When Catholicism was respected in U.S. culture

Growing up in Yonkers, N.Y., in the 1950s, I assumed that most everyone in the world was Catholic. There were Jewish kids peppered here and there, but we just didn’t meet that many Protestants. 

When Catholic John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960 and we discovered that Catholics made up only 20 percent of the U.S. population, we wondered where all those non-Catholics actually lived.  

What reinforced this image of a Catholic supermajority were not only the neighborhood and the parish that was at the center of it. American culture back then was awash in Catholic images and imagery. And not the snickering, laugh-behind-your-back stereotype of Catholicism that we see today.  

The popular culture in the 1950s was alive with the Church, with everyone from Bishop Fulton J. Sheen on television, Bing Crosby in records, and Cardinal Francis Spellman in the pages of Life magazine. 

In “The Look of Catholics, Portrayals in Popular Culture from the Great Depression to the Cold War” (University Press of Kansas, $34.95), Anthony Burke Smith argues that Catholicism and media in the 1930s, 1940s and into the 1950s were joined at the hip. 

Epitomized in movies like “Angels with Dirty Faces” in the 1930s and “Going My Way” in the 1940s, and Bishop Sheen’s “Life is Worth Living” TV series in the 1950s, Catholics represented for nearly 30 years the “new normal” in American culture. 

In the 1930s, Smith posits, the Church — and particularly its priests — were the cultural foundation in media of the New Deal during the Depression. The Church was the image of a cohesive, faith-driven community solving its problems together. In the 1940s, Catholicism represented in the movies and media culture the ethnic melting pot of America leading us to victory in war. And in the late 1940s and 1950s, the Church represented in media the values of home, patriotism and middle-class America facing up to communism. 

It’s a fascinating book, though at times it can tell you more about pigeons than you would care to know. The in-depth analysis of 1944’s “Going My Way” — with Bing Crosby as Father O’Malley — reminds me of Freud’s comment that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.  

Smith traces a direct line from Spencer Tracy in “Boys Town” to Father O’Malley through Bishop Sheen and on to Kennedy. Through a marriage made in media heaven, Catholics and Catholicism had become identified with core American principles and values with Kennedy’s election. 

Which inevitably leads to the question: What happened? Anti-Catholicism in media exploded in the early 1970s and has been almost normative ever after. 

I would argue that what changed was the media’s perception of the culture and its needs. The media were moving away from concerns about the neighborhood, the poor, the immigrant or the values that held us together — all those things represented by the Church. 

The media had moved on to launch a cultural war rooted in rugged sexual and social individualism with all the issues involved under that banner — everything from the contraceptive culture to abortion, euthanasia to homoerotica, pornography to guilt-free divorce. 

It all became a mishmash of bad ideas and bad social policy united by the belief that the Catholic Church is the enemy of it all. The Church was seen as the last bastion of the values that media had grown to detest. 

So goodbye Father O’Malley, hello the vitriolic anti-Catholicism of “Sister Ignatius Explains It All for You.” 

You can argue it is more complicated than that. But sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. 

Robert Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.