Papist (pe·pist) An adherent of the pope; esp. an advocate of papal supremacy; also, more generally, a member of the Roman Catholic Church; a Roman Catholic or Romanist. (Usually hostile or opprobrious.) [1521 FISHER Serm. agst. Luther Wks. 344 The popes holynes & and his fauoureres, whom he [Luther] calleth often in derisyon papistas, papastros, & papanos, & papenses.] 1534 (title) A Litel Treatise ageynst the Mutterynge of some Papistis in Corners. 1657 J. SERGEANT Schism Dispach’t 656 “Tis clear tht al Roman-Catholikes, that is all Communicants with the Church of Rome or Papists (as they call them) hold the substance of the Pope’s Authority.
~ The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary
When Dr. Owen Stanwood was researching the demise of an early, isolated colonial town, he assumed that the colonists would blame Indians for the massacre, but he was surprised. The English colonists blamed papists. The term comes to English from similar derogatory terms originating with the German Lutherans. The association is a negative commentary on those loyal to the pope’s authority and their support for the claimed power he had over souls, theology, and secular issues.
In England, this quickly becomes associated not just with religion but with nascent national identity and, subsequently, the very ability to be loyal to king and country. It becomes excepted in England that one cannot be Roman Catholic and maintain loyal to the English crown as adherence to the church and the Pope in Rome put one in direct opposition to the king of England; it supplanted one’s loyalty to one’s country; it was treasonous. This was reinforced by the political powers who defended the Roman Catholic Church, namely France, clearly an enemy of England.
This suspicion was challenged by a handful of English officers, Sir Thomas More, Sir Edward Campion and George Calvert, Lord of Baltimore. However, of these three examples, only George Calvert escaped a death sentence though he did resign his government post when he converted and his Jesuit advisers were technically guilty of treason under the law of the land, stating as it did that any Roman Catholic priest who set foot on English soil was subject to death. The law in England made Catholics second-class citizens and suspicion would remain a part of the English Protestant tradition, even in the New World.
English colonists in America continued to be suspicious of Catholic colonists. Even as they were establishing a new government based on democratic ideals, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson speculated in their written correspondence about whether Catholics had a place in a country whose government rejected kings, and presumably, by extension, pontiffs or bishops who sought to behave as such. Could Catholics in America be trusted to operate loyally to the American government and not respond slavishly to a Roman pontiff? Calvert believed that loyalty to his country and king was of the highest importance, and that it remained unimpeded by his Catholicism. In fact, he was the first to seek to establish religious freedom in America, putting religious pluralism into law for his colony of Maryland; but, rather backwardly, he and his progeny also resisted representative modes of government to their undoing.
The challenge was heightened for Anglicans who were cut off in America from their church hierarchy following the Revolutionary War, or in truth the Declaration of Independence which rejected the king’s authority. (Awkward for a colonial church whose head was the king. Interestingly, they find a simple way around this by seeking out the bishops of Scotland, who were, for political reasons, granted a reprieve from swearing allegiance to the English crown. The Episcopalian Church, thus, grew from a bishop consecrated in Scotland, who returned to the United States to shepherd his flock and consecrate new bishops and priests.) Here, the members of the Church of England had ousted not only their king, but their religious leader, and as they broke away from their old country they formed a new religion, though, admittedly with sacred ties to the old one, but it reinforced how backwards and even threatening the Roman Catholics could be to the young country if the old suspicions about them were true.
In England, suspicion of papists was maintained through declining relations with the Irish, heightened in the area of Northern Ireland, where Protestants and Catholics came to strongly associate religion with national identity. In the US, this suspicion was fostered by a largely elitist response to poor Catholic immigrants arriving especially those from Ireland and Italy. The American response was not motivated exclusively by a lack of wealth, but associations of certain behaviors or temperaments with these populations that were also often visually ill-mannered (even drunk), under-educated, and poor.
The term continues to be a derogatory one which assumes a lack of intellectual inquiry or individual thought. “Papist” still invokes images of Roman Catholics who slavishly follow church hierarchy and the pope’s word, coupled with beliefs or practices that are considered unenlightened. This stigma, particularly of Church authority, was raised as a concern even with the Kennedys as they entered into politics as recently as the 1950s-60s. Today, it is a slur frequently associated with deliberately misleading tracts and individuals who repeat inaccurate representations of the Catholic religion. For whatever reason, the use of this cultural, religious insult does not carry the same stigma that other derogatory labels of a similar kind carry in our society.