La Thuile

Mary in the Encounter with Protestantism

At the Center of the Drama of Human Liberty

In his recently published book, The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice (Oxford University Press, 2003), Protestant (but formerly Catholic) historian Philip Jenkins argues that anti-Catholicism remains deeply embedded in American life. Anti-Catholicism, he maintains, was once part of “right wing” ideology, but today it has become an inseparable part of the ideology of the left. Both ideologies make the same claim, namely, that the Catholic faith is intrinsically incompatible with the passion for freedom that defines the American project and unites Americans of radically different viewpoints into a common nation. The American settlers’ view of Catholicism is well documented. As Monsignor John Tracy Ellis wrote in his 1956 book American Catholicism, a “universal anti-Catholic bias was brought to Jamestown in 1607 and vigorously cultivated in all the thirteen colonies from Massachusetts to Georgia.” Even after the foundation of the new country and its Constitutional protection of religious liberty, this popular anti-Catholicism continued to agitate crowds, leading often to violence against Catholics and Catholic property. It was not until the 1950’s and 1960’s, when many Catholics were assimilated into the larger culture, that this anti-Catholicism began to go underground. Still, even John F. Kennedy was confronted by it, and when he declared that his Catholicism would not influence his decisions as President, Kennedy opened the doors to the new form of Anti-Catholicism, one that differentiates between Catholics as individuals who claim the freedom to form their own religious and political opinions, and those who are said to follow blindly the teaching of the bishops and the Pope.
Anti-Catholicism has become an issue in the United States today mostly because of its political implications. The problem is not the rejection of particular Catholic moral teachings–which, understandably in a pluralistic democracy, must expect sharp opposition from those who hold contrary viewpoints. Anti-Catholicism surfaces when those who disagree with particular Catholic moral teachings suggest or clearly state that the Catholic conception of freedom itself is simply incompatible with the American project. This was precisely the claim of American anti-Catholicism from the beginning.
And yet, something interesting is happening today. As believing Protestants and Catholics find themselves victims of anti-faith prejudice by dominant cultural circles, a fruitful encounter between these Protestants and Catholics is taking place. The time is ripe for this to happen. As Paul Berman has shown in Terrorism and Liberalism (W.W. Norton, 2003), the present conflict between the United States and radical Islam is a struggle against the Western view of the place of religion in society. Indeed, it constitutes a challenge to all of Christianity concerning the relationship between freedom and faith, just as Protestantism had challenged the Catholic Church.
A dialogue on the nature of freedom will take us to the point in which human freedom encounters the Infinite Mystery that sustains our existence. Jesus Christ is the embodiment of this encounter, and the “place” where it takes place, the “space” where true freedom is possible, is the Blessed Virgin Mary, as Father Giussani has been insisting recently. Dante called her the “fixed term of the eternal council.” “Fixed” is not an obstacle to liberty, since the “fixed term is a suggestion that comes from the Eternal that confirms God’s work,” as Fr Giussani writes. This “suggestion” is the basis for Mary’s liberty, and ours. Mary is at the center of the drama of human liberty. She must be at the center point of our dialogue with American Protestants about freedom. Mary’s response to this “suggestion,” the “exaltation of the eternal” is the revelation of true freedom. This is what we can bring to our encounter with American Protestantism today.