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An Affiliated Catholic Talks about Stereotypes

This kind of connection often makes me a shlicha (Hebrew, someone sent to teach or represent) between communities. In the past, I’ve frequently had words with other Jews (and gentiles) who speak dismissively about Catholic theology without understanding it. Issues like the Immaculate Conception (it’s the conception of Mary, people, not of Jesus, and immaculate because she was conceived without Original Sin, not because she was conceived without sexual relations), or the role of the saints, are often not well understood by non-Catholics. When I hear people speak dismissively of them, I tend to jump in and educate.

So I’m used to operating between communities, and seeing both Jews and Catholics through my bicultural lenses. Still, when I was asked to write about media images of Catholics as “the other,” I was briefly stumped. I write often about issues of Jewish representation in the media. I can go on at length about the apparent fear of Jewish religious practices that operates in TV land, or the stereotyping of Jewish women. But Catholics? It didn’t immediately ring any bells. Are Catholics really portrayed as “the other” in the media?

I knew exactly what I thought of first when someone said “Catholics and the media,” but I put it aside for a moment, and rummaged through all my movie and TV memories. Who’s out there? President Bartlett of “West Wing,” taking communion while his daughter is being held by terrorists. The cheerful nun-fearing family on “Grounded for Life.” A brilliant, short-lived nineties TV show, “Nothing Sacred,” set in an inner-city Catholic parish church. Whoopi Goldberg in a habit, shaking up a convent full of ladies in old-fashioned habits.

Positive images, so far. (Well, I think Whoopi’s Mother Superior is a positive image.) Were there negative ones? It seemed to me that Catholics were more likely to be shown as religiously and community identified than Jews, on television. But of course, I realized, that was because the yuk-yuk factor that’s applied to Jewishly identified Jews in many movies and television shows is applied not to Catholics in general, but to ethnicities to which Catholics belong. Every identical loudmouthed New York Italian ever to need a laugh track is a negative Catholic stereotype. (Think Joey Trebbiani of “Friends.”) They’re just being classified by last name, rather than parish. It’s not religion, it’s the mere fact of having an ethnic identity that makes you “other” on TV. Catholics, as well as Jews, are subject to that.

But all of this, I knew, was simply avoiding the real issue. Search “media” and “Catholics” on the Internet, or just speak to any practicing Catholic you know, and right away you’ll find that the only issue that counts these days is the one surrounding press coverage of the unfolding series of sexual abuse scandals within the Church that have unfolded over the past few years.

This is an enormous and ongoing news story, and the way it’s been covered (extensively) in the U.S. news media has been a source of incredible stress, anguish and anger for many Catholics. I believe that it’s also triggered, for many, a sense that Catholics are viewed with suspicion and contempt in America. “Catholics are the last group in America that you can be openly prejudiced against,” is a statement I’ve seen repeated over and over in the Catholic press over the past year or two.

I don’t believe that’s true, for a number of reasons. However, I think it does accurately reflect the way people who say this feel. The American Catholic community is caught in an enormously stressful situation. Some Catholics feel their trust in the Church wane as scandal after scandal–not the fact of sexual abusers in the priesthood as much as the Church hierarchy’s repeated pattern of protecting the abusers and not their victims–comes to light. Others see the media’s handling of the situation, and the resulting ripple of effects–from Catholics redefining their relationship to the Church to ugly priest jokes on the Internet–as an attack by anti-Catholic liberal media types, seeing a chance to use a few bad apples to defame the Church and her people.

My own impression is that the media coverage has not been overtly biased, but it has definitely been painful for me to see. What I miss, when article after article reports the latest uncovered horror, is a broader picture of how this affects day-to-day Catholic life. People are trying to walk a fine line between being a faithful Catholic and being used by a hierarchy they can’t fully trust any more. This is an enormous news story, and one I’m not seeing covered. Nor is it reflected in the Catholic lives in fictional television shows–I’ve yet to see President Bartlett tackle this one, and I don’t imagine I will.

Are Catholics still “the other” in America’s media? At the end of the day, probably yes, in many ways. And so, an argument could be made, is anyone falling outside a narrowly defined profile–white, nominally Protestant, middle class, “ordinary.” Seeking a representation that seems valid preoccupies the rest of us, as we see ourselves badly reflected. And those of us who represent one or more cultures are in an ideal place to compare those reflections, and to see them interact, and we work toward a better understanding for ourselves, and of one another.

Charlotte Honigman-Smith

Charlotte Honigman-Smith is a writer and Jewish activist living in San Francisco. She is the editor of Maydeleh: a zine for nice Jewish grrrls, and of JewishAnd, an anthology of writing by Jewish women from mixed families. In her spare time, she teaches high school English. Her work has most recently appeared in Joining the Sisterhood: Young Jewish Women Write Their Lives, edited by Tobin Belzer and Julie Pelc, SUNY Press, 2003.