Time Essay: The Rise and Fall of Anti-Catholicism

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Ted Kennedy enjoys the highest popularity among all the presidential possibilities for the 1980 race; his religion is not an issue. American Catholics, 50 million of them, now earn more money and have more schooling than any other Christians, including the nation's old power elite, the Episcopalians. In income and educational levels, Catholics are second only to American Jews. For generations, Catholics had been blocked from the higher reaches of American corporations and universities, but they are gaining now. Where then is the evidence of anti-Catholic prejudice?

Anti-Catholicism persists, all right. But it is an intricate bigotry, more complicated than racism or antiSemitism, and its origins lie deep in American history. It would be strange if a few years of ecumenical feeling — or simple religious indifference — could obliterate all trace of what Historian John Higham of Johns Hopkins University has called "the most luxuriant, tenacious tradition of paranoiac agitation in American history."

Anti-Catholicism came over on the Mayflower. It was part of the doctrinal baggage that the founding Protestants — whether separatist Puritan, Scottish Presbyterian or Cavalier Anglican — brought with them. Almost every colony harassed "papists," and some excluded Catholics entirely; priests were liable to arrest in Massachusetts. The Dudleian Lectures were established at Harvard in the early 18th century partly to expose, as their founder said, "the Church of Rome as that mystical Babylon, that woman of sin, that apostate church spoken of in the New Testament." In New York in 1741, two Catholics were executed, one for being a "professed papist," the other for being a "popish priest."

When Catholic immigrants began arriving in large waves in the 19th century, anti-Catholicism developed into a profound civic dread. To Yankee eyes, Romanism swarmed in on the jammed immigrant ships, endangering America's agrarian dreams, clogging the cities with cheap labor. The old elites regarded the immigrants as the canaille that Jefferson had warned against; democracy could not survive such hordes of the ignorant and illiterate with their allegiances to a sinister wizard who dwelled in Rome surrounded by the skeletons of Borgias. (The Catholic immigrants, flocking together in a consciousness of their own differences, and with some desire to preserve them, seemed to confirm nativist fears.) When Pope Pius IX in the 1840s followed the example of European monarchs and sent a block of marble for the Washington Monument, a mob threw it into the Potomac. Through the 1850s, the violently antipapist Know-Nothing Party flourished, to be supplanted in succeeding generations by the Ku Klux Klan, which went after Catholics as well as Jews and blacks.

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