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Kenneth Tanner


Saving Catholicism from scorn and irrelevance

Liberal conformists of the last century such as Walter Lippmann and John Dewey viewed the "American mind" as incompatible with, even inimical to, the Catholic mind. Reading Philip Jenkins' sometimes surprising litany of American enmity for the Catholic Church (and for "poor and ignorant" Catholics, too), it is hard to escape their conclusion.

Still, the long-troubled marriage between America and the Catholic Church must, it seems to this writer, be mended, for the sake of the nation's soul and the good maintenance of her freedoms. America needs a strong Catholic Church as a prophetic antidote to a pragmatist's hell in which no moral limits restrain the autonomies of the stock market, the laboratory, the state, and now (it seems) human nature itself.

Evangelical Protestants know well enough what separates them from Rome. There is the bogeyman of Justification, not to mention doubts about the extent of the pope's task in governing the Western Church, all the fuss over Mary, and a good deal more. In Jenkins' account, these theological problems—by no means trivial matters, however much subject to distortion in debate—do not rate much attention except insofar as they play lesser parts in the larger drama of American nativism, egalitarianism, and—lately—an absolute insistence upon unalloyed sexual license. For it is as participants in the American experiment that many readers will discover unexpected and unexamined anti-Catholicism—what Jenkins calls "the last acceptable prejudice"—in the nation's cultural foundations and in every stage of its history to the present.

The prejudice that greeted waves of Catholic immigrants in the 19th century is well documented, but Jenkins shows how anti-Catholicism continued to thrive in the period before Vatican II, well after the violent nativist passions of an earlier era had cooled. Even as American Catholicism enjoyed increasing respectability, cultural influence, and political clout, disaffected nuns and monks who had renounced their ...

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