By now most of you will have seen some of the footage from Washington DC, in the aftermath of the March For Life, of a group of teenage boys from Covington Catholic High School in a stand off with a small group of native Americans. Initial footage suggested that the boys had surrounded the group, led by armed services veteran Nathan Phillips, and tried to intimidate them; later, a longer section filmed by the group Black Israelites revealed that, in fact, the opposite was true: Phillips and his associates had approached the boys, and begun to loudly protest in the midst of them.
One of the things that has struck me about the event is the vast amount of criticism and, frankly, abuse some of the children involved have received online and in the press – not only when the first clips emerged, but even after the new footage emerged. To see progressive celebrities such as Reza Aslan appear to condone assault in response is shocking. (In a tweet he asked, "Have you ever seen a more punchable face than this kid’s?")
But what has been concerning, beyond the threats of violence, has been the nature of some of the abuse. A large amount of it has expressed aggressive anti-Catholic sentiment, and very few people seem to have noticed. Roman Catholicism is often portrayed negatively, certainly on the progressive left. It is characterised as patriarchal in structure; it opposes abortion and divorce. It is also seen through the prism of race: Catholicism, for its European roots, is considered a white religion.
It won’t have helped the boys at Covington that theirs is an all-male school where “jock culture” has proliferated, but the response to this incident shows that prejudiced sentiments about Catholicism in the US runs deep. Catholicism and poverty have often been equated throughout American history, given that it was the religion of Latino, Irish and Italian immigrants. Questions over allegiance, too, have hurt American Catholics. Long before Justice Brett Kavanaugh faced accusations of sexual assault, he had his integrity as a judge questioned on the basis of his faith: when it came to matters like abortion, would his judgement be compromised by his religion? This accusation was made also against Trump's nominee Neil Gorsuch.
The jokes and insults aimed at the boys in the video (including many instances of people wishing upon them rape at the hands of priests) have slid under the radar. This, I would argue, is because people still find anti-Catholic prejudice acceptable.
The problem is twofold. First comes the issue of decency and double standards, and second, that of misperception.
Jokes made about systematic tragedies and in the Catholic Church are no better than those made about other religions. But these ones, though not considered polite, are permitted in the public sphere in a way jokes about, say, Islam or Judaism simply not tolerated. A great many of the people going out of their way to condemn the boys are either participating in, or avoiding criticising, the abuse. That would not be the case if the boys belonged to another religion; it would be condemned as sectarian or racist.
It is right that such abuse should be condemned, but it cannot be that, in modern America, protection is handed out in the social sphere to Muslims, Jews and members of other religious minorities but is denied to Roman Catholics (Kathy Griffin’s call for their doxing being just one example). Either America is for free speech for all, or protection for all from rhetoric they don’t like. The former is preferable, but a situation where protection is afforded to one but denied to another is a situation based on prejudice. There is nothing progressive about that.
Isolating Catholicism as an acceptable subject for abuse by progressive figures also ignores the fact that modern Roman Catholicism is not the preserve of white men. There are almost 133 million Latinos living in the United States, and more than 70 per cent of them are Roman Catholic. Catholicism is the chain link that binds Latino communities together: it is a deeply ingrained part of their identity and shared culture. To continue to allow Catholic prejudice, then, is to accept abuse against almost a quarter of Americans – many of whom already suffer from inequality.
Catholicism has its faults, but it is a religion that is followed by a wide portion of American society. Rhetoric against Muslims, Jews and other religious groups is regularly called out for what it is in the US – and it’s time progressives did the same for Catholics.
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