by Richard Doerflinger
“A state need not subsidize private education. But once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.” So said the Supreme Court’s majority opinion in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue on June 30.
Montana had disqualified Catholic schools from a state-subsidized scholarship program under its constitution’s “Blaine Amendment,” named for Congressman James G. Blaine, who sponsored a similar amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1875.
That amendment narrowly failed to pass Congress, but inspired amendments against funding “sectarian” schools in over three dozen states. Public schools promoted reading of the King James Bible and a generic Protestantism — “sectarian” was largely a code word for “Catholic.”
Such policies reflected prejudice against Catholic immigrants. Anti-Catholic riots in some cities included the burning of Catholic churches and other institutions. Anti-Catholicism was a tenet of the Know-Nothing Party, in some ways a forerunner of the Ku Klux Klan.
Such prejudice has waxed and waned but never entirely disappeared. The chief “impurities” that brought Puritans to our shores in 1630 were residual Catholic beliefs and practices in the Anglican Church. Among the original Colonies, only Maryland initially welcomed Catholics; Catholicism was banned even there for a time when Protestants gained power.
When the U.S. Constitution was sent to the states for ratification, some objected to its ban on religious tests for public office — claiming that without such a test “popery” may dominate the country or a pope become president. If that seems bizarre, we should recall that senators recently expressed grave concern over judicial nominees’ belief in Catholic “dogma” — and over a nominee’s membership in a Catholic fraternal society, the Knights of Columbus.
The Knights were actually founded at a time of severe anti-Catholic prejudice. They chose Columbus as patron not because of his treatment of indigenous people — a checkered history beyond the scope of this column — but to remind elites claiming descent from the Mayflower, “We (Catholics) got here before you did.”
The Ku Klux Klan was both racist and anti-Catholic. It supported the Blaine amendments, and in Oregon succeeded in banning Catholic schools — a law overturned by the Supreme Court in 1925. An article in the July/August issue of the Knights’ magazine Columbia recalls that a Klan publication described the Knights as “the organization most interested in the destruction of the Ku Klux Klan.”
But the Knights’ anti-Klan efforts were not motivated solely by Catholic self-interest. During World War I, their hospitality centers for U.S. soldiers were unique in equally welcoming soldiers of all races. “The Gift of Black Folk,” a book by NAACP co-founder W.E.B. Dubois documenting black Americans’ contributions to the nation, was commissioned and published by the Knights. The Columbia article recounts how the Knights have advanced racial equality throughout their history.
This does not mean anti-Catholicism in the U.S. is comparable to our society’s shameful history of racism. Catholics were not dragged here in chains and enslaved. As the U.S. bishops’ 2018 pastoral letter “Open Wide Our Hearts” observes, racism has been called the “original sin” of our nation. Nor are American Catholics without sin, as even some religious orders and dioceses once owned slaves and resisted racial justice.
My point is this: Catholics should be in the forefront of the fight against racism in our society for two reasons. First, Catholic teaching declares our equal dignity before a loving God. Second, historically we can appreciate what it feels like to be looked down upon, to be seen as inferior by other Americans. The struggle against bigotry is one struggle and it is ours.
Doerflinger worked for 36 years in the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.