Anti-Catholicism in the United States

Anti-Catholicism in the United States

John Highham described anti-Catholic bigotry as "the most luxuriant, tenacious tradition of paranoiac agitation in American history". [cite book | last = Jenkins | first = Philip | authorlink = Philip Jenkins | title = The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice | publisher = Oxford University Press |date= 1 April 2003 | pages = p. 23 | url =,+tenacious+tradition+of+paranoiac+agitation+in+American+history%22&sig=FsCCWxoF6gClThYcH8GY73i0zUE | id = ISBN 0-19-515480-0 ] Bigotry against the Roman Catholic Church and its followers, which was prominent in the United Kingdom from the seventeenth century onwards, was exported to the United States. Two types of anti-Catholic rhetoric existed in colonial society. The first, derived from the heritage of the Protestant Reformation and the religious wars of the sixteenth century, consisted of the "Anti-Christ" and the "Whore of Babylon" variety and dominated anti-Catholic thought until the late seventeenth century. The second was a more secular variety which focused on the supposed intrigue of the Roman Catholics intent on extending medieval despotism worldwide. [cite book | last = Mannard | first = Joseph G. | title = American Anti-Catholicism and its Literature |date=1981 | url = ]

Harvard professor and historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. characterized prejudice against the Catholics as "the deepest bias in the history of the American people" [ ["No You Don't, Mr. Pope!": A Brief History of Anti-Catholicism in America] , A Three Part Series Offered by the Saint Francis University's Catholic Studies at a Distance Program Delivered by Arthur Remillard, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies. Saint Francis University CERMUSA website, retrieved May 2007] and Yale professor Peter Viereck once commented that "Catholic baiting is the anti-Semitism of the liberals." [Herberg, Will. "Religion in a Secularized Society: Some Aspects of America's Three-Religion Pluralism", "Review of Religious Research", vol. 4 no. 1, Autumn, 1962, p. 37]


The roots of American anti-Catholicism go back to the Reformation, whose ideas about Rome and the papacy traveled to the New World with the earliest English settlers who were predominantly Protestants seeking religious freedom from the Church of England. A large part of American culture is a legacy of Great Britain, and an enormous part of its religious culture a legacy of the English Reformation. Monsignor John Tracy Ellis, in his landmark book American Catholicism, first published in 1956, wrote bluntly that a "universal anti-Catholic bias was brought to Jamestown in 1607 and vigorously cultivated in all the thirteen colonies from Massachusetts to Georgia." Proscriptions against Catholics were included in colonial charters and laws, and, as Monsignor Ellis noted wryly, nothing could bring together warring Anglican ministers and Puritan divines faster than their common hatred of the church of Rome. Such antipathy continued throughout the 18th century. Indeed, the virtual penal status of the Catholics in the colonies made even the appointment of bishops nearly unthinkable in the early years of the Republic.

John Jay in 1788 urged the New York legislature to require officeholders to renounce foreign authorities "in all matters ecclesiastical as well as civil." [ [ Religion and the Founding Fathers] ] .

Nineteenth century

Anti-Catholic animus in the United States reached a peak in the nineteenth century when the Protestant population became alarmed by the influx of Roman Catholic immigrants. The resulting "nativist" movement, which achieved prominence in the 1840s, was whipped into a frenzy of anti-Catholicism that led to a mob burning of a Catholic convent. Occasional local violence took place on election days, but there were no large scale attacks on Catholics. The Protestant fears were fed by claims that Catholics were destroying American culture and ruining civic virtue by dishonest machine politics. The nativist movement found expression in a national political movement called the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s, which (unsuccessfully) ran former president Millard Fillmore as its presidential candidate in 1856. The case of the 1921 murder of Father James Coyle in Birmingham, Alabama, although also motivated by ethnic bigotry, was the prime example of anti-Catholic violence in the US.

In 1834, lurid tales of sexual slavery and infanticide in convents prompted the burning of an Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Mass., setting off nearly two decades of violence against Catholics. The resulting anti-Catholic riots (which included the burning of churches), were largely centered in the major urban centers of the country and led to the creation of the nativist Know-Nothing Party in 1854, whose platform included a straightforward condemnation of the Catholic Church.

By 1850 Catholics had become the country’s largest single religious denomination. And between 1860 and 1890 the population of Catholics in the United States tripled through immigration; by the end of the decade it would reach seven million. This influx, largely Irish and Italian, which would eventually bring increased political power for the Catholic Church and a greater cultural presence, led at the same time to a growing fear of the Catholic "menace." The American Protective Association, for example, formed in Iowa in 1887, sponsored popular countrywide tours of supposedFact|date=May 2008 ex-priests and "escaped" nuns, who concoctedFact|date=May 2008 horrific tales of mistreatment and abuse.

As the nineteenth century wore on animosity waned, Protestant Americans realized that Roman Catholics were not trying to seize control of the governmentFact|date=May 2008. Nonetheless, fears continued into the twentieth century that there was too much "Catholic influence" on the government, and presidents who met with the pope were criticized.

Twentieth century

By the beginning of the 20th century, approximately one-sixth of the population of the United States was Catholic. Nevertheless, the powerful influence of groups like the Ku Klux Klan and other nativist organizations were typical of still-potent anti-Catholic sentiments.

During the 20th century, suspicion of the political aims and agenda of the Roman Catholic Church have been revived several times.

In 1928 the presidential candidacy of Al Smith was greeted with a fresh wave of anti-Catholic hysteria that contributed to his defeat. (It was widely rumored at the time that with the election of Mr. Smith the pope would take up residence in the White House and Protestants would find themselves stripped of their citizenship.)

In 1949, Paul Blanshard's book "American Freedom and Catholic Power" portrayed the Roman Catholic Church as an anti-democratic force hostile to freedom of speech and religion, eager to impose itself on the United States by boycott and subterfuge

As Charles R. Morris noted in his recent book American Catholic, the real mainstreaming of the church did not occur until the 1950’s and 1960’s, when educated Catholics—sons and daughters of immigrants—were finally assimilated into the larger culture. Even so, John F. Kennedy was confronted during his 1960 presidential campaign with old anti-Catholic biases. He eventually felt compelled to address explicitly concerns of his supposed "allegiance" to the Pope. Many Protestant leaders, such as Norman Vincent Peale, publicly opposed the candidacy because of Kennedy’s religion. And after the election, survey research by political scientists found that Kennedy had indeed lost votes because of his religion. Although most historians have argued that Kennedy's election eliminated anti-Catholic bias as a major factor in American life, it should be noted that, while several Catholics have been nominated for President, no Catholic has been elected President of the United States since Kennedy in 1960.

Twenty-first century

Philip Jenkins, an Episcopalian historian, in (Oxford University Press 2005 ISBN 0-19-515480-0) maintains that some people who otherwise avoid offending members of racial, religious, ethnic or gender groups have no reservations about venting their hatred of Catholics.

In "The Code of the Catholic Church", David Ranan argues that attacking the institution is not tantamount to attacking the faith. According to Ranan, criticism of the Catholic Church or even calls for the sacking of the Church hierarchy and restructuring of the Church should not be equated with anti Catholicism. [Ranan, David, "Double Cross: The Code of the Catholic Church", Theo Press, 2007. [] ]

A May 12, 2006, Gallup states that 30% of Americans have an unfavourable view of the Roman Catholic faith with 57% having a favourable view. This is a higher unfavourability rate than in 2000, but considerably better than in 2002. While Protestants and Roman Catholics themselves had a majority with a favourable view, those who are not Christian or are irreligious had a majority with an unfavourable view, but in part this represented a negative view toward all Christianity. The Roman Catholic Church's doctrines, the priest sex abuse scandal, and "idolising saints" were top issues for those who disapproved. On the other hand "greed", Roman Catholicism's view on homosexuality, and the celibate priesthood were low on the list of grievances for those who held an unfavourable view of Roman Catholicism. That stated a more recent Gallup Poll indicated only 4% of Americans have a "very negative" view of Roman Catholics.

In 2000, Les Balsiger conducted an anti-Catholic campaign in which anti-Catholic billboards were placed in a number of cities in Oregon. [ [ Oregonian runs anti-Catholic ad on Easter] , [ Spruced-up billboard marks beginning of new ‘pope-is-Antichrist’ campaign] ]

Human sexuality, contraception and abortion

Many people, including feminists and LGBT activists criticize the Catholic Church for its policies on issues relating to human sexuality, contraception and abortion.

On January 30, 2007, the John Edwards 2008 presidential campaign hired Amanda Marcotte to act as the campaign's blogmaster. [cite web |url= |title=Pandagon changes |work=Pandagon |accessdate=2007-03-01 |date=2007-01-30 |last=Marcotte |first=Amanda] The Catholic League, which is not an official organ of the Catholic Church, took offense to her obscenity- and profanity-laced invective aginst Catholic doctrine and "satiric" rants against Catholic leaders, including some of her earlier writings, where she described sexual activity of the Holy Spirit and claimed that the Church sought to "justify [its] misogyny with [...] ancient mythology" [cite web |url= |title=News Release: John Edwards Hires "Two" Anti-Catholics |accessdate=2007-03-01 |date=2007-02-06 |author=Catholic League] , and publicly demanded that the Edwards campaign terminate Marcotte's appointment. Marcotte subsequently resigned, citing "sexually violent, threatening e-mails" she had received as a result of the controversy. [cite news|date=2007-02-16 |url= |title=Why I had to quit the John Edwards campaign |accessdate=2007-07-30 |]

Some LGBT activists have had a stormy relationship with the Roman Catholic Church. In 1989 members of ACT UP and WHAM! disrupted a Sunday Mass at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral to protest the Church’s position on homosexuality, safer sex education and the use of condoms. One hundred eleven protesters were arrested outside the Cathedral, and at least one protester inside threw used condoms at a Church altar and desecrated the Eucharist during Mass. [ [ 300 Fault O'Connor Role On AIDS Commission] ]

Anti-Catholicism in the entertainment industry

According to James Martin, S.J. the U.S. entertainment industry is of "two minds" about the Catholic Church. He argues that,

On the one hand, film and television producers seem to find Catholicism irresistible. There are a number of reasons for this. First, more than any other Christian denomination, the Catholic Church is supremely visual, and therefore attractive to producers and directors concerned with the visual image. Vestments, monstrances, statues, crucifixes - to say nothing of the symbols of the sacraments - are all things that more "word oriented" Christian denominations have foregone. The Catholic Church, therefore, lends itself perfectly to the visual media of film and television. You can be sure that any movie about the Second Coming or Satan or demonic possession or, for that matter, any sort of irruption of the transcendent into everyday life, will choose the Catholic Church as its venue. (See, for example, "End of Days", "Dogma" or "Stigmata".)

Second, the Catholic Church is still seen as profoundly "other" in modern culture and is therefore an object of continuing fascination. As already noted, it is ancient in a culture that celebrates the new, professes truths in a postmodern culture that looks skeptically on any claim to truth, and speaks of mystery in a rational, post Enlightenment world. It is therefore the perfect context for scriptwriters searching for the "conflict" required in any story.

Martin argues that, despite this irresistible fascination with the Catholic Church, the entertainment industry also holds the most obvious contempt for the Catholic Church. He suggests that, "It is as if producers, directors, playwrights and filmmakers feel obliged to establish their intellectual bona fides by trumpeting their differences with the institution that holds them in such thrall."

However, Martin suggests that "it is television that has proven the most fertile ground for anti-Catholic writing. Priests, when they appear on television shows, usually appear as pedophiles or idiots, and are rarely seen to be doing their jobs." [cite web |title=The Last Acceptable Prejudice |url= ]

On a Brazilian holiday for "Our Lady of Aparecida", in an episode known as the "Kicking of the Saint", a bishop of the Pentecostal Universal Church of the Kingdom of God repeatedly beat a statue of said patron saint. [ [ 884K QuickTime Movie] ]

One group that has energetically brought the question of anti-Catholicism to the fore is the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, an organization founded in 1975 by Virgil Blum, S J. Under the leadership of William Donohue, the Catholic League has organized protests over such entertainment offerings as "Nothing Sacred", "Priest", "Dogma" and "Corpus Christi". In October 1999 they purchased a full-page advertisement in "The New York Times" denouncing "Vanity Fair" magazine for its alleged anti-Catholic slant. [cite web |title=The Last Acceptable Prejudice |url= ] [cite web |title=Defending the Church: Bill Donahue Leads Rescue Squad for Christ |url=]

In October 2006, top Catholic leaders in the state of Minnesota took a rare step in collectively calling on University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks to reconsider the university's plan to stage a controversial play that they viewed as anti-Catholic. "The Pope and the Witch", a satire depicting the pope as a paranoid, drug-addled idiot and the Vatican as corrupt, drew the ire this fall of a national Catholic group and some local bloggers. Archbishop Harry Flynn of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, along with bishops from Crookston to Winona, wrote to Bruininks calling the play offensive to the state's 1.6 million Catholics. They urged Bruininks to rethink the staging of the play in March 2007.

Dennis McGrath, spokesman for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, said that he couldn't recall a time when the state's bishops had made such a combined request. The University has indicated that it has no plans to stop the play from being performed. [ [ - HOME ] ]

Rosie O'Donnell has been accused of serial anti-Catholicism and labeled a bigot by Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. On the 24 February 2003 episode of Phil Donahue's talk show O'Donnell referred to the "pedophile scandal"* in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston resulting in $157 million awarded to 983 claimants, stating "I hope the Catholic Church gets sued until the end of time. Maybe, you know, we can melt down some of the gold toilets in the Pope’s Vatican and pay off some of the lawsuits because, the whole tenet of living a Christ-like life, has been lost in Catholicism."

On The View, Rosie O'Donnell has regularly joked about communion rituals alongside co-host Joy Behar's drunk priest comments. On 2 October 2006 she compared the Republican Party cover-up of the Mark Foley scandal to the cover-up of child sexual abuse by Catholic Church officials who actively concealed perpetrators by moving them from parish to parish, as detailed in Amy Berg's award-winning film about the abuse within the Catholic Church. O'Donnell said "the most interesting thing about Deliver Us from Evil (is) that the person who was in charge of investigating all the allegations of pedophilia in the Catholic church from the ‘80s until just recently was guess who? The current Pope. Although Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) was the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from November 1981 to April 2005, responsibility to investigate sexual abuse of minors by priests only started in 2001 and the Pope has denounced the abuse.

On April 19, 2007 the all-woman panel on The View discussed the Supreme Court of the United States ruling on "Gonzales v. Carhart" decision upholding the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. O'Donnell cited a Gloria Steinem quote, "If men could get pregnant abortion would be a sacrament" adding "How many Supreme Court judges are Catholic?" and " [H] ow about separation of church and state?" This sparked reaction from conservatives calling her statements "anti-Catholic bigotry" and suggested that such statements against other religions would not be tolerated.


Additional reading

* Anbinder; Tyler "Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s" 1992
* Bennett; David H. "The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History" University of North Carolina Press, 1988
* Billingon, Ray. "The Protestant Crusade, 1830-1860" (1938)
* Blanshard; Paul."American Freedom and Catholic Power" Beacon Press, 1949
* Thomas M. Brown, "The Image of the Beast: Anti-Papal Rhetoric in Colonial America", in Richard O. Curry and Thomas M. Brown, eds., "Conspiracy: The Fear of Subversion in American History" (1972), 1-20.
* Cogliano; Francis D. "No King, No Popery: Anti-Catholicism in Revolutionary New England" Greenwood Press, 1995
* David Brion Davis, "Some Themes of Counter-subversion: An Analysis of Anti-Masonic, Anti-Catholic and Anti-Mormon Literature", "Mississippi Valley Historical Review", 47 (1960), 205-224.
* Andrew M. Greeley, "An Ugly Little Secret: Anti-Catholicism in North America" 1977.
* Henry, David. "Senator John F. Kennedy Encounters the Religious Question: I Am Not the Catholic Candidate for President." Contemporary American Public Discourse. Ed. H. R. Ryan. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, Inc., 1992. 177-193.
* Higham; John. "Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925" 1955
* Hinckley, Ted C. "American Anti-catholicism During the Mexican War" " Pacific Historical Review" 1962 31(2): 121-137. ISSN 0030-8684
* Hostetler; Michael J. "Gov. Al Smith Confronts the Catholic Question: The Rhetorical Legacy of the 1928 Campaign" Communication Quarterly. Volume: 46. Issue: 1. 1998. Page Number: 12+.
*Philip Jenkins, "The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice" (Oxford University Press, New ed. 2004). ISBN 0-19-517604-9
* Jensen, Richard. "The Winning of the Midwest: Social and Political Conflict, 1888-1896" (1971)
* [ Jensen, Richard. "'No Irish Need Apply': A Myth of Victimization," "Journal of Social History" 36.2 (2002) 405-429] , with illustrations
* Karl Keating, "Catholicism and Fundamentalism — The Attack on "Romanism" by "Bible Christians" (Ignatius Press, 1988). ISBN 0-89870-177-5
* Kenny; Stephen. "Prejudice That Rarely Utters Its Name: A Historiographical and Historical Reflection upon North American Anti-Catholicism." "American Review of Canadian Studies." Volume: 32. Issue: 4. 2002. pp : 639+.
* McGreevy, John T. "Thinking on One's Own: Catholicism in the American Intellectual Imagination, 1928-1960." "The Journal of American History", 84 (1997): 97-131.
* Moore; Edmund A. "A Catholic Runs for President" 1956.
* Moore; Leonard J. "Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928" University of North Carolina Press, 1991
* Thiemann, Ronald F. "Religion in Public Life" Georgetown University Press, 1996.
* Wills, Garry. "Under God" 1990.
* White, Theodore H. "The Making of the President 1960" 1961.

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Roman Catholicism in the United States — has grown dramatically over the country s history, from being a tiny minority faith during the time of the Thirteen Colonies to being the country s largest profession of faith today. With 76.9 million residents professing the faith in 2003, the… …   Wikipedia

  • The Bohemians of the United States —     The Bohemians of the United States     † Catholic Encyclopedia ► The Bohemians of the United States     A traveler who has seen the natural beauties of Bohemia, its vast resources, and the thrift of its people, will, no doubt, be surprised at …   Catholic encyclopedia

  • The United States of America —     The United States of America     † Catholic Encyclopedia ► The United States of America     BOUNDARIES AND AREA     On the east the boundary is formed by the St. Croix River and an arbitrary line to the St. John, and on the north by the… …   Catholic encyclopedia

  • Anti-French sentiment in the United States — is the manifestation of Francophobia by Americans. It signifies a consistent hostility towards the government, culture, and people of France that employs stereotypes.Understanding anti French sentimentsAs with any foreign country phobia ,… …   Wikipedia

  • Periodical Literature in the United States —     Periodical Literature The United States     † Catholic Encyclopedia ► Periodical Literature (The United States)     According to The Official Catholic Directory for 1911, there are 321 Catholic periodicals published in the United States. Of… …   Catholic encyclopedia

  • Reformed Church in the United States — Infobox Christian denomination name = Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS) caption = main classification = Protestant orientation = Orthodox Reformed founded date = 1725 founded place = United States separated from = Founded by German… …   Wikipedia

  • History of religion in the United States — The religious history of the United States begins more than a century before the former British colonies became the United States of America in 1776.Some of the original settlers were men and women of deep religious convictions. The religious… …   Wikipedia

  • Poles in the United States — • Covers the causes and history of the Polish immigration Catholic Encyclopedia. Kevin Knight. 2006. Poles in the United States     Poles in the United States      …   Catholic encyclopedia

  • Germans in the United States — • Includes all German speaking people, whether originally from Germany proper, Austria, Switzerland, or Luxemburg Catholic Encyclopedia. Kevin Knight. 2006. Germans in the United States     Germans in the United States …   Catholic encyclopedia

  • Lithuanians in the United States — • Includes information about immigration, religion, schools, and periodicals Catholic Encyclopedia. Kevin Knight. 2006. Lithuanians in the United States     Lithuanians in the United States …   Catholic encyclopedia

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”