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When I first told friends and colleagues about this book, they were intrigued by its proposed content but disturbed by its title. “Sounds a little proud,” “Is that sufficiently conciliatory for these progressive and pluralistic days?” and “You ought to be careful because it might offend people.” Which is odd in that when I suggested to them titles for other books such as Why Liberals Are Right, Why Conservatives Are Right, even Why Muslims Are Right, and especially Why Atheists Are Right, they thought the suggestions to describe the various subjects entirely reasonable and unlikely to cause any problems at all. To believe something is, self-evidently, not to believe something that is its contrary. So obvious is this that it is not questioned and seems a self-evident truth in most areas and about most subjects. It is, after all, just common sense. But to claim that being an authentic Roman Catholic necessitates believing that Roman Catholicism is correct positively terrifies many modern men and women, as though a Catholic claiming to be right was some terrible sin – not that many of these people believe in sin, of course.
If this audacious insistence that being Catholic meant, well, being Catholic and led to the persecution or killing of others who were not Catholic, it would naturally be intimidating and insulting but that is certainly not the case – even though, as we will see in the first chapter, it usually takes only a few moments during a disagreement for someone to bring up the days when Catholics did indeed give their opponents a hard time, as though in all of history only Catholics have ever got it wrong or even just acted like most people were acting at the time. So the title stands, and for a specific reason: to oblige and demand a certain clarity on the part of the book’s readers. I’m a Catholic and believe in Catholicism, and thus I believe that people who disagree with my beliefs are wrong. I do not dislike them – or at least don’t dislike all of them – nor do I wish to hurt them, even those who wish to hurt me and will probably wish to hurt me even more after they read this book, pretend to read it, or read nasty reviews of it.
I do, however, want these readers to consider what I have to say and to not abuse my beliefs in a manner and with a harshness that they would not dream of using against almost any other creed or religion. It might be a romantic hope but hope is one of those Catholic qualities we like to think of as important and helpful.
Having said this, I admit there are degrees of wrongness. Some people are only slightly wrong, others wrong most of the time and to a shocking degree. Non-Catholic Christians and in particular serious evangelicals and Eastern Orthodox believers are examples of the former. Many of them could teach many Catholics a great deal about love, charity, and devotion to God. Alleged Christians who want to edit rather than follow Christ, professional atheists who flood the Internet with their obsessions, and part-time Catholic-bashers are the latter. This brings me to the anti-Catholicism that has become the last acceptable prejudice in what passes for polite society and has become so obvious and so pronounced that to even repeat the fact seems almost banal. We have all heard comments about Catholics that if applied to almost any other group would simply not be tolerated. It’s bad enough when this is street conversation and pointless gossip, far worse when it passes for informed comment in allegedly serious newspapers. British historian and biographer Christopher Hibbert put it well when he said that historically the Pope had been thought of as “an unseen, ghost-like enemy, lurking behind clouds of wicked incense in a Satanic southern city called Rome.” In much of contemporary Anglo-Saxon culture as well as the greater modern world, this perverse caricature has found a second wind.
Philip Jenkins is a professor of history and religion at Pennsylvania State University and has written extensively about the Roman Catholic Church and some of the attacks on it. His book The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice1 outlined the history and modern experience of the phenomenon. Jenkins himself left the Church in the 1980s. When his book was published, he was asked to define its thesis. He replied, “It depends on how you define anti-Catholicism. I suggest it is a very widespread phenomenon in different degrees. For example, people would say things about the Catholic Church and condemn a religion with much more ease than they would condemn other religions, other religious traditions. I think that’s always been true to some extent, but I think that’s really shifted its basis in the last twenty-five years. It’s become much more of a left-liberal, as opposed to a right-wing prerogative.” He continued, “It makes anti-Catholicism different from other kinds of prejudice. It survives as what I call ‘the last acceptable prejudice.’ In other words, if you say something that is insensitive or hostile about most religious or ethnic groups, then those words will come back to haunt you and in many cases destroy you. . . . If you say something about Catholicism, or even something which is very hostile, really quite extreme, and in many people’s idea, constitutes outrageous bigotry, it doesn’t. Nobody really notices. You’re expected to lighten up and not take this too seriously.”
Jenkins is right. And this is all far more profound than merely responding to an achingly nasty and smothering bigotry. The importance of Catholicism is that in a culture where various forms of religious and atheistic fundamentalism, crass materialism, and clawing decadence eat away at civility and civilization the only permanent, consistent, and logically complete alternative is the Roman Catholic Church. Which is probably why it seems to so antagonize people who would usually be fair and tolerant toward a faith or ideology they did not completely understand.
I was not born a Catholic and came into the Church only in my mid-twenties. I’d grown up in a secular home in Britain with a Jewish father whose family had fled Poland in the 1890s. He wasn’t anti-Catholic but he saw the Church as something foreign and alien, from both a Jewish and a British perspective. While London in the 1960s and 1970s was hardly anti-Semitic to any meaningful degree, it’s impossible to have Jewish blood and not experience at least some prejudice and hatred. Even if it isn’t direct and personal, it’s a ghost that haunts the world, and, with the growth of both the Internet and the nuances of Middle Eastern politics and an increasing distance from the Holocaust, it has been given new life in recent years. So I know what being despised simply for being is all about. Anti-Catholicism is fundamentally different from anti-Semitism. It’s not racial or ethnic and, outside of fundamentalist Protestant circles and Islamic extremists, not even especially religious. Very few people dislike Catholicism because of its theology but many oppose it because of the moral and ethical consequences of its teachings. In spite of that, in 2008 the Internet video-sharing website YouTube hosted forty videos showing the graphic desecration of the consecrated host. They had been posted by an anti-Catholic activist who was seen burning, nailing, and stapling the Eucharist and flushing it down a toilet.
This is obviously incredibly offensive to Catholics who, as we shall see, believe the consecrated host to be the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Perhaps so, runs the standard response, but while Catholics are entitled to their opinion, those who disagree with them are allowed theirs and may be as offensive as they like as long as they do not use violence. The problem is that this approach seems to be applied to Christians and Catholics in particular far more than to others. Robert Ritchie was the director of an organization called America Needs Fatima, which compiled petitions to try to have the videos removed. He explained, “As Catholics, we believe the host is the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ. Witnessing the desecration of the host causes anguish to Catholics all over the world. In the past, YouTube has removed videos offensive to Jews and members of other religions, including one showing a teenager urinating on a Holocaust memorial. Why can’t Catholics be afforded the same respect for our deeply held beliefs?” The argument can be extended to any number of areas where Catholicism is treated differently from other faiths.
But in general, religious anti-Catholicism is fairly unusual. In other words, I’ve seldom met someone who dislikes me because of my views on saints or the papacy, but I have lost jobs in media because of my Catholic belief that, for example, life begins at conception and that marriage can only be between one man and one woman. Being part Jewish, on the other hand, has positively helped me in my career, whereas my serious Catholicism has led to at least two firings and many doors in media being closed. So while anti-Semitism is vile and constant, being an observant Catholic, at least in the Western world, can lead to other different but equally difficult problems.
There is evidently an anti-Catholic prejudice that is built on social and economic grounds. In Britain, for example, Catholics were often Irish immigrants and just as often working class and even poor. Although Roman Catholicism was the faith of the British for a thousand years, by the early seventeenth century it had been pushed to the fringes of society. In Northern Ireland, there were and to an extent still are Protestants who regard Catholics as morally as well as personally and theologically inferior. In North America, some of that Anglo-Celtic prejudice still exists – the Catholic Church is, in popular and sometimes even cultured circles, regarded as the “denomination of foreigners, immigrants, the poor, and undesirables” – but the bulk of modern contemporary disdain comes more often from the secular liberal who feels intellectually and aesthetically superior but would never dare feel such contempt for a member of a more fashionable minority group.
Catholics also face the problem of dislike from those once their own. The notion of “once a Catholic” is problematic because if someone aggressively rejects Catholicism, they are patently no longer Catholic. A Jew may embrace atheism but still be Jewish. Catholicism is different. A Catholic who becomes, say, a Baptist is not a Catholic and it would be insulting to claim otherwise. The problem is that many people raised nominally or even devoutly Catholic who then turn against the Church want the best, or worst, of both worlds and continue to attack the faith while still claiming to be of it. One malicious term – “recovering Catholic” – is supposed to equate Catholicism with alcoholism or drug addiction. I prefer “failed Catholic,” which for some reason rather annoys those self-identified “recovering Catholics” who obsess about how difficult their life was until they discovered the liberation of Buddhism, New Age, or atheism.
This book is not supposed to be anything like a definitive guide to Roman Catholicism. It is a mere handbook dealing with some of the most common but by no means all of the attacks on the Church and should be useful to Catholics who want to defend their beliefs but need a little help, an intellectualizing of the instinctive or a mild fleshing out of what they already thought to be the case. It should also be of use to honestly curious non-Catholics who have heard the usual accusations and rumours and can’t believe that this institution that has done so much good and contains so many good people can truly be so evil and wrong. I mean the sort of people who are too intelligent and mature to believe in fairy tales. I hope it leads some to read further and deeper, to look at modern Catholic authors and apologists as well as some of the greats of the nineteenth century and even of the medieval age. There are any number of questions, areas, and issues that I have not addressed and all sorts of facts, figures, and arguments that I have not explored – the book is intended to be accessible rather than exhaustive. More space is devoted to the more frequent criticisms of the Church than to areas that may be important but for various reasons are not usually targets of abuse. Roman Catholics are far more likely, for example, to be attacked for what people assume are the facts about the Crusades than they are about the Immaculate Conception, more likely to face challenges about the Church’s alleged indifference to the Holocaust and supposed obsession with abortion than about purgatory or the nonsense that there was a female Pope. Lady pontiffs and the Immaculate Conception, by the way, are covered but not to the same extent as the Crusades and the Holocaust.
The book is written out of experience as well as research. What I mean is that my experience has taught me that attacks usually begin with the Church’s history, then with a misunderstanding of what the Church believes and teaches, then with angry comments about why the Church is so “obsessed” with the life issue and then a whole bunch of criticisms. These days, tragically, the Catholic clergy abuse scandal is thrown in somewhere. It has to be discussed, but it has to be discussed honestly and accurately. The rest of the punches thrown at the Catholic body? The Church was nasty to Galileo, the Church tried to convert Muslims and the Crusades were horrible, Hitler was a Catholic and the Pope was a Nazi, the Inquisition slaughtered millions of people, the Church is rich and does nothing for the poor, children were abused and the Vatican knew about it all and did nothing, celibacy leads to perversion, Catholics worship statues, Catholics believe the Pope is infallible and can never do anything wrong, and so on and so on and so on.
It’s all nonsense – yet it’s nonsense that is given a veneer of credibility by thinking people who shape opinion, which, again, makes the Church unique in the twenty-first century as a victim institution. In almost every other area, we’ve matured as a people and a culture to the point where such crass generalizations and fundamentally fl awed opinions would not make it past the alehouse door. Not with Roman Catholicism. This is a small book about a huge subject, but that should not detract from its premise that Catholicism is right and this is why. Read and think, think and agree, think and disagree, think whatever you like. But in the name of God and the Church He left us, please think!