kevin flatt
Kevin Flatt is associate professor of history at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ont.

In 1917, at the height of the Great War, King George V hosted a dinner with Canadian soldiers at Windsor Castle. The conversation turned to the question of conscription which was then bitterly dividing English and French Canadians. Some of the soldiers reportedly remarked that when they got back to Canada they would shoot all French Canadians, "especially" the Catholic bishops and priests.

Nearly a century later, published a piece by longtime left-wing journalist Murray Dobbin in which he called the Catholic Church "little more than an organized pedophile ring" and a "criminal conspiracy" run by the Pope. The Vatican and all its churches, he wrote, should be closed and sold to fund condom distribution in Africa.

What unites these opinions is a thread of anti-Catholic anger that runs throughout English Canadian history. Although we might assume anti-Catholic feeling largely disappeared after the 19th century with the increasing secularization of the country, according to a new book by historian Kevin P. Anderson, it stayed strong beyond 1900. In Not Quite Us: Anti-Catholic Thought in English Canada Since 1900 (McGill-Queen’s, 2019), Anderson shows that a remarkable variety of Canadians distrusted or even despised Catholicism into recent decades.

Anderson’s examples include conservatives, liberals and socialists, feminist judges and rubber company magnates, prominent politicians and fringe conspiracy mongers. Although they differed about practically everything else, what they had in common was an image of the Catholic Church as a sinister force undermining the freedoms of Canadians, and of Catholics as superstitious, backwards, priest-ridden dupes whose loyalty to the Pope called into question their loyalty to Canada. In the first half of the century, such sentiments were often tangled up with prejudices against French Canadians or certain kinds of immigrants. Later in the century, Catholicism was opposed in more general terms as incompatible with supposed Canadian values like democratic decision making and sexual liberty.

While holding fast to the freedom to differ with and criticize anyone, let’s remain on our guard against unfounded prejudices.

One of the fascinating things about anti-Catholicism was its ability to unite both theologically liberal and conservative Protestants who otherwise had little in common. The anti-Catholic attitudes of United Church leaders like C. E. Silcox were paralleled by the strong language used by some conservative Protestants like T. T. Shields and Oswald J. Smith. In 1926, for example, the normally careful Smith warned that given the opportunity the Catholic Church would "rise up and massacre the Protestants just as eagerly as in the days gone by." During the Second World War, Shields called the Catholic Church "the enemy of all free men," "a totalitarian system" and "the fourth Axis power," inflammatory language given Canada was fighting a war against the totalitarian Axis powers.

To be sure, there were legitimate grounds to be concerned about actions by some Catholic politicians, such as Premier Duplessis in Quebec, that threatened the rights of non-Catholics. Moreover, prior to the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), the international Catholic Church fell short of a full official commitment to individual liberty. And persecution against opponents of Catholicism took place too, as when someone set fire to the churches of Shields and another outspoken critic in the 1930s.

Just as importantly Protestants had, and still have, good biblical reasons to disagree with Catholic teaching on matters including justification, the sacraments, the relationship between the Bible and church authority, and the status of the bishop of Rome, among others.

But the anti-Catholicism documented by Anderson has many harmful traits as well. It reflects lazy habits of thinking – comparing "our" best ideals with "their" worst failings, blaming the current generation for the sins of the ancestors, and assuming all of "them" think and act the same way. In the early years it was often entangled with ethnic prejudice and xenophobia. More recently it often reveals assumptions about progress, individualism, secularist education and sexual liberation that are incompatible with a biblical world view and can just as easily be turned against evangelicalism.

In recent decades, Evangelicals and Catholics have increasingly recognized the substantial things we have in common, including a commitment to freedom of religious conscience and biblical moral teachings that has become uncommon in Canadian society. Friendship and co-operation is possible even across serious differences.

While holding fast to the freedom to differ with and criticize anyone, let’s remain on our guard against unfounded prejudices against unpopular religious groups – whoever they may be.