Monday, May 21, 2007

The Beast of the Mark

Michael Schwartz and the Prejudice of Persistence

Among the books on my shelves are Paul Blanshard's American Democracy and Catholic Power, and Michael Schwartz's The Persistent Prejudice. The subject of the former book is obvious. The prejudice which the latter book denounces is anti-Catholicism, or more accurately, anti-Romanism. (Catholic means universal, which the Roman church is not, and has never been. Many Protestant churches still use the words "holy catholic church," small c, to mean the church universal.) The books are old; I found both at used book sales for bargain prices. The controversy is still very much alive, and worth taking a look at.

I was raised Protestant with a Jewish name in an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic neighborhood, believing for many years that the population of the United States was one half Catholic, one third Lutheran, and the rest minor sects such as Baptist, Congregationalist, Methodist, Presbyterian and Unitarian. Obviously, I grew up in Wisconsin. In between such embarassments as Joseph McCarthy and Tommy Thompson, Wisconsin has been one of the more progressive states in the nation, with a good number of Catholic working class voters helping send socialists to Congress, and electing socialist mayors in Milwaukee, not to mention the LaFollettes.

Almost all my childhood playmates attended Roman Catholic services with their parents. I heard them from time to time chatting seriously about the Seven Sacraments and the nuns. Some went to public schools, as I did, others went to Roman parochial schools. (Only the elite from the parochial schools got into Xavier High School; in 9th grade, the rest rejoined the public schools. The kids from Xavier tended to be the ones to start anti-Vietnam War protests.) All of the disparaging jokes I have heard about the Roman Catholic faith have come out of the mouths of parochial school students and graduates. Who else knows the church and its rituals well enough to lampoon them? Who else has a motive for doing so? I have attended Roman mass a few times, in California, with elderly Hispanic friends, finding it to be an inspiring and moving worship service. Naturally I did not take communion, since I respect the right of any church to set its own rules.

I must admit that I find Blanshard's book more objective. It concerns the official statements and acts of the church, not a dissection of its dogma. Schwarz describes Blanshard's book as "the greatest anti-Catholic polemical tract in U.S. history." Certainly it is one of the most effective criticisms of Roman influence in American politics. Blanshard does not resort to lurid tales about priests raping nuns, or murdered babies and bloody rituals – the sort of tales pagan Romans told about Christians, medieval Roman Christians about Jews, and paranoid Protestants about Roman Catholics. Nor does he indulge in theological speculation that the Roman church is built on a foundation of idolatry. Blanshard quotes extensively from the public pronouncements of bishops, and the honest, uncompromising assertions of such undoubted Catholics as Hillaire Belloc. He cites Monsignor Matthew Smith openly expounding that "where Catholics are in overwhelming majority, it is theoretically better to have an official union of Church and State, with the state participating from time to time in public worship and using the machinery of government, when needed, to help the church." Blanshard, not surprisingly, finds such assertions to be a violation of American constitutional law and sovereignty, because they are.

Schwarz's more passionate protest is obscured by a subjective distaste for any criticism of his beloved church. To be a Roman Catholic, Schwarz admits, is to claim supremacy. It is not enough for prejudice that bars equal participation by members of his church in public life to be swept away. Schwarz will settle for nothing less than the freedom to seek supremacy, because, he maintains, that is the essence of faithful adherence to the Roman faith. He has a right to say that. It is called freedom of speech and of the press, rights firmly established by Protestants and by the traditions of the Enlightenment, with the enthusiastic participation of the small number of Roman Catholics then resident in the United States.

He displays an awfully thin skin when he denounces as "prejudice" the natural doubts of others about the Roman hierarchy's claim to supremacy. Schwarz has a right to submit to the hierarchy of his choice in spiritual matters. The laws of our nation will not interfere, being restrained by the first two clauses of the First Amendment. When he asserts the right of that hierarchy to dominate others, it ill becomes him or anyone to cry "bigotry" because the rest of us raise significant objections. Millions of us adhere to Wycliffe's assertion that man has no earthly spiritual overlord but Jesus, that spiritual Truth is a matter between me and God. Like Lutherans, we believe our own reading of the Bible is not subject to the direction of any hierarchy.

At its best, if such a comparitive term may be applied, American nativist anti-Roman prejudice arises from fear that the Roman Catholic hierarchy desires to subject and subordinate the civil government of every land (including the United States of America) to its own temporal power. Certainly such power has been openly claimed and sought throughout many centuries of the Roman church's existence. The words and deeds of successive bishops of Rome, their cardinals and administrators, have never justified absolute confidence that this goal has been unequivocally abandoned.

John F. Kennedy satisfied American voters that he himself would have no part of advancing such a purpose. For this, he was sharply criticized by conservative Roman Catholics who fully expected that any Roman Catholic elected as president darn well should advance the Vatican's agenda. Even Schwartz, in the midst of a book denouncing prejudice against Roman Catholics, is critical that Kennedy "laid the fears of anti-Catholics to rest by the simple expedient of not taking the Catholic side on sensitive issues." Schwarz, among others, misses the point: IF there is a "Catholic side" to a public issue, and IF any Catholic holding office is expected to take "the Catholic side" on that issue, then the nativist prejudice against Roman Catholics in public office is fully justified!

That would be equally applicable to other faiths if there were a "Baptist side" or a "Methodist side" or a "Pentecostal side" to any given issue. Despite efforts by pollsters, editors, reporters, and campaign managers to stereotype voters and dump us into "niches", despite the strident demands for obedience from the hierarchies of various churches, the truth is that there are members of any religion in America who vote Republican and Democratic, liberal and conservative, this way and that way on any given issue. The USA is far less threatened than are many European nations by the existence of a growing Islamic population within our borders, precisely because our politics and culture do assimilate immigrants into the mainstream of our nation. No immigrant has been asked to give up their faith in order to assimilate, but most who remain and become citizens do embrace our own national traditions. Anti-Roman prejudice is likewise misplaced, because Americans of the Roman Catholic faith do not act monolithically as a voting bloc, however much their more fanatical co-religionists might call upon them to do so. There are as many pro-choice Catholics as there are Catholics with bumper stickers saying you can't be Catholic and pro-choice. Thank God.

Still, Schwarz repeatedly sabotages his own case. Schwarz takes a position of uncompromising principle with regard to abortion, a position firmly in line with that of his faith. So far, so good. But if the Catholic community seeks an accommodation with the prevailing culture on that issue, Schwarz insists, "U.S. Catholicism will have been defeated and denatured by the anti-Catholic host culture." Defeated? Denatured? Host culture? What choice of words could better justify anti-Roman prejudice? Is this a Freudian slip, admitting that the Roman Catholic Church is an invading virus, trying to take over a biological host? Shooting himself in the foot yet again, Schwarz openly calls for Catholics to "take on the task of helping to shape American life from a Catholic perspective."

Religious bigotry tends to run around in circles, taking on a variety of political and economic overtones. When the Bishop of Rome could truly exercise authority across many national borders, having heretics slaughtered, tortured, or burned at the stake, there was no question who was engaged in tyranny. Martin Luther, for one, had to denounce the church as the "Whore of Babylon," not only for its corrupt practices at that time, but because it sought to militarily suppress the Reformation. When England withstood the Spanish Armada, its Protestant faith was the banner of freedom. When English capitalism conquered its first colony in neighboring Ireland, the Roman Catholic church became the faith of the oppressed. On the other hand, many Irish were profoundly anti-clerical, while the priests and bishops often collaborated with British rule.

When a tiny Roman Catholic minority gave substantial support to the American Revolution, an overwhelming Protestant majority gratefully extended full political participation. It wasn't even a question subject to debate, it was simply a done deal. When massive numbers of immigrants, many illiterate, began arriving from predominantly Catholic nations in Europe, to work in the factories of nativist Protestant capitalists, a whole host of different prejudices were unleashed. (It must be noted that the Protestant factory owners were no more interested in stopping the immigration of cheap labor, Roman Catholic or not, than today's industrial employers are interested in "immigration reform.") When Roman Catholic bishops felt sufficiently entrenched to demand the reshaping of American political life to their own satisfaction, the specter of the Inquisition naturally reappeared on the horizon.

To the extent that "Catholic thought" rejects the separation of the authority of church and state into distinct spheres, "Catholic thought" is indeed in direct contradiction to the constitution which brought the United States of America into being. Those Catholics who participated in the American Revolution had no problem with this separation – they helped to enshrine it as fundamental law, and benefitted enormously from it. It is fundamental to our republic both that true religion not be tainted by the corrupting influence of the state (as advocated by both Roger Williams and James Madison), AND that contention between rival denominations for preferment would damage the unity and peace of civil society (as advocated by Thomas Jefferson). Every immigrant of whatever nationality or faith, who became a naturalized American citizen, took a solemn oath to support, among other things, these fundamental principles.

It is of course the right of any citizen to accept the authority of any church with regard to their own spirituality. It is the right of any church to determine what writings properly represent its own dogma. Schwarz therefore not only has the moral right to submit himself to the authority of the Holy See, he has the legal right to do so without government interference. He has a valid point that if the church merely informs a teacher at a Catholic university that their writings are not approved by the church, it has acted within its proper sphere of authority. But the Inquisition was a very real institution, and the behavior of the Roman bureaucracy has never extinguished the thought that, if it had the temporal power and opportunity, the church might resort to such measures again.

Enduring skepticism of Roman intentions derives from the church's historical exercise of power, not from any sense that to be Catholic is to be intellectually or morally inferior. As long as the Roman hierarchy claims the unique and exclusive right to universal spiritual domination, the right to judge worldly affairs from a unique position of spiritual authority, so long as the Roman church claims to be something more than one among many denominations, there will remain a justifiable distrust of the Roman Catholic Church among all who decline to grant that church the authority it claims. While it is true that citizens professing the Roman Catholic faith have demonstrated their willingness to accept the responsibilities of democratic citizenship, the church as an institution has never totally accepted their right to do so.