[#] Culture Wars and Anti-Catholicism

This text was originally posted in the Catholic Answers discussion forums (May 31,2004), and I found it cached on Google. Thank heavens for the Google cache!

This topic has a particular interest for me because I have myself been branded, at various times over the last 5 years, an “anti-catholic”. I have been told that the term originates in a work entitled Culture Wars by James Davison Hunter, and that Hunter’s work outlines a particular brand of hatred on the part of Protestants against Catholics which is unsubstantiated and irrational.

Culture Wars outlines the roots of anti-catholicism thus:
Understanding the American experience even as late as the nineteenth century requires an understanding of the critical role played by anti-Catholicism in shaping the character of politics, public education, the media, and social reform. (Hunter, 35)
Well, that’s pretty bad on the face of it, no? Anti-Catholicism shaped many of the major social structures of America all the way up through the nineteenth century – it must be a terrible thing! And let’s make an admission here: what Hunter is talking about here was a terrible thing. But how did it come into being, and in what environment did it exist?

Prof. Hunter is obliging enough to tell us in the very next paragraph:
Of course, the mutual hostility of Protestants and Catholics had been implacable since the time of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation in the sixteenth century. For their rejection of church traditions and ecclesiastical authority, Protestants were regarded by Catholics as infidels who had abandoned the true faith, for their elevation of “arcane rituals” to the status of scriptural truth and for their elevation of papal authority to the status of the authority of Christ, Catholics were regarded by Protestants as heretics who had perverted the true faith.(Hunter, 35)[emph added]
Notice that Hunter defines it in an environment of mutual disregard: it is not a matter of the poor victimized Catholics being treated badly by the damned insolent or ignorant (or both) Protestants: it is a matter of a foundational dispute between the two. The dispute is inherently theological, and in that it inherently poses the two sided in positions that cannot be reconciled: either one believes one set of truths or the other, but since they are contradictory they cannot both be right.

And in that, Hunter describes the tension to spill over into political and social conflict:
… even after the age of religious wars had formally come to an end, the political tensions between these religious and cultural traditions continued to effect the cultural fabric of Western life. Prejudice, discrimination, and even physical violence were commonplace for the Protestant minorities in southern Europe … and the Catholic minorities in the North …(Hunter, 35-36)[emph added]
So the phenomenon Hunter is describing here is not a matter of one-sided insular Protestant bigotry: it is a matter of mutual disregard which, after a century of overt war, turned to the quiet warfare of personal relationships. The hatred of Protestants for Catholics was equally matched by Protestant hatred by Catholics – and it was manifest on both sides in the political geographies where one side or the other was dominant.

It is in this context that Hunter uses the term “anti-Catholicism”. Because the majority – the vast majority – of immigrants to the United States were Protestants of one stripe or another, their attitude toward Catholics – based on the mutual attitude of Catholics toward them – was hardly a rosey, philadelphial view. This view only escalated over time, and resulted in may abuses, including hundreds of scandalous accounts of “popish” behavior and slanted media reporting which resulted in numerous riots and personal attacks against Catholics in the nineteenth century (Hunter, 36).

There is no doubt that Hunter either coins or simply applies the term “Anti-Catholicism” in his work, but the question is: what is Hunter describing? Is he describing the inherently-Protestant theological view that Catholics are heretics, or is he describing the political and social upheaval that resulted when the dispute over theology turned, in popular hands, into a reason to discriminate against a man for an honest education or the right to gain employment for a wage?

Clearly, Hunter thinks the dispute over theology is the root cause – but it is a two-sided cause. If he were writing a history of southern Europe, one has to wonder how he would have positioned the circumstances of Protestants given his brief description already cited. He does call the editorial policies of the Chicago Tribune and the substance of the “great school wars” “anti-Catholicism”, but does he qualify all Protestant theology as anti-Catholic?

Hardly. Even as Hunter develops his thesis that Protestant biases inhabited the political system, he makes this clear concession:
At a more profound level, however, biblical theism gave Protestants, Catholics, and Jews many of the common ideals of public life. … the migration and resettlement of bonded groups in the new land made the biblical imagery of the Exodus seem to be a metaphor for the American experience as a whole.(Hunter, 71)
It is the acceptance of the Bible as the unitive heritage of men who fear God that resolves their differences. That hardly sounds like a Catholic perspective: it sounds significantly Protestant. The doctrine of sola Scriptura – that Scripture alone has the authority to correct all other forms of authority, and that it alone in the normative standard – is not Catholic but Protestant, and it is this ideal of Scripture conforming the minds of men to which Hunter ascribes the basis and the ground of whatever resolution has occurred over time between the parties.

Let’s keep that in mind the next time someone wants to throw out the term “anti-Catholic”. I take a wholly-Protestant view of Catholic theology, but even I do no call for the disenfranchisement of Catholics. I don’t think you should go out and beat Catholics, nor rob them of their possessions, nor that you should slander them for things they have never done. And in that, I find the term “anti-Catholic” both reductive and inflammatory – because the term means “bigot”, and I am certain that one can hold Protestant views of Catholicism without being a bigot.

It’s an essay that, to this day, Armstrong overlooks. He does not address a single point made here, and relies on a single quote from Hunter, out of context, to simply whistle in the dark past this issue.