Anti-Catholicism may still be around today, but such bias has not been a strong factor in shaping public attitudes and media coverage on the sexual abuse crisis in the church.
That was about the only agreement that RW could glean from most of the speakers at a late May conference at New York’s Fordham University. Early on, participants at the conference, sponsored by Fordham and Commonweal magazine, made the distinction between religious and cultural anti-Catholicism. Religious anti-Catholicism may have been strong half a century ago but no longer. Sociologist Alan Wolfe of Boston College noted, for instance, that the response of evangelicals to the sex abuse crisis was generally sympathetic with little Catholic-bashing.
Historian John McGreevy of Notre Dame University said that the current phenomenon of cultural anti-Catholicism has its roots in the anti-hierarchical and individualist tendencies of U.S. society. Sociologist-priest Andrew Greeley presented some new research indicating that anti-Catholic attitudes will be difficult to eradicate. Greeley conducted what he called a “pre-test” survey of 550 respondents shortly before the conference and found that preconceptions about Catholics “differ very little from those of the 19th century.”
More than half of the respondents believe Catholics worship idols (in their veneration of Mary and the saints). Greeley added that after years of educational and ecumenical efforts, non-Catholics still don’t understand the “analogical” imagination” of Catholicism, which sees God lurking in everyday reality Most surprising to Greeley was the finding that 52 percent agree that Catholics are “not permitted to think for themselves.” He concluded that anti-Catholicism may well be an intractable part of American life.
Several of the speakers singled out specific institutions as bastions of anti-Catholicism. For Greeley and others it is the New York Times. Kenneth Woodward, religion writer at Newsweek cited the New Republic and Vanity Fair magazines, as well as the New York Times’ “excessive [and] gleeful” coverage of the sex abuse scandal in the church in comparison to that of other newspapers. Woodward added that, for better or worse, the media will pay more attention to Catholicism than other religions.
Out of 750 articles Newsweek has published on religion, only four percent covered mainline Protestantism, with the overwhelming majority reporting onCatholic news and trends. William Donahue, of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, is usually a sharp critic of the entertainment and news media’s anti-Catholicism. But he joined most of the others in applauding the media for their uncovering of the clergy sex abuse scandals. “The hard news coverage has been pretty good. It was put into context and was sympathetic,” Donohue said.
Mark Silk of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life said that a lot of the anti-Catholicism in society is perpetrated by Catholics themselves. Silk, a non-Catholic, cited the recent controversies over supposed anti-Catholic art as often pitting offending Catholic artists against offended Catholic protesters. He also challenged some of Greeley’s conclusions, noting that the Eastern Orthodox share a similar “analogical imagination” with Catholics yet hold some of the most virulent anti-Catholic attitudes today.
Silk said that such media as the New York Times tend not to go after big institutions that have the allegiance of many people who might be offended by such coverage. Much of the feeding frenzy among the media over the sexual abuse scandals was the result of newspapers “covering their own backyard” from out-of-towners trying to scoop them on the story.
Another dissenter from the anti-Catholic theme of the conference was Alan Wolfe (also a non-Catholic), who concluded that anti-Catholicism is likely to decrease because of the tolerance coming from the high rate of religious switching and intermarriage in the U.S. Add to that a general ignorance of religion and a concern to be non-judgmental among many Americans and it is likely that anti-Catholicism will continue to wane in the future, Wolfe added.