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Have you ever been called a “papist”?

anti-Catholic history irish immigration


Ray Cavanaugh - published on 12/05/23

The word “papist” as a derisive term to describe Roman Catholics has been around now for almost exactly half a millennium.
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Catholics who are comfortably under 100 years of age have likely emerged unscathed by this word. But, unless you’re a convert, there’s a good chance your ancestors felt its sting.

It’s not the worst of pejoratives, but the word “papist” as a derisive term to describe Roman Catholics has been around now for almost exactly half a millennium.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “papist” as a noun first appeared in 1528 — amid the start of the Reformation and soon before the Church of England split from the Catholic Church.

“Papist” began appearing as an adjective in 1562. Other variants include “papism” and “papistic.” There’s even an adverbial variant, for those of us who undertake worship “papistically.”

Also, the words “popery” and “popish” were long used for the same purpose — to express contempt for Catholic doctrine, celebrations, or its adherents in general.

For about three-plus centuries, such terms appeared often in the English-speaking world. During this period, if you wanted to cast an ominous cloud on a person’s reputation, you could unleash the accusation of “crypto-papism” — hiding one’s Catholic faith.

Such words even entered the legal lexicon of Parliament, as shown by the Popery Act of 1704 (also known by its longer title: An Act to prevent the further Growth of Popery), in which England sought to subdue the influence of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

Meanwhile, the American colonies sought to suppress any “popish messengers” aiming to spread their faith.

This stridently anti-Catholic tone somewhat abated after the American Revolutionary War, which saw Catholics fight and die alongside Protestants for the sake of U.S. independence.

But anti-“papist” sentiment returned with a vengeance in the mid-1800s, amid a huge influx of Catholic immigrants, who were feared as having far more loyalty to Rome than to the United States.

Indeed, many were viewed as incapable of making important decisions on their own, and therefore forever reliant on the pope to make choices for them.

A significant portion of the country feared that, if the ever-growing population of “papists” gathered enough influence, they might seek to install the pope as America’s leader!

Even some of America’s most high-profile ministers believed that “Catholics would, if permitted, turn America over to the pope.”

This all may seem a bit silly in our current era. But papists and their papism were a full-blown obsession for much of America well into the 20th century.

In 1928, the unsuccessful Democratic presidential nominee Al Smith was widely blasted as a “papist” who, if elected president, would owe his allegiance to a “foreign sovereign” and might seek to “build a tunnel from the White House to the basement of the Vatican.”

As recently as 1960, a presidential candidate named John F. Kennedy gave a speech to try to reassure potential voters that he would be loyal to the country more than to the Vatican.

At this point, “papist” is an archaic term that carries a venom now largely expired. But the word still surfaces from time to time, and its usage can serve as an indicator of how someone feels about the Church of Rome.

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