Anti-Catholicism and the English Language

Hating the Catholic Church is as English as beef mutton. The roots go back deep. In 1570, Pope Gregory VIII issued a fatwa against the Queen, saying anyone who assassinated that wretched Protestant Elizabeth Tudor was performing a Godly act. From then on, Englishness and Catholicism were defined as being at odds: Guy Fawkes and the gunpowder plot, the two revolutions (one in which a Catholic-sympathizing king was beheaded, one in which a Catholic King was sent into exile), the many wars against continental Catholic regimes, and even as late as the 1930s the abdication of a monarch for marrying a Catholic.

It’s all ancient history, you could say, but history has way of lingering on like an old injury, an occasional spasm of pain that shoots up long after the initial cause has been forgotten. To this day, Guy Fawkes is burned in effigy.

There is a curious linguistic legacy as well. In English, many words that have a Catholic connotation carry a bad smell with them, a suggestion of being alien and authoritarian. When we accuse someone of pontificating, we’re not saying that they speak as authoritatively as the Pope; rather, we’re saying that they are pompously talking with an exaggerated sense of the value of their words. Similarly, it’s not good to be doctrinaire or dogmatic, although for Catholics doctrine and dogma are the essence of the faith. The Jesuits are learned men and they teach a form of moral reasoning called casuistry. Yet to be Jesuitical is to be cunning, dissembling, and equivocating. Casuistry in English means clever and false reasoning, the very type of manipulative trickery practiced, supposedly, by the Jesuits. And propaganda: that comes from the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (“congregation for propagating the faith”), a committee of cardinals which was set up in 1622 to promote foreign missions. For us, propaganda inevitably also means manipulative arguments designed to stir up false feelings. (Propaganda didn’t join the English language until the early 20th century, but surely its distant Catholic origins explain why it sounds so bad to our ears.)

In using these ordinary English words – pontificating, doctrinaire, dogmatic, Jesuitical, casuistry, propaganda – we’re echoing far off religious wars. Implicit in the English language is a form of unthinking anti-Catholicism. Daniel Defoe had something like this in mind when he wrote in 1726 that London has “ten thousand stout fellows that would spend the last drop of their blood against Popery that do not know whether it be a man or a horse.” We don’t know if the pontiff is a man or a horse but we know we don’t want to be pontificating.

Something similar is happening now in the current wars that have a religious undercurrent. The Islamic words that get anglicized (jihad, fatwa, mullah, and ayatollah) are the ones that suggest conflict and alien authority. Linguistically, our wars will be with us for a long time yet.

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