Attacking the last acceptable prejudice
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
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
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
Michael Coren is a broadcaster and writer living in Toronto,
Catholics Are Right (McClelland & Stewart/Random House) has just been
published in North America.
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