June 19, 2018

Anti-Catholic prejudice: a warning and challenge to all

By Bishop Arthur Serratelli *
Crucifix at Mount Lusen in Bavaria Germany/ Credit Christoph Schmid on Unsplash
Crucifix at Mount Lusen in Bavaria Germany/ Credit Christoph Schmid on Unsplash

Alfred E. Smith, a devout Catholic, was elected four times as governor of New York. However, the announcement of his candidacy for president immediately unleashed a storm of anti-Catholicism in 1928. A Protestant minister in Oklahoma City warned his large congregation, “If you vote for Al Smith, you’re voting against Christ and you’ll all be damned.” The Daytona Beach, Florida school board predicted that, if Smith were elected, students would not be allowed to have or read a Bible. Around the country, pamphlets appeared attacking the Catholic Smith. More than 100 anti-Catholic newspapers poisoned the well with their propaganda against Smith for his religion. The anti-Catholic hate was so strong that, within just eight weeks, Smith’s campaign for the presidency ended.

Some people today look back on the 1960 election of John F. Kennedy as the end of such anti-Catholicism. But, the facts seem to contradict such an optimistic view. Kennedy understood the opposition that he faced because of his religion. When he spoke in Morgantown, West Virginia, a state that at that time was 95 percent Protestant, he addressed the issue head on. He said, “Nobody asked me if I was a Catholic when I joined the United States Navy… and nobody asked my brother if he was a Catholic or Protestant before he climbed into an American bomber plane to fly his last mission.” His bold words stunned the crowd when he asked if 40 million Americans lose their right to run for presidency on the day they are baptized Catholics.

On Sept.12, 1960, Kennedy addressed the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. Standing before 300 Protestant ministers and 300 spectators, he announced that the real issues in the presidential campaign were being sidelined by the anti- Catholic polemic. He provided his opponents with his political credo by announcing, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute – where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be a Catholic) how to act and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote. . . .” Kennedy lost votes because he was Catholic. He won the election in spite of his Catholicism. To think that his election ended anti-Catholic prejudice in America is not accurate.

Rudy Giuliani campaigned as a candidate in the 2008 presidential campaign. During a town-hall meeting in Iowa, he was questioned on his Catholic faith. Someone asked him if he was a practicing Catholic. Another person asked him how his Catholic faith would influence his political decisions. Giuliani responded by saying, “My religious affiliation, my religious practices and the degree to which I am a good or not so good Catholic, I prefer to leave to the priests.” When Giuliani said, “I don't think there should be a religious test for public office,” the man questioning him was not satisfied. Clearly, the Catholic faith is, in the mind of some, an impediment to public office.

In 2017, in the hearings of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, the ugly specter of anti-Catholicism appeared again. In examining Notre Dame law professor, Amy Coney Barrett for the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, senators brought into question her Catholic faith. They again and again demanded assurances that her faith would not influence her legal decisions. California Senator Diane Feinstein was quite concerned that Barrett would allow her pro-life beliefs make her act against abortion. Like an oracle from on high, Feinstein pronounced against Barret the damning judgment, “The dogma lives loudly within you and that’s of concern when you come to big issues…” Barrett was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee. But, not with a single Democratic Senator voting for her. Not without an underlying anti-Catholic prejudice coming into play.

Richard John Neuhaus once observed that it is not simply being Catholic that is the problem for someone running for public office. Rather, it is being a Catholic who holds to the truths as taught by the Church. Neuhaus said, “Indeed, one of the most acceptable things is to be a bad Catholic, and in the view of many people, the only good Catholic is a bad Catholic.” As Catholics, we should lament any time the vast wisdom of our faith and tradition is summarily dismissed from the national debate or when we ourselves are marginalized. 

The anti-Catholic prejudice that surfaces in our process of selecting people for public office should be a warning and a challenge to all. People of every faith need to question where to draw the line on what qualifies or disqualifies a person from public office. Have we come to a point in our country where certain issues no longer admit discussion or diversity of opinion? Are we moving toward a situation where moral values will be dictated by the state and religion will be seen as an enemy? Would we want to disqualify from public office individuals with principles that prod us to re-examine some of our decisions just because we disagree with them? The end result will be a very bad form of government.
 

Bishop Serratelli is the bishop of Paterson, New Jersey.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.