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Attacking the last acceptable prejudice
A Canadian journalist defends the case for Catholicism against its critics.
The Pastor Terry Jones case in Florida was a perfect, if ugly, example of what my new book is about. This somewhat ridiculous man set fire to a Qur'an after putting the Islamic holy book on trial. He had a perfect right to do it, if a perfect responsibility not to do so. The reaction in Afghanistan was Islamic mobs slaughtering more than twenty people, and calls throughout the Muslim world for the Protestant minister to be arrested and worse.
In the secular, moderate, calm, balanced, intelligent West, there would – of course – been a totally different reaction.
Journalists and politicians fell over themselves paying lip-service to the murders, but reserving their particular scorn for Pastor Jones. Everything is relative, you see. One thing leads to another, and a soft cause leading to a hard reaction is irrelevant if somewhere along the line we can forgive Islam and blame Christianity.
Yet it is no mere coincidence that when Bibles are set on fire, often the response from Christians, even living in conditions identical to Afghan Muslims, is quiet if not silent. Fashionable atheists such as Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris routinely say repugnant things about Christianity, Christians and Christ, and followers of this same faith hardly respond at all. None of these self-promoting men require security or protection. Compare this to the Danish cartoonist who drew a satire based on Islamic extremism, and years later still has to flee to his safe room when another Muslim killer comes to call.
In my book, Why Catholics Are Right I have dared to argue that one idea is right, another wrong. One faith right, another wrong. One theology and belief system is not only different from but superior to others. Which makes me virtually unacceptable in modern society and culture. If this audacious insistence that being Catholic meant, well, being Catholic and led to the persecution or killing of others who were not Catholic, it would naturally be intimidating and insulting -- but that is certainly not the case (even though it usually takes only a few moments during a disagreement for someone to bring up the days when Catholics did indeed give their opponents a hard time, as though in all of history only Catholics have ever got it wrong or even just acted like most people were acting at the time).
So the title stands for a specific reason: to oblige and demand a certain clarity on the part of the book’s readers. I’m a Catholic and believe in Catholicism and thus I believe that people who disagree with my beliefs are wrong. I do not dislike them - or at least don’t dislike all of them - and nor do I wish to hurt them, even those who wish to hurt me and will probably wish to hurt me even more after they read this book, pretend to read it, or read nasty reviews of it.
I do, however, want these readers to consider what I have to say and to not abuse my beliefs in a manner and with a harshness that they would not dream of using against almost any other creed or religion. It might be a romantic hope but hope is one of those Catholic qualities we like to think of as important and helpful.
Having said this, there are degrees of wrongness. Some people are only slightly wrong, others wrong most of the time and to a shocking degree. Non-Catholic Christians and in particular serious evangelicals and Eastern Orthodox believers are examples of the former. Many of them could teach many Catholics a great deal about love, charity, and devotion to God.
Alleged Christians who want to edit rather than follow Christ, professional atheists who flood the internet with their obsessions, and part-time Catholic-bashers are the latter. Which brings me to the anti-Catholicism that has become the last acceptable prejudice in what passes for polite society and has become so obvious and so pronounced that to even repeat the fact seems almost banal.
We have all heard comments about Catholics that if applied to almost any other group would simply not be tolerated. It’s bad enough when this is street conversation and pointless gossip, far worse when it passes for informed comment in allegedly serious newspapers. British historian and biographer Christopher Hibbert put it so well when he said that historically the Pope had been thought of as, “an unseen, ghost-like enemy, lurking behind clouds of wicked incense in a Satanic southern city called Rome.” In much of contemporary Anglo-Saxon culture as well as the greater modern world this perverse caricature has found a second wind.
Philip Jenkins is a professor of history and religion at Pennsylvania State University and has written extensively about the Roman Catholic Church and some of the attacks on it. His book The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice outlined the history and modern experience of the phenomenon.
Jenkins himself left the Church in the 1980s. When his book was published he was asked to define its thesis. “It depends on how you define anti-Catholicism. I suggest it is a very widespread phenomenon in different degrees. For example, people would say things about the Catholic Church and condemn a religion with much more ease than they would condemn other religions, other religious traditions. I think that's always been true to some extent, but I think that's really shifted its basis in the last 25 years. It's become much more of a left-liberal, as opposed to a right wing prerogative.”
He continues, ”It makes anti-Catholicism different from other kinds of prejudice. It survives as what I call ‘the last acceptable prejudice.’ In other words, if you say something that is insensitive or hostile about most religious or ethnic groups, then those words will come back to haunt you and in many cases destroy you .... If you say something about Catholicism, or even something which is very hostile, really quite extreme, and in many people's idea, constitutes outrageous bigotry, it doesn't. Nobody really notices. You're expected to lighten up and not take this too seriously.”
Jenkins is right. More important, he is one of several people who have finally realized that beyond religion, there is a fundamental debate taking place in Western culture as to what and who we are. We cannot defeat our enemies by offering relativism to their resolution. They give us certainty and we reply with ambivalence and self-hatred. In political terms it’s not really about Catholics being right, more about anything being right. The next decade will see, has to see, a deep look within, and a decision as to what our values and virtues are and whether they are worth defending or not. The answer will dictate our future. The wrong answer will bring a future of dictators.
Michael Coren is a broadcaster and writer living in Toronto, Canada. Why Catholics Are Right (McClelland & Stewart/Random House) has just been published in North America.
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