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New Scholarship on Religion and Literature, 2000-2012 (November 2013): Anti-Catholicism

By Miriam Elizabeth Burstein


Anti-Catholic discourse figured prominently in nineteenth-century Anglo-American culture.  Polemicists anxiously debated Catholicism’s threat to national security, to normative gender relations, to reason, and, of course, to Protestantism.  It is not an exaggeration to say that writers on both sides of the Atlantic thought that the fate of empires hinged on maintaining Protestant solidarity in the face of the Catholic onslaught.  Michael Tomko’s important British Romanticism and the Catholic Question: Religion, History, and National Identity, 1778-1829 investigates the political, cultural, and, indeed, aesthetic ramifications of the debates leading up to Catholic Emancipation in 1829.  Tomko understands such debates to be explicitly or implicitly in dialogue with the Protestant national settlement afforded by the Glorious Revolution; Romantic poets and novelists sought methods of rearticulating the relationship between Protestant majority and Catholic minority (in England, in any event) that might stabilize a religiously fraught national identity.

Susan M. Griffin’s Anti-Catholicism and Nineteenth-Century Fiction takes a transatlantic approach to its topic, tracking how anti-Catholic anxieties frequently manifested themselves in fears about gender, sexuality, and domesticity.  Catholic priests in escaped nun tales and attacks on the Oxford Movement usurp the father’s role while violating the bodies and/or the spiritual liberties of their “daughters” and “sisters,” and mid-century American Catholicism emasculates men and strips them of their qualifications for true citizenship.  Patrick O’Malley charts similar tensions by closely examining the role of anti-Catholicism in shaping Gothic sexualities in Catholicism, Sexual Deviance, and Victorian Gothic Culture, which finds the “nightmare” of Catholicism’s failed repression manifesting itself not only in obvious Gothic tropes (e.g., vampirism), but also in nonfictional discourses, such as late-Victorian sexology.  Diana Peschier’s Nineteenth-Century Anti-Catholic Discourses: The Case of Charlotte Brontë works through the core issues of anti-Catholic propaganda to show how Brontë often deployed such language in order to talk about patriarchal domination and female psychology; her anti-Catholicism, Peschier concludes, is more “metaphorical” than it is reflective of any deep-set theological conviction.

In a strictly American context, Elizabeth Fenton’s slender Religious Liberties: Anti-Catholicism and Liberal Democracy in Nineteenth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture argues that anti-Catholic rhetoric did more than just stigmatize American Catholics; instead, she argues, it paradoxically represented a Protestant United States as a land of religious pluralism and toleration.