sexual abuse (Pedophiles and Priests) as well as a number of books on moral panics (Moral Panic, Using Murder, Intimate Enemies, etc.), Jenkins was struck by the biases in the language used to describe the whole fiasco. The number of alleged actual pedophile priests is tiny. If the definition of pedophilia is restricted to its historic definition-sex between adults and pre-pubescent children-then maybe a baker's dozen pedophiles have been exposed in the last few years. A study of 2,200 priests in Boston, a hotbed of reported sex abuse, found only one priest in this category. Jenkins adds, helpfully, "one priest, not one percent of priests."
Most often, the abuse is between priests and older teens or adults-usually males. Such relationships are truly abhorrent, in the eyes of the Church and society in general, and it's not a judgment the present work tries to challenge. A man of the cloth who abuses his office to seduce adolescents is rightly shunned for a great number of reasons, says Jenkins. But-and here's the catch-he insists that the offense is not of the same moral or legal gravity as sodomizing children, and that the term "pedophile priest" should only be applied where it is truly warranted, which would paint the present crisis in a slightly different light. The incidence of sexual abuse of any kind by Catholic priests is committed by two to three percent of clerics, which, so far as we know, is in keeping with abuse rates among Protestant ministers.
If the incidence of sex abuse among Catholic priests is indistinguishable from the abuse of ministers of other faiths, Jenkins wants to know, why the disproportionate fuss over Catholic malfeasance? The hierarchical nature of the Catholic Church is one answer. American Protestantism is a moving target. If the minister from the local community church is caught having sex with one of the teenagers, he is usually fired and cut loose. The news coverage is likely to focus on the man himself rather than the church that fired him, and people hesitate to blame all of Protestantism (if there is such a thing) for his indiscretions. Because of the nature of their office, abusive priests are much more difficult to cut loose and their actions are seen as being more representative of the Church as a whole.
Granted, Americans tend to be suspicious of any large institutions, but the institutional answer goes only so far. At the end of his book, Jenkins professes shock at the adaptability of what Peter Viereck called the anti-Semitism of the intellectuals. However, Viereck's appellation was far too limiting. With the clerical sex abuse issue, as with so many others, anti-Catholicism in the U.S. is as inexplicable as it is pervasive.

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