In 1960, John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic president of the United States. His election proved a watershed moment for Catholics, long accused of being more loyal to the pope than to the American government. Yet, more than 60 years later—and with another self-identified Catholic in the White House, at least for now—many progressives seem possessed by anti-Catholic animus.

In recent “undercover reporting,” a left-wing activist posed as a practicing Catholic to bait Justice Samuel Alito. “I don’t know that we can negotiate with the left in the way that, like, needs to happen for the polarization to end. I think that it’s a matter of, like, winning,” she said. “I think you’re probably right,” Alito replied. “On one side or the other—one side or the other is going to win. I don’t know. I mean, there can be a way of working, a way of living together peacefully, but it’s difficult, you know, because there are differences on fundamental things that really can’t be compromised.”

A predictable media ruckus ensued, but it would be hard to find a person in the United States, religious or otherwise, who wouldn’t agree with Alito’s remarks to some degree. Certainly, the 85 percent of Democrats who believe that abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances would agree. Neither this position nor its opposite suggests a looming theocracy.

The logic behind this exercise in “gotcha” activism echoes anti-Catholic arguments made throughout American history: a Catholic’s beliefs (certain ones, anyway) cannot be separated from his work; therefore, he should not be able to serve in high office. In 2017, California senator Dianne Feinstein told Amy Coney Barrett, during her confirmation hearings for her seat on a U.S. Court of Appeals: “the dogma lives loudly within you.”

What dogma was Feinstein referring to? After all, President Joe Biden and former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi claim to be practicing Catholics. Moreover, all five Catholic Supreme Court justices recently ruled that the abortion pill mifepristone could remain available. Perhaps the “dogma” doesn’t live as loudly as some think—or in the way that they think.

This same sort of anti-Catholic hysteria was evident in the online response to Kansas City Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker’s commencement speech at Benedictine College in May. You’d think that America was on the cusp of a rolling Catholic tide. If anything, the opposite seems true. Only 23 percent of self-identified Catholics attend Mass every Sunday; another 50 percent report attending seldom or never. The Catholic Church has experienced one of the largest declines in regular attendance of any major American religious group over the past two decades.

What, then, is motivating all this anxiety about certain Catholics? No doubt some of it is due to the Church’s historical teachings on issues now regarded as controversial. But it may also reflect a more deep-seated resistance to religiosity in general. We see a rising intolerance for civil-society institutions that provide people with a sense of place and identity beyond those provided by government or political party. Religious practice poses an inherent threat to statism.

The Left often presents religion as a polarizing force, but it seems more likely that a lack of religious participation has facilitated the alienation that many feel today. Numerous studies report a greater sense of social support and lower rates of depression among religious people. Church attendance has been linked to better health outcomes and higher rates of tolerance. Houses of worship also seem to be among the last remaining places where people encounter socioeconomic diversity and, in the case of Catholics especially, racial diversity. Among Americans who volunteer, a third do so through religious organizations. The Catholic Church, in particular, is the world’s largest charity and the leading non-governmental provider of education and medical services.

In an age when social observers like Jonathan Haidt are sounding the alarm about “disembodied, asynchronous, shallow, and solitary” lifestyles, weekly experiences like Mass attendance give people the opportunity to be engaged, empathetic—and together.

As for those concerned about the rise of populism, church attendance seems an effective antidote to that, as well. In the 2016 Republican primaries, church attendance was inversely correlated with support for Donald Trump among Christian voters. “Dechurching” seems to be creating the very partisan reality that many on the Left accuse Catholic church goers of facilitating.

If the goal is to create anxious, hyper-partisan, lonely, and increasingly intolerant communities, then anti-Catholic left-wing actors are right to target the Church—the more they weaken it, the more we’ll see the social dislocation they claim to deplore.

Photo by Catherine McQueen/Getty Images


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