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.