Anti-Catholicism, Good and Bad

In the first two articles in this series we attempted to define a Protestant as a western Christian (as opposed to Eastern Orthodoxy) who is self-consciously out of fellowship with the Bishop of Rome but belongs to a Protestant church. This means that Protestantism emerged in the West, not in the East where the Orthodox communions were established, and that Protestantism was inherently not Roman Catholic. To be Protestant, therefore, is in some sense to be anti-Catholic. The question immediately arises whether being anti-Catholic is legitimate in this day of political correctness, religious tolerance, and political alliances. In other words, if we are going to be Protestant, and if it means being anti-Catholic, how should we express anti-Catholicism?

Any student of church history must concede that some of the darkest periods of American Protestantism involve its opposition to Catholics. An architectural tour of Philadelphia will confirm this. The Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia (completed in 1864), is an impressive building, though its windows seem oddly designed. They appear disproportionately high on the church’s exterior walls. This is because architects determined to place the windows beyond the reach of brick-hurling Protestants. Indeed, Philadelphia was the scene of riots during the 1840s where Protestants engaged in physical violence against Roman Catholics and their churches.

Protestant-Catholic Warfare in America

So strong was religious warfare that parts of nineteenth-century America resembled Northern Ireland today. A political party was established to oppose Roman Catholics from holding public office. A secret patriotic society, the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, began in 1849, admitting only American-born Protestants without Roman Catholic relatives. Members swore to oppose the election of foreigners or Roman Catholics. Because of their secretiveness and their frequent furtive responses to inquirers with, “I don’t know,” they became known as the KnowNothings.

Anti-Catholicism of this sort was basically political, owing less to theological objections than to fears and suspicions about what non-Protestants would do to the United States. In the minds of many, Roman Catholicism stood for hierarchy and ecclesiastical oppression, while Protestantism (and especially Calvinism) was the fountain head of political liberty. This was the predominant view for three centuries, roughly from the English Parliament’s execution of the Roman Catholic Charles I in 1649 until the election of a Roman Catholic American President, John F. Kennedy, in 1960.

For its part, Rome did little to relieve Protestant fears. In the wake of its humiliating defeat in the French revolution, Rome took a very reactionary position toward the emerging political order and its anti-modem stance lasted until the Second Vatican Council, convened in 1962. Everywhere that western democracy spread, it found opposition from Roman Catholicism. In 1864, Pope Pius IX published the “Syllabus of Errors,” opposing liberty of conscience and the separation of church and state. In 1899, Leo XIII attacked “Americanism” in his encyclical, Testem benevolentiae. Among the errors he named was the adaption of the faith to modem civilization.

In sum, Rome was opposed to three primary features of modem society: freedom of ideas and inquiry, political freedom and limited government, and free markets. In many cases, Rome’s opposition to these modem developments was astute and plausible in certain respects. Organic and ordered society, many Roman pontiffs believed, was better for families and churches than the chaotic, individualistic, and rootless one that modem politics encouraged.

Rome’s opposition to freedom of ideas, politics, and economics played directly into American Protestant fears and prompted opposition to Roman Catholic immigrants in the United States. In language that resembles current debates about immigrants who do not know American ways, Protestants used to worry that Roman Catholics, many of whom came from non-English speaking countries, would not make good citizens.

One example of the standard Protestant rhetoric against Rome can be found in Josiah Strong’s best-seller, Our Country: Its Possible Future and Its Present Crisis (1885). He argued, as many Protestants had been taught to argue, that the United States’ political order and culture depended on the right kind of faith. In his chapter on “Romanism” Strong outlined the basic antagonism between “the fundamental principles of our government” and “those of the Catholic church.” He listed quotations from the pope as well as other church officials and publications indicating Rome’s opposition to freedom of conscience, free schools (“one of the comer-stones of our Government”), and the subjection to the laws of the United States as opposed to loyalty to the pope himself.

Conversely, Strong insisted that wherever Protestantism went civil liberty followed. The two greatest characteristics of Anglo-Saxons were civil liberty and spiritual Christianity, thus explaining why the English, the British colonists, and the people of the United States were both the most free and the most devout. “It is not necessary to arguer,” Strong wrote, “to those for whom I write that the two great needs of mankind, that all men may be lifted up into the light of the highest Christian civilization, are, first, a pure, spiritual Christianity, and, second, civil liberty.” Such confidence made complete sense to Strong’s Anglo-American Protestant readers.

For their part Presbyterians contributed to this logic by associating the Reformed faith with political liberty and republican forms of government. In his short book,  Presbyterianism: Its Affinities (1863), the New School Presbyterian, Albert Barnes, observed that one of Calvinism’s chief contributions was representative government. Presbyterianism for Barnes represented a middle course between monarchy and radical democracy. In fact, he wrote, “all just notions of liberty in modem times” were connected with the fundamental principles taught by Presbyterianism. Charles Hodge was also vulnerable to the logic that presumed Presbyterian conviction to be the source of modem political liberty. At the end of an 1855 lecture on the nature of Presbyterianism, he traced significant ties between Calvinism and republican forms of government. “It is the combination of the principles of liberty and order in the Presbyterian system,” he declared, “the union of the rights of the people with subjection to legitimate authority, that has made it the parent and guardian of civil liberty in every part of the world.”

Even Abraham Kuyper argued this way in his Lectures on Calvinism (1898) when he boasted of Calvinism as the champion of political liberty in the West. Kuyper quoted from the American historian, George Bancroft, who wrote, “The fanatic for Calvinism was a fanatic for liberty, for in the oral warfare for freedom, his creed was a part of his army, and his most faithful ally in the battle.” Kuyper heartily concurred. “The logical development,” he wrote, “of what was enshrined in the liberty of conscience, as well as liberty itself, first blessed the world from the side of Calvinism.” For Kuyper, therefore, Roman Catholicism thwarted western progress. “Rome’s world and life-view represents an older and hence lower stage of development in the history of mankind. Protestantism succeeded it, and hence occupies a spiritually higher standpoint. He who will not go backwards, but reaches after higher things, must therefore either stand by the worldview once developed by Protestantism, or on the other hand, point out a still higher standpoint.”

As late as the 1960s conservative Presbyterians in the United States would still hear versions of these older political arguments as part of the basis for Protestant anti-Catholicism. In his popular book, Roman Catholicism (1962), Lorraine Boettner identified Roman Catholicism as one of the two “totalitarian systems” threatening the United States. For Boettner, Rome’s teaching was even more dangerous than Communism because “it covers its real nature with the cloak of religion.”

A Better Anti-Catholicism

As much as these objections to Rome on political grounds were either plausible because of the papacy’s own opposition to modern society or simply part of spirit of the age in which these Protestants wrote, this form of anti-Catholicism will no longer do. For starters, Roman Catholics in the United States are some of the best exponents of American political ideals. But even more important, the case against Roman Catholicism was always much more about theology and the church than about politics and the state.

Consider, for instance, the argument about politics that John Calvin lays out in his Institutes. In Book four he writes, “whoever knows how to distinguish between body and soul, between this present fleeting life and that future eternal life, will without difficulty know that Christ’s spiritual kingdom and the civil jurisdiction are things completely distinct. Since, then, it is a Jewish vanity to seek and enclose Christ’s Kingdom within the elements of this world, let us rather ponder that which Scripture clearly teaches is a spiritual fruit, which we gather from Christ’s grace.” Calvin was not arguing that politics was wicked or inherently polluted. He taught that the work of magistrates is a help for the Christian pilgrimage and the state ought to be obeyed. Even so, the sphere of the state was, Calvin argued, distinct from Christ’s kingdom. The reason was that the spiritual government of the church, not the civil laws of the state, was the one that prepares us for “an immortal and incorruptible blessedness.”



The Westminster Confession of Faith develops Calvin’s insight in its chapter on Christian liberty. The first article of chapter 20 defines Christian liberty in this way:

The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law; and, in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin; from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation; as also, in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto him, not out of slavish fear, but a childlike love and willing mind.

What is important to see here is that the much revered doctrine of Christian liberty in the Reformed · tradition had nothing to do with political liberty. Of course, Calvin and the Westminster Divines had the state very much on their minds and believed that the Bible taught explicitly about the responsibility of the state to punish evil and reward good citizens. Calvin and the Westminster Divines were also agents of a state church, and so needed to be careful about insinuating any sort of view that might undermine the political order. Even so, they avoided identifying the gospel with any kind of political regime. Here is how the Westminster Divines put it in chapter twenty of the Westminster Confession:

And because the powers which God hath ordained, and the liberty which Christ hath purchased, are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another, they who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God. And, for their publishing of such opinions, or maintaining of such practices, as are contrary to the light of nature, or to the known principles of Christianity (whether concerning faith, worship, or conversation), or to the power of godliness; or, such erroneous opinions or practices, as either in their own nature, or in the manner of publishing or maintaining them, are destructive to the external peace and order which Christ hath established in the church, they may lawfully be called to account, and proceeded against, by the censures of the church.

This article clearly upholds the teaching of Romans 13 which recognizes the legitimacy of governors like those in first century Rome as authorities ordained of God. As such, Christian liberty may not be used to resist the magistrate’s authority which comes from God. The flip side of this teaching is equally important for seeing the errors of much Protestant anti-Catholicism since the late eighteenth century: just as the gospel may not be used against the rulers that God has ordained, so the gospel may not be employed to justify a certain kind of politics—monarchy, republicanism, democracy, or socialism. To equate Christianity with liberal democracy or republicanism in the United States is to commit what Calvin called the “Judaic folly” of identifying spiritual truths with political norms.

Contrary to the teaching of Calvin and the Westminster Standards, American expressions of anti-Catholicism have too often misunderstood the relationship between the gospel and politics, going so far as to identity a form of politics with the Protestantism itself. As Calvin and the Divines demonstrate, the struggles that led to the formation of Protestant churches were not about democracy or republicanism or free markets. To be sure, Protestants needed to engage politics because the church itself was part of the political order. But Protestantism did not have a political theory. The Reformation was about not the good society, but the good news of the gospel and the good church.

Americans All

When Rome changed on modern politics, as it did at Vatican II, and opened itself up to a host of developments in the modern world as  matters in which Roman Catholics should engage, and when Protestants themselves became less confident about modem politics, gradually the older objections to Rome collapsed. Religious antagonism among American Protestants and Roman Catholics (and Jews) has changed dramatically since World War II. The older arguments about liberty and tyranny no longer make sense. This raises an important dilemma for Protestants. If the standard forms of anti-Catholic arguments are irrelevant, what is now the proper basis for objecting to Rome and fulfilling that anti-Catholic impulse that is at the core of being a Protestant? Many Protestants are at a loss for a coherent answer. Rome no longer seems backward, superstitious, and tyrannical. Indeed, it seems strong, reasonable, and coherent in contrast to either the left-of-center politics of the Protestant mainline denominations or the sometimes simplistic politics of the evangelical Religious Right. Protestants are increasingly tongue-tied when it comes time to object to Rome. The challenge for Protestants today is to recover older and better arguments against Rome than the ones American Protestants have so often used. A good form of anti-Catholicism exists. It is based on Protestant beliefs about the Bible, sin, salvation, and worship. Those beliefs were essential to the Reformation. But beyond the history, they are crucial to men and women who want to be right with God.

Dr. D. G Hart and Mr. John R. Muether are coauthors of several books, most recently Seeking a Better Country: 300 Years of American Presbyterianism (P&R, 2007). Both are ruling elders in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church: Dr. Hart at Calvary OPC, Glenside, Pennsylvania, and Mr. Muether at Reformation OPC in Oviedo, Florida. Dr. Hart is the Director of Fellowship Programs and Scholar-in-Residence at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Mr. Muether is the historian of the OPC and Librarian at Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, FL.