It’s not uncommon today to hear Catholic apologists and intellectuals talk about the entrenched anti-Catholic bias in the mainstream media. While the Church is unquestionably a dramatic “target of opportunity” for many screenwriters and novelists, contemporary works of fiction have nothing on the vituperative anti-Catholic literature of the 19th Century.
Much of the anti-Catholic media in the 1800’s was fueled by the political movement called Nativism. This political current had nothing to do with actual Native Americans, but was ironically an expression of second- and third-generation immigrants against the wave of immigration in the early 19th century. These politicians– and the authors who supported their views– saw a threat to the American way of life posed by immigrants from Italy, Germany, and especially Ireland. These immigrants were overwhelmingly Catholic, and were attacked as infiltrators loyal only to the Church of Rome.
Popular writers like Samuel F. B. Morse, and Rev Lyman Beacher authored screeds decrying the threat to American liberty posed by the development of immigrant communities they called clannish and disloyal to the American republic. As the American system of public schools developed, books like the McGuffey readers sought to inculcate a decidedly Protestant form of Christianity.
Perhaps the most egregious work of Anti-Catholic literature was the 1836 publication, “Awful Disclosures of the Hostel Dieu Nunnery of Montreal,” by Maria Monk. A sordid tale of sex and murder allegedly committed in a convent, the book sold more than 3 million copies by the time of the Civil War. Monk’s own mother attributed the book’s confabulation to her daughter’s childhood brain injury. Nevertheless, many readers accepted Monk’s book as non-fiction, adding fuel to the fire of anti-Catholic sentiment.
By comparison, recent works by contemporary writers like Dan Brown are models of literary subtlety. While there are occasionally anti-Catholic currents in our mainstream media, religious discrimination in most forms is against the law, and Catholics are generally accepted as part of the fabric of American society. Regrettably, much anti-immigrant sentiment remains, and contemporary anti-religious discrimination is more directed at Muslims than Catholics.