Friday, October 27, 2006

Subtle, and Not So, Bigotry

One of the interesting things about being the token Catholic on a non-Catholic religious organization's staff is the opportunity to observe how pervasive anti-Catholic sentiment really is. And often among people who would consider themselves progressive, ecumenically minded sorts with nary a bigoted bone in their bodies. And yet...

Several days ago a comment in passing led a co-worker (a newish one, who I'm not certain knows I'm Catholic, so I don't think she was trying to be provocative) to complain about schools serving meatless lunches on Fridays in lent. "It's about choice," she averred. Balderdash. 'Round these parts, there is no choice in elementary school lunches--if chicken is today's entree, everyone gets chicken--and middle school and high school cafeterias are a la carte, so there's always choice. Thus the complaint is not that the kids all have to eat mac and cheese on Friday, but rather that an accommodation (and a small one, at that) is being made to Catholic kids. And why should that bother anyone, unless they have at least a subconscious bias against Catholics?

A couple of years ago, an article appeared in the local press about someone who had been taken in by one of these e-mail offers of untold zillions in an African bank, which can only be liberated by the solicitor of the deceased owner of the zillions if he has a "partner" in the U.S. A discussion of that in the office prompted someone to mention that some years previous, a local church of my employers' denomination had lost money in a similar scam; I conversationally mentioned that a local Catholic church had had the same experience. "They can afford it," said one of my playmates dismissively. Actually, they couldn't: they were and are a struggling parish. But even if they could, what a shameful thing to say. The implication was clear: They're not us, so their loss doesn't matter; they're Catholics, so who cares.

A co-worker (who does know I'm Catholic, and who was I think making an effort to be hurtful) mentions a conversation with someone else who has read on "a web site" that Catholics "still" believe you can "earn" your way into Heaven. (Not precisely true, but precision is not something that is prized by bigots.) Causing someone else in that conversation to comment that he "hoped they would have done away with that by now." Golly. Where to begin? First of all, "a web site" is not what we would call a reliable source. Anyone can put anything on a web site. Second, not knowing the name of the web site makes it impossible to verify its contents, or to know whether the contents were being properly relayed by the commenter. Third, why would the commenter "hope" the Catholic Church would do or not do anything? If you're not a Catholic, what do you care what the Catholic Church professes? Finally, the smug implication--we're enlightened, they're benighted--is patently offensive. (Just as I would imagine the holder of such an attitude would be offended by the revelation that in some quarters his insistence on the concept of "grace alone" is not considered enlightened but rather incomplete.)

Item: In reference to the ordination and installation of a new bishop to the local Catholic diocese, one of my co-workers says that, watching the local news and seeing the rows and rows of priests in attendance, she is so proud to be a member of a church that ordains women. Well, okay. She should be proud of her church; everyone should be. Most of the time I am, too. But there again I sense an undercurrent of we're so enlightened and they're not. I certainly get no sense of respect for another church's right to set its own policy and make its own way to what it sees as the will of God. And, again, the subtle anti-Catholic thread is clearly evident: the Roman Catholic Church is far from the only church body that does not ordain women. And yet I hear little bemoaning of the fact that, say, Southern Baptists don't allow women in the pulpit. Why is the Catholic Church singled out? Well, because it's the Catholic Church, silly!

Let's be plain here: If it were left to me, the Catholic Church would have both women priests and married priests. But that's not the point. The point is, do I respect the right of Baptists, Presbyterians, Mormons, Jews, Hindus, etc., etc., to make their own policies? Not do I agree with these policies, but rather whether I have respect for them. If the answer is yes, then I have to acknowledge that "respect," if genuine, means being mature enough to avoid looking down my nose at policies that are different from those of my church or those that I would establish were it up to me.
Somebody once said that anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable bias in America. I used to think that was largely a dodge to keep the Catholic League in business, but my opinion has been altered these past several years. Sadly, most of the anti-Catholic comments and attitudes I observe are so ingrained that the person in question almost certainly does not recognize them as such. In a way, that's the worst kind of bigotry.

Postscript: This talk of who and who does not know my religious preference might imply that I keep it secret. I don't. I don't bruit it about all the time, but I don't keep it confidential either. Anyhow, it's more fun (if that's the word I want) to sit back quietly and see what people have to say when they don't realize there's an outsider in their midst.

No comments: