Can Catholics be real Americans? This question has vexed many of us since 1776.There are many reasons to think we are not. Historically many Catholics have been immigrants, which is to say the wrong kind of immigrants: not White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Ecclesially, we belong to a church from which the WASPs’ British forebears freed themselves, a religion suspected of allegiance to a foreign power in the Old World. Philosophically and theologically, Catholics have long been associated with “illiberal” and “medieval” political and social doctrines, teaching supposed to contradict the dogmas of American democracy and Protestant civil religion.
When the Catholic faith of a public figure is called into question, this ancient history suddenly becomes painfully present in our own time. Many Catholics saw a return of just such anti-Catholic animus when U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein told
Judge Amy Coney Barrett in 2017 that “The dogma lives loudly within you.” That line, of course, has resurfaced in the wake of Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination.
Some Catholics have pushed back against this narrative, however. American Catholics have come a long way since the anti-Catholic nativism of the 19th century, they argue. We are fully assimilated into society—with the exception of recent immigrants, of course. As Steve Millies recently tweeted
, “It’s hard to be a victim as the hegemon. Catholics are the largest group of religious believers in the US. We have outsized social and cultural influence.”