""I just got back from the Auto de fe! Auto de fe? What's an auto de fe? It's what you oughtn't to do but you do anyway."
--"What a Day for an Auto de Fe, as sung by Mel Brooks in the Role of Torquemada, in the film, "History of the World, Part 1"
For those of us who write about the Catholic Right, the Catholic League's ever-bombastic Bill Donohue is the gift that keeps on giving, almost to the point of self-parody. But Bill, beware! Those who seek to justify one inquisition may themselves have to do their own auto de fe, albeit one that is both secular and far more humane in nature.
A "Comedy" of Errors?
As the famous British comedy troupe reminds us,"Nobody expects a Spanish Inquisition." If so, Donohue must have been feeling particularly Inquisitional when he surfaced with some unexpected revisionist history in response to the recent PBS documentary "Secret Files of the Inquisition." In this little dandy of a Catholic League press release, declaring, for starters:
"As British historian Henry Kamen has shown in his magisterial work, The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision, almost all the conventional wisdom about the Inquisition is wrong. By comparison with secular courts at the time, the Inquisition's methods were more humane, e.g., defendants could be represented by an attorney.
Solzhenitsyn once compared the killings that took place in the Soviet Union in 1937 and 1938 to the killings that took place during the Spanish Inquisition and found that 20,000 were killed per month in the U.S.S.R. and 10 were killed per month during the Inquisition. But don't look for such comparisons on PBS. To do so might get in the way of the truth."
Wild Bill makes it sound it as if Torquemada and his buddies were actually using the soft cushions and comfy chair on the coversos and Cathars!
Of course Donohue conveniently leaves out a few significant facts. He glosses over the 40,000 Jews who were either expelled or left Spain out of fear for their safety; all while having their property confiscated by the inquisitors. He also ignores the Indexes of prohibited books as well as the fact that even Pope Sixtus IV who published the papal bull Exigit Sinceras Devotionis Affectus, which effectively established the Spanish Inquisition himself became disenchanted with its excesses.
Another major problem with Bill's amateurish review is that only one of the four shows concerns the Spanish Inquisition. In fact, it begins in the French Pyrenees' countryside of the 1300s, through the Spanish Inquisition and then the Reformation and finally to the end of the Inquisition.
But Donohue's biggest gaffe is the that much of the series' research comes right out of recently opened Vatican files kept on the events covered. Among the consultants who advised the production, as well as participating as interviewees were Stephen Haliczer, Historian of the Catholic Church and authority on the Spanish Inquisition as well as the Very Reverend Joseph Augustine Di Noia. For the record, Reverend Di Noia is the Vatican's current Undersecretary of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (formally known as the office of the Inquisition), appointed to the post by Pope John Paul II.
And whether Donohue is aware of it or not, it was John Paul II who declared the Inquisition to be the "greatest error in Church history" -- by Donohue's definition, this would probably have made the man Pope Benedict is putting on a fast track to sainthood, perhaps that greatest Catholic basher in Church history. In fact, it appears that this series contains quite a bit of Vatican input specifically designed to admit a mistake. And yet, Donohue's Catholic League attempts to get political mileage by pandering to the baser instincts in the factually challenged and demagogic style of Bill O'Reilly.
Then again, what else could be expected from someone who is on the record as saying that bringing back the Inquisition "...is awfully tempting."
Pushing the Boundaries of the Not-For-Profit Rules?
But if Donohue sees himself in the tradition of the Inquisitions, perhaps being a bumbling Television critic may actually be the least of Donohue's problems.
Earlier this year I illustrated how the Catholic League, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, tax-exempt organization, may have coordinated a two-pronged "Catholic" attack on the Edwards campaign with Fidelis, an entity which describes itself as having filed for a 501(c)(4) status The same piece also detailed the links both groups have to ultra-conservative GOP Presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Sam Brownback. At the time I observed:
If Donohue and his Catholic Right friends keep attacking Edwards instead of quickly accepting his apology--as they did with then-candidate George W. Bush in 2000, then that suggests political motive. If Donohue and friends never or even mildly attack GOP Presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani for his pro-choice, pro-gay rights positions, then that too suggests political motive. And if both Catholic League and Fidelis both to appear to levy coordinated attacks upon Giuliani if he is in a tight primary race with U.S. Senator Sam Brownback, then that should pretty much seal the deal.
Well, such coordinated attacks upon candidate Giuliani may have now come to pass.
When Giuliani stated that he had donated to Planned Parenthood, Donohoue pounced with a May 9, 2007 Catholic League press release, demanding to see the checks "...he's written to support Crisis Pregnancy Centers," adding that if he could if he could not, "...that would make him a fraud."
As if taking their cue, the next day Fidelis, which unlike the Catholic League as a 501(c)(4) would be allowed to engage in political advocacy joined the fray. Its president, Joseph Cella, in a style of self-importance that Bill Donohue would be proud of, expounded, "This is the third position Rudy Giuliani has had on abortion in two weeks, and his credibility with faithful Catholics and other pro-life voters is beginning to evaporate." In fact the release was entitled, "Giuliani: A John Kerry Catholic on Abortion"
Perhaps believing that one should strike while the iron is hot, on May 11, 2007 the Catholic League then issued a second press release thundering, "Giuliani Clarifies Nothing." Donohue pronounced: "It is up to Republicans to decide whether Giuliani is the best candidate. But Catholics of both parties, as well as Independents, have a right to know-in great detail-how a Catholic candidate will decide on a matter the Catholic Church regards as 'intrinsically evil.'"
On May 16, 2007 Fidelis announced that it was organizing anti-Giuliani protests during the GOP Presidential Debates then being held in Columbia, South Carolina.
Internal Revenue Code § 501(c)(3) not-for-profit charities or foundations are described as:
organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, testing for public safety, literary, or educational purposes, or to foster national or international amateur sports competition (but only if no part of its activities involve the provision of athletic facilities or equipment), or for the prevention of cruelty to children or animals, no part of the net earnings of which inures to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual, no substantial part of the activities of which is carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting, to influence legislation (except as otherwise provided in subsection (h)), and which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office. (italics added)
The activities of both these groups raise a few troubling questions, especially for the Catholic League: Do these tag-teaming press releases-first against John Edwards and now against Rudy Giuliani-constitute what the IRS describes as behavior designed to "intervene in a political campaign" -- activities from which non-profit tax exempt organizations are prohibited?
Hmmmm. The IRS was very clear about this kind of thing in the run-up to the last federal elections:
"...all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office."
...further down stating in no uncertain terms:
Although section 501(c)(3) organizations may engage in some activities to promote voter registration, encourage voter participation, and provide voter education, they will violate the prohibition on political campaign intervention if they engage in an activity that favors or opposes any candidate for public office.
Donohue is probably hoping that no one notices these gaffes-one silly and one potentially serious. Bill's timing in one case is way off --criticizing the contents of PBS series -- about which he seems to know little; and in the other, possible coordination of his 501(c)(3) electioneering efforts with a 501(c)(4) (non-profit, but not tax-exempt group), that in turn may have co-mingled its efforts and contributions with its PAC (I will discuss Fidelis in greater detail in the next installment of this series). But as far as Mr. Donohue and his organization is concerned, a case can be made that they engaged in activity designed to affect the outcome of the 2008 presidential election.
And if folks begin to take notice, it just may elicit an "Oh bugger!" from the bombastic one.
Note: Content reposted with the permission of the author.