POLITICS, POWER, AND THE CHURCH by Lawrence Lader (Macmillan: $22.95; 320 pp.)
A hundred and fifty years ago, anti-Catholicism was a thriving enterprise. Books telling of young girls lured away to orgy-ridden convents, tracts warning of papal plots to crush American liberties with the votes of fast-breeding Catholic immigrants, were best sellers. Not only hack propagandists but some notable Americans contributed to this stream of literature--Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of telegraphy, for example, and the distinguished New England preacher Lyman Beecher. They were doubtless sincere in their fears but they let prejudice and ignorance twist fact into fantasy.
"Politics, Power and the Church" may be pale and genteel by 19th-Century standards, but it is unmistakably in the same tradition. "The development of Catholic power," it begins," . . . has followed a careful design." The first stage of this "careful design" involved the creation of urban political machines "as much at the service of the hierarchy as the political bosses." The latest stage has been a successful grab for "national power," achieved through alliance with Protestant Fundamentalists. We are only on Page 1.
Lader marches through all the issues of public morality and church-state tension that have been the stuff of recent controversy: abortion; public subsidies for parents choosing religious schools; church teaching on marriage, divorce, and birth control; church wealth, media power, and Vatican financial scandals. As a Catholic layman and editorialist I have been at odds with official church positions in several of these areas, but in no case do I find that Lader has given readers anything resembling a fair presentation of the arguments on both sides and the principles at stake. Lader mixes one-sided and often dubious interpretations of constitutional theory with choice examples of overbearing behavior by local church officials, many drawn from the '40s and '50s, even as far back as the 1920s. His language is loaded: The hierarchy "violently" opposed the ERA; church opposition to homosexual acts is based on a "twisted" interpretation of Scripture and consists of "furious denunciations"; a Conservative cardinal is an "unrelenting bullyboy." Of course no one on Lader's side of these debates is ever found campaigning "violently," issuing "furious" denunciations, or being "unrelenting," let alone a bullyboy.