Time Essay: The Rise and Fall of Anti-Catholicism

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The growing political power of the poor and uneducated immigrants, notably Irish and Italian, compounded antipathies of members of old elites who felt their own control threatened. To them Catholicism was alien, corrupt; priests and prelates, manipulated long range from the Vatican, contaminated the clear streams of American individualism. Al Smith's presidential campaign in 1928 stirred up poisonous anti-Catholic passions; Smith was a measure of how far Catholics had come in America and how much of an imminent danger they were. "We must save the U.S. from being Romanized and rum-ridden," a Virginia Republican committeewoman wrote in 1927.

Despite these expressions of prejudice, the Catholic Church grew into the most powerful religious body in the U.S. After World War II, Catholics through determination and force of numbers exerted pressures for public aid for parochial schools and hospitals; they interjected themselves into debates on legalized birth control. Such campaigns seemed to give credibility to Paul Blanshard, prolific anti-Catholic pamphleteer. His widely read American Freedom and Catholic Power (1949) declared, "The Catholic people of the U.S. are not citizens but subjects in their own religious commonwealth. The secular as well as the religious policies of their church are made in Rome by an organization that is alien in spirit and control."

The old antipathy to Catholicism in America was based largely upon an idea of the church as a powerful and tightly disciplined monolith presided over by a spiritual despot in Rome. But the profound cultural changes of the last generation, a new liberalism and tolerance, have altered not only the American people but also the church and therefore the prejudice against it. The church in America now is often seen not as imposingly monolithic but as beleaguered and fragmented. Its members have become selective and of them a la carte Catholics who ignore their prelates' guidance on birth control, divorce and other issues. The hierarchy has lost its authority to govern Catholics so entirely in their private lives. Far from being an advancing menace, the church each year falls further behind in its recruiting of men and women to take up the religious life.

The Second Vatican Council did much to remove what was for non-Catholics the ominousness of Catholicism. In 1964 Vatican II abolished the absolutist doctrine that "error has no rights," and instead accepted the right of all religions to worship as they will. Church Latin, unintelligible and sinister to many, gave way to the vernacular, and even some times to a rather cloying liturgical sweetness: guitar strumming around the altar, folk songs, the priest rigged out in sunburst vest ments that proclaim HERE COMES THE SON. Gone are the Legion of Decency, which prescribed and proscribed movies, and the censorious Index of Forbidden Books.

Yet there persist in America two vestigial strains of anti-Catholicism. One is the old and somewhat fading nativist variety —the sort that led the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod in the past year to reaffirm its opinion that the Pope is the Antichrist. The second strain, considerably more disturbing be cause it is so much more "respectable," is the bigotry practiced by certain intellectuals, liberals, humanists and elitists.

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