Moveable bookend


One of the things I’m very interested in at the moment, is the flip side of what commentators often call the ‘Francis effect’, ie, the perceived idea that many lapsed Catholics will somehow find their way back to the flock now that the pontiff has adopted a kinder and gentler tone. Many skeptical critics from the left are quick to point out that Pope Francis in no way represents or advocates changes in Catholic doctrine, despite the clear consternation his rhetoric seems to cause the right in the US.  While his rhetoric towards social justice doesn’t seem to sway wary lapsed liberals, his criticism of extreme, “unfettered” capitalism have brought some corners of the Right to War-of-the-Worlds level moral panic.  Ironically though, unlike the cautious skeptics of the left, most conservative pundits have failed to point out that Pope Francis, again, represents NO CHANGE in criticizing the shortcomings of capitalism.

Perhaps because of the euphoria of the Cold War ending, or the rage and fury of the War on Terror beginning, many seem to apply a selective amnesia to the many right-wing feather ruffling stances of the late Pope John Paul II.  He did not hesitate in vocally denouncing US led wars, whether it was his outspoken criticism of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, which he referred to as a “defeat for humanity” (Bruni), the much more diplomatically accepted and consensus appeasing 1991 Persian Gulf War.  Nor were these stances strange anomalies, forgotten for just being the idiosyncratic outliers of individual Popes, unrepresentative of the larger Catholic Church as a whole.  Though Pope John Paul II is often remembered for being a strong critic of the Soviet Union alongside Ronald Regan, the American Catholic Church of the 1980s had a much more nuanced social and political standing in the United States.  A 1983 pastoral letter of the US bishops condemning the nuclear arms race, entitled The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response, offers a great insight of this mercurial relationship between American conservatism and Catholicism.  Despite shared enmity towards Soviet Communism and similar beliefs towards abortion and gay marriage, the letter denounced many aspects of Regan’s nuclear policy and “The drafting of this pastoral letter exposed a tension between two conflicting storylines of Reagan and Catholicism” (McBrady, 130).  It is true that the “culture wars” following the legalization of abortion in the US in the 1970s fostered a new era of eccumenicsim and inter-faith dialogue between Protestant and Catholic religious institutions.  However, the US Catholic Church was still culturally rooted in the ethnic immigrant experience, as written about in Lawrence J. McCaffrey’s book The Irish Catholic Diaspora, which I recently had the pleasure of using as research when writing an essay on Caddyshack.  Despite the fact that by the 1980s, Irish American Catholics had begun to vote Republican, reflecting their adoption of middle-class values, nonetheless, “The American [Catholic] hierarchy has been conservative on theological, gender, and sexual matters, but exceptionally liberal in speaking out on economic, social, racial, an peace issues” (187).

A good example of this muddling of lines can be seen in a recent Breitbart article entitled “Jesuit Priest Stokes Fake War Between Pope Francis and Steve Bannon”, in which the anti-Catholic mass hysteria of the mid 19th century seems to be jumping right out of the pages into current year paranoia.  The fact that he was a Jesuit was interesting, it actually reminded me of a recent article I read about androgyny playing a role in Anti-Catholic movements of the 19th century.  During the 19th century in America,

Protestant men imagined the Jesuit in two contrasting ways: as symbols both of unfettered authority and effeminate submissiveness. In his power over other Catholics and his sexual prowess, the Jesuit took on an almost inhuman masculinity. But viewed in another light, the Jesuit’s total submissiveness to the dictates of the Church hierarchy represented the emasculation of the male character in its most dramatic form. In their depiction of the Jesuit, nativists emphasised his super-human willpower and single-mindedness. Unlike the corpulent monk, the typical Jesuit was described as tall and lean to emphasise his sense of purpose and discipline. The Jesuits had a mission to extend the power of the Pope over all civilised nations and thus everywhere extinguish liberty- and as Papal agents could command the unquestioning loyalty of clergy and congregation (Verhoeven, 14-15).

As if that wasn’t enough, Pope Francis, successor to Saint Peter, on top of being a Jesuit, is the first pope ever from Latin America.  A deep fear of all things Spanish speaking permeates Anglo culture as much as its fear of all things Catholic, going back to centuries before America even existed as a country to be made great, conjuring up terror of armada based invasion.

Above: 1920s anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic propaganda.

My question is whether or not middle class Catholics will be able to look at the current debates over immigration from Latin America and refugees from the Middle East as Catholics, who once arrived in America as a distrusted and alien people, or with the middle class values typically (but not always) ascribed to Americanism.  Will middle class white Catholics abandon Catholicism if it continues to vociferously denounce US immigration policy, or will they adopt the type of ‘cafeteria Catholicism’ employed by many politicians on the left who disagree with church teachings on abortion but want working class Irish American votes in the Northeast?  Will Catholics fall out with other middle and working class whites into the category of marginalized, and if so, will they be accepted by the left who claim the mantle of tolerance, as they do with Islam, which often holds strongly conservative views?  Or will Catholics be relegated to a social standing of distrust by the left and the right?  Will they go back to being the white people that other white people can’t vouch for?  The closing line of the Breitbart article doesn’t leave me feeling paranoid asking these questions: “Those members of the Church militant [Jesuits] sure are a sneaky bunch”.

Works cited:

Bruni, Frank.  “THREATS AND RESPONSES: THE VATICAN; Pope Voices Opposition, His Strongest, To Iraq War.”  The New York Times, 14 January, 2003.

Clarke, Branford.  This Tree Must Come Down, 1925.  Pillar of Fire Church, Zarephath, New Jersey.  Accessed 15 February, 2017.

McBrady, Jared.  “The Challenge of Peace: Ronald Reagan, John Paul II, and the American Bishops.”  Journal of Cold War Studies, Volume 17, no. 1, Winter, 2015, pp. 129-152.  Accessed 15 February, 2017.

McCaffrey, Lawrence J.  The Irish Catholic Diaspora in America.  The Catholic University of America Press, 1997.

Williams, Thomas D.  “Jesuit Priest Stokes Fake War Between Pope Francis and Steve Bannon.”  Breitbart, 13 February, 2017.  Accessed 15 February, 2017.

Verhoeven, Timothy.  “Neither Male Nor Female: Androgyny, Nativism And International Anti-Catholicism.”   Australasian Journal of American Studies, vol. 24, no. 1, July, 2005, pp. 5-19.

Wuerker, Matt.  Politico.  Accessed 15, February 2017.

2 thoughts on “Moveable bookend

  1. It seems like most of the time when you use “Catholic,” it is signifying some combination of white/middle class/etc (ex: “Will Catholics fall out with other middle and working class whites into the category of marginalized…Will they go back to being the white people…”), which really seems to discount that the majority of Central and South American immigrants are Catholics as well. Considering a 2015 Pew Research study found that the proportion of Hispanic American Catholics has grown 5% since 2007 and among Millennials Hispanic Catholics (46%) outnumber white Catholics (43%), it seems like a major oversight to leave out that facet when discussing Catholicism in the US. It seems especially relevant as Pope Francis is from Latin America himself (as you mention). If Catholicism becomes (re?)racialized in the US the same way “Muslim” has often come to mean “anyone who looks like they may be from the middle east” rather than an indication of actual religious practice, it seems like the public perception of American Catholics will be more closely linked to Latino/Hispanic Catholics in the South/West rather than white Catholics in the NE, no matter which party they choose to vote with.

    Pew study–>


    1. I’m referring to ethnic white Catholics, who used to solidly vote Democrat. When I use the term ‘Catholic’, I’m using it as an ethno-religuous designation, which is largely removed and separate from any theological belief system, but more of a tribal identity. Of course, this has traditionally been Italian American, Polish American and Irish American communities, which have become largely (but not completely) absorbed into middle and working class white society by now. I’m commenting on the link between historical distrust Anglo American culture has had between the white Catholics of the 19th and 20th century and today’s predominately Catholic Latino immigration, and the fickleness of American conservativism, rooted so deeply in the Protestant work ethic which brought about the rise of capitalism. That sense of sameness will be tossed out the window in a New York minute the second they fall out of step, and those old prejudices which laid dormant will be seized and resurrected for political expediency instantly. Pope Francis’ mention of Dorothy Day on the floor of Congress in 2015 was a perfect example of that. The point I’m trying to make is that the current restructuring of what is considered Left and Right along lines of free trade vs. protectionism and immigration vs. nativism may very well see the resurgence of latent Anglo American anti-Catholic sentiment. And that would be one of the best things for us.


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