Thursday, 26 August 2010


Ash Wednesday posted this, from here: an article in the guardian called "I'm an atheist but this anti-Catholic rhetoric is making me nervous". It's worth a read, though not living in the UK I can't tell whether these people are really over-the-top with their anti-Catholic rhetoric or not. He cites Richard Dawkins calling Catholicism "the second most evil religion" in the world, and wonders about the first.

Is he overstating the case? Citing Richard Dawkins as an example of over-the-top anti-Catholic rhetoric is, after all, a little like citing the works of Stephen Hawking as an example of modern scientific thought. Two or three years ago, I'd have sided with the anti-Catholics. Bear with me on this, I'll explain.

I had always viewed Catholicism as a religion, a large and often unwieldy version of Christianity, which, at present and I believe to the detriment of its followers, preaches against the ordination of women, preaches the sinfulness of homosexuality, hides pedophiles rather than bringing them to justice, and asks its followers not to use condoms or, indeed, any method of birth control save abstinence.

Yet despite my reactionary views (which I have, unfortunately, at times allowed to become private dogmas for reasons I'll get into in a minute) Catholicism does do a lot of good in the world, and I firmly believe that the vast majority of Catholics are not the bigoted old white men that continue to enforce the socially retrograde policies. I think the article in the guardian does a good job of pointing out that Catholicism is, in fact, made up of real people, and not the caricatures many of us allow ourselves to form whenever we hear about the latest sex scandal or the equating of the ordination of women with pedophilia by the Vatican.

See, I have always viewed Catholicism as the Big Dog, and the rest of the world as the underdog. This is, in part, why I allowed myself to form these caricatures. It felt as though I wasn't doing any harm because Catholicism was so big that it was like tossing pebbles at a brick wall. It wasn't until recently that I realized that some parts of the world (the US, the UK) have long histories of persecution of Catholics. Did you know that at one time (1732) it was simply illegal to be Catholic in the colony (not yet state) of Georgia? And that the KKK were not only anti-African-American, but also anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic? Plus I heard a rather disturbing rumour just last week that Catholics in North Korea sometimes just "disappear" in the night.

Individual believers in the Roman Catholic version of Christianity have, I think, a pretty hard time of it, and are not the megalithic force "the Church" had always been in my mind.

I myself will never be a Catholic. Taking my cues from Paul Tillich, and his "The Courage To Be," I view myself (at present) as a kind of christian-existentialist-agnostic. Raised as an Anglican, I still light a candle in every cathedral I visit. I can recite the Lord's Prayer and the 23rd psalm from memory. If I get married, I'll probably want to do so in the presence of a minister (though for the rest of the trappings of weddings I have no great desire).

But I now view Catholics in a different light than I used to. Not only do they have to struggle with questions of faith, but the truly faithful also often have to struggle with questions of dissent, which, not really belonging to any church, I have never had to do.

Vaulting made a good comment to me as I was writing this post. She's a confirmed atheist, and she still believes that we should let others believe as they wish. She blithely figured that if we don't let them venerate who they like, they'll probably just start killing those they don't -- and as a student of history I can see her point.

Does this mean I'm going to stop railing against the problems with Catholicism as I see them? Hell, no. I will always be a firm believer that being gay isn't a sin, that discrimination against women is morally wrong, and that the teaching (and official sanction) of the "ABC" method of preventing AIDS would prevent more suffering than just the "A" method (Abstinence, Be faithful, Condom use). Like Stephen Fry said in his Intelligence² debate on whether or not the Catholic Church is a force for good in the world -- despite an 8 minute speech about what is wrong with the organization itself -- he says:
I have no quarrel and no argument and I wish to express no contempt for individual devout and pious members of that church. It would be impertinent and wrong of me to express any antagonism towards any individual who wishes to find salvation in whatever form they wish to express it.
But I'm still going to press for what I see to be improvements in the message the organization sends to its members and to the world. Is this an example of "hate the sin and love the sinner" turned back on itself? Maybe. I'll have to think about that.

As for the anti-Catholicism, to return to my initial point, I suppose I still support peaceful opposition to the Catholic Church's policies, but I would advise those who would, as the guardian article does, to respect the worth and dignity of all people, regardless of their choice of religion.


clio's disciple said...

In my teaching I run into anti-Catholicism among students that lies not very far below the surface. (We're in the largely Protestant U.S. Midwest.) I find it a very careful balancing act to critique aspects of the medieval church while not tipping over into their too-easy assumptions about Catholicism.

Vellum said...

cd - I'm... really a little astounded. I come from a part of Canada where there are two parallel, publicly-funded high-school systems: public and catholic. It's a holdover, I suppose, from Canadian history, but growing up we never thought anything of it. The only real oddity (for me) was that a number of the kids who went there thought there was a difference between "Christian" and "Catholic", which was a little bit of a forehead-slapper for me. But the idea that people would be discriminated against for being Catholic, at least in any serious sense (the occasional "we'll take your condoms, if you won't be needing them" jibe at the annual football game notwithstanding, which I put down to our being stupid teenagers) is still very new to me. I genuinely had no idea.

Anonymous said...

I have a pet story on this subject, told me by a colleague at a conference long ago. Said colleague is the only medievalist in their large, Southern US, university, and has to do the medieval survey even though they're an art historian first and foremost. When they do this, apparently, they usually get a few students afterwards, either condemning them or congratulating them for 'championing Catholicism'. It drives this person nuts: "No!," they confessed to wanting to say, "people in the Middle Ages actually were Catholic, I'm not making it up, I'm not pushing some secret pro-Catholic agenda, I'm an atheist for goodness's sake!" but, when they spoke to me, had never done this, figuring that confessing atheism in that environment would not help them make their teaching point.

Anonymous said...

As to the UK anti-Catholicism, I think the writer is right that it exists, and is to an extent institutionalised, but I think he is still allowing himself to conflate dislike of the religion with dislike of its hierarchy. There are lots of Catholics here, and most of the ones I know are tolerant, kind people who are a delight to know, with some ineluctable ideological stances (most of them are pro-life, for example, which is understandable) but basically pro-human in all its varieties. They too are angry with the Church's shilly-shallying over the prosecution of pædophiliac clergy, and horrified by the Vatican equating its sinfulness with that of female ordination. The Vatican still commands a great deal of obedience, enough to make the Anglican congregation very envious, but I don't think many if any don't regret these statements.

The papacy, meanwhile, is scoring a surprising series of PR own goals. There are, as another piece in the Guardian pointed out with unusual historical sensibility, places where the Vatican's stance makes sense: both allowing priests to be prosecuted (for whatever) and admitting women priests represent encroachments by state laws on clerical privilege and the inviolability of the ministry. From inside a hierarchy whose basic position is that it is divinely sanctioned, these things have a certain equivalence in their effect on that hierarchy that is nothing to do with their moral difference in the world outside. But by failing to admit to the real-world impact or acknowledge the way people feel about these things, including their own believers, the Vatican is piling up opposition for itself and making itself very easy to attack. I guess Catholicism looks like a pretty Big Dog from inside the Vatican too.

Then, the other thing that's happening is that Pope Benedict has explicitly launched a campaign to recruit Anglicans who are disgusted with their church's failure to unite or to show a strong lead over the appointment of gay bishops (because, let's face it, Anglicanism also has its problems) to the Catholic Church. This has caused great bitterness among Anglicans who feel that the Church is in enough trouble without ecumenical should-be allies stabbing them in the back and stealing their flocks.

And it is on top of all this, and a number of fairly recent high-profile pædophilia cases in Ireland, far from the Vatican but not from us, that Pope Benedict is coming to visit. A lot of people here are very angry with him just now. But anti-papalism is not necessarily anti-Catholicism, and I think confusing the two is a mistake. Unfortunately, it's a mistake that a lot of people are making, both those feeling it and those writing about those feeling it.

Vellum said...

I had to laugh when I read about the Pope trying to recruit homophobic Anglicans. Far as I'm concerned they can go -- I just feel bad for the Catholics that will have to deal with them instead.

Also Jon, I do have to take issue with the term "pro-life" when it's used to mean "anti-abortion", because it infers that those who believe there are, in fact, times and places where abortions are sadly necessary are "anti-life". No-one is anti-life. Some of us just disagree on when it begins and the value of potential life.

Dr. Virago said...

Oh no! I just wrote a long comment and Blogger ate it!

The summary: if you're Catholic (or, like me and the writer, grew up Catholic but are now atheist), and especially if you have an obviously ethnic surname associated with Catholicism -- Irish, Italian, Polish -- you notice and feel the anti-Catholicism in the UK and the US. It's there, and it's deeply ingrained. (In the long version, I had lots and lots of examples, historical and contemporary. Sigh.) Just as white privilege blocks even well-meaning white people from seeing all forms of racism, if you're not Catholic, you might not be sensitive to anti-Catholicism. You have to work at sensitizing yourself.

And please do, because even an atheist Catholic like me (and the writer), who has no love of the Church hierarchy and its policies, feels alienated by anti-Catholicism.

Heh -- the captcha word is "fatings," which is *almost* "fasting."

Vellum said...

Dr. Virago - So sorry about blogger >_< If you have the time and patience, I'd love to read even one or two examples. As you may have guessed, I'm still learning to tune in to anti-catholic sentiment, so that I can avoid it myself.

Anonymous said...

Also Jon, I do have to take issue with the term "pro-life" when it's used to mean "anti-abortion", because it infers that those who believe there are, in fact, times and places where abortions are sadly necessary are "anti-life". No-one is anti-life. Some of us just disagree on when it begins and the value of potential life.

You would prefer what, `anti-choice'? That, I think, is no less emotive. I guess both terms try to pre-own the debate. I like `pro-life' because it indicates the ethical basis on which that range of views rest. But the debate as a whole isn't one I really want to get into on the open Internet. However, I did just stumble across this, which tries to make the question of anti-Catholicism relevant on your side of the Atlantic once again.

Vellum said...

I think you're right when you say anti-choice is equally emotive to pro-life. I suppose the most fair labels would be pro-legalized abortion and anti-legalized abortion.

On the other hand what I was getting at before is that the label pro-choice makes those against legalized abortion against choice. The label pro-life makes those in favour of legalized abortion against life itself. Both are perhaps unfair, but you tell me which is the dirtier rhetorical trick.

As for the article in the NYRB, it's very interesting, though I'd like to hear more about the bit where he says "This led to novel claims that the US constitution demanded an absolute separation of church and state—claims that stem not from Thomas Jefferson and George Washington but from nineteenth-century politicians, ministers, and editors..." [ones worried about Catholicism]. I'm pretty sure the separation of church and state being outlined in the first amendment pins it pretty definitively from the time of Jefferson, but perhaps I'm missing their point.

Dr. Virago said...

Vellum -- I only just now came back to this and saw your request for me to give you those examples from the post that got eaten. But before that...In re the NYRB article, I think the authors are saying that the real enforcement of the absolute separation between church and state didn't really develop until the 19th century -- that's when the 1st amendment establishment clause was really tested, and the case law developed -- and it was a reaction to anti-Catholicism in particular. Martha Nussbaum's Liberty of Conscience is a pretty accessible place to start for the background.

As for my examples, well, again, you can go to Nussbaum. :-) But here's the quick and dirty, rather historically scattered run-down: I first experienced anti-Catholicism personally when I was the only white Catholic kid at a WASPy camp (the other Catholics were rich girls from Mexico City) and was made to feel like a weirdo because of it. And I grew up with stories my Irish Catholic father told about what he experienced or saw his dad experience -- which is probably why my grandfather and father both married WASPy women and tried very hard to pass all their lives as almost-WASP. (Their Irish last name was somewhat of a dead give-away, though.) But even my Protestant mother told me stories about how shocked she was to hear her friends and former sorority sisters worry about JFK being elected -- because he might answer to the Pope on issues of national concern. So that's the anecdotal personal stuff.

And over the years I've seen things that to me suggest anti-Catholicism -- like the museum on the Isle of Man that skips from the invasions of the (pagan) Vikings to the 16th century. (I'd say the whole Enlightenment narrative of the "Middle" Ages is, at its heart, anti-Catholic, particularly in the English tradition.) And in an evangelical's op-ed in Agape Press after Hurricane Katrina, the writer said New Orleans brought God's wrath on itself for it sins, which included, in his words "false religion." Now, you might take that to mean voodoo, but he also listed "witchcraft," which is more suggestive of voodoo. Given that New Orleans Parish is 70% Catholic -- and given the very Reformation ring of "false religions" -- I think it's plausible he meant Catholicism.

And very recently, G. Beck's language recently -- attacking "social justice" and "liberation theology" -- is suspiciously anti-Catholic, since both phrases and movements are rooted in Catholic theology. Though I wonder if Beck knows that, since he wields them so widely (e.g., he accuses Obama of being a follower of "liberation theology," which is just weird, since Obama's not a Catholic South American priest in the 70s and 80s!). But I think he might have learned the rhetoric from a general anti-Catholic discourse.

So there's a few examples. Temporally scattered and mostly anecdotal, I know, but anti-Catholicism is out there, if largely sotto voce.

Anonymous said...

I suppose the most fair labels would be pro-legalized abortion and anti-legalized abortion.

On the other hand what I was getting at before is that the label pro-choice makes those against legalized abortion against choice. The label pro-life makes those in favour of legalized abortion against life itself. Both are perhaps unfair, but you tell me which is the dirtier rhetorical trick.

I don't think we can discuss the rhetoric here without exposing our own ideological positions. I could make the same argument back about how pro-choice suggests that the opponents of such a view are in favour of tyranny, and suggest that a proper opposite to pro-life may not be 'anti-life' but 'pro-death', but then I'm already a good part of the way towards an argument that abortion is murder. And for people with such views, of course, your suggested alternatives are going to be just as emotive. If we can either of us come up with language for this that both sides would be happy with, we should probably collaborate on an article! But, given the aforementioned emotions involved, pseudonymously... Meanwhile, I'm happy to actually argue this in person or even by e-mail if you feel a burning need to make a convert, along with anecdotal explanation of my decision to take my position, but I don't want to do it on the open Internet.

Vellum said...

Dr. Virago -- thanks for clarifying that freedom of religion thing for me, my US history is pretty weak. And I'll keep my eyes open for anti-Catholic rhetoric, too. See, I thought Katrina hit New Orleans because it was filled with gay people. Because, you know, that makes sense too.

Jon -- I think I'll stick with pro-legalized and anti-legalized abortion (until we write that article), and do my best to avoid the rhetorical mess. I'm also happy to debate the issue in a less-public forum if you like. E-mail?