The Catholic Right, Part Four: William Donohue And The Politics Of The Catholic League

Submitted byRWMaster onTue, 11/22/2016 - 18:23

""Year after year, on issue after issue, progressives work with the church on these questions  (of social justice, and peace) while conservatives often oppose the church's view. Yet come election time, only the progressives get punished. This is a practical problem. And for many of us who are progressive Catholics, it is a source of genuine anguish."  --E. J. Dionne Jr., June 2006

 (In this, the fourth installment of my series on the Catholic right, the focus shifts to a bulldog, independent lay organization, the New York-based "Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights")

Liberal and even some libertarian-minded conservative Catholics often come to a common realization: a number of the Church's hierarchy often overlook doctrinal disagreements (and in some cases, outright disloyalty) it has with its friends on the political American Catholic Right. More often than not, this policy of inconsistent admonition favors with those who advocate unrestrained self-interest economics--provided they also act to enable secular society to become more conducive to an orthodox practice of the faith. Many of these same princes of the Church will simultaneously wage a scorched earth policy toward what it sees as its opponents: progressives within as well as without the Church.  

 This is not true of the entire Catholic Church, but of a reactionary, "Church within a Church" whose followers often employ ultra-traditionalist lay groups (1) to do this dirty work, many of which were elevated during the reign of Pope John Paul II. Members of this Rightist clique will constantly scream their opposition to choice and stem cell research, while, in  sotto voce, give lip service to the death penalty and war  -- and say nothing at all, to name one example, about the influence of big tobacco in politics, and the addiction, ill health, death and -- the destruction of families that it leaves in its wake.  This is a highly selective use of Church doctrine that cleverly promotes friendly non-mainstream conservative political action often designed to further the personal interests of friendly individuals of superfluously wealth. It is also an outrageous abuse of church teachings to thwart the views of the Church in other areas.

 The Catholic League, led since 1993 by  its often bombastic president, William A. Donohue (2), presents itself as the voice of all of the Vatican's flock.  Donohue often appears on cable television shows railing against those whom he believes to be disobedient to Rome or non-Catholics who dare to challenge the Vatican on non-economic matters of orthodoxy. However, Mr. Donohue and his organization are about as inconsistent as March weather.  

 The League was originally founded by Father Virgil C. Blum, S.J. in 1973. The organization is funded by private donations. Its web site states "...our financial base comes from individuals, not the Church." Originally it was founded to combat unjust anti-Catholicism from either the Right (Ku Klux Klan) or the Left (Paul Blanshard).  Fr. Blum died in 1990 and three years later Donohue, then very active with the Heritage Foundation, ascended to its leadership. He immediately moved its headquarters to New York where it maintains its offices at 750 Seventh Avenue.

 Under Donohue's direction the League moved politically to the Right and began to use the media as a highly effective mechanism to promote its particularly restrictive interpretation of Catholicism. To that end the League constantly bombards the full spectrum of the media by holding press conferences, issuing press releases to the entire spectrum of the media and then backing these announcements up with appearances on the many cable news programs (Donohue, with his loud demeanor and often outrageous remarks, plays well with cable news networks such as Fox News and MSNBC which both seem to place a premium on the "splash factor" of their guests). It also organizes boycotts of targeted individuals or organizations its leadership believes responsible for alleged anti-Catholicism. To accomplish this The League also publishes a periodical called  Catalyst.

 It claims on its web site, to be "Motivated by the letter and the spirit of the First Amendment" and "works to safeguard both the religious freedom rights and the free speech rights of Catholics whenever and wherever they are threatened." But very rarely does it represent disenfranchised individuals -- such as aggrieved workers belonging to unions with large Catholic memberships or those who simply want to have a discussion on birth control or married clergy. Instead, the League will go to great lengths to defend the institutionally powerful from the legitimately aggrieved, as evidenced by the League's campaign against the Voice of the Faithful a grassroots and politically diverse organization of Catholics who are seeking greater Church accountability in light of the recent pedophilia scandals.   

 Another favorite target constantly in the League's crosshairs is Catholics for a Free Choice--a pro-choice group of lay Catholics who question the validity of the Church's teaching on abortion, birth control and embryonic stem cell research. In many ways, Catholics for a Free Choice better reflects mainstream America Catholic opinion on these issues. Yet instead of thoughtfully addressing the issues raised by the group, the League usually responds with blanket charges of "Catholic-bashing" or "Catholic-hating," true or imagined. Loyal dissent is deliberately miscast as heresy or self-hate. Donohue and company often act as bullies who seem more concerned with stifling any dissent among progressive American Catholics while injecting ultra-orthodox,  theocon-tinged Catholic dogma into American public policy, even if that means stepping on the rights and beliefs of non-Catholic Americans.  

 But a closer look at the League's activities reveals that it is very selective in enforcing obedience to Vatican thought. In the case of actor Mel Gibson, the League has actually given cover to a dissenting Catholic who rejects the legitimacy of the current Vatican.  This points to a deeper mission to further a secular political agenda (a tenant of neoconservatism as well as its off-shoot, "theoconservatism," calls for religion to be 'unapologetically dogmatic)." 3  In reality, the League seems to act more as a mouthpiece for a small, but divisive faction of plutocrats, than as an advocate for the civil rights of disempowered Catholic Americans. And there is a good reason it never proselytizes an agenda of workers' rights, universal healthcare or of corporate responsibility.

In a Catholic League press release issued on April 22, 2005, entitled "Time For Non-Catholics To Butt Out," the organization's president, William Donohue complained that non-Catholics were interfering in internal Church affairs. "It's one thing for them to be voyeurs," he asserted, "--peering into the Catholic Church the way kids peer into candy stores--quite another when they become meddlers." He then proceeded to warn Catholics For A Free Choice president Francis Kissling, the CBS Evening News, and Tikkun editor Rabbi Michael Lerner, among others, that the internal affairs of the Vatican are not their business before closing on a note about how  "bringing back the Inquisition may not be such a bad idea."

 Donohue's press statement is profoundly hypocritical, because many of the members of his own Board of Advisers are active in the IRD--an organization whose leadership includes a number of ultra-orthodox Catholics who seek to nullify the Social Gospel message of the mainstream Protestant denominations.. These names appear over and over again as directors and advisers on multitude of reactionary religious "think tanks" and advocacy groups. And what is even more intriguing is that that many of the aforementioned have links as cooperators to the infamous Catholic group, Opus Dei.   

 Indeed, the League's Board of Advisers is a veritable "who's who" of the non-mainstream Right. It includes Brent Bozell III (Media Research Center),  Mary Ann Glendon (Opus Dei cooperator appointed by President Bush to his Council on Bioethics),  George Weigel  (theocon Catholic author who refers to progressive Catholics as "Catholic lite."), Dinesh D'Souza (conservative pundit and former editor of the often inflammatory Dartmouth Review), Kate O'Beirne (National Review), Alan Keyes (sometime GOP presidential/US Senate candidate and conservative pundit),  Thomas Monaghan  (former owner of Domino's Pizza and affiliated with Opus Dei), George V. Bradley (chair of the Federalist Society's Religious Liberties Practice Group) and  William Simon, Jr., the former California  Republican gubernatorial candidate, identified as Opus Dei cooperator.

 The League and its board members were curiously silent about both George W. Bush's and John Ashcroft's dalliances with the virulently anti-Catholic Bob Jones University--the university's website's archives contains an article written by Bob Jones himself, which described then U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Clark as, "a Roman Catholic and a member of the "Ancient Hibernian" Order--a society constituted largely of heavy drinking "professional Irish"-- the incident was a perfect demonstration of their practice of slamming liberal critics over the smallest perception of dissent from orthodoxy, while giving muted or non-existent criticism to its friends on the right. Incredibly, in a January 2, 2001 press release,  the League described Bush's choice of Ashcroft as his Attorney General as "much ado about nothing." The Catholic League even went as far as to endorse his nomination.

 As touched upon above, Catholic League's hypocrisy was further revealed in its spirited defense of Mel Gibson's controversial movie, Passion of Christ. Its response to various Jewish groups concerned with the film's possible anti-Semitic interpretations were pooh-poohed and dismissed as "near hysterical." Donohue,  in a September 18, 2003 press release  deemed the "crusade against Gibson" as "immoral." He even accused the ADL of trying to "poison Catholic-Jewish relations."  Donohue often goes to the edge to tap into anti-Semitic attitudes , long ago discredited  by official Church teaching.

 The League's defense of Mel Gibson should be of concern even to conservative Catholics.  Gibson has been openly critical of the current Vatican and is a member of the  Sedevacantist  splinter group,  Holy Family  (sedevacant, literally meaning "empty chair," referring the Chair of St. Peter being empty from Pope John XXIII on). More brazenly, he is building his own traditionalist church in Malibu, well outside of the jurisdiction of either the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, let alone the Vatican.  Gibson has even called the Catholic Church "corrupted" and "wrong" for embracing the overdue changes of Vatican II . But once again, the Catholic League is silent about Gibson's insubordination, words and deeds that go well beyond any imagined indiscretions supposedly committed by the consistently honest Voice of the Faithful.  

 Mr. Donohue does not criticize anyone for disagreeing with the Vatican's oppositon to capital punishment. Nor has the League ever challenged US Senator Rick Santorum or President George W. Bush for accepting huge campaign contributions from the tobacco industry. And there was nary a peep of indignation from Mr. Donohue when President Bush refused to meet with the Pope's envoy who came to Washington to express the Pontiff's displeasure over the pending war with Iraq. As we observed in part three of this series, the Catholic Right's hypocrisy is a veritable smorasbord feast compared to the supposed "cafeteria style" of many liberal American Catholics.    

 Mr. Donohue and his troops appear to be more interested in the buttressing the non-mainstream Right's greater agenda than in accomplishing true Catholic notions of social justice. In doing so they often denigrate Catholic teachings on both  Commutative and Distributive Justice.  This track record suggests that who or what is criticized is based less upon a consistent adherence to Church doctrine and more upon the ability to arouse animosity toward critics of their brand of ultra-conservative Catholicism (described with a broad brush as  Catholic haters) and the ability to harness that emotion and channel it as a means to frame all liberal thought as denigrating the faith.(This is not to say that there is not anti-Catholic bigotry in the U.S. There is. One wishes the Catholic League were actually addressing it, instead of exploiting it for partisan political advantage.)  It does not matter that "the useful idiot" to be held out as a victim of anti-Catholicism is hostile to current Church teachings, only that he can be employed as a tool to stifle dissent.  Such strategy is built upon a mob-mentality sense of outrage common to all the divisive factions that have endlessly plagued democracies.

 If the traditionalists' logic were to become the basis of governance in our society, let alone that of the Catholic Church, both free thought and the common good would be marginalized.  Pope John XXIII fully understood this reality. Change in society only comes through dissent, when the veracity of older ideas is challenged. In a world governed by the traditionalists' reliance upon a stilted form of Natural Law Aristotelian notions of six-legged spiders and accepting the earth to be the center of the universe would still be accepted truths. In the real world, new ideas, not "prior infallible teaching" is usually the corrective force of the truth. This is static conservatism in its most closed-minded form. Beyond that, it gives us significant insight into what truly drives the Catholic League in determining what  they subjectively decide as being offensive toward their own particular form of ultra-orthodox Catholic doctrine.

 But why do they fear dissent so much? The obvious conclusion is that their narrow definition of proper religious behavior is a more useful tool to further create an American society free of thoughtful dissent than a path to a more virtuous life. Unadulterated obedience appears to be the common themes in both the religious and secular spheres of radical movement conservatism. And a citizenry that more easily submits to religious authority will be less likely to question governmental authority.

 But perhaps their very hostility to dissent may be indicative of their own doubts and fears. Common sense should tell us that the adherent who is not fearful of dissent is the adherent who truly believes that the tenets of his faith will stand up to scrutiny. It is the loyal dissenter is the one who will study and discuss religious scripture and weigh it against human experience in order to better understand its truer meaning. If this is a dynamic of the Judaism of Jesus, then why should it not be the same for Catholicism?"

Note: Content reposted with the permission of the author.

Frank Cocozzelli
Year Published
Sun Jun 04, 2006 at 10:45:21 AM EST
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