Church and State: The New Anti-Catholicism

Ryan McMaken

The New Anti-Catholicism
by Philip Jenkins
Oxford University
Press, 2003

The unmitigated rage that has abounded on the American Left since Abe Foxman’s buddies stole a copy of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" should hardly produce anything more than a shrug from anyone who has spent any significant amount of time observing the treatment of Christians and Christianity in public universities and among journalists and "public" philosophers.

While there once was a time when the intellectual classes could be relied on to side with Protestant Christian groups against Catholics and the Catholic Church, now even the most watered down versions of Christianity have become repugnant to virtually all media and mainstream intellectual outlets who view Christianity not as a preserving force of civilization, but as a retrograde tyranny standing in the way of the equality and multiculturalism promoted by those that Thomas Sowell calls the "the anointed." In an interesting passing of the torch of sorts, the American Left has adopted the old tools of anti-Catholicism once so cherished by a few right-wing anti-Catholic groups in centuries past, and have become most enthusiastic in unleashing age-old prejudices and "black legend" stories against Catholics at even the slightest provocation.

In his most recent book, The New Anti-Catholicism, religious studies scholar Phillip Jenkins examines how old myths about Catholics and their Church have persisted since before the Reformation, but are now being recycled and rehashed not by wild-eyed right-wing nativists, but by the allegedly enlightened classes of academics, journalists, left-wing clergy, and "social activist" types who never seem to tire of repeating the most horrible stereotypes about Catholicism no matter how outlandish or how tenuous the connection to established facts.

As the controversy over "The Passion" has made clear, the Left’s ire over Christianity is hardly reserved for one group. Indeed, even the Gospels themselves have been dragged through the mud for allegedly being hateful and anti-Semitic with numerous calls to rewrite Christian doctrine itself to be little more than a tale about a secular Left-wing revolutionary killed for his very enlightened ideas about equality and socialism. Nevertheless, merely by virtue of being the largest single group of Christians, and being a highly organized hierarchical group that preserves (when it does its job) a cultural tradition visibly different from secular American society, the Catholic Church proves to be the central target of anti-Christian propaganda that reliably degenerates into specifically anti-Catholic tales of lurid sexual misconduct, political intrigue, and murderous conspiracy.

According to Jenkins, much of the Left has actually been helped along by angry Catholic groups themselves who have never tired of propagating stereotypes and rumors that might help their causes along. It was the liberal Catholics of the National Catholic Reporter, after all, who invented the phrase "pedophile priest" in an attempt to promote their own agenda of ordaining women and eliminating the celibate priesthood. Angry conservative Catholics hopped on the bandwagon as well, with some groups happily repeating virtually anything they could find about seminaries being ruled by predatory homosexuals as long as the stories proved that the Church has been ruined by liberal reformers.

Over time, the "pedophile priest" label has probably stuck better than any other Catholic-generated libel against the Church, and the image has been devastating. Jenkins has done considerable work on this topic, and is author of Pedophiles and Priests, a 1991 book examining the roots of the scandals and their effects on the Church. Being the most timely and persistent issue, Jenkins devotes a significant portion of The New Anti-Catholicism to examining the facts of the scandals, and then examining how already-existing stereotypes have been magnified by the scandals and have worked their way into not only biased news-reporting of the scandals, but into film, literature, and political activism that consistently portrays the Church as nothing less than "The Perp Walk of Sacramental Perverts."

At the heart of the controversy has been the image of the pedophile priest, the older man preying on pre-pubescent children in the confessional. As Jenkins explains, however, the term "pedophile" applies in precious few of the cases of sexual abuse, and that the sexual relationship occurring between priests and parishioners are almost invariably between teenagers and priests, or even adults and priests. In one 2002 case, the news media reported a relationship between a Catholic Bishop and a 30-year-old man as "abuse." Jenkins also notes how the term pedophilia is also generically applied to long-time consensual relationships between adult females and male priests:

The language of abuse and victimization is used just as loosely in cases of heterosexual misconduct. When in 2002, a group of women convened a panel to discuss their abuse by Catholic priests, some of the victims were reporting sexual advances made to them when they were eighteen or older, and in some cases, consensual sexual relationships continued through their twenties and thirties. The priestly behavior was reprehensible, but it meets no standard definition of child abuse, still less pedophilia. Nevertheless, the media reported these events in terms of the "female victims of priests."

Admittedly, there have still been disgracefully numerous cases of genuine child molestation, yet these numbers are never compared to any other institution of similar size of mission. Protestant churches, heavily decentralized, keep no records that can be subpoenaed, and itinerant preachers and ministers who may abuse children in one place and then move on are never recorded, nor are their movements followed by any kind of central institution. As Jenkins notes, this could easily explain away the discrepancies between Catholic records of abusive priests and the non-records kept by everyone else. This hasn’t kept American intellectuals and activist groups from contending that there is something ingrained in Catholicism that produces pedophiles, though. Long-time anti-Catholic author James Carroll explains the problem as being one of "a corrupt, misogynist…clerical elite," fitting nicely with Terrance Sweeney’s claims that "If there were women priests and women bishops and married bishops, the likelihood of this [abuse crisis] happening in the first place would be close to nil." "Clearly," Jenkins responds, "Sweeney has not examined conditions in the U.S. Episcopal Church or its British Anglican Counterpart."

Jenkins notes that, appropriately, an issue that the media has been virtually silent on is the fact that children are far more likely to be abused by public school teachers than by Catholic priests, and that school districts transfer suspected pedophiles and abusers from district to district in a fashion far more alarming than that done at the height of the scandals by Catholic dioceses. Thanks to the paucity of media attention, the problem of pedophile teachers has received none of the reforms that have been pushed by the church in the wake of the scandal, and the abuse in public schools continues with not a peep from the New York Times.

Jenkins covers other territory about anti-Catholic activism as well, addressing the numerous "black legends" of history such as the Inquisition and the perennial accusations surrounding the "Nazi Pope" Pius XII. Many of these images find repeat usage within American films and literature where priests can regularly find themselves as symbols of perversion, corruption, and greed, with American audiences taking little notice of the sheer repetitiveness of the images. Indeed, such stereotypical images have become so tired and ubiquitous, that Jenkins considers them to be on a par with portraying Jews as greedy money-lenders with big noses.

Whether the Church is being denounced as homophobic or misogynistic or simply perverted, the suggested solution is virtually always the same – subject the Church to more control by the more "enlightened" authorities of the state. In America, at least, the criticisms of the Church have never really changed. The Church is always identified as either an outdated organization impeding the progress of the American people, or simply as an alien organization filled with people torn between true patriotic fervor and loyalty to a despot in Rome.

At the root of the charge is the fact that the Church has always functioned independently of mainstream American culture, insulated both from mainstream secular trends and from the passions of nationalist zeal. The impassioned reaction to such separation means that ultimately, the battle will be over whether the Church in America can function independently, or if it will forced to subject itself to the dictates of modern notions of equality and tolerance. The institution that will enforce this dissolution of independence, and indeed has always enforced it rather enthusiastically, will be the State. As examined by Martin Van Creveld in The rise and Decline of the State, the Catholic Church has been fighting a losing battle against the State for centuries. The Western world has come a long way since the days of Thomas Becket when Church authorities could demand that clergy be tried for crimes only by other clergy, and the Church was exempt from state taxes.

Consequently, the triumph of the State over the minds of Americans has been so complete that even many Catholics would say that of course the Church should pay State taxes, and that members of the Church should be subject not to their own laws, but to the laws of the State. Even among its own members, Churchmen are less trusted than government officials, and there is little acceptance of any way of thinking outside the State doctrine that the government must have final control over all institutions within its borders.

This did not happen by accident. Just as institutions that generate wealth in the free market are forced to submit to predation by the state, so too must all social, religious, and cultural institutions do the same. In the words of Murray Rothbard, "it is precisely a molding of opinion that the state most desperately needs." And it does this by working constantly to subvert, co-opt and seize all institutions that might provide a philosophy that may regard the state as irrelevant or even undesirable. In these efforts, the purveyors of multiculturalism have been largely successful. Thanks to the Leftist attacks on the Church, the days may not be far off when even the minutiae of church administration will have to be approved by government officials in the name of protecting the children, or promoting equality, or preventing hate crimes.

For some individuals, this day has already arrived. In the case of Dr. Cheryl Clark, a Christian ex-lesbian sharing custody of her daughter with her former partner. The judge has forbidden her from taking her daughter to any churches that promote "homophobic" teachings. Although he will undoubtedly decide for himself after the fact, the judge has declined to provide a list of what churches are officially acceptable and what churches are officially verboten. But the message is clear – all must be subject to the dictates of the State, and it will abide no organization that might pollute the minds of its subjects. It’s unlikely we’ll see any Leftists protesting this gaping hole in the sacred "wall of separation."

For these reasons, Jenkins sees no end to anti-Catholicism on the Left no matter how many liberal reforms might be adopted. As long as the Church exists as an independent international organization that is only partially subject to the will of the American multicultural State, it will always be seen as a threat to their agenda.

In the end, the competition between the Church and the State can only be resolved to the State’s satisfaction when Churches – like individuals – are regulated in every aspect of their everyday workings. Just as private businesses may not hire and fire whom they please, and schools may not educate as they please, so too it must be with the Church. This conflict is at the heart of what Albert Jay Nock and Murray Rothbard called the contest between state power and social power. By its very nature, the State cannot rest until it has control over all the "fruits of man’s creative powers, confiscated and perverted to its own aims."

April 9, 2004