Saturday, December 10, 2005


Choosing the right targets

I have heard it said that anti-Catholicism is the last socially acceptable form of prejudice. Apparently, these days, the society that socially "accepts" anti-Catholicism is the community of the political left, since liberals are the quickest to criticize Church positions on abortion, birth control, and gay rights. Funny. Anti-Catholicism used to be the special province of the right-wing Christian, who supposedly abhorred popery and its attendant superstitions (as if conservative Protestant Christianity were a rational response to such foolishness). Today the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States has largely made common cause with fundamentalist and evangelical Christian sects in their united front against reproductive rights and equality for gays. Perhaps people on both sides of this awkward marriage of convenience are content, at least for now, to mutter under their breath that the other side will surely burn in hell. But issues like eternity can wait till Roe v. Wade is overturned.

It seems like only yesterday that great works of anti-Catholic pseudo-scholarship were produced by Protestant polemicists. The famous tome Roman Catholicism by Loraine Boettner was published in 1962. Despite Boettner's unfortunate fate of releasing the definitive attack on the Catholic Church just before its upheavals of the Second Vatican Council, his book nevertheless became a primary source (both credited and uncredited) for later writers who wanted to take on Rome. To get the proper flavor for Boettner's charming ability to meld profound ignorance with sublime over-confidence, there is no better example than his incisive dissection of the doctrine of papal infallibility.

Boettner knows that papal infallibility is supposed to occur in the pope's ex cathedra declarations on matters of doctrine or morals. Boettner knows that ex cathedra literally means "from the chair"; in this instance, it specifically means from the chair of Peter, the leader of the original twelve apostles who is recognized as the first pope ("I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven" Matt. 16:19) of the Roman Catholic Church. Boettner therefore takes the trouble to insert a scholarly footnote reporting that a Vatican chair traditionally called "the chair of St. Peter" has been scientifically dated to no earlier than the ninth century. Poor pope! How can he issue infallible pronouncements if he doesn't have the right chair to sit on?

Now Boettner has more substantive biblical arguments to marshal against the doctrine of infallibility, but he takes another pratfall at the end of his discourse when he quotes at length an anti-infallibility speech spuriously attributed to a bishop at the First Vatican Council (where infallibility was given its definitive doctrinal form). Boettner was much more successful at demonstrating his own lack of infallibility than in undermining Rome's rationale for the teaching authority of the pope.

Anti-Catholicism today

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights is an organization that serves as a watchdog for anti-Catholic bigotry. That sounds like a worthwhile mission. Somewhere along the way, however, the Catholic League seems to have decided that even Catholics can be anti-Catholic when they do not sufficiently adhere to the League's preferred standards of Catholicism. The Catholic League issues an endless stream of press releases quoting its president, Bill Donohue, the sort of Catholic toward whom I am happy to be anti. Donohue does not like fellow Catholic John Kerry and attacked him constantly during the presidential election. Donohue does not like gay rights, abortion, or contraception. That's all right. He's simply being faithful to Church doctrine on those issues.

Donohue does, however, have a fondness for painting as anti-Catholicism any action that goes against Church doctrine. Or his personal political preferences. Donohue's targets over the past year include Howard Dean (by saying the Republican Party is a "white Christian" party he's insulting Christians and driving them out of the Democratic Party), critics of the Church's handling of the priestly pedophilia crisis (it's not pedophilia, it's gays in the priesthood!), opponents of "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance (Donohue wants civil disobedience against any ruling barring the invocation of God during a civic exercise), NPR (for reporting concerns that Alito would be the fifth Catholic on the Supreme Court if confirmed), and Wal-Mart (its employees aren't saying "Merry Christmas"). He's not happy at living in a secular society and is an eager combatant in the phony "war on Christmas." He was especially upset that President Bush did not send out an explicitly Christian greeting card for Christmas. The issuance of a White House "Happy Holidays" card alienated Donohue from the president he has supported most assiduously in the past. On ABC World News Tonight, Donohue said, "We know him as a man of courage. So why is he caving in to the forces of political correctness?" Donohue went on to say that he would expect even a Jewish president to send out "Merry Christmas" cards. Perhaps he thinks Christmas is secularized enough that even non-Christians should be happily worshipping baby Jesus.

Speaking of Jesus, Donohue was pinned down by Miles O'Brien on CNN's American Morning, who asked him how the Christian savior would have reacted to the White House holiday card. In the transcript for the December 8, 2005, broadcast, O'Brien says, "What if Jesus got this card? What would he do? Would he be angry about it? He'd be okay with it, wouldn't he?

Donohue replies, "Well, maybe he would, but I've never met him."

Amen, brother.

1 comment:

A. Rivera said...

I found this post via the link you left on PZ Myers blog. Very interesting and thoughtful. Definitely the kind of writing that is needed now. Best, and keep on blogging.