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Playing the anti-Catholic card: historical perspectives on the power of "anti-Catholicism.".

"IF YOU WOULD SAVE THE INSTITUTIONS OF YOUR country from the sacrilegious hands of Jesuit priests ... you must retain the power of sometimes taking your deadly enemy by surprise."

--J. WAYNE LAURENS, The Crisis: or, The Enemies of America Unmasked, 1855

IN RECENT YEARS, AS CONTROVERSIES surrounding the church have garnered sustained and widespread media attention, both Catholics and non-Catholics have entered into public discussion about the behavior of some members of the Catholic clergy and about church policies governing inappropriate, even criminal, behavior by priests. In reaction to the harshest critiques, some church officials, as well as some among the laity, have dusted off the old label "anti-Catholic" to use as the ultimate weapon in defending the church.

Although forms of anti-Catholicism can be found throughout early American history, the first serious wave crested in the mid-1800s as immigration from Ireland swelled the ranks of the American Catholic church. Playing to the latent prejudices of many native-born Protestants, organized reactionary groups like the American Protestant Society and the Native American Party used propaganda, political and economic clout, and street gangs to drive Catholics away from the polls, job opportunities and fair access to public education.

The church aptly labeled the opposition movement "anti-Catholic." The movement embraced the label as proof that the Catholic "enemy" understood a battle-line had been drawn.

A brief survey of the events of the 19th century reveals the nature and tragic consequences of authentic anti-Catholicism. In turn, an understanding of the characteristics of authentic anti-Catholicism reveals the danger of using the label "anti-Catholic" within the context of current controversies involving the church.


In response to the publication of Samuel F. B. Morse's Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States and the titillating Awful Disclosures of self-proclaimed "escaped nun" Maria Monk in the 1830s, some American Protestants began to organize to protect America from what they believed was an orchestrated conspiracy hatched in the Vatican. Anti-Catholics argued that newly-naturalized Catholics, following the orders of Jesuit priests, would form a voting bloc to establish an authoritarian papal state in America.

With little first-hand knowledge of Catholicism, many Protestants were easy recruits for the anti-Catholic movement. Movement leaders levied sweeping and outrageous charges against the church. Catholicism was decried as paganism. Priests and nuns were said to be sexually depraved and violent, engaging in everything from ritualized rape and murder to cannibalism in service of the sacrilegious doctrines of the church. The Catholic laity was portrayed as a blindly obedient horde indoctrinated by theology to bow to the commands of prelates in all matters.

As fear escalated, violence erupted. Waving a Monk-styled expose in one hand and a torch in the other, the Rev. Lyman Beecher rallied a revival into the mob that set fire to a convent and orphanage in Charlestown, Massachusetts. Another mob razed New York's St. Mark's Cathedral. Three days of rioting left most of Philadelphia's predominantly Catholic Kensington District in ashes and 13 people dead. Anti-Catholic street gangs--such as the "Wide Awakes"--lynched and looted in Eastern cities, while notorious street-fighters like Bill the Butcher and Hell-Cat Maggie brutally assaulted Catholics who tried to vote in Baltimore.

Yet for all the blood staining the streets, the most serious threat posed by anti-Catholicism lurked underground. Frustrated by the Native American Party's "weakness" (after all, they had only managed to make anti-Catholic propaganda mandatory reading in New York City's public schools) the most ardent anti-Catholics coalesced to form the covert Supreme Order of the Star-Spangled Banner (SSSB). Vowing upon initiation to use any and all means necessary to strip Catholics of the right to vote, more than 1 million SSSB members also swore to respond "I know nothing" if queried about the group's existence. The "Know Nothings" coordinated successful write-in campaigns for unannounced anti-Catholic candidates. In 1854, the SSSB gained almost complete control of the Massachusetts state government, and a significant swing vote in the US Congress. While campaigning in 1855 for a return to the White House, former President Millard Fillmore allied himself with a local SSSB klavern. Were it not for North-South tensions finally ripping the SSSB and its public puppet, the American Party, in half in 1856, the United States may have realized the dire prediction made by Abraham Lincoln only one year earlier: "When the Know Nothings get control, it will read `all men are created equal, except negroes, foreigners, and Catholics.'" (1)


The 19th century movement clearly displays two hallmarks of authentic anti-Catholicism. First, and most basically, true anti-Catholicism aims its attack at the Catholic faith per se, declaring the teachings of the church to be flawed and ultimately dangerous--spiritually, morally and politically. Nineteenth-century anti-Catholics argued that fundamental tenets of Catholic theology motivated the brutality of priests as well as the antidemocratic Vatican cabal they claimed had begun to infiltrate the American political system. Anti-Catholicism of this sort holds the faith culpable for all behaviors of the faithful: it views individual actions as symptomatic of a diseased belief system.

Second, because it challenges both the orthodoxy and the morality of Catholic beliefs, authentic anti-Catholicism necessarily resides outside the Catholic community. One simply cannot be an "anti-Catholic Catholic" because the belief structures are mutually exclusive. Authentic anti-Catholicism is external to the church, an attack from outside into the heart of the faith.

Very little authentic anti-Catholicism exists in America in 2003. Except for a handful of the most extreme white supremacy groups that still cling to full-fledged anti-Catholicism as part of their schemata of hatred, true anti-Catholicism of the type witnessed in the 19th century is dead in America. What, then, are the implications of attaching the label "anti-Catholic" to people who, in fact, are not authentically anti-Catholic?


On a superficial level, much current discourse bears a striking resemblance to the Catholic/anti-Catholic conflicts of more than 150 years ago. Once again, scandalous reports of licentious behavior by priests are topping headlines. Once again, the organizational behemoth that is the hierarchy appears, at least to outsiders, to be closing in around itself in a defensive posture. And, once again, the hierarchy is labeling some of the loudest naysayers "anti-Catholic."

However, upon closer examination, the differences between past and present crack the veneer of convenient historical comparison. Today, many priests accused of abuse have been prosecuted in the courts; whereas in the 1800s the most serious accusations leveled at the clergy later were revealed to be hoaxes concocted by anti-Catholic propagandists. Today, critics worry that secrecy within the hierarchy impedes justice and fails to protect would-be victims from abuse. One hundred and fifty years ago, secrecy within the hierarchy was identified as the critical mechanism enabling a conspiracy to destabilize the American government.

Yet, for all those differences in substance, the most significant differences between the two eras are, in reality, matters of process. Across the board, those labeled "anti-Catholic" today fail to meet one or both of the two fundamental criteria which define authentic anti-Catholicism. Overwhelmingly, today's controversy pits Catholic against Catholic. Unlike the 19th century when all Catholics found themselves under attack from organized Protestant-Nativists, today the hierarchy finds itself under scrutiny primarily from within its own flock. Catholics are calling for investigations of particular priests and reform of specific policies. The crux of the dispute is internal.

When applied by Catholics to Catholics, the label "anti-Catholicism" has the power to silence discussion and to nullify even legitimate calls for reform. Wielded within the community of faith, "anti-Catholicism" charges not bigotry, but heresy. As such, internal allegations of "anti-Catholicism" are necessarily, yet artificially, divisive in their effect: they ostracize individual Catholics. Unchecked, this tactic could even threaten the continued viability of a single, united Catholic church in America.

Of course, Catholics have not been alone in questioning the church's handling of recent events. Non-Catholics of all stripes have publicly expressed serious concerns, especially about church policies that may cloak criminal actions by priests. By definition, these critics are external to the church. However, do their attacks meet the second criteria for authentic anti-Catholicism? Do these critics contend that Catholic teachings drive priests to abuse children and compel the hierarchy to shroud such abase behind cloistered walls? No, except perhaps in very rare instances.

Whether Catholic or not, those now speaking out clearly are indicting the actions of particular individuals and the implications of particular policies. The faith of Catholics is not being blamed; it is not even being discussed.

To sling the label "anti-Catholic" at those who question the managerial policies of the church is to retreat into fallacious reasoning. The label alone functions as ad hominem, an attack on the critic rather than a productive response to the criticism. At best, such allegations distract both sides from meaningful discussion of the issues at hand.

But attaching the label "anti-Catholic" to a non-Catholic can have more profound consequences than simply stalling or stymieing debate. The label stigmatizes by accusing the non-Catholic of religious bigotry. While some in the mid-1800s hailed that trait as a sign of patriotism, today most Americans view religious bigotry itself as un-American. For non-Catholics, charges of "anti-Catholicism" carry heavy consequences, not the least of which is the nearly complete destruction of their credibility. Thus, the credibility of their arguments in favor of reforming church policies to protect both children and the church's integrity in the future is also destroyed. "Anti-Catholicism" may not compel non-Catholics to silence themselves for fear of angering the hierarchy, but the label certainly makes it difficult for their voices to be heard.

When the American Catholic hierarchy labeled groups like the SSSB "anti-Catholic" in the 1800s, it correctly warned of the presence of a real and immediate threat, not only to the safety of Catholics, but to the very concept of freedom of religion as an American value. However, when applied carelessly in the absence of authentic anti-Catholicism, the label carries ominous subtexts for its targets. It proclaims Catholic critics of the church "heretics" and non-Catholic critics "bigots." The label warns its victims that a battle-line has been drawn, that the "enemy" of the church has been unmasked.


(1) Private correspondence to JF Speed, 1855.

DR. JODY M. ROY is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication at Ripon College and the founder and Executive Director of Students Talking About Respect, Inc., a not-for-profit youth violence prevention program. Dr. Roy has authored a variety of works on the topic of intolerance in American society, including Rhetorical Campaigns of the Nineteenth-Century: Anti-Catholics and Catholics in America (Edwin Mellen Press, 1999) and Love to Hate: America's Obsession with Hatred and violence (Columbia University Press, 2002).
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Author:Roy, Jody M.
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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