Some notable politician who is not Catholic really ought to come to the defense of Catholics – because they are now under assault from anti-Catholic Catholic politicians. Just as there is no anti-communist so fierce as an ex-communist, so there is no anti-Catholic quite so energetically opposed to Catholic orthodoxy as a Catholic politician on the make and in need of votes from others who may share his distaste for all things Catholic.
The uninterrupted assault on Catholics, the Reverend Robert Barron points out in National Review, is bone wearingly old. Arthur Schlesinger, the reliably liberal historian and social critic, used to say that a poisonous anti-Catholicism was the oldest prejudice in the United States, an early bloom that washed upon our shore with the arrival of the Mayflower.
In the Boston of Sam Adams’ day, anti-Papists used to place an effigy of the pope in a chair that was paraded through the streets – Boston’s version of the English Guy Fawkes celebration – to be jeered at pelted with missiles launched by the equivalent of today’s anti-Catholic Catholic politicians.
Without the aid of Catholic France, General George Washington could not have prevailed over the British, and Washington, who rarely forgot the patriotic good deeds of his friends, recalled this saving service when he addressed his letter to the Catholic Church in America in 1790. It was Mr. Washington’s hope, he wrote, that “as mankind becomes more liberal they will be more apt to allow that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community are equally entitled to the protection of civil government.”
Thomas Jefferson, who wrote to Danbury Baptists a letter in which he used the phrase “separation of church and state,” showed his appreciation of the work of the Catholic Church in a world set against it.
When, following the acquisition of Louisiana from Napoleon, the Ursuline Sisters in New Orleans wrote to then President Jefferson expressing fears they might lose their property under the new governance of the United States, Mr. Jefferson wrote back to assure the nuns that the Constitution prevented the government of the United States from using its power to deprive them of their religious liberties:
To the Soeur Therese de St. Xavier Farjon Superior, and the Nuns of the order of St. Ursula at New Orleans.
I have received, holy sisters, the letter you have written me wherein you express anxiety for the property vested in your institution by the former governments of Louisiana. The principles of the constitution and government of the United States are a sure guarantee to you that it will be preserved to you sacred and inviolate, and that your institution will be permitted to govern itself according to it’s own voluntary rules, without interference from the civil authority. Whatever diversity of shade may appear in the religious opinions of our fellow citizens, the charitable objects of your institution cannot be indifferent to any; and it’s furtherance of the wholesome purposes of society, by training up it’s younger members in the way they should go, cannot fail to ensure it the patronage of the government it is under. Be assured it will meet all the protection which my office can give it.
I salute you, holy sisters, with friendship & respect.
Mr. Jefferson’s view that the government of the United States should – because it must constitutionally – make accommodations favorable to religious institutions was but a whisper in the wind for most Catholics in the United States who continued in the grip of oppression. In Boston, shortly after Mr. Jefferson issued his letter to the Ursulaine nuns, a Mother Superior in a Boston nunnery unsuccessfully held off a mob that burnt her nunnery to the ground.
To put it briefly, Catholics in America never had an easy time of it, especially just before and after the Civil War, when poor German and Irish immigrants, later Italians, began flooding major cities in the Northeast. Used to the Know-Nothings of the Lincoln period, the invidious, anti-Catholic Blaine laws, and what then must have seemed the unassuageable anti-Catholic animus of those whose motto seemed to be “We’re aboard, tow up the life-line,” Northeast Catholics were not at all surprised when then Senator of Massachusetts Jack Kennedy asserted in his campaign for the presidency that he could never become the Pope’s political stooge.
Some Catholics still prefer Hilaire Belloc’s more courageous formulation. On the stump in England, one of Mr. Belloc’s speeches was interrupted by a heckler who accused him of being a papist. Mr. Belloc fetched in his pocket for his rosary beads, flourished them over his head and thundered at the heckler, “Madam, do you see these beads? I pray on them every night before I go to bed, and every morning when I awake. And if that offends you, madam, I pray God that he spare me the ignominy of representing you in parliament.”
Jefferson might have applauded that remark. But not Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo.
Here’s Reverend Barron on Cuomo:
“In the course of a radio interview, Governor Andrew Cuomo blithely declared that anyone who is pro-life on the issue of abortion or who is opposed to gay marriage is ‘not welcome’ in his state of New York. Mind you, the governor did not simply say that such people are wrong-headed or misguided; he didn’t say that they should be opposed politically or that good arguments against their position should be mounted; he said they should be actively excluded from civil society! As many commentators have already pointed out, Governor Cuomo was thereby excluding roughly half of the citizens of the United States and, presumably, his own father, Mario Cuomo, who once famously declared that he was personally opposed to abortion. Again, the very hysterical quality of this statement suggests that an irrational prejudice gave rise to it.”
The reverend is a priest and therefore an interested party. G. K. Chesterton, Belloc’s friend, was a convert and so understood Catholicism from the outside in, and he saw Mr. Cuomo descending the staircase of history decades before he was born:
"Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense . . . becoming more and more human. When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined skepticism, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding to no form of creed and contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded."