Monday, February 25, 2013

Book Review.

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Anti-Catholicism in America: The Last Acceptable Prejudice
Anti-Catholicism in America: The Last Acceptable Prejudice
by Mark Stephen Massa
Edition: Paperback
Price: $17.76
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5.0 out of 5 stars Anti-Catholic Prejudice - Ancient and NewFebruary 24, 2013
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Mark S. Massa's "Anti-Catholicism in America: The Last Acceptable Prejudice" provides a broad survey and insightful analysis of a deep and virulent strain of bigotry in America that was imported from Europe, was present at America's founding and popped up throughout American history,, and has managed to make into the internet era. Anyone who believes that anti-Catholicism is a historical relic need only visit any number of websites occupied by atheists or what one would hope are fringe Protestants. What one finds there is a fairly continuous theme of ululating hatred for Catholicism and the Catholic Church. Father Massa - writing in 2003 - notes the breadth and depth of anti-Catholic hatred in the waning years of the 20th Century and beginning of the 21st, from anti-Catholic plays to anti-Catholic editorials in mainstream papers to the casual implication that Catholic Supreme Court nominees are suspect as having a potentially unhealthy "allegiance" to the Pope to over-the-top accusations by Planned Parenthood that the Catholic Church is at "war with women" (p. 42 - 45), and concludes that somehow Catholicism doesn't "fit in" to American society. Massa writes:

"The very randomness of these examples of what have termed Catholic-bashing - spanning the cultural spectrum from up-scale magazines of cultural comment and mass-market newspapers on the east coast to street theater in the Bay Area on the west coast - form a disturbing web of evidence. Some Catholic observers have argued that it is as though Catholic iconography, leadership, and sensibilities are somehow perceived by large sections of U.S. culture as fair game for attack, in ways that the beliefs and practices of other groups are not. Other Catholic commentators argue that this prejudice has been created by the problematic positions of the church itself on a number of social, sexual and political issues. But what both groups would agree on is that Catholicism somehow doesn't fit into North American cultural values and presuppositions.

But why?" (p. 45.)

Father Massa provides a fascinating account of the history of American anti-Catholicism. I knew about the Know - Nothings and Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s, but I had never heard of the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, which in 1854 was a potent political power, or the American Protective Association, which in the 1890s organized boycotts of Catholic businesses, organized anti-Catholic riots and claimed a half-million supporters. (p. 30.) Likewise, the revived Klan in the 1920s had created a three-million member strong invisible empire through slick sales techniques and had as one of its principle aims the extermination of Catholicism.

Father Massa's book came out too soon to include the San Francisco Board of Supervisors' Resolution that characterized the Catholic Church as both a foreign power and inimical to the values of San Francisco in refusing to accede to a legal demand to place adopted children in the households of homosexual couples. This example fits wonderfully into the historical survey whereby Catholicism is distrusted as a foreign power and suspected for its communitarian values.

After the initial history, Massa looks at various thematic issues in recent history, including Jack Chick's anti-Catholic comic book empire, which reaches more people than any church or theologian; and Jimmy Swaggert, who until his own implosion was the most popular Evangelical preacher of his age and virulently and explicitly anti-Catholic; and Norman Vincent Peale's effort to gin up anti-Catholic hatred in order to derail John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign; and an extensive academic program that assumed deficiencies in Catholic educational culture were caused by Catholicism without bothering to check out other possible explanations; and Paul Blanshard, whose 1949 book was endorsed by John Dewey and influentially made the argument that Catholics could never be good Americans.

These vignettes are well-told. Father Massa is an excellent writer with a gift for understatement and light humor. The factual stories he recounts are fascinating and read like mini-biographies of small players in history, such as, the enigmatic Jack Chick, John Courtney Murray, Paul Blanshard, Normal Vincent Peale, or Jimmy Swaggert, the musical preacher who started his career by touting his relationship to his cousins Jerry Lee Lewis and Mickey Gilley.

What ties the history and thematic elements together is the theory that Father Massa offers based on the views of a theologian named David Tracy. Tracy's theory is that even prior to doctrine and creed, a believer is raised up in a fundamental way of conceiving reality. For the Catholic that way of conceiving religion is "analogical." God is not a distant "other" who views the world as hateful sinners. Rather, for the Catholic, the world bears an analogical relationship with God. God is part of the world and particularly present in the sacraments. This worldview translates into sociology, with Catholicism tending to be more communal, defining individuals within society. An alternative worldview is "dialectical." Under this approach, God is a distant other who views the world as hateful and deserving of condemnation. Only those few individuals who individually form a personal relationship with Christ can hope to find salvation. This dialectical approach has sociological implications in loosening the sense of community and elevating the role of the individual in isolation as the basic constituent of society. [Incidentally, although he does not use the same terminology, Michael Allen Gillespie in The Theological Origins of Modernity covers much of the same territory.]

Protestantism is dialectical. America is a Protestant country, both in its origin and presently. Consequently, the cultural norms are dialectical, which means that there is a fundamental disconnect with people whose culturally "knitting" is analogical.

Father Massa ably points out the "dialectical imagination" in the context of Jimmy Swaggert and Jack Chick. Both seem to demonstrate a cultural context where religion is spirituality reduced literally to "me and Jesus," without any community, except to the limited extent that a preacher may preach the Word on television or the reader may find a 24 block comic book.

Father Massa is also very good on the minor abuse scandal that has been the recurrent subject of constant media coverage. Father Massa analyzes this issue as an example of a dysfunctional kind of analogical thinking. The scandal is an example of "mysterium iniquitatis" - the mystery of evil. The pedophiles were filthy and vile, but the bishops who re-assigned them were often very decent men and, often, on the "right side" of social issues, such as immigration and other issues. So, the mystery of evil is, "what could they have been thinking?" Father Massa cuts the bishops no slack - the bishops can be forgiven, but they cannot be excused. (p. 189.) But understanding is the first step to a reformation. Massa believes that what may have misfired was a misapplication of the analogical way of thinking whereby the Church, which to Catholics is the Body of Christ, was confused literally with the Body of Christ in the here and now. An answer, therefore, may be to become more dialectical and to realize that loyalty to the Church is not loyalty to Christ or the Gospel.

Father Massa concludes with an examination of whether modern anti-Catholicism is entirely new or a revival of the old anti-Catholicism. His conclusion is "yes and no." Anti-Catholicism is hardly the last prejudice. But anti-Catholicism does exist in modern America, and modern anti-Catholicism retains its Reformed Protestant roots with a dialectical critique of Catholicism. What is new is the coopting of these dialectical tropes by secular and anti-religious critics of Catholicism, which brings us back to the internet atheists I began this review with. Massa concludes with this sad, hopeful and realistic appraisal:

"Catholic citizens of the United States were and are, outsiders, "others" in a culture shaped and still powerfully influenced by Protestant language and presuppositions. This is neither a bad thing in itself, nor a retreat to victimization language. Religious outsiders have a revered place in North American religion, beginning with the New England Puritans themselves, then with their outsider saints like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, right down to Ralph Waldo Emerson. It is disingenuous for Catholics to feign surprise, anger, or grief to learn that they are not in the mainstream of their culture, or that they are perceived as such by a number of their fellow citizens who shape cultural tastes. Such has always been the (blessed) lot of the saints in every age. As St. Paul was at pains t remind them, "We have here no lasting city, but seek the one that is above." This in no way lessens the urgency of Jesus' command to be both wise and blameless in our age; but perhaps it offers some peace to those who are aware that Catholicism doesn't completely fit into the lively experiment that is the United States, and probably never will.

That's the good news." (p. 198.)

With the issues defined that way, we may hope he is right.

We don't seem to have much choice in the matter.


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Gail Finke said...

What a thorough review! i'll have to get this book. I first read about David Tracey, believe it or not, in Fr. Andrew Greeley's books. They were easy to get when I first came back to the church and I learned a lot. Several of them are very good. He wrote a whole book, I believe, on "the analogical imagination" and wrote about David Tracey often. I tried to read one of Tracey's books but it was academic-speech.

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