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 Today's Take:  NCR's daily Web column
Each weekday over the course of a week, a member of the NCR staff offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news.  It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.

May 13, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 27




Joe Feuerherd History Lessons

By Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent

Here we go again. This time, in a pastoral letter, the bishop criticizes "[self]-styled Catholics" who "quarrel with such doctrines as do not exactly suit their taste and prejudices." The target of Bishop Antoine Blanc's criticism? Louisiana Catholics considered "dangerously lax in their religious practices."

The year? 1856.

So much for the modern conceit that "cafeteria Catholicism" is a new phenomenon, one that emerged as a result of the "excesses" of Vatican II.

Blanc goes onto confide to his colleague, New York Bishop John Hughes, that he battled "more with Catholic infidels than with Protestant." (A sentiment Hughes' successor, New York Cardinal Edward Egan, might share.)

Blanc's tirade against pick-and-choose Catholics is brought to us by John McGreevy, chairman of the University of Notre Dame's history department and author of the just published "Catholicism and American Freedom: A History" (Norton, 2003). McGreevy's 295 pages of narrative (and 113 pages of notes) provide an entertaining journey across two-plus centuries of U.S. Catholicism and its interaction with the evolving American republican experience.

Some snippets:

  • Though its immigrant members voted overwhelmingly Democratic, the American church's political schizophrenia is nothing new. Early in the 20th century, for example, the "mistrust of individualism in all spheres led to Catholics' favoring the minimum wage and barriers to divorce, economic planning and film censorship."
  • Catholic opposition to the abolition of slavery -- a "misguided radicalism" which threatened the social order -- went hand-in-hand with the anti-Catholicism of many abolitionists, many of whom equated the South's "peculiar institution" with "popery."
  • New York Governor Al Smith's initial reaction to charges that, as a Catholic, he would not respect the religious liberty of non-Catholics: "I never heard of these bulls and encyclicals and books." A New York priest would later ghostwrite a more considered response for Smith for publication in the Atlantic Monthly.
  • Anti-Catholicism is as American as apple pie. "The real conflict is not between a Church and State or between Catholicism and Americanism," The New Republic opined in 1927, "but between a culture which is based on absolutism and encourages obedience, uniformity and intellectual subservience, and a culture which encourages curiosity, hypotheses, experimentation, verification by facts and a consciousness of the processes of individual and social life…"

McGreevy highlights the battles over Catholic schools (designed to educate the faithful) vs. public education (designed to nurture republican citizens), the church's skepticism of capitalism (and its support for labor unions), and decades' worth of disputes over the availability of contraception to non-Catholics and Catholics alike.

He concludes with an overview of the recent clerical sexual abuse scandals, in which "some bishops … seemed endlessly sympathetic to fellow priests, even those guilty of sexual abuse, and blind to the suffering of Catholic young people."

It's a good read.

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