Can Catholics Think for Themselves?

Does anti-Catholicism persist in American society, not as violent perhaps as when convents were being torched in the nineteenth century, but still there, lurking just beneath the surface? Is it America’s ugly little secret, an unacknowledged bias that still permeates our society?

Alan Wolfe of Boston College tells us anti-Catholicism has virtually disappeared since the election of John F. Kennedy. William Donohue of the Catholic League, on the other hand-and in high dudgeon-sees it everywhere.

Two years ago, as part of Commonweal’s Catholics in the Public Square Project (Wolfe and Donohue were also on the program), I was asked to present a paper summarizing the empirical data on the subject (see American Catholics, American Culture, Sheed & Ward, edited by Margaret O’Brien Steinfels). Since there weren’t any hard data, I commissioned a “pretest in force” study, supplying questionnaire items that might be used in a larger national study. I was especially interested in items that might uncover the continuation of anti-Catholic bigotry. I found three items which I then commissioned for inclusion in the 2004 General Social Survey of the National Opinion Research Center. Using a Strongly agree/agree/neither agree nor disagree/disagree/strongly disagree scale, respondents were asked to assess the following statements: 1) The statues and images in Catholic churches are idols. 2) Catholic rosaries and holy medals are superstitious. 3) Catholics are not really permitted to think for themselves. (Donohue, of course, implies that Catholics shouldn’t think for themselves-at least when it comes to questioning hierarchical teaching.) I raised these questions to determine whether a significant percentage of Americans continue to view Catholics with suspicion or prejudice.

How do social scientists determine whether prejudice exists against a specific group? If the vast majority of the affected group reports that particular statements about them are untrue, it is presumed that they know falsehoods about themselves when they hear them. (For example, women legitimately object when it is said they are not qualified to be mathematicians, and Hispanics when it is said they are not truly committed to becoming Americans.) Hence, if four out of five American Catholics say that they do think for themselves, the opposite claim is prejudicial. Similarly, if three out of four insist that the rosary is not superstitious, to claim otherwise is a slur.

In analyzing specific survey questions, the proper measure for determining whether there is no bias is to determine the preponderance of respondents who say they “disagree” or “disagree strongly” with a particular slur. (A “neither agree nor disagree” response to the question doesn’t count in determining the presence or absence of bias.) So, if more than three-quarters of Catholic respondents disagree with the statements that they can’t think for themselves and that the rosary is a superstition, while only 37 percent of other Americans are willing to concede the first point (to say they either “strongly disagree” or “disagree” that Catholics can’t think for themselves), and only a third are inclined to dismiss the second charge that the rosary is superstitious, we have an example of anti-Catholic bias. I found that today about a third of Americans who are not Catholic still accept these two slurs; another third refuse to either “agree” or “disagree”; and only one-third of those surveyed reject these anti-Catholic slurs.

I also found that this widespread sense that Catholics can’t think for themselves correlates significantly with only two other variables on the General Survey (of a battery including age, gender, education, income, party affiliation, political ideology): South and Conservative Christian. When the same battery was applied to the rosary, women were more likely to reject the charge that it is superstitious, but Southerners and Conservative Christians continued to be less likely than other Americans to reject the statement. Still, only the correlation with Conservative Christians was fairly large. When the two variables were entered into both equations, South became statistically insignificant.

I did discover statistically significant differences between Conservative Christians (for example, Southern Baptists, Missouri and Wisconsin Synod Lutherans, Pentecostals, members of the Assemblies of God) and Mainline Christians (for example, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians) in their attitudes toward Catholics. A third of the Conservative Christians reject the assertion that Catholics can’t think for themselves, as do two-fifths of Mainline Christians, but even at that, the majority of American Protestants do not reject the charge. There are similar differences on the subject of the rosary. I found, for example, that among Conservative Christians, Pentecostals are the most inclined to accept anti-Catholic stereotypes. Despite the variations among different groups, the fact remains that anti-Catholic feeling persists among Americans. Most respondents apparently experienced little unease in admitting (in face-to-face interviews) that they don’t reject these anti-Catholic slurs.

Moreover, despite the rosy assessments of some, today’s anti-Catholic clichés are the same ones used in the nineteenth century. Dislike for Catholics no longer leads to riots or convent burnings, and it does not affect the occupational careers of most Catholics (one encounters obvious discrimination against Catholics only in certain high-visibility and high-prestige occupations). But the argument that anti-Catholic bias ended with the election of JFK is patently untrue. While the nastiness is not so prevalent among younger and better-educated Americans, nonetheless only 40 percent of those with graduate degrees dismiss the charge that Catholics can’t think for themselves or that rosaries are superstitious. When it comes to ecumenical cooperation, Conservative Christian clergy who wish to make common cause with Catholics on certain issues may find it difficult to sell this common front to their congregants.

From where does this mean-spiritedness come? One answer-and I think it is correct-is that it’s always been there, imported from England with our founding fathers and lurking beneath the surface of our culture ever since. There are a considerable number of folks who just don’t like us. Maybe they never will.

It is also useful to note that there are statistically significant correlations between scales measuring intolerance for the civil liberties of homosexuals and of racists (for example, not permitting them to teach in a college, to lecture, or to have their books in the library) and anti-Catholic sentiments. Those who fail to respect the civil liberties of such disparate groups are also inclined to dislike Catholics. That being the case, there is evidence of at least a taint of intolerance-not to say bigotry-in anti-Catholic attitudes.

In conclusion, anti-Catholic sentiments are deeply imbedded in American culture. These findings (short of analysis over time) suggest that though less virulent today, anti-Catholic attitudes may not be any less widespread. Bigotry tends not to fade away. It appeals to deep needs in the human personality. Anti-Semitism, racism, and male chauvinism have not disappeared but persist as low-level infections in the body politic. Anti-Catholicism is different because it is unacknowledged (as is anti-immigrant Nativism), and hence it is potentially more dangerous.

Is there anything Catholics can do? Stop saying the rosary? Demonstrate that they can-and do-think for themselves? Persuade their leaders to be more moderate in their public statements? Avoid crises like the sexual-abuse scandals? Be nice to everyone? Deny William Donohue his monopoly in the anti-Catholic industry?

I doubt that there is much Catholics can do about anti-Catholic mean-spiritedness in American society. We just have to live with it, realizing that it is always a potential danger. It is as American as cherry pie.

Published in the 2005-09-09 issue: 

Rev. Andrew M. Greeley is a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago. He is the author of The Catholic Revolution: New Wine in Old Wineskins (University of California Press), Priests: A Calling in Crisis (University of Chicago Press), and The Truth about Conservative Christians (University of Chicago Press), with Michael Hout.

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