An old example of liberal Protestant anti-Catholicism

When my Mom died a couple years ago, as we were sorting out her stuff to give to charity, I went through her boxes of books and pulled out some for my own library.  My mother was a great reader, and she helped nourish my own love of books.  We never read many of the same things:  she was a big fan of mysteries and (later in life) romance novels, and I am pretty much a fantasy and science fiction reader when I am not plowing through some weightier tome on philosophy or theology.  But I did grab some of her mysteries that she had shared with me.  I got a complete set of Harry Kemelman‘s Rabbi mysteries.  They are great stories and I learned a lot of things about American Judaism from them.  (I would not call him definitive, but especially in his earlier books he captures a lot of nuance about conservative Judaism.)

I also picked up a few of the Reverend Randollph mysteries by Charles Merrill Smith.   Smith was a Methodist minister and later bishop, and his satirical critique of mainline Protestantism, How to Become a Bishop without being Religious is quite funny in parts.   The Reverend Randollph mysteries are about a minister in an unidentified Protestant denomination (though I suspect from some details it is intended to be Methodist), a former pro football quarterback and professor of church history at a seminary.  He is recruited to run a socially prominent congregation in Chicago by his bishop.  The stories are interesting, though all in all I do not think they are as good as the Rabbi novels.  But worth a read, I think.

However, as I started re-reading them recently I was somewhat taken aback by a passage that was rather surprising in its anti-Catholicism.  The setting is the funeral of the murder victim, and while leading the service he notes that the police detective in charge of the investigation is in the back.  This leads to the following internal monologue:

And Lieutenant Michael Casey, barely noticeable in a shadowed corner, here not as a mourner but as an observant bloodhound, did he believe in God?  Was it a conventional Catholic God who granted special favors to Catholics, especially Catholics who were faithful at mass and confession and refrained from practicing artificial birth control?  No. Casey would be more likely to reflect Teilhard de Chardin or Maritain or Hans Kung or even Paul Tillich on God, Randollph guessed.  Casey was a college man, as he had so carefully informed Randollph.  He might go through the prescribed Catholic motions out of habit or to please aged and devout Irish parents or prompted by his knowledge of Chicago police politics (a good word from his pastor dropped in the right place could make all the difference in a policeman’s career).  But Casey wouldn’t be taken in by the hocus pocus.  Case would know that you can’t tickle God’s fancy by devout posturing or wheedle His cooperation with candles and novenas.  Casey was sharp.

Now to be fair, the author also has a low opinion of traditional Protestant piety:  the hero and the various Protestant divines who appear favorably in the story are all much too sophisticated for that sort of thing and they readily voice their (i.e., the author’s) opinions on the subject.  But this passage really stood out to me for the rather casual way it repeated one of the classic anti-Catholic tropes of post-Enlightenment Protestantism:  that Catholics are trapped by superstitious mummery and that they lacked the knowledge and education to realize this.   The novel was written in 1974, well past Vatican II, but it clearly reflects a pre-Vatican II Protestant sensibility in its contempt for Catholicism.

I do not mean to cast any particular opprobrium on the author:  originally, I only wanted to share it as a relic of a different age.  But as I was trying to wrap up this post, I realized that it was also a useful reminder to us that this sort of thing was considered quite acceptable not that long ago.   Anti-Catholicism has changed in America, but it has not gone away.  There are probably lots of liberal Protestants today who do not like Catholics, but the reasons behind their dislike have changed considerably, and are more in tune with the secular left/liberal critiques of Catholicism.   But I think it would be worth examining the evolution of anti-Catholicism since the 1950s to see in what ways historic Protestant fears have been incorporated into the secular rhetoric. La plus ca change….I don’t have any particular thoughts at the moment, but would be happy to bat this idea around in the comments.


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  • Alexandra

    I think that we are all tribal, to one extent or another. Our ignorance about those of other “tribes” can lead us to draw somewhat (or completely) ignorant and prejudiced conclusions about them.
    I am not familiar with that particular mystery series, but after reading about it on the Internet, I found reference to some critical views of literalist Christians in general.
    And, to tell the truth, David, in the pre-Vatican era, many, many Catholics did believe that they prayed to a God who treated Catholics in a more favorable way than others. I remember vividly coming home in tears from a First Friday Liturgy (this was probably in the 3rd grade and very much pre-V2), because the priest had said that the Orthodox were going to hell. I knew that one of my “aunts” (we referred that way to close female friends of my parents) was Orthodox. The thought of her going to hell was unbearable to me.
    Many Catholics (including my 3rd-grade self) believed that if you said a certain number of Hail Marys, you would spend 365 fewer days in purgatory than if you did not. My husband remembers, at the ripe old age of 10 (also very pre-V2), running into the church repeatedly to say a specific prayer, because that would fix one sort of problem or another. So, yes, that was a type of hocus-pocus.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

      Very valid points: from the outside (and indeed, from certain seats on the inside), certain practices may have seemed a bit of “hocus-pocus”, though better catechesis (and better training of priests) could, in theory, avoid a lot of the internal problems. (Don’t get me started on the anti-Semitic rantings of some priests on Good Friday in the old days.) But one would hope for better from folks looking in from the outside.

      And, on a lighter note: you write

      “And, to tell the truth, David, in the pre-Vatican era, many, many Catholics did believe that they prayed to a God who treated Catholics in a more favorable way than others.”

      Well, I always figured that if we went to all the hard work of being Catholic, we should at least get good seats at the eternal banquet in heaven! :-)

      • Alexandra

        Re the good seats — I remember a nun telling us in 2nd grade that if we did good deeds, we would get better places in heaven, so ….. :-)

        Regarding the other — I agree with you that there has been significant anti-Catholic discrimination and prejudice in the past. I think much of it was grounded in ignorance, but some of it was based in the way that Catholics practiced their faith.

        Certainly, thoughtful people ought to recognize their prejudice for what it is, but I think that one ought not get too upset about a prejudiced character popping up in a work of fiction…..

        • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

          “Certainly, thoughtful people ought to recognize their prejudice for what it is, but I think that one ought not get too upset about a prejudiced character popping up in a work of fiction…..”

          I try to not get upset about individual instances. I used to relentless document anti-Catholicism on the internet, but this was in the days when I could search the whole web in an afternoon. I guess I am on the look out for trends or instances that do not match the dominant interpretation. For this book in the 1970s, there was a lot of wishful thinking that anti-Catholicism, which was potent enough to affect the 1960 presidential campaign, had miraculously vanished. Andrew Greeley wrote a short but insightful book about this in, I think 1979: America’s Ugly Secret or something like that. This one stuck in my mind for two reasons: first, it was rather blatant. Second, it came on the heals of the allegedly anti-Catholic emails hacked from the Democratic email servers. This is a complicated issue I don’t really fully understand, but it was in my mind when I made the post.