Letter to the Editor: Racialized anti-Catholicism

Archfather Rutherford Johnson
Crookston Times

     Growing racial tensions in the United States also bring to the surface another long-standing form of discrimination: anti-Catholicism. Unfortunately, today anti-Catholicism is showing its centuries-old racialized roots.

     In fact, bias, violence, and even laws against Catholicism date back to the British American colonies that eventually became the United States. Despite promises of religious freedom, the newly-founded Republic kept the old attitudes regarding Catholics. In the great immigration of the 19th century, anti-Catholicism went hand-in-hand with anti-immigrant sentiment. Many of the immigrants were of predominantly Catholic origin, such as Italians, Irish, and Poles. There was plenty of bias against immigrants in general, merely fueling the old prejudice against Catholics.

     Laws began to be passed against Catholics, especially in the form of anti-garb laws targeting Catholic clergy and nuns. That those laws were promoted and supported by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan should give anyone pause for thought before supporting them.

     Some of those laws were even passed quite recently and persist on the books. North Dakota, for example, passed an anti-garb law in 1948 aimed squarely at preventing nuns from wearing their habits while teaching in public schools, hoping to remove them from state schools altogether. In Nebraska, there was a similar anti-garb law that was actively enforced until it was repealed in 2017, which the governor said righted a wrong that was almost a century old.

     Pennsylvania has an anti-garb law that was passed in the 19th century and is still on the books. However, a repeal movement is underway.

     In the present climate, racial issues and anti-Catholicism continue to work jointly. First, one of the largest minority groups in the United States, Hispanics, are predominantly and also historically Catholic. (In fact, most of what is now the United States, in terms of European settlement, was either Spanish or French – sometimes both – and Catholic.) Systematic, entrenched, and institutional anti-Catholic bias is easily fueled by anti-Hispanic and anti-immigrant biases.

     Furthermore, two ethnic groups in the United States which it seems that it is considered perfectly acceptable to insult, marginalize, or discriminate against are the Italians and the Poles. Both date back to the anti-immigration sentiments of the 19th century and beyond. Both of these populations, Italians and Poles, are historically Catholic, and Rome is the centre of the Catholic Church. It is difficult if not impossible to separate one bias from the other. That remains even where someone of those cultures has converted to another religion or even given up religion altogether, for it is difficult to erase historical influence and perception. As the United States becomes more secular than it was in the past, it is expected that this will make the situation worse.

     For a nation that purports to be founded on the notion of religious freedom and tolerance, the fact that anti-Catholicism persists in the form of general bigotry, insidious damage such as workplace discrimination and hiring bias, and even in laws and regulations is absolutely unacceptable. The excuse behind much of this discrimination is a purported need for institutional neutrality under “separation of church and state.” However, the words “separation of church and state” appear nowhere in the Constitution, whereas the right of free exercise of one’s religion is the very first right acknowledged in the Bill of Rights. Traditionally the separation of church and state was simply a metaphor regarding the need to limit the government influence in the church. Likewise, the Constitution does not say that the right to practice one’s religion ends at the doors of government or one’s place of business. Indeed, no person should be so marginalized that they must make a choice between practicing their religion and pursuing their career with the same freedom available to anyone else. Such freedom is the essence of authentic diversity and inclusion.

     And, it is clear that deeply-entrenched anti-Catholicism has historically been intertwined and continues to be linked with ethnic bias. There is no perfect society, for people are imperfect. It will make the world a better place, though, if we can simply try our best to treat others as we ourselves would like to be treated.

    Archfather Rutherford (Johnson), PhD, ALM, FRGS is a priest, author, and educator with degrees from Harvard University Extension School, the Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Kentucky, and Pontifical Georgian College. He is a member of the Business Department faculty at the University of Minnesota Crookston.

Archfather Rutherford Johnson