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D.G. Hart

The Church with the Soul of a Nation

The tension between Catholic identity and national ideals

Not that long ago, American Protestants believed their country faced a "Catholic problem." That was the phrase that Paul Blanshard used in his popular and vituperative book, American Freedom and Catholic Power (1949). His catalogue of Roman Catholic errors extended from the church's teaching on marriage and labor to its hierarchy and intolerance. Catholics could even be un-American in their acts of piety. "The genuflections of the faithful before the so-called princes of the Church, and even before simple bishops," Blanshard wrote, "annoy and disturb non-Catholic Americans who are likely to ask: 'Is not such servility utterly contrary to the American tradition?' 'What good American ever kneels to any man?' 'How did this medieval posturing ever get to the United States?'"1 Although he spoke for many in mainline Protestantism, evangelicals could match their religious cousins prejudice for prejudice. Witness Loraine Boettner's identification of Roman Catholicism as one of the two "totalitarian systems" threatening the nation. For Boettner, Catholicism was even more dangerous than Communism because "it covers its real nature with the cloak of religion."2

What appears today as anti-Catholic hysteria does so in part because Roman Catholicism has changed remarkably since Boettner and Blanshard's broadsides. The Kennedy presidency—and the elegance it exuded—calmed fears about Roman Catholicism's un-American impulses. Almost coincidentally, the Second Vatican Council's statements on religious freedom and ecumenical relations changed the church's image into one less parochial and more tolerant. Meanwhile, the papacy of John Paul II has yielded a leader as popular with teens as any rock star and as conversant with questions about religion and public life as any senior fellow employed by an inside-the-Beltway think tank. In sum, since 1960 Roman Catholicism in the United States has undergone a makeover as dramatic as Blanshard's prose was bloated.

But there is more to the story, ...

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