Time Essay: The Rise and Fall of Anti-Catholicism

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American non-Catholics last week seemed almost as happy as Catholics to have the Pope in their midst. No old sectarian angers darkened the pageant. Whatever doctrinal reservations may remain about the Pope of Rome lay quiet, at least for the moment.

The spectacle was a startling confirmation of the substantial changes that have occurred in American attitudes toward the Roman Catholic Church and the papacy. One has only to imagine the nation's furious reception if Pope Pius XII had appeared in America 30 years ago: Congressmen would have introduced resolutions denouncing the visit; angry pickets would have greeted the Pontiff at every stop. It would have seemed un thinkable to invite him to the White House.

John Paul II's visit was, by contrast, a measure not only of extraordinary changes in the nation's attitude toward Catholicism but also in the Catholic Church itself. Yet for all the non-sectarian exuberance that the Pope excited, he came to the U.S. at a moment when the deeply rooted issue of anti-Catholicism had been stirring with signs of life. Some Catholics detect a new wave of the old bigotry. They see it not so much in America's residual nativist sentiment as in a certain liberal, intellectual contempt for the church's conservative approach to certain issues: birth control, homosexuality and, above all, the morally painful matter of abortion.

A number of writers, including a few non-Catholics, have been developing the theme in the past two years: The idea that anti-Catholicism is the last respectable bigotry in the U.S.

Norman Miller, the Wall Street Journal's Washington bureau chief, wrote last year: "Subtle and even blatant anti-Catholicism is surfacing again." In a 1977 book titled An Ugly Little Secret, Andrew Greeley, a priest-sociologist, called anti-Catholic bias the "last remaining unexposed prejudice in American life." "This prejudice," wrote Greeley, "is not as harmful to individuals as either anti-Semitism or racism ... [But] it is more insidious because it is not acknowledged, not recognized, not explicitly and self-consciously rejected. Good American liberals who would not dream of using sexist language or racist slurs or anti-Semitic jokes have no problem at all about using anti-Catholic language, ethnic slurs or Polish jokes." There is still some truth in Writer Peter Viereck's remark in 1959: "Anti-Catholicism is the anti-Semitism of the intellectual."

The idea that anti-Catholicism is rampant strikes most non-Catholic Americans as self-pityingly sensitive or at least inaccurate. Surely, they argue, the years since John Kennedy's election and Vatican II have all but cleansed that particular passage of the American subconscious. The hard evidence of American Catholic successes does not suggest that bigotry has closed the door of the dream. Catholics are Governors in twelve states—including the most populous (Jerry Brown's California, Hugh Carey's New York). Some 13 members of the U.S. Senate are Catholic, and 114 members of the House.

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