Catholic Conspiracy Theories


It was an ill-fated conspiracy with disastrous consequences. On November 5, 1605, a small group of fanatic Catholics in England planned to blow up the House of Parliament, killing the assembled leadership and assassinating King James I. When it had become clear that King James was not to grant Catholics any relief from the persecution of his predecessor, Queen Elizabeth I, the plot was hatched among a few desperate men. From a rented building the conspirators dug a trench to a cellar beneath Parliament. The room was filled with barrels of gunpowder. One of the conspirators, Guy Fawkes, was to set off the charge. But the conspiracy was discovered, Fawkes arrested, and a roundup began of possible conspirators. Among those captured were a small cadre of Catholic priests. They had nothing to do with the conspiracy. But the government was less interested in the facts, more interested in the propaganda value.

Donald Collins belongs to an anti-immigrant organization called the Federation for American Immigration Reform in Washington, D.C. He wrote a column a few months back entitled "Catholic bishops cross church-state line."

Collins’s alleged concern was the position taken by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on immigration reform. But that topic really got short shrift in his treatment. The reader of Collins’s piece would have been hard pressed to know exactly what the bishops’ position on immigration reform might be—or Collins’s position, for that matter.

Instead, Collins presented a dark litany about "Rome and these bishops" being hard at work for decades manipulating U.S. public policy in regard to abortion, contraception, the separation of church and state, and virtually every other issue under the sun on which the Church had spoken.

The proof in his pudding of the Church’s success is that, with the confirmation of Judge Samuel Alito, there is a bloc of five Catholic judges on the Supreme Court.

According to Collins, Alito succeeded in his nomination to the Supreme Court because of the behind-the-scenes power exercised by the bishops through their 1975 Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities. He claimed that the pastoral plan created "a national political machine controlled by the bishops" that "has taken over the Republican Party."

Collins painted a picture of "the bishops" as some kind of hidden manipulative power that controls how Catholics think and act with the goal of undermining American democracy. What we have here, according to Collins, is a calculated and cynical power grab over the "American body politic."

Welcome to one of the more popular Catholic urban legends: that the Church is out to undermine free governments because it is interested only in raw power. In contemporary novels such as The Da Vinci Code or The Third Secret, the Catholic Church represents tyranny, and all its actions are based on hiding some alleged truth that would undermine the Church’s secular power grab.

Collins uses this old-time Catholic urban legend as it is usually used: to attack a position the Church had taken in the public arena without ever addressing the issue itself. Why bother to argue ideas when you can simply appeal to visceral anti-Catholicism?

A Centuries-Old Tradition

This particular legend has a long pedigree, having cropped up over and over again in U.S. history and, in fact, before there even was a United States. When the Quebec Act of 1774 appeared to allow a French Catholic presence west of the Alleghenies, an anti-Catholic frenzy was raised in the colonies, with protests focusing on "a popish French government in our rears set up for the express purpose of destroying our liberties."

Nineteenth-century America was filled with stories of Catholic conspiracies to destroy the American republic. In 1836, Lyman Beecher, the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fame, published "The Plea for the West," in which he outlined a Catholic conspiracy to take over the Mississippi valley. Samuel Morse, inventor of the first successful telegraph in the United States, followed up with his own claim that European Catholic royalty were flooding America with immigrants who would become an internal army prepared for an uprising under the pope’s direction.

This kind of propaganda helped fuel the nativist anti-Catholic political movement of the Know-Nothing Party in the years prior to the Civil War. The party was based on the concept that foreign Catholic immigrants were gearing up—under the aegis of the Catholic hierarchy—to undermine American freedoms.

In 1887, Henry F. Bowers founded the American Protective Association, which became a powerful populist anti-Catholic political movement in rural America that lasted into the 1920s.

The APA spread the rumor that a papal decree had absolved all Catholics from allegiance to the United States. The Church planned a massacre of all Protestants on September 5, 1893, armed by caches of weapons hidden in the basements of Catholic churches.

Much of the APA rhetoric—where members swore to never vote for a Catholic, hire a Catholic, or join Catholics in organized labor—carried over to the revitalized Ku Klux Klan after World War I. The Klan held that Catholics were undermining true Americanism by the planned destruction of the public school system and a "foreign" takeover of American political life.

At the same time, a host of anti-Catholic publications were widely distributed. The weekly newspaper The Menace was founded in 1911, and by 1914 it had a circulation of nearly a million and a half and was distributed throughout the United States.

Amidst a host of convent horror stories and other anti-Catholic fantasies, The Menace warned of a dark Jesuit plot to take over America.

During the 1928 presidential campaign of New York’s Catholic governor, Al Smith, the phony Knights of Columbus Oath was resurrected, wherein Knights allegedly promised on papal orders to skewer Protestant babies in an all-out war to take control of America. The oath resurfaced in the Kennedy-Nixon campaign of 1960.

It was Paul Blanshard’s best-selling book American Freedom and Catholic Power in 1949, though, that defined this alleged Catholic threat to America from a purely secular perspective. Blanshard wrote of the dangers of a Catholic majority undermining traditional American civil liberties and provided the framework for what exploded in the abortion debate: that a Catholic pro-life position was an attempt to impose Catholic teaching on American life.

Throughout the last quarter of the twentieth century, the arguments over "life issues" (abortion, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, cloning and embryonic stem cell research) were often grounded in steamy anti-Catholic rhetoric. When physician-assisted suicide was being debated in Oregon in 1997, the pro-suicide position was carried on by the "Don’t Let Them Shove Their Religion Down Your Throat Committee," with "their religion" being the Catholic religion.

Consistently, the life issues were rarely debated on their own merits, and a bill of goods was sold on fear of Catholic power undermining American democracy. It still holds true today: Whenever anyone appeals to "separation of church and state," you can be pretty certain what Church they are referring to.

Collins’s article is simply one in a centuries-old line of rhetoric about Catholic power plotting to undermine and overthrow freedom.

Play Like a Campion

Where did this persistent Catholic urban legend come from?

Like so much of anti-Catholicism in Western culture, this myth grew out of the English Protestant Reformation, particularly the torture and murder of Jesuit priests during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I.

We all know the story of King Henry VIII and how he moved from wife to wife in sixteenth-century England hoping to sire a male heir and ended up in schism from the Church. St. Thomas More faced martyrdom under Henry.

But it was under Henry’s daughter Elizabeth I that England codified the first modern police state aimed specifically at Catholics and their priests. The Catholic faith that had been at the heart of English life at the beginning of the sixteenth century had nearly disappeared in a wave of persecution and harassment from the government and its spy network.

By the 1570s, the Church was dying. It was death by a thousand cuts, caused by Elizabeth’s policy of isolating the Catholic community, denying it priests to celebrate the sacraments, and a host of fines and humiliations that left a leaderless and apathetic Catholic community. For all intents and purposes, Catholicism in England had become criminal.

But a backlash was coming. A devoted group of young Catholic men was considering a mission to their own land, even if it meant torture and death if captured by the authorities. Many crossed the English Channel to Europe to study for the priesthood, vowing to return to invigorate and renew the Catholic faithful of England.

One of them was a youthful Edmund Campion. As a brilliant young student at Oxford, Campion had caught the eye of Queen Elizabeth, and it appeared he was on the path to glory, a high rank in the Church of England, and perhaps a sterling career in government or law.

In 1568, Campion was ordained to the Church of England, but very soon his conscience no longer allowed it. Within four years the young man with an established reputation as a scholar and writer, and an assured position in the new church hierarchy, threw it all away. He became a Catholic priest and committed himself to rejuvenate the Catholics of England as a member of the newly founded Society of Jesus.

In 1580, Fr. Campion returned to England.

The life of these new missionaries could not have been more difficult, as they lived under the constant threat of torture and death. They hid from house to house, celebrating clandestine Masses while spies constantly tracked their movements. The law was always on their heels.

Catholic homes constructed "priest holes," small openings behind closed walls within the very architecture of the house, where a priest could be spirited away at a moment’s notice when the law came banging at the door. To this day, in old English Catholic homes, restoration workers sometimes stumble across these sixteenth-century hiding places that had been forgotten by time.

Finally, Fr. Campion was caught, uncovered in one of those very "priest holes" when a local authority searching a Catholic home found loose plaster and took a crowbar to it.

Taken to London under armed escort, he went to trial four months later, charged in a contrived, trumped-up plot of a mass conspiracy to murder. It was a calculated attempt by the government to avoid any intellectual or theological arguments with the learned Campion. He had been tortured on the rack while confined to the Tower, so much so that at his trial he was unable to raise his hand to take an oath.

The results of the trial were a foregone conclusion. Campion was found guilty. Led from the Tower along the muddy streets of London in a driving rain, he was hanged, drawn, and quartered before the assembled crowds. He was forty-one years old.

Traitors or Martyrs?

The difficulty in these show trials and murders by the English government was that it did not want the perception that priests were being killed for their religious beliefs. It would not sit well with Catholic European powers, nor did the government wish to see a cult of martyrdom grow up around the dead priests.

Instead, the English government argued that these priests were being killed because their actions threatened to undermine English liberties. They were deemed traitors, and the propaganda of the day pounded that drum over and over. They could have what religious beliefs they wanted, the government argued. But as priests, and particularly as Jesuits, they were, by their nature, dedicated to the overthrow of Elizabeth and subverters of the rights of Englishmen.

And thus it was born: Catholics and their priests were a potential fifth column within society that could rise up at any minute and overthrow the present order. Manipulated by foreign priests—particularly the wily Jesuits—Catholics were always just a moment’s notice away from armed insurrection at the behest of the pope.

In November 1605, this politics of paranoia aimed at Catholics and their priests in England reached its pinnacle when the Gunpowder Plot was discovered.

The image was now set, particularly in the show trials that followed. Catholic priests—Jesuits in particular—would do anything to accomplish their nefarious goals. From thereon, whenever it was useful, the image of Catholics controlled by their priests conspiring to undermine English liberty became a useful propaganda tool.

A short fifteen years after the Gunpowder Plot, the Pilgrims set sail for America, bringing with them the same understanding of Catholicism: The Church is out to undermine free governments and destroy liberties because it is interested only in raw power.

And nearly 400 years later, that Catholic urban legend remains a deeply entrenched part of American thinking.


Robert P. Lockwood, director of communications for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, is  the author of A Faith for Grown-Ups: A Midlife Conversation about What Really Matters (Loyola Press).

This article appeared in Volume 18 Number 1.