National Catholic Reporter
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Books -- Q&A
Issue Date:  August 1, 2003

Historian contends Catholic church gets a 'bad rap'

Anti-Catholic bigotry feeds clerical sex abuse scandal, Jenkins says

Philip Jenkins

NCR’s Margot Patterson interviewed Philip Jenkins by phone about his book The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice. An influential and sometimes controversial scholar who has written widely on a range of topics, Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University. His other recent books include The Next Christendom: The Rise of Global Christianity and Images of Terror: What We Can and Can’t Know About Terrorism.

: I’m curious why an Episcopalian chose to write a book about anti-Catholicism. Can you say a little bit about how you came to write this particular book?

Jenkins: I was a member of the Catholic church for many years so I have a great interest in Catholic matters and issues. Some of my first publications 20 and 25 years ago were on anti-Catholic politics and rhetoric in Britain and America, so this is a very long-standing interest of mine. My more recent work is on how people basically imagine threatening problems. I’d done some work on the whole clergy and child abuse issue. My argument there was that a lot of well-founded concerns in some cases got mixed up with traditional anti-Catholic rhetoric. That was another thing that got me into this topic. I published a book back in 1996 called Pedophiles and Priests and in some ways the present book grows out of that.

In your book, you talk about the sex abuse scandal in the U.S. Catholic church, which you write represents a “gross efflorescence of anti-Catholic rhetoric.” What in your view are the chief distortions or inaccuracies about the sex abuse scandal?

I think there are two words wrong with the phrase pedophile priests. It puts undue emphasis on priests, firstly, because there is no evidence that Catholic clergy are any more or less likely to be involved in sexual misconduct than clergy of other denominations or than secular professions working with children. What I often say here is if there is any evidence, I’d love to see what it is. If you look at lots of other dominations, you’ll find many other scandals that don’t attract anything like the same attention. Just focusing on the Catholic issue is very misleading.

Secondly, the other issue is that I have a real problem with the word pedophile in the context of pedophile priest. One thing I was very impressed with in The Boston Globe’s coverage of the scandals was that The Boston Globe tried hard to use the word correctly. They used it about Fr. [John] Geoghan and Fr. [Paul] Shanley, and that was quite appropriate. When people talk about abuse scandals or pedophile scandals, very often they are dealing with priests who are not pedophiles. For example, I’ve seen cases where they talk about pedophile priests and they talk about the scandal involving [Milwaukee] Archbishop [Rembert] Weakland. Weakland was allegedly having an affair with a 30-year-old man. That is not pedophilia. That is not child abuse. The word pedophile has an improper emphasis because very often the commonest kind of issue in those misconduct cases is a priest having a sexual relationship with an older teenager. That might be wrong, in some cases it might be criminal, but it’s not pedophilia. If a priest is having sex with an 18-year old man, we might think that’s a terrible thing, but it doesn’t make him a pedophile priest.

Your book mentions that in the past anti-Catholic rhetoric came from the right and reflected xenophobic or nativist sentiments whereas today it comes from the left, especially from feminist and gay right activists. There’s the historical irony you mention that in the past Protestants saw Catholics as effeminate because of their aesthetics and worship style and because of their exaltation of Mary while today it’s that same veneration of Mary that is taken to symbolize the church’s anti-feminine stance. How does being a historian shape your view of today’s gender politics and the Catholic church’s role in these battles? Does it alter your sympathies in ways it otherwise would not?

I like to think that it gives me a long view of how these issues develop over time and in some cases how the rhetoric almost reverses itself. A hundred years ago the church was criticized as being too effeminate and woman oriented. Today it’s supposed to be insufficiently concerned with women’s interests and issues. It’s considered an enemy of women.

Do you think that’s a misperception then that it’s insufficiently concerned with women?

I think it gets something of a bad rap. It is inaccurately seen as being hostile to women. I think that’s unfair. I’m a member of a church that does ordain women as women bishops. But as I said, I think the Catholic church does get a bad rap on that topic.

In your book, you say that the principal force driving modern anti-Catholicism is divisions within the church itself. What accounts for the ferocity of those divisions?

One thing I’m very anxious to do is to draw a distinction between reasonable, legitimate criticism and anti-Catholic rhetoric. If a Catholic says that Bishop X is a dreadful, awful person and should resign, that may be perfectly fair criticism. Where it becomes anti-Catholic is if a person moves on from there to a sweeping, abusive attack on the system of the religion, of the hierarchy itself, generalizes about the evils of priests and clergy, basically starts to denounce the religion as opposed to a particular individual or policy. That’s the distinction I’m trying to make there. I thought many of the people who were urging [Boston] Cardinal [Bernard] Law to resign, for example, were making perfectly good points and were not getting into the role of anti-Catholicism. Some others were.

Why are conservatives and liberals at such odds? Well, it may be a Catholic feature within Catholicism that one believes one is dealing with the most important life and death issues in the world, that these are matters of absolute significance and demand a kind of total commitment. My argument is that it’s often these disputes within the church that tend to spill over into some really quite unfortunate rhetoric. The example I would choose is the pedophile priests affair of the last couple of years.

Finally, why does anti-Catholicism matter? You write that it’s a social problem, but as you also point out, anti-Catholic rhetoric today is usually directed not against individuals but against the institutional church. Given that Catholics today don’t face discrimination in employment or education because of being Catholic, if it’s true that there is a resurgence in anti-Catholicism, why should anyone care?

First, we get alarmed and angry at all manner of other kinds of prejudice regardless of whether they lead to people being beaten up in the street. If someone showed a film attacking, just to give an example, Martin Luther King, that will be condemned and attacked. Just on grounds of consistency, there’s no reasons why Catholicism should be the only kind of religious or ethnic tradition that can be attacked with impunity. Even if you could “just” attack the religion, what does that say about the people who hold that religion? If you just say that a particular religion is meant for the stupid and inadequate, what is somebody who holds that religion meant to do?

What many Catholics do is that they learn to live with it. They learn to live with that abuse, which is directed personally at them. It maybe becomes part of the wallpaper that they don’t notice. I’m suggesting that people should pay more attention to that kind of offense. I’ve been rather surprised by how many e-mails and letters I’ve gotten over the past few months by people who mention that they have been subjected to a great deal of abuse over Catholicism. People tell them off-color jokes all the time about “ pervert priests” and they are expected to laugh at it and they don’t know what to do. This is more of a problem than people are aware of. Just because people are not getting beaten up on the streets does not mean we should ignore that kind of prejudice. And that’s why I wrote the book.

National Catholic Reporter, August 1, 2003

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