American Anti-Catholicism

Last week, Greenville, South Carolina — the buckle of the Bible Belt — made national headlines for the second time in two weeks. The first story involved Rev. Jay Scott Newman and his comments in his parish bulletin about Catholics who voted for Obama. The second was the announcement that the fundamentalist Bob Jones University had issued a public apology for its racist past.
I happen to be connected to both stories: I’m on the staff of Father Newman’s parish, and I’m a graduate of Bob Jones University. How I managed to exit the school in 1978 and return to Greenville nearly 30 years later to be ordained as a Catholic priest is a story in itself, but the coincidence of the two news items in two weeks highlighted the question of anti-Catholicism in our country: Father Newman’s statement elicited vitriolic anti-Church statements in some cases, and Bob Jones University is infamous not only for its past racism but its strong anti-Catholicism.
I was a student at Bob Jones University in the mid 1970s when the first black student was admitted. I was there in 1978 when Pope Paul VI died, and I heard Dr. Bob Jones Jr. speak his now famous words: “Pope Paul VI, archpriest of Satan, a deceiver and an anti-Christ, has, like Judas, gone to his own place.” I remember students who were training to be Baptist preachers returning to campus bragging that they had visited a local Catholic church and spit in the font, then prayed for deliverance for all the devil worshippers who went there every Sunday. Every year we had the chance to hear Ian Paisley, the fiery Northern Irish Presbyterian preacher, deliver blistering attacks on Catholics during his annual American preaching tour.
This was the stuff of old-fashioned Protestant anti-Catholicism, rooted in centuries of misinformation, black propaganda, and sincere misunderstanding. This was the anti-Catholicism in which the pope was the anti-Christ riding on the back of that great whore of Babylon, the Catholic Church. It fed on Lorraine Boettner’s Roman Catholicism, that classic collection of calumnies, lies, and half-truths. As fundamentalist youths, we read the sensational Jack Chick tracts. These riveting comic books portrayed the Catholic Church as a pagan, cookie-worshipping cult, complete with crazed priests, murderous popes, and the bodies of illegitimate babies buried in tunnels under convents. It was juicy stuff — completely paranoid and ridiculous, but juicy nonetheless.
In this ecumenical age, such traditional Protestant bigotry is dying out. More and more, Evangelical Christians are coming to realize that the “old old story” of God’s love for a dying world and the saving work of Christ on the cross is now most fully and vigorously told by the modern Catholic Church, as so many of their own churches are buying into the secular, morally indifferent agenda of the world around them. Marcus Grodi’s Coming Home Network reports an increasing number of Evangelical pastors coming into the Catholic Church; it might not be long before Bob Jones University itself issues a statement apologizing for its anti-Catholicism.
Does this mean that anti-Catholicism is dead? I fear not. While the old-fashioned Protestant variety is dying out, a new and equally virulent form is rising up, evident in three different manifestations.
The first is from people who actually call themselves Catholics. The dissenting Catholics in our church have, for the most part, worn a friendly face. They couch their disobedience in polite terminology. They “respectfully disagree with the Holy Father,” or “they are listening carefully to the teaching of the Church, but they are also listening carefully to their own consciences.” This deceitful dissent will soon die out: As the radical Catholics see their own agendas withering for lack of interest, and as they observe the increasing youth and influence of the faithful Catholics, their true colors will be revealed. If they have not done so already, those dissenting Catholics will remove themselves from the Church. Their failure will focus in anger, their frustration will surface as rage, and they will move from being dissenting Catholics to outspoken critics of the Church.
The second category of the new anti-Catholicism will involve a fresh kind of Protestant revolt. The new Protestant anti-Catholicism will not be from backwoods preachers, with their colorful imagery of whores and dragons, but from the urbane practitioners of suburban, liberal Protestantism. The liberal Protestants who endorse women’s ordination, homosexual “marriage,” and the whole liberal agenda will become increasingly impatient with Catholicism. Already they sneer at a religion that “demands blind obedience to a medieval monarch.” Their frustration at what they perceive to be the Catholic Church’s stance on contraception, abortion, women’s rights, and homosexuality will lead them to call for Catholicism to be restrained because it is divisive and fosters hate and intolerance, opposing the “New World Order.”
In his 2003 book The New Anti-Catholicism, Philip Jenkins describes the third purveyor of the new anti-Catholicism: the secular hedonistic population in the United States. Jenkins recounts a few incidents to illustrate the point: In New York in 1989, a gay activist group demonstrated in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. They interrupted Mass, forcing the archbishop to abandon his sermon, and threw condoms around the church and desecrated the Host. In 2000, twenty ski-masked members of a “feminist autonomous collective” interrupted Mass in Montreal. They spray-painted slogans on the walls of the church and altar, tried to overturn the tabernacle, stuck used sanitary napkins on pictures and walls, threw condoms around the sanctuary, and chanted pro-abortion slogans.
These are a few of the most extreme examples, but Jenkins shows how the anti-Catholic attitude that fuels these extreme protests is woven, both subtly and blatantly, throughout the American media and educational culture. Jenkins isn’t a Catholic, so his work is all the more powerful for its objective position.
In Tortured for Christ, his account of imprisonment under the Communist regime in Romania, Protestant pastor Richard Wurmbrandt observed that, in prison, there were no divisions between Catholics and Protestants — all were simply Christian brothers. As our society shifts and introduces new forms of anti-Catholicism, Catholics should be prepared to forge new alliances. We may find that our best friends used to be our worst enemies.
Conservative Evangelicals share many of the same values that we as Catholics have always proclaimed. We need to be open-minded, build bridges with those who distrust us, and work together in the fight for a culture of life. Who knows — Bob Jones University might yet introduce a “Fellowship of Bob Jones Catholics,” and I could be their chaplain.


Father Dwight Longenecker is the pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, South Carolina. His upcoming book, Beheading Hydra: A Radical Plan for Christians in an Atheistic Age, will be published by Sophia Institute Press in the Spring. Read more at

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