Is anti-Catholicism again becoming mainstream in America? Catholic ridicule is fair game these days for comedians and artists, for Broadway shows and talk radio. Once relegated in the media world to the kooky fringe of Xeroxed screeds about the whore of Babylon, in recent years anti-Catholicism has become a regular visitor in the hateful nastiness of online trolls. Over the past summer, ahead of Pope Francis’ visit to the United States this week, discriminatory, anti-Catholic bigotry has crept from online comment sections to rear its ugliness prominently in cable TV commentary and newspaper op-eds.
Last week Washington Post columnist, George Will, attacked Pope Francis for the pontiff’s moral teaching regarding care for creation. I disagree with Will’s boosterism for technology, synthetic fertilizers and fabrics, pesticides, consumerism, and “industrialization powered by fossil fuels.” But I will not take issue here with his claims about the purported miracles of our global economic system and its industries.
It’s Will’s treatment of things Catholic that is more concerning. What is profoundly appalling is the vitriolic temper of Will’s remarks about the pope. His tone and language are shocking, coming as they do not from a scurrilous, fly-by-night website but from the op-ed page of one of America’s most respected newspapers. All Catholics should be disturbed. Most shameful is the columnist’s ad hominem, sarcastic, and demeaning ridicule of His Holiness, Pope Francis.
The moral teachings that His Holiness reaffirmed in this summer’s encyclical, Laudato Si’—teachings preached as well by Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II—have been at the heart of Catholic analysis of our responsibilities in modern life since Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891. Crudely, Will smears these traditional teachings as “Francis’s fact-free flamboyance.” Lampooning Pope Francis for “trailing clouds of sanctimony,” Will dismisses papal teachings as “demonstrably false and deeply reactionary” and as “woolly sentiments that have the intellectual tone of fortune cookies.” He parades around with the hoary banner of Galileo and against Catholic “medieval stasis.” He demands that “Americans cannot simultaneously honor” Pope Francis “and celebrate their nation’s premises.”
The historian Arthur Schlesinger once called anti-Catholicism “the deepest bias in the history of the American people.” I’ve never actually agreed with that argument. Racism, anti-Semitism, and a peculiar American misogyny are equally deep and certainly more virulent. But, on the left and on the right, anti-Catholicism has always had a kind of pass in otherwise polite corners of American public life where other overt discriminatory language is disparaged.
You are certainly free to disagree with Pope Francis, Mr. Will. You are certainly free to disagree with Catholic teachings and to contest them in any forum. But surely you would agree that the American public square should long ago have forsworn the ridicule of others’ religious teachings and the person of their religious leaders.