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Monday, January 30, 2006

On early Unitarian fears of 'popery.'

Although I'm delighted to see that Patrick Murfin has joined the interdependent web of Unitarian Universalist blogs, I find it odd that his essay on Unitarian anti-Catholicism overlooks any theological or doctrinal root for the sentiment. Murfin focuses, like a good marxist, on class antagonism between the English Protestant New Englanders and Roman Catholic Irish immigrants. I wouldn't try to quarrel with this line of thinking because I think it's true so far as it goes, but sheer bigotry does not adequately account for the phenomenon. Murfin's essay misses the fact that many early 19th-century Unitarians were also registering a profound theological objection anchored in their own political theology.

He also assumes things about the ethnic and religious backgrounds of contemporary New England Unitarian Universalists that I don't think hold up under scrutiny. Every UU congregation I've visited in Massachusetts has large numbers of former Catholics — many more, in most cases, than "legacy" Unitarians with brahmin roots. Additionally, the anti-Catholic bias in Massachusetts strikes me as overwhelmingly a Catholic phenomenon these days: Ex-Catholics are much angrier and more anticlerical than most Protestants I know. Politically, of course, the state is center-left and increasingly independent, but continues electing center-left Catholic Democrats to the legislature and socially moderate fiscal conservatives as governor. So I don't see a political struggle that pits marginal UUs against Catholics anymore. (Not to mention the fact that the UUA and every other religious body in the state lined up with the four Catholic dioceses against the angry Catholic state senators who wanted to force financial statements out of churches, which the press — unable to see anything except Catholicism — barely noticed. The bill failed in the House.)

But back to theological history. I have suggested before that early Unitarianism wove together two different lines of thought. The first is what we usually think of when we say "unitarian." I call it our heretical legacy, and it's the more obvious part: Because religious liberals were willing to stand up for Christian doctrines that fell outside of the orthodox tradition, they were labeled "unitarians."

While this is the better-known aspect of early Unitarian theology, it is not the characteristic that lives on with particular vigor in contemporary Unitarian Universalism. (We may assume that Jesus isn't co-substantial with God, but most of us hardly care.)

The other line of thought that animates early Unitarianism is what I would call the democratic legacy. This is the line of thought that protested against the imposition of any particular dogma by the state or similarly empowered agency. It's a political idea, and for Protestants in revolutionary New England, the most compelling example of church-state coercion was Rome. For Unitarians, of course, the more immediate context was the dispute over the place of doctrine in determining who could join the local congregational church. The pope looked to them like a worldly king using coercive and hierarchical power to impose theological and intellectual conformity; as heirs to Protestantism and the Enlightenment, they didn't have many affirmative ideas of the pope or Catholic ecclesiology to draw on. And the pope was not exactly a big proponent of democracy or modernity back in the 19th century.

The Unitarians objected to bishops and popes as part of their theological commitment to democracy. I don't dispute the fact that this theological idea got mixed with nativism and economic anxieties about immigrants, nor do I dispute the observation that many Unitarians expressed — as many contemporary UUs continue to express — deep illiteracy and bigotry about other religions. But I think it's inaccurate and misleading to suggest that American theological liberals — who objected to kings and popes as part of the same agenda — were simply bigots. They weren't; they saw the papacy as an affront to true Christianity and true liberty. They were Protestants.

(It should be obvious but apparently isn't that the reason 20th-century Unitarians celebrated the Second Vatican Council is that they saw the Roman Catholic Church finally turning toward democracy and openness.)

Changes later in the nineteenth century complicated matters, however. The Romantic movement helped change how Americans understood the past. You can see the change vividly in Boston: The "Old South Meetinghouse" from the Revolutionary era is plain red brick with a tall white steeple; the new "Old South Church" built by the congregation in the late-1800s is an ornate Gothic structure influenced by Italian cathedral architecture. Think about that transition: The Puritans' great-great-grandchildren had embraced the architectural style — and the liturgical stagecraft — they had condemned as "popery." You can see the same thing in the rise of gothic architecture among the Unitarians and Universalists right on into the early 20th century. These Protestants had fallen in love with the medieval, although they were still prone to anti-Catholicism.

There were other changes, too. Leigh Eric Schmidt's wonderful new book, Restless Souls, traces the modern meaning of "mysticism" to the Transcendentalists, a group of largely Unitarian thinkers who, Schmidt says, rehabiltated the idea of the hermit, the religious solitary, an idea that had been scorned by Protestants in America for 200 years. They also broke the idea of mysticism — or what we now call "spirituality" — away from the church. (This is part of what Murfin alludes to in saying that the Transcendentalists were not as anti-Catholic as some other Unitarians. One could complicate this claim all over the place, but I'll move on.)

My favorite mid-century Unitarians took things a scandalous step further: Henry Whitney Bellows, in his 1859 "Suspense of Faith" address, used "Catholicism" to typify the unifying and social dimensions of religion and "Protestant" to typify the diversifying and individual dimensions of religion. He argued that Unitarianism had already swung as far to the Protestant pole as it could without detaching itself from history. (Oops!) His thesis wasn't well received, but the broad-church Unitarians like Bellows and Frederic Henry Hedge became keenly interested what we would now call the "living tradition" — the way that a historic tradition grows and changes while maintaining vital connections to its past. For Bellows and Hedge, this meant recognizing that Unitarianism wasn't so much a radical break with Christian tradition as a new development within it. They embraced Catholicism as part of our tradition even as they celebrated their liberal democratic Protestantism.

Quick recap: Unitarian anti-Catholicism, no matter how much it also reflected ethnic or economic bigotry, also often reflected a theological and political principle. We'd be seriously misled to overlook the importance of that principle. And the Romantic movement and the changes it introduced in American intellectual culture gave Unitarians new ways to understand and reappropriate aspects of Catholicism. Do either of these points excuse 19th- or 20th-century Unitarians from charges of anti-Catholic bigotry? No. I'm just saying that intellectual history is still important.

Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 30 January 2006 at 8:45 AM

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January 30, 2006 09:51 AM | Permalink for this comment

Coming from a non-Christian background, I always saw Protestants and Catholics as having a lot more in common than they realize. It seemed silly of me for intellectuals in the 19th and early 20th centuries to distinguish between definitive Catholic and Protestant ways of thinking.

Ogilvie Hall:

January 30, 2006 10:38 AM | Permalink for this comment

"Ex-Catholics are much angrier and more anticlerical than most Protestants I know." As a Catholic, I'd go along with that. I don't know a lot about Unitarians and their attitude to Catholics, but I have read about Anglicans who wanted to turn Roman Catholic, but who were put off by the allegiance to Rome--not the idea of it being undemocratic, but simply the fact that it was a city in a foreign land. Being Anglican, they felt, reinforced their 'Englishness'--turning Roman Catholic to some was almost like changing their citizenship.


January 30, 2006 06:07 PM | Permalink for this comment

Are you sure that this is not happening still today? I can see every now and then that American UUs keep defining themselves in contrast with and in opposition to diverse manifestations of American Protestantism, but they seldom take the Catholic Church as a valid "Other" as reference for self-definition.


January 30, 2006 07:22 PM | Permalink for this comment

Jaume, I was thinking about this question this morning after publishing my post. It seems to me that Unitarian Universalists tend to think of the "religious right" -- or fundamentalism -- as their religious other. Catholicism just doesn't seem to be on our collective radar. I may be missing something, but few UU institutions or leaders seem to be drawing on or reacting against Catholic rather than Protestant models.

Dudley Jones:

January 31, 2006 12:01 PM | Permalink for this comment

For those here who have been UUs for a long time: in all those zillions of sermons you have heard, how many times did you hear an UU minister say something good about Catholicism?


January 31, 2006 12:32 PM | Permalink for this comment

Or about Protestantism?

As for your question, Dudley, I've heard UU sermons or participated in UU adult religious education events that celebrated L'Arche, Thomas Merton, Flannery O'Connor, Mother Theresa, Julian of Norwich, Daniel Berrigan, and a Trappist monastery, to mention only the ones that spring immediately to mind. At least three of these services took place out in Mormon America, before I crossed the plains to Catholic Massachusetts.

But, theologically or religiously, a celebration of "Catholicism" strikes me as something a UU service would be hard-pressed to do. (I say this as a UU Christian who believes in a "holy catholic" and even "apostolic" church, but who finds Catholicism regularly interfering with catholicity.)

Patrick Murfin:

January 31, 2006 03:39 PM | Permalink for this comment


First of all thanks for responding to my post in Philocrites, which is universally recognized as the most important and most widely read of UU blogs. Just the mention will help people find my little lemonade stand, which just started dispensing its acrid wares from atop a cardboard box at the far end of a dead-end street in January. And thanks for the thoughtful response.

In a much longer piece, I would have examined at length the roots of the hostility in the Reformation, the bloody centuries of ensuing repression and counter-repression which was still fresh in the minds of those “Englishmen on the other side of the water” to whom the Jacobean wars were hardly ancient history. Throw in the still fresh memories of the extremely bloody (on the frontiers) French and Indian Wars during which it seems at times not entirely unlikely that the whole of English America might be over run by Catholic darkness, and you have ample reason to support a reasonable hostility to Catholicism and Catholics.

I also assumed a general knowledge of the theological and moral issues that divided Catholic from Protestant. And I assumed, rightly it turned out, that other participants in the UU History chat list from which my comments emerged, would cover those details better than I.

What is interesting to me is the sheer isolation of Colonial Protestants from any real contact with the actual Catholic Church as an institution. British North American colonies had been a distant Island of Protestantism for 150 years, with the exception of the Catholic enclave of Maryland. And even in Maryland the Catholic ascendancy was overthrown by the Protestant population explosion that overwhelmed it. American attitudes were sustained by those powerful human devises—memory and story which blend into legend and myth (not used here in either a pejorative way or to dispute a reality base) that become the basis of identity.

Your points about Protestantism and the origins of democracy are well taken. Indeed the suspicion that the Pope would use his authority to command his adherents’ political loyalty has been a lasting theme in American history, and certainly in Unitarian response. Indeed it is exactly that point, perhaps framed differently, that is the point at which current UU-Catholic relations can be rubbed raw.

It seems to me that fights in Massachusetts and elsewhere over Gay marriage have re-awakened face to face organizational antipathy. Throw in other issues like assisted suicide, stem cell research and above all reproductive rights and there is plenty of friction. I’m not saying that Unitarians Universalists view the Catholic Church as THE enemy (you are right in pointing out the fundamentalist, evangelical right is a bigger bug-a-boo to most of us now) but it certainly seen as an opponent in ways that interfere with traditional alliances over peace and poverty and even good inter-faith relationships.

The blame for this lies not only with us. The Catholic hierarchy has recently begun to direct local churches to sever even long standing ties with churches and organizations that have even tangential ties to support of abortion. Here in Illinois, the Rockford Diocese, to which our McHenry County communities belong, was among the first to enforce this causing local parishes to drop out of CROPWalks because a Planned Parenthood speaker had addressed a Church World Service convention and barring local priests from participating in the Diversity Day Festival (which is largely organized by my church) because pro-choice groups were allowed to set up information tables.)

UUs also notice that the Bush administration increasingly relies on Catholic lawyers in its appointments to the bench, including the Supreme Court and to policy making levels in the Justice and other cabinet departments. Bob Jones University not yet churning out great numbers of first rate legal minds, they naturally turn to the highly educated and sophisticated Catholic lawyers who come armed with a coherent conservative legal philosophy that re-enforces their positions.

Finally, before this gets way out of hand, a final note on a stress point seldom mentioned because it has become so ingrained in our UU culture. UUism has become (to the good I believe) saturated by feminist ideology and world view, so much so that we seldom stop to acknowledge it. It is in our very pores. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, remains the most visible bastion of patriarchal authority around. So vast are our differences on this that we can barely comprehend each other. If men are from Mars and women from Venus, we are a religious and cultural version of that phenomenon.

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