Walls Have Ears

Why do I say that? Why do I think our critics are rougher on us when we are not around? I will admit that much of my evidence is anecdotal. More than once, back when I taught in a public high school, colleagues of mine who were discussing issues such as abortion, school prayer and vouchers for students attending Catholic schools would get an uneasy look and change the topic when I entered the room. They knew that I disagreed with them on these questions, and would engage in polite give-and-take with me over them. But the look on their faces when I turned up unexpectedly led me to believe that they were more severe in their evaluation of why I thought the way I did than they would admit openly to me.

Am I being paranoid? I don’t think so. We all know the phenomenon I am describing. People will discuss the role in society of racial, ethnic and religious groups differently when members of the group in question are present. Comments about, say, country club WASPs, Jewish lawyers, Irish cops, homosexual hairdressers, members of bowling leagues, NASCAR fans, and Italian construction workers will be less candid when any of these individuals are participants in the discussion. I have noticed that the most ardent white liberal defenders of the civil rights movement are more willing to discuss what Daniel Patrick Moynihan meant by the need for “a period of benign neglect” and the role of Al Sharpton in national politics when no blacks are in the room.

Am I saying that people are dishonest? No. Not always. It depends. Often what I am describing is merely an attempt to find just the right word, to make sure that no one is offended or gets the wrong impression. But there are also times when people will pretend to be sympathetic to a social cause for the sake of being politically correct. Their true feelings surface only when they are with people “they can trust,” people who think like them.

So, what do secular liberals say about Catholics when we are not around? Most of us have come across the comments by Yale professor Peter Viereck (“anti-Catholicism is the anti-Semitism of liberals”) and Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. (“anti-Catholicism is the deepest bias in the history of the American people”). Exactly what kinds of things did Viereck and Schlesinger hear that led them to these conclusions? I recently came across some examples of what they might have been.

The discovery took place when I was paging through Behind the Lodge Door, Paul A. Fisher’s book on the influence of Freemasonry in the United States. While doing his research, Fisher went through the papers of Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. He found some comments of Frankfurter’s that were not meant for Catholics to overhear. For example, Frankfurter admitted that he was “a reverent agnostic,” that he did not believe in “spiritual Messiahs” and was “rather leery of explicit ethical instruction,” such as that which Catholics accept from the Church.

One of Frankfurter’s correspondents was the British socialist Harold Laski. Laski wrote that education that was not secular “is not education” and that “no one can read Catholic books and still believe in God — the thing is too utterly puerile to fit a big world like this.” Laski was convinced that “it is impossible to make peace with the Roman Catholic Church. It is one of the permanent enemies of all that is decent in the human spirit.”

Frankfurter was an ideological ally of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. In a letter to Laski, Holmes offered his observations about the Catholic teaching on Hell: “I wonder whether the world would not be better off if we never had invented the notion of sin.” Holmes’ impression of Catholic nuns teaching Catholic children? “It makes me sick at heart… to hear poor little devils told that what they thought were good actions were bad, because they had a thought of reward or punishment and did not do it simply for Christ — and the next minute to hear a puke in an apron trying to scare them stiff with a picture of hell they are likely to be sent to.” I have heard sneering loudmouths in saloons snarl some offensive things about priests and nuns, but nothing comparable to “a puke in an apron.”

Fisher also came across a letter written in 1947 to Justice Harold Burton from A. Powell Davies, pastor of All Soul’s Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C. at the time. The letter was an invitation for Burton to attend a commemorative service at the Jefferson Memorial. In it, Davies praised “Jefferson’s Bible” as a noble attempt to “extricate the gospel of Jesus from the maze of amazing and unbelievable dogmas and superstitions in which he believed it had been almost lost.”

Davies warned of those who would “make a mother image of the Virgin Mary — which is what the ancients used to do with their earth-goddesses, who were also always virgins and always mothers.” Said Davies, “There is no God in the sky. God is in the heart that loves the sky’s blueness. There is no army of angels, no hosts of seraphim, and no celestial hierarchy. All this is man’s imagining. Very little that entered into Christianity came from Jesus.” Davies was as dismissive of the biblical understanding of God the Father: “The ancient God of miracles and interventions” is “really dead” and there is “no longer any kindness in letting anyone cling to such a fantasy.”

Justice William O. Douglas concurred with pastor Davies’ views. In a foreword to a book by Davies he wrote, “I do not think that morality depends upon any particular system of religious doctrine. The ecclesiastical imperialism which claims that there cannot be a universal good society until Christian doctrine is accepted is both mischievous and grotesque. What is needed is the identification of the spiritual and moral values in all the great provinces of religious culture (and outside them), so that the world may have a common basis for its united life.”

“Puke in an apron?” Christian doctrine a “grotesque” religious belief and a “permanent enemy of all that is decent in the human spirit”? Probably Catholics are not being overly sensitive if we get the impression that pro-life advocates, opponents of homosexual marriage and Mel Gibson are not treated as respected segments of American society in the debate over cultural questions. Maybe the peevish reaction of the secular humanists in power when they hear our voice in the pubic square is a reflection of what they say about us when we are not in the room.

James Fitzpatrick's new novel, The Dead Sea Conspiracy: Teilhard de Chardin and the New American Church, is available from our online store. You can email Mr. Fitzpatrick at fitzpatrijames@sbcglobal.net.

(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)

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