When New York was predominately Protestant in the mid-nineteenth century, overt anti-Catholic persecution was common. Thomas Nast cartoons then often reflected a breathtaking anti-Catholic bias. Irish Catholics were drawn as monkeys; bishops wore miters that were really crocodiles. But even the Know-Nothing Party's attacks on Roman Catholics nationwide were tempered somewhat in New York City by the concentration of Catholics here and the formidable leadership of Archbishop John Hughes.
Today, 43.4 percent of city residents are Catholic, with Baptists (10.7 percent) and Jews (10.9 percent) in a tie for a distant second. The city has a Catholic mayor, Rudy Giuliani. The Speaker of the Council, Peter Vallone, is Catholic, and attends mass daily. The state's last four governors (Wilson, Carey, Cuomo, and Pataki) have been Catholic. There was a Catholic governor, Thomas Dongan, way, way back in 1684, who passed the colony's first religious liberty law. Cardinal John O'Connor was presented the Congressional Gold Medal just before his death last year, and was honored posthumously last month at St. Patrick's Cathedral by George W. Bush in his first appearance in New York as President, when most of the city's powerful turned out in force.
But in the last decade, Catholics, particularly those who adhere strictly to their faith, are coming forward to say that anti-Catholicism is back. "It seems to me that Catholics are welcome in society until they start talking about their beliefs, particularly on life issues and human sexuality," said Claudia McDonnell, a self-described orthodox Catholic who works in Manhattan.
"My faith is regularly denigrated in the mainstream press," said Austin Ruse, President of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, citing the New York Times and Washington Post in particular (charges the papers vigorously deny). "On a personal level, in social situations when you talk about your faith you get the curling of the lip and questioned about how you could believe these things. Someone actually moved away from me with a look of horror."
The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, based in the city and with a high profile nationwide over the last decade under its president, William Donahue, states on its website that "anti-Catholicism is more virulent and pervasive than ever before in American history." The League has been able to enlist such prominent advisory board members as conservative columnist Linda Chavez and philanthropist and former Domino Pizza CEO Thomas Monaghan.
According to Patrick Scully of the League, it goes beyond social snubs, citing examples such as "annual events at the Brooklyn Museum" like Chris Ofili's picture of "The Holy Virgin Mary" using elephant dung and "Yo Mama's Last Supper" featuring the artist, Renee Cox, as a nude Jesus. These works famously drew the ire of Mayor Giuliani and sparked huge debates over public funding of the arts. "There is a sense of unfairness and double standard," Scully said. "You would not see a display ridiculing the gay community or African Americans or Jewish people."
The majority of the League's complaints are against media portrayals of Catholics, from TV shows like "Ally McBeal" to movies such as Kevin Smith's "Dogma." But Scully is also concerned about legislation in Albany that, he said, "would have required Catholic institutions to violate their core beliefs by providing medical coverage for contraceptive procedures that the Church is against." Indeed, this is one of the few high-profile issues that Cardinal Edward Egan has taken up in his first year as Archbishop of New York.
Scully also cites the desecration of a series of statues outside Catholic churches last year, particularly in Brooklyn.
Ruse of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, which works to educate United Nations delegates and the public about the "family as the fundamental unit of society" (among other issues), believes that there is "an anti-Catholic elite in the United States Senate." He said that given the way Attorney General John Ashcroft's religious beliefs were treated during his Senate confirmation hearings, "I feel that as a believing, practicing Catholic, I need not apply for certain government positions."
But Philip Nobile, a New York journalist at TomPaine.com and a former editor of the lay Catholic magazine Commonweal with a pontifical degree from the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, disagrees. "Catholic bashing is a very misused term because you do not bash Catholics when you criticize certain beliefs. Beliefs are fair game.
"Anti-Catholicism is not in the same league as anti-Semitism," said Nobile, a non-practicing Catholic. "Catholics in New York are now the 'overdog' and have no minority status whatsoever." It is some Catholic organizations, indeed, who have been accused of doing the bashing, against gay people, who are excluded from marching in the St. Patrick's Day parade in Manhattan.
Catholics are, like people of all religions, protected by city, state, and federal human rights laws. Randolph Wills, deputy commissioner of the City Commission on Human Rights, said that though there are some 1,100 complaints of discrimination they receive annually, there have been a total of just 27 complaints since 1995 where the person has indicated that his or her Catholicism was at least part of the reason for suffering bias -- 22 employment cases, three concerning housing, and two in public accommodation. Creed as a whole makes up three percent of their complaints.
Scully said that the League handles numerous complaints from Catholic individuals. "In New York, we helped some people who were in rehab who were not being allowed to go to mass and had trouble getting to reconciliation confession," he said. They contacted the state and it was rectified. "I remain convinced," he said, "that anti-Catholicism remains the only acceptable bigotry."
Andy Humm is a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights. He is co-host of the weekly Gay USA on Channel 35 on Thursdays at 11 PM.