Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Recent headlines in our area about a public school administrator in Greenwich discussing discriminatory hiring practices struck a chord with many of us, for his apparent comments specifically targeted Catholics and persons over the age of 30. His words about Catholics were offensive because they were lazy and superficial: come on, buddy…if you want to insult us, come up with something original and don’t rely on tired stereotypes and hackneyed tropes. His claim that he refuses to hire Catholics is offensive because it is profoundly discriminatory and illegal. The Greenwich Public School system has begun an investigation into his comments. The episode is a reminder that anti-Catholic prejudice is a reality in our area. Shortly before this story came to light, you may have read a story about the Catholic schools in Stratford (including my own elementary school, St. James) asking the Stratford Board of Education to restore funding for school nurses. Due to budget constraints, the school nurse position the town provided to the Catholic schools had been cut. This seems to be less an occurrence of anti-Catholic bigotry and more a short-sighted but sincere attempt to manage finances. Nevertheless, it is hard not to wonder if Catholic schools (and by extension, Catholics) are not sometimes seen as second-class.
When we see anti-Catholic prejudice or bigotry, we can be understandably offended. Philip Jenkins, a professor at Baylor University and at Penn State (and an Episcopalian) has written about anti-Catholicism as “the last acceptable prejudice.” We ought to be aware of the reality of this prejudice and its long history. In the thirteen colonies, with the exception of Maryland, Catholicism was a barely tolerated religion. As our fledgling nation grew, so did anti-Catholic sentiment, often explicitly. The State of New York barred Catholic priests from crossing its borders until 1784. The 13th president of the United States, Millard Fillmore, was a member of the Know-Nothing Party, a nativist party that held an anti-immigrant and explicitly anti-Catholic platform. Famously, in 1844, when nativists threated to burn Catholic churches in New York City, Archbishop John Hughes (appropriately nicknamed Dagger John) posted armed guards at every Catholic church and sent a musket to the Jesuit president of Fordham University with the order to defend the campus at all costs. John F. Kennedy had to defend himself against the accusation that he would be unable to loyally discharge the office of President of the United States because his Catholicism made him beholden to a foreign power. “The dogma lives loudly within you,” was the unintentionally complimentary insult from Sen. Dianne Feinstein aimed at now-Justice Amy Coney-Barrett during her Court of Appeals confirmation hearing in 2017. Anti-Catholic bias has deep roots in our country and deserves to be called out. When we are confronted with such bigotry, we ought to raise our voices against it just as we would against other unjust discrimination.
At the same time, the soft persecution so often present in our society is something we should expect. I would even venture so far as to say we ought to rejoice when anti-Catholicism rears its ugly head. For us Catholics, especially in these United States, quiet anti-Catholicism is almost the default setting for our environment and so we should not be surprised. Rather, it should remind us that Jesus tells us that there will be persecutions, that we will be hated for our discipleship, that persecutions will come. When that happens, it’s a sign that we are living our faith and a reminder that, like Jesus, we are called to be a sign of contradiction in the world. We might take comfort from a text dating from the second century, the Letter to Diognetus. It reads in part:
“Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign… And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country… They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again…They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they, rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life…the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments… Christians love those who hate them just as the soul loves the body and all its members despite the body’s hatred. It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together. The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven. As the soul benefits from the deprivation of food and drink, so Christians flourish under persecution. Such is the Christian’s lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself.”