Cancel Culture Comes for the Catholic Church

“Yes, I think the statues of the white European they claim is Jesus should also come down. They are a form of white supremacy. Always have been…. All murals and stained glass windows of white Jesus, and his European mother, and their white friends should also come down. They are a gross form of white supremacy. Created as tools of oppression. Racist propaganda. They should all come down.”

This is historically ignorant. The Church, rightly, has encouraged local cultures to depict Jesus and Mary in culturally relatable ways, including portraying them as Black, Asian, and, yes, even white. One might think such radical, anti-Christian rhetoric would be found in the recesses of the “intellectual dark web,” or perhaps in a lecture by a virulently atheist Marxist academic at a secular university. There’s some truth to the latter. The author is Shaun King—who in addition to being a civil rights activist, co-founder of a criminal justice reform PAC, and Black Lives Matter supporter, is also currently a writer-in-residence at Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project. He also has over one million followers on Twitter, where he wrote the above, and in 2018 was ranked by Time magazine as one of the twenty-five most influential people on the internet.

Mobs in California in the last several days have torn down multiple statues of Saint Junípero Serra, a Spanish priest and friar of the Franciscan Order who founded nine Spanish missions across the state in the eighteenth century. He was canonized in 2015. Statues of Christopher Columbus are also being toppled across the country. The largest Catholic fraternal organization in the United States, which made $185,652,989 in charitable donations and performed 75 million hours of community service in 2017, claims Columbus, a devout Catholic with a complicated history, as their namesake. The cancel culture is coming for the Catholic Church, and it is coming quickly.

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Over the last several years, as demands have increased for the removal of statues and the renaming of buildings, monuments, schools, and federally-managed sites, I have tried my best to listen to and consider the arguments. Some calls, I thought, seemed like no-brainers. Why, indeed, should there be anything honoring Nathan Bedford Forrest, a prominent early leader of the Ku Klux Klan, and a historically verified war criminal who mercilessly murdered black soldiers? Though Fort Bragg has a storied history, why, indeed, should the base, which trains some of the very best of the American military, be named after a Confederate general who was widely considered a terrible battlefield commander, and who was hated by his own men?

Some arguments have seemed less persuasive. Many argue there should be nothing named after Confederates because they were traitors. Perhaps. Though, weren’t the Founding Fathers treacherous towards the British Empire, to which they had sworn fealty? One man’s traitor is another man’s patriot. Now vilified, Robert E. Lee sincerely believed his first allegiance was to the Commonwealth of Virginia, not the Union. Moreover, some Confederates were explicitly or implicitly pardoned and returned to public service. Fort Gordon is named after John Brown Gordon, who was not only elected to the Senate after the war, but was the first ex-Confederate to preside over it. John S. Mosby, a notorious guerilla fighter in my native Northern Virginia, served after the war as American consul to Hong Kong and in the U.S. Department of Justice.

The argumentum ad racism, which in addition to being an ad hominem, is also historically unfair when used in a way that condemns past generations while absolving our own. By our contemporary standards, most political leaders in our nation’s history could be called “racists” for one reason or another. This argument evinces what C. S. Lewis labeled “chronological snobbery,” whereby our current culture judges all previous generations according to our historically and culturally conditioned sense of morality, pretending that we, somehow, have a miraculous monopoly on the truth. As commentator David Marcus recently noted, future generations may “condemn us for the luxuries we enjoy off the backs of foreign workers in slave-like conditions.” Or, if the pro-life movement succeeds, they may view Americans’ spineless references to abortion as someone else’s “choice” as horrific (as well they should!).

Nevertheless, I tried my best to put liberal demands in a broader political or cultural context. I would say to myself, “If Virginians, or even Richmonders, want the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue removed and replaced with statues honoring less controversial Virginians, is there any real harm? If renaming a bunch of U.S. military facilities after American war heroes rather than failed Confederate generals is carried out, could the nation not then move on to more important matters, like addressing the various socio-economic forces that disproportionately harm Black Americans? Does preserving statues of Robert E. Lee matter all that much, when he himself didn’t want them, and his own descendants now join the chorus of those demanding their removal?”

In the wake of the last few weeks, I doubt such token gestures will assuage the anger of the mob. They’re defacing statues of George Washington, our first president and first great military leader, in Baltimore, toppling statues of Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, in Oregon, and removing statues of Teddy Roosevelt, one our most popular presidents, as well as Ulysses S. Grant, the Union General (and later president) who defeated the Confederacy. Where does this end?

With calls like those of Shaun King—who, staggeringly, was also the founder and pastor of a church in Atlanta—I think we have an answer. It ends when Christ and Catholicism, too, are extricated from the public square.

In 1844, Protestant nativist rioters in Philadelphia attacked Catholics and their churches. Ecclesial leadership organized fraternal Catholic organizations to defend the churches with force of arms. More than 175 years later, it seems possible that priests and bishops may soon have to call on the Knights of Columbus to do the same, in order to prevent woke mobs from vandalizing or destroying our parishes. Writing at The Federalist, Catholic David Marcus (a Catholic) says that conservatives who have sought to pacify the mob by accepting the removal of “racist” public art are cowards. For the mob, “It was never about the Confederacy, or slavery, or racism. It was always about destroying the very concept of America and replacing it with a Marxist utopia. That’s who you decided to compromise with.”

I hope Marcus is wrong, but I increasingly suspect that he’s right. Was it foolish and naive to think this damnatio memoriae—the “condemnation of memory”—would remain purely about politics and history, and not direct its energies at the Catholic Church? Liberal, mainstream America: call this despicable anti-Catholicism what it is, and prove Marcus wrong. For God’s sake.

Photo credit: Getty Images for Diamond Ball


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