American Anti-Catholicism and the Confessional | John B. Buescher | CWR
A brief history of the anti-Catholic rhetoric deployed in the US against the sacrament of Confession.
The highest tides of anti-Catholic feeling in this country occurred in the 19th century. The standard explanation for this simply points to Protestant fears that the waves of Catholic immigrants, especially from Ireland, would take their jobs away.
Anti-Catholicism, as this explanation goes, was rooted in the Protestant fear that the “trying of swords” between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism which had reshaped European history was moving to the continent of North America, and that the Protestant United States was not only being outflanked and encircled by Catholic Latin America and French Canada, but that the US was itself being undone from within by Catholic immigrants, who were simply waiting until they could impose their anti-American views on the country by their hive-mind bloc voting, controlled by “priest police.” The most well-known exponent of this view of the Catholic Menace was inventor and painter Samuel F. B. Morse, who in 1835 wrote and published Foreign Conspiracy against the Liberties of the United States.
But there was certainly another aspect of the antipathy to Catholics: they were thought to be essentially alien in the sense of un-American, that is, they could not or would not be assimilated to basic American principles of freedom and the common good. Some of this came out into the open during the battles over the public schools and parochial schools—and Catholics today may still have some lingering sense of that—but the other place this particular anti-Catholic rhetoric was deployed was in attacks on the Catholics’ sacrament of Confession.
Catholic apologist James Chancy wrote in 1888, “By far the bitterest attacks of the Protestants have been directed against the Confessional. They merely scoff at the other sacraments of the Church, but of the Sacrament of Penance their condemnation is strong, their hate deep, bitter, and lasting.”
Why was their antagonism focused most especially on Confession? Chancy continued, “Instinctively they feel this is one of the greatest powers the Church wields to preserve its members from the contamination of the world, the continuance of the indulgence of passion, and the taint of heresy.” Unsurprisingly, this was not what non-Catholics offered as their reason for opposing it so strongly. Confession, to them, was the very sink of iniquity and foremost danger to the republic. Today’s Catholic surely would be surprised to learn this. Or to learn that two ex-Catholic priests carried the banners in the crusade against Confession.