Why is Anti-Catholicism Tolerated?


Anti-Catholicism is not a relic of a distant past, it is as alive as it ever was, only now it is less recognizable.

Last September, the International Conference on population and Development met in Cairo. As many will remember, the Vatican expressed its objections to the conference because the Catholic Church opposed abortion and access to contraception and family counselling for teenagers. This prompted Stephen Lewis, former Canadian ambassador to the UN, to call the Vatican's statements "torrents of thinly veiled misogyny."

Now of course, Mr. Lewis is entitled to his own opinion. I'm even betting he isn't personally anti-Catholic. But as a historian who was raised a Catholic, I was upset when I read his comment. I asked myself: Does he know how disturbing his words are? After all, to describe any statement today as a "torrent of misogyny" is no idle charge. My training as a historian also caused me to wonder: Was his statement substantially different from the other kinds of criticism that traditionally have been levelled at Catholics and their church? Or am I being a little too sensitive about this? Isn't anti-Catholicism a relic of a distant past? We're constantly told we live in a secular, irreligious and increasingly pagan world. Isn't anti-Catholicism something that disappeared with the old Orange Day parades down Toronto's Yonge Street?

The answer, unfortunately, is no. Anti-Catholicism is as alive as it ever was, but now it's less recognizable. The new anti-Catholicism expresses itself in the form of a hip discourse that tries to reduce a worldwide church with hundreds of millions of parishioners to a handful of trendy slogans of dismissive contempt. Dare I say that's a tad dishonest? Isn't Stephen Lewis a strong defender of Canadian Multiculturalism? Then how can he be publicly derisive of a complex and historically persecuted minority that has done more than its share to build this country?

The great misfortune is that Stephen Lewis's remarks aren't unique. For instance, the church today is a favourite target of gay and lesbian groups. In recent years, homosexual demonstrators in the United States have spat on the Eucharist, shouted down sermons, tossed condoms at church leaders and shouted outside Catholic churches, "We're here, we're queer, and we want your children." But gay anti-Catholicism gets most of the headlines because it is so flamboyant. In many respects it's just a florid symptom of a resilient attitude whose origins go back a long way in history. In Canadian history, anti-Catholicism has been the force behind much of the debate over immigration, temperance, labour, language, and public schooling. It's puzzling, then, that Canadian historians today pay so little attention to it. As I write this, I have in front of me a standard text for post secondary Canadian history entitled Destinies. In the book's index there is no reference to anti-Catholicism as a separate topic. When it comes to the Ku Klux Klan, the authors write that it attacked Catholics chiefly because there were so few blacks in Canada.

These glimpses at Canadian historians' treatment of anti-Catholicism are disquieting. At least in U.S. history textbooks anti-Catholicism is a prominently featured topic in itself. Are we Canadians peculiarly oblivious to this documented discrimination, hatred and subordination?

To this Catholic, anyway, it's mystifying how in this day and age we can tolerate these expressions of prejudice. Whatever its faults and crimes in the past, the Catholic church since at least the 1960s has done much to foster an international spirit of trust and cooperation among world religions. It has owned up to its mistakes, like the 1632 trial of Galileo. Under John Paul II it played a large role in the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe.

Many vilify the Vatican's position on birth control, reproduction and euthanasia. But it should be remembered that well before the Nazis introduced their sterilization and euthanasia programs in the 1930s, the Vatican and Catholic groups, alone among Christian churches and most secular organizations, unequivocally opposed similar programs in Canada and the United States. Still, the church's stand on eugenics is one that seems to have escaped the notice of a generation of Canadian historians eager to reduce history to the categories of race, gender and social class.

Thus it's time to recognize the insidious roots of anti-Catholicism. It's time we questioned the all-too-familiar public spectacle of people telling Catholics what to do and what is and isn't their business. As we try to come to grips with the challenges of imagining Canada as a truly pluralist and multicultural nation, we must eliminate the odious practice of extending generosity to some historically persecuted groups and not to others.


Ian Dowbiggin, “Why is Anti-Catholicism Tolerated?” Globe & Mail, 24 April 1995.

Reprinted by permission of the publisher.


Ian Dowbiggin is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Prince Edward Island.

Copyright © 1995 Globe & Mail

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