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League’s dark vision divides Catholics

NCR Staff

In America’s culture wars, the controversy over ABC’s “Nothing Sacred” marks the resurgence of a combatant: the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights and its president and CEO, William Donohue. Though critics question its impact, the league’s ability to thrust itself into the conversation raises anew questions about what stance Catholics should take toward American society -- and whose job it is to make that decision.

The Catholic League’s vision of America as deeply anti-Catholic and antireligious evokes a dualism with which many are uncomfortable. Moreover, its claim to speak on behalf of Catholics is worrisome to those who don’t share its conspiratorial social theories or its polemic approach.

“When there’s blatant discrimination against Catholics, somebody should denounce it,” said Jay Dolan, professor of history at the University of Notre Dame and the author of The American Catholic Experience. “But it’s just not as widespread as they make it seem, and their reactions are so overblown as to be unhelpful.”

However Catholics see the group -- and it tends to produce a “love ’em or hate ’em” sort of response -- the platform afforded the Catholic League by “Nothing Sacred” has raised its profile. As George Weigel, a noted Catholic writer and member of the group’s board of advisers, put it, the Catholic League has emerged as “a player” in the struggle for America’s conscience.

Personal flair required

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights was founded on May 12, 1973, by Jesuit Fr. Virgil Blum, just days after the Supreme Court rendered its judgment in Roe v. Wade. Blum -- a law professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee -- envisioned the league as a tool to fight a secularist judicial branch.

Blum, however, lacked the sort of personal flair required to be a public figure, and his administrative skills were described as lackadaisical even by his admirers. Things came to a showdown in 1985, when then-board chairman James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University and a conservative sympathetic to the league’s goals, was so fed up with Blum’s managerial fiddling that he forced a vote of no confidence. When it failed, Hitchcock noisily resigned, predicting the Catholic League would be “dead in five years.”

Blum survived that fight, but the league came close to fulfilling Hitchcock’s prophecy. Following Blum’s death in 1990, a series of ineffectual successors watched membership drop and bank accounts dwindle. In desperation, the board of directors turned in 1993 to William Donohue.

Donohue, who holds a doctorate in sociology from New York University, came to the job with sterling conservative credentials. He had worked at the Heritage Foundation, where he focused in part on the activities of civil rights groups, most notably the American Civil Liberties Union. He helped prepare George Bush for his 1988 debates with Michael Dukakis by briefing his advisers on the ACLU.

When he arrived at the Catholic League, Donohue decided to play up the anti-defamation aspect of the organization’s mission. Rarely does a day go by now without the league remonstrating somebody in the public eye, whether it’s “20/20” or Whoopi Goldberg, for doing or saying something that offends Catholics.

“We’ve had a lot of success in spotlighting offenders” in popular culture, Donohue said. “It’s faster and easier than dealing with lawyers.”

It is also, of course, most likely to get Donohue and the Catholic League noticed. “There’s no question that Bill Donohue knows how to attract the spotlight,” Hitchcock told NCR. Hitchcock, though no longer connected to the league, credits Donohue with resurrecting it. “This shift ... has raised the organization’s profile remarkably.”

One measure of success is the people Donohue has been able to attract to his board of advisers. The league’s letterhead reads like a who’s who of the Catholic right: Dinesh D’Souza, Michael Novak, Linda Chavez, Mary Ann Glendon, William Simon, Thomas Monaghan, Weigel, and others. It’s a group that gives Donohue clout, especially when raising money -- which he does with a vengeance.

He’s been so good at money-raising that the Catholic League subsists entirely on thousands of individual donations. Donohue doesn’t have to worry about some major corporate or ecclesiastical sponsor filling his coffers and thus influencing his agenda, a point of intense pride for him.

“Rich people have no effect on me,” Donohue said. “They can go to hell as far as I’m concerned. We look for Joe Six-Pack. I’m not interested in white-collar Catholics looking to pull my chain.”

A judgment call

So what counts for Donohue as anti-Catholic? “I don’t have a theological micrometer in my pocket that lights up,” he said. “It’s a judgment call. When there’s movement into disdain, disparagement and insults, it becomes our concern.

“We look at context. If it’s a Mel Brooks movie, and they’re beating up on Catholics, but also taking on blacks, Jews, gays and so forth -- that’s overall American humor. But if it’s a gratuitous mention or aside, even if it’s not blasphemy, what’s the purpose of taking a cheap shot?”

These “cheap shots” can be more or less offensive, according to Donohue, depending upon their targets. “The more dogma is attacked, as opposed to the disciplines of church, the more anti-Catholic it becomes. Also, if there are explicit attacks on Jesus, Mary or the hierarchy.”

Catholics who sometimes find the league embarrassing think these standards -- however defensible in themselves -- are too frequently misapplied. For example, the 230 alleged instances of anti-Catholicism cited by the league in 1996 range from serious matters -- a Pentagon order preventing Air Force personnel from taking part in the bishops’ campaign against Clinton’s abortion veto -- to mild humor material.

Conan O’Brien made the list for joking that since John Paul II had been a soccer goalie in his youth, “even as a young man, the pope tried to stop people from scoring.” The Royal River Casino in Flandreau, S.D., was denounced for dressing up a bovine in papal garb with a sign reading “Holy Cow!”

“These [Catholic League] folks are just overreacting,” said Jay Dolan, professor of history at the University of Notre Dame and author of The American Catholic Experience. “I mean, this borders on paranoia.”

Donohue admits he’s capable of misjudgment. “Yes, I do think we’ve made mistakes, I’ve made mistakes -- there were times we should have let things go or maybe the rhetoric could have been toned down.”

In the same breath, however, Donohue dismisses such criticism as itself anti-Catholic. “Why should we have a different standard for Catholics?” he asked. “The people who are hypercritical of me tend to be quiet when other groups do it.”

While few would object to an energetic response to real bigotry, the Catholic League’s quick trigger finger begs the question: Are things really as bad for Catholics in America as all that?

“There is a serious problem of anti-Catholic bias in secular, elite culture in America,” Weigel said. “The bearer has ceased to be mainline Protestants and has become the elites, but it’s quite palpable.” The term elites, in this context, broadly refers to influential people from the academy and the worlds of arts and culture.

To others, however, the Catholic League’s reactionary stance seems anachronistic. “Anti-Catholicism reached its high point in the pre-Civil War period, with the Know-Nothings invading convents and tarring and feathering priests. It’s been in steady decline ever since,” Dolan said. “Is it out there? Sure, there’s prejudice of all types, but it’s not very pervasive.”

Jesuit Fr. John Coleman, a sociologist of religion at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, believes the league’s defensiveness is out of step with most American Catholics. “By and large, Catholics have a great sense of humor,” he said. “We make these kinds of jokes ourselves, so I think we’re more tolerant.”

The Catholic League’s chief target these days is the entertainment industry, but even there some Catholics demur. “I think whatever anti-Catholicism exists in this industry is minimal,” said Paulist Fr. Ellwood Keiser, head of Paulist Productions in Los Angeles. “A few people may have some anti-Catholic feelings rooted in their personal experiences, but they grow out of it very quickly. This culture is very pluralistic. It’s secular, sure, but it’s not narrow or negative.”

Others suggest a more cynical interpretation of the predisposition to see anti-Catholicism everywhere. “You have to look at protesting as a business to be in,” said Wayne Friedman, who covers the entertainment industry for The Hollywood Reporter. “Once you see it that way, it all makes sense. Someone who’s in the protest business needs things to protest. They have to have things to talk about.”

For supporters, even if the Catholic League occasionally overreacts -- as some think it has on “Nothing Sacred” -- it still serves a useful purpose in deterring whatever anti-Catholicism is out there. “In the last 30 years, we’ve been too comfortable” with secular society, said Robert Lockwood, president of Our Sunday Visitor and a member of the Catholic League’s board of directors. “We need an organization with a hair-trigger, hot temper, in-your-face attitude.”

Hostile to religion

To some extent, belief in the need for a Catholic watchdog rests on the conviction that America itself is hostile to institutional religion.

“There’s no question there’s a cultural war going on. Those elites who are highly educated, atheistic or agnostic in their beliefs, and whose understanding of sexual liberty clashes with that of the Catholic League -- there’s definitely an animus there,” Donohue said.

Lockwood argues that the Catholic League plays a valuable role in protecting the church against intrusion from these alien beliefs. “It keeps us on our toes, making sure we don’t just sprinkle holy water over secular values,” he said.

Here again, however, not all Catholics see American society in such dualistic terms. “First of all, what society are you talking about?” Coleman said. “Ninety-five percent of Americans are religious, according to the polls, and when they’re asked to rate the credibility of institutions in society, Americans consistently put churches on top. To say that there’s widespread cultural antipathy to religion would be a gross distortion,” he said.

David O’Brien, professor of history at Holy Cross College, argues that the league’s indictment of American culture rests on a false distinction between members of the church community and members of society. “Contemporary middle-class Catholics have to understand that we are the culture. The culture is what we make it. There’s no critique of culture that isn’t true of us,” he said.

Coleman acknowledges that there are important legal and philosophical currents that are uncomfortable with religion. To that extent, Coleman believes, the Catholic League may have a role to play. “When they point out gross attempts to put gag rules on religion, they do us all a service,” he said.

Still, he has reservations about the way the league goes about doing it. “I think the point would be more attended to if the people making it were more civil,” Coleman said.

A question of tactics

Civility, however, is not one of Donohue’s strengths. Hence another question: Given the existence of some anti-Catholicism, is a confrontational approach the best way to deal with it?

Donohue believes it is. As proof, he claims that the league’s campaign against “Nothing Sacred” has driven sponsors away. “We’re gonna kill the show,” he confidently predicted to NCR.

Others aren’t so sure. For one thing, Sacramento Bee TV columnist Rick Kushman says that several of the companies the Catholic League claims have “withdrawn” really never intended to be on the show in the first place. “They simply chose -- long before they heard of the boycott -- to spend their money elsewhere,” Kushman wrote.

He quotes a spokesperson from AT&T: “The Catholic League implied AT&T had canceled advertising on the show when actually we never had any plans to begin with...It had nothing to do with the Catholic League one way or the other.”

An NCR call to Sears elicited a similar response. While the Catholic League had issued a press release quoting Sears’ decision to withdraw their ads and complimenting them on the decision -- strongly implying the league had played a role in it -- spokesperson Paula Davis, who handled the “Nothing Sacred” issue for the company, said, “I’ve never heard of that group.”

“Boycotts have no material impact,” Friedman said. “None -- zero. The advertising community has done extensive research on this, and that’s what it boils down to. It’s the ratings that will determine the fate of the show and nothing else.”

Aside from the effect of protest campaigns, there’s a broader question. Is recrimination or reconciliation a better way to respond to whatever prejudice is in the culture?

O’Brien said that shouting -- whether at a person or a culture -- is usually construed only as an invitation to shout back. “Up until the last draft of their 1983 pastoral on nuclear weapons, for example, the bishops were calling this society pagan,” O’Brien said. “If you run around calling people pagans, you’re not going to get very far in changing their behavior. Dialogue is a better approach.”

To some Catholics, though, words like “dialogue” seem awfully namby-pamby. For them, somebody has to stand up to the cultural elites who dismiss religion and the church, and they see Donohue as filling a void left by the bishops.

The Catholic League’s promotional materials carry endorsements from four of the country’s highest profile cardinals (New York’s John O’Connor, Philadelphia’s Anthony Bevilaqua, Boston’s Bernard Law and Los Angeles’ Roger Mahony). In fact, the league’s offices are located in the New York archdiocese’s chancery building, and while that in itself is not an endorsement, a spokesperson told NCR, “Many here, including the cardinal, are personally supportive of much if not all of what they’re doing.”

Nevertheless, Donohue says the bishops do sometimes drop the ball.

“The bishops in general are low-profile and play close to the vest,” he said. “But it actually helps us. There are a lot of Catholics who are angry out there and we defend the church.”

Donohue’s muted criticism of church officials raises a final question. By what right does he speak on behalf of American Catholics?

Donohue firmly denies presuming to speak for the church. “We are not a spokesperson for the Catholic church. Anybody who works for me who claims to speak for the Catholic church will be summarily dismissed the next day,” he said.

At the same time, he makes a fine distinction between speaking for the church as an institution and for American Catholics as a special interest group. “Who do we speak for besides 350,000 members?” he asked. “We speak for a large segment of practicing Catholics. We’re a more accurate barometer of Catholic public opinion than many other Catholic organizations.”

That claim is backed up by the league’s supporters. “Donohue, by virtue of the support he receives, his membership, can argue that he represents Catholic sensitivity,” Lockwood said.

And indeed, on the surface the Catholic League’s membership numbers seem impressive -- at 350,000 the league would be one of the largest lay organizations in America. But while the Catholic League estimates its membership at 350,000, that doesn’t mean that 350,000 people are carrying membership cards.

Donohue told NCR that 200,000 of that total are individuals who at some point gave “some money” to the league. Such donations could have been for a specific purpose or campaign, and do not necessarily represent people who buy into the league’s whole agenda. A more realistic figure would be 140,000 -- representing people who give money to the league “every month,” Donohue said.

Still, even that number is somewhat inflated. Using a procedure Donohue said is modeled on one used by the ACLU, he counts every check as 1.5 members, since one spouse might be signing for a couple. Setting aside that assumption leaves a membership of 94,000 -- or a bit larger than the diocese of, say, Lincoln, Neb.

Is that enough to allow the Catholic League to speak on behalf of American Catholics?

“Everybody realizes that we’re not all on the same side,” Hitchcock said, defending the league’s claim to represent the Catholic point of view. He added that when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People speaks out, “we all know that not all blacks think alike.”

Some reject the claim that “everyone” knows the Catholic League doesn’t represent all Catholics. “People get sucked into thinking it’s Catholics in total” advocating a boycott, Friedman said. “They don’t really take a hard look at who’s speaking.”

Taking sides

In any event, it’s an open question how much credibility the league has to speak for Catholics generally when it has become identified with one side in Catholicism’s internal struggles. Virgil Blum’s vision was that the Catholic League would stay out of internal church disputes, preserving its credibility to speak on behalf of the wider Catholic community. But Donohue strikes a different tone, calling Catholics who disagree with his positions “self-hating Catholics.”

Wherever the line should be drawn on taking sides, many observers feel that the group has crossed it. One church official, requesting anonymity, said, “The league was always conservative, but it never used tactics of intimidation like Donohue. It’s part of a larger movement among conservative Catholics who feel that the church leadership is too liberal, so they need to fill a void. They’re trying to shape the church’s position on things,” the official said. “He [Donohue] speaks for an existing group. It’s the same people who watch Mother Angelica.”

A member of the league’s board of directors, who also asked not to be identified, told NCR, “I defer to Bill’s judgment, but I do think he’s gotten himself involved in the fight between liberals and conservatives.”

Donohue rejects these charges. “If we’re getting more kudos from right than left, it’s because the attacks on the church in popular culture tend to come from the left. If I spent most of my time down in Alabama attacking rednecks who subscribe to a crude form of anti-Catholicism, then it would be directed at the right.”

In fact, Donohue says he has rejected overtures from far right Catholics. “There are two cities where I have been approached about turning on the afterburners about what’s going on in the church -- Chicago and Los Angeles. I’ve stayed the hell away from both opportunities,” he said.

Nevertheless, because of its agenda and the preponderance of support from Catholic conservatives, many see it as a partisan for the Catholic right. “Their claim to represent American Catholics is not true at all,” Dolan said. “There are so many different kinds of Catholics, even the pope has trouble speaking for them all. [Donohue] speaks for himself and maybe a small part of his membership, largely conservatives alienated from the rest of the church.”

For those who see things as Donohue does, he has been a godsend. “He’s by far the most successful of the league’s directors, and the only one who’s come close to realizing the possibilities set out by Virgil Blum, including Blum himself,” Hitchcock said.

Catholics who see the church and the world differently, however, find little to identify with in the Catholic League. “I think what we should be engaged in is a dialectic with culture,” Keiser said. “Out of that comes a synthesis that is hopefully a little closer to what the Lord wants. It’s definitely not going to come from denunciations and boycotts.”

For such Catholics, the Catholic League falls well short of representing their interests.

National Catholic Reporter, October 31, 1997