Why is it OK to bash Catholics?

JOHN FRASER

It is a dramatic sign of the rampaging secularization of North American and European life during the past half-century that a book like "The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice" by Philip Jenkins, has come about.

More smirking self-righteousness than pity will greet it, I fear, for the age we live in regards adherence to faith of any sort as a sign of either simple-mindedness (silly but inoffensive) or closed-mindedness (dangerous and fair game to attack). All of which is a shame, because there is still much to be learned from the beleaguered community of the faithful struggling not merely to retain "the Christian option" in Western society, but to take it to a new dimension that may yet be of great significance.

The Roman Catholic Church is famously battered and bruised at the moment, and many will rush to say that it is its own damn fault. "We have turned a light on these cloistered, arrogant communities," Maureen Dowd, the New York Times columnist, has written, "and they can no longer justify themselves." Many would agree. So many, in fact, that, as Philip Jenkins writes in this absorbing and disturbing study of the new anti-Catholicism, prejudice against the church has reached a level in Western society that would not be tolerated about any other group or sect.

Jenkins is an interesting case study all on his own, with a background quite different from what you would expect of a Catholic apologist. A distinguished professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University, he was born and brought up in the Roman Church, but left for philosophical reasons tied to the role of authority. He remains a practising Christian, but as a member of the Episcopal (Anglican) Church in the United States. He notes with some asperity that the church's most vociferous attackers are often people just like him, who have left the church.

Jenkins's thesis is that anti-Catholicism has become acceptable in polite society because of a conjunction of historical and societal events. Understandable consternation at the betrayal of trust in a terrible series of pedophilia cases has caused a public scandal. Western feminist anger at the male hierarchy and priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church is widely accepted, along with parallel contempt for celibacy. The church's own faithful adherents have largely ignored its teachings on birth control, and the emergence of the gay-rights movement has come into a direct clash with Catholic teaching on homosexuality, which, in turn, has led to raging public rows. The historical role of the church, and its relationship with Jews, particularly as it affected the Holocaust, throw a cosmic curve into the equation, and it is virtually accepted these days that if Pope Pius XII didn't actually send Jews to the gas chambers, his "silence" dramatically abetted the business.

Out of it all, an anti-Catholic industry has come to maturity in academia and government, in newspapers and magazines, on television talk shows and in movies. It is, as Jenkins's subtitle posits, the last acceptable prejudice, and some of his examples are spectacular. The sorts of insults regularly heaped on the church by artists (the crucifixes pickled in jars of urine on display at the Tate Modern Gallery, in London), entertainers (celibacy jokes on Jay Leno) and commentators (Maureen Dowd is the least offensive) would never be considered acceptable were they aimed at any other group. Against the church, they hardly cause a blip of concern. The verdict is in, and the church is guilty of just about anything you care to find it guilty of. Practising Catholics just keep their heads down and try to ignore all the hurt and insult.

Accounting for all of this is fascinating, and that's because Jenkins is such a good reporter and judge of human character. He has also assembled a fair indictment against second-rate historians, a lazy media and a credulous audience. He takes apart each area in which the church seems to offend secular society and shows that the public perception, so ably abetted by the media, is wrong, or badly distorted, or plain unfair. To those with no animus against the church, it is quite convincing; among those who feel the Roman Catholic Church is evil incarnate, there will be no immediate conversions, faith being what it is. (There was always a dark side to Blaise Pascal's famous insight that "the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.")

If there is a criticism to be levelled, it is in Jenkins's ostensible obliviousness to the notion that the perception battle is somehow less important than the truth. It isn't. The truth — that the church is struggling to be reborn, that it is dealing with its problems in ways that are impressive but rarely reported, that its enemies exaggerate for effect, that "systemic" problems are nothing of the sort — is the armour of the church. But the perception battle has to be fought with at least as much vigour as its enemies can muster up. Along with vigour is needed more wisdom, more charity and more imagination.

As Jenkins points out in a very moving conclusion, the Roman Catholic Church is not the enemy of the modern Western world, or the emerging world in Africa, or the dynamic world of Asia. It is a lumbering ark carrying the weight of two millenniums of human aspiration and folly in its capacious hold. At the helm are clumsy, all-too-imperfect people continually struggling to bring a revolutionary message of love and redemption to a world that still has the capacity to hear it. Nothing wrong or evil is excused or otherwise dismissed in this book, but every comfortable prejudice against the church is closely examined and returned to the reader minus its factions and exaggerations. In this, Philip Jenkins has not only served his former church well, he has shed light where once all was muck.

See Philip Jenkins' article, "Some prejudices are more equal than others".


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

John Fraser, "Why is it OK to bash Catholics?" National Post, (Canada) June 2, 2003.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post.

THE AUTHOR

John Fraser writes the weekly media column for the National Post, which appears each Wednesday in the Arts and Life section. A writer and educator, he has been the Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto since 1995. Fraser is the recipient of three National Newspaper Awards, seven National Magazine Awards, among other honours. He is married, has three daughters and lives in Toronto.

Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University. He has written twenty books, and about 120 book chapters and refereed articles. His books include God's Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe's Religious Crisis, The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South, The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice and The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity.

Copyright © 2003 National Post




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