Granted, committed Catholics are uncomfortable with much of the drift in contemporary American culture. We're uncomfortable with the rampant consumerism of American society. We're nervous with the current climate in scientific research, the if-it's-doable-let's-do-it mentality that is fueling the stem-cell research derby and the push to create new life forms. We're worried, too, about the effects of the country's highly sexualized media culture on our kids. But so, too, are our Protestant and Jewish neighbors.
But why is anti-Catholicism so evident in America today? What explains the government's recent slap in the face to our Church, telling leaders of Catholic hospitals, colleges and foundations that they must provide contraceptive services to all employees as part of their health plans? Are the politicians who made this ruling convinced that Catholics are held in so little regard that there will be little blow-back from us and possibly quiet satisfaction among non-Catholics?
America is an open society that celebrates diversity and multiculturalism. We have made a veritable state religion of tolerance. Why is it, then, that so many non-Catholics have so little tolerance for us? What is it about Catholics that gets under their skin so?
Fifty years ago, our neighbors had high regard for us. High enough to put aside their prejudices and vote a Catholic into the White House. We pay our taxes. We take up arms for the country. We vote, but aren't particularly politically active and don't vote as a block as so many groups do. We support public education even though many send their children to parochial schools. We don't "buy Catholic," saving our consumer dollars just for co-religionists. So what is it about Catholicism that sticks in their craw?
The late Arthur Schlesinger, Harvard professor and advisor to President Kennedy, wrote that prejudice against Catholics was "the deepest bias in the history of the American people." While not normally loud and strident in the halls of academe, nevertheless there is a persistent undertone of anti-Catholicism in many of our universities. Even in Catholic colleges, the Church and Catholic doctrine and practices are targets for snide ridicule. Perhaps poet Peter Viereck was correct when he wrote that Catholic baiting was "the anti-Semitism of the liberals."
Americans are supposed to be champions of fairness, so why don't our fellow citizen and commentators protest the use of airways to lie about and mock our Church and its leaders? Not long before his election to the U.S. Congress, now-Senator Al Franken could publicly ridicule the Body and Blood of Jesus, and joke about the discovery of "the complete skeleton of Jesus Christ still nailed to the cross." And the voters of Minnesota sent him to the U.S. Senate. On HBO, Bill Maher openly and regularly lies about us, such as his recent claim, "When the current pope was in his previous Vatican job as John Paul's Dick Cheney, he wrote a letter instructing every Catholic bishop to keep the sex abuser of minors secret until the statue of limitations ran out."
The fever-swamp of bigotry towards the Church seems endless. Widely revered playwright, Tony Kushner wrote in The Nation that Pope John Paul was a "homicidal liar" who "endorses murder," and Catholic bishops are "mitred, chasubled and coped Pilates."
Even the family shows, such as the Simpsons, seem to see the Catholic Church as a great big target for derision. On a recent show Bart complains, "I'm starving, Mom. Can we go Catholic so we can get Communion wafers and booze?" Marge, the mom, answers, "No, no one is going Catholic. Three children is enough, thank you." Is this humor or slur? Or have we lost the distinction?
It's easy to be outraged by these insults against our priests and religious women and these attacks on our most sacred truths. It is harder to figure out why we provoke such hostility.
Perhaps, it is a good new-bad news story. The good news may be that we are standing up for the right things. The Church dares to stand athwart history and bare witness against the secularist agenda that is trying to replace God and religion with the muscular state and valueless science. We protect the unborn and the old and "useless" from those who want to terminate them. We are an affront to Progressives who want to free mankind from "the cold grip of religion." Our opposition should be our red badge of courage.
The bad news is that, unlike the early Christians who turned the pagan world to Christ, we modern Catholics are apparently falling down in our witness. Instead of having the then-pagan world inspired by "how these Christians love one another," our fellow citizens just find us annoying and odd with our rituals and fussy rules.
Whatever the reason, the price of being a committed Catholic in contemporary America is going up.
Kevin and Marilyn Ryan, editors of "Why I'm Still a Catholic," worship at St. Lawrence Church in Brookline.