The Catholic Right, Part IV: William Donohue And The Politics Of The Catholic League
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sun Jun 04, 2006 at 10:45:21 AM EST
"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")

William Donohue
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?



I used to not care very much about the activities of the Catholic Right, because I've never been Catholic. I grew up with conservative Evangelicalism and am much more familiar with that flavor of nuttiness. However, seeing the new makeup of the Supreme Court and looking at your list of Catholic League board members reminds me that I ought to pay attention to them, too. What's really odd is, most Catholic-identified people I know just blithely do what they need and want to do regardless of what their so-called "leaders" tell them!

by GreenEyed Lilo on Sun Jun 04, 2006 at 12:31:43 PM EST
 Yes, you're absolutely correct about American Catholics (particularly Italian-American Catholics), but the CL's activities must be a clarion call to mainstream Catholics everywhere to stand up  and put these self-appointed bully-thugs back in their  place. Progressive-minded Catholics must speak with one voice and tell them, "You don't speak for me!"

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Jun 04, 2006 at 12:42:40 PM EST

"Who really cares what Hollywood thinks?  All these hacks come out there.  Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular.  It`s not a secret, OK?  And I`m not afraid to say it.  That`s why they hate this movie.  It`s about Jesus Christ, and it`s about truth.  It`s about the messiah.
  "Hollywood likes anal sex.  They like to see the public square without nativity scenes.  I like families.  I like children.  They like abortions.  I believe in traditional values and restraint.  They believe in libertinism.  We have nothing in common.  But you know what?  The culture war has been ongoing for a long time.  Their side has lost.
  "You have got secular Jews.  You have got embittered ex-Catholics, including a lot of ex-Catholic priests who hate the Catholic Church, wacko Protestants in the same group, and these people are in the margins.  Frankly, Michael Moore represents a cult movie.  Mel Gibson represents the mainstream of America.
--William Donahue, President of the Catholic League, December 8, 2004 on MSNBC's Scarborough Country, discussing Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" vs. Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ"

by Bruce Wilson on Sun Jun 04, 2006 at 03:01:29 PM EST
The League's mastery of the media further underscores the need for to develop a rapid response mechanism to defend both the religious as well as secular Left. We cannot stand by and let their poison stand as the sole media voice for faith.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Jun 04, 2006 at 04:20:38 PM EST
Donahue's quote is a doozy.

by Bruce Wilson on Mon Jun 05, 2006 at 02:20:11 PM EST

If you  grow up in the Catholic Church as I did, you heard similar comments (thankfully from no one in my extended  family; many of the non-Italians were and are Jewish) you know that comments such as "secular Jews" are often not-so-subtle code words for anti-Semitism.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Wed Jun 07, 2006 at 12:18:29 PM EST

Mr. Cocozzelli-I'm a progressive Catholic who's been following your series regularly. Thank you again for reminding me I'm not alone. Screamin' Bill Donohue doesn't speak for me as a Catholic. My father doesn't care for Screamin' Bill either.

by khughes1963 on Sun Jun 04, 2006 at 06:32:33 PM EST
Ms. Hughes, in fact I believe that you, your dad and I constitute the majority belief of American Catholics.

As I've been replying to similar posts such as yours on Daily Kos, if mainstream Catholics stand together on this issue we will put these bullies back in their rightful place--marginalized on the fringe.

Once the cable news networks see that Donohue has no real grassroots support and if the audience begins to understand that CL is a front for wealthy, far-right smorgasbord Catholics, then he loses his "splash-value" as a pundit guest. Tell MSNBC, NBC, Fox and CCN that Donohue's and CL's views  don't represent what you believe as a Catholic American every time he shows up on television. Perhaps they will start to get the message.

This can and--I truly believe--will be done. All we need is both the courage and stamina to see the thing through.

And by the way, call me Frank

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Jun 04, 2006 at 07:15:35 PM EST

With President Bush voicing his support for amending the Constitution to define marriage as being between "one man and one woman," look for Bill Donohue to be on the air pushing this unnecessary constitutional change. If you are a Catholic who is repulsed by this man, contact the station and/or network he has appeared on and let them know he and his so-called "Catholic" League doesn't speak for you!

Media Matters' web site has all the contact information you need. The site also gives you pointers on how to frame your argument.

It is time to give the bullies a taste of their own medicine.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon Jun 05, 2006 at 08:54:12 AM EST

Forgive me if links in your post direct me to websites that will answer my below questions--I've not explored each link yet.

Just how large is the [Roman] Catholic League in terms of the size of its coffers and membership roles?
Does the conservatism of Roman Catholicism in the U.S. follow geographical trends relative to U.S. conservatism in general--e.g., is the Catholic League particularly strong in the South, while much less visible elsewhere?
Does it get money from the Vatican? From particular dioceses (sp?)?
Has a survey been done by Pew or another organization that might determine how accurately the Catholic League's opinions reflect those of U.S. Roman Catholics in general? I would like to think that the Catholic League is, at the end of the day, probably more respected by the Protestant Christian Right than the vast majority of Roman Catholics themselves, but I have no idea.

Donohue's angry--his utter wrathfulness--when he speaks and writes seems so un-Christian. Do you think The Vatican uses people like him to reach out to other angry people in a way that bishops, cardinals, and the Pope can't because they always need to appear meek or at least more reserved? If I was a bishop who interacted with Donohue, I'd take him aside and suggest that his Christian witness might not be well served by his frequent public anger.

by IseFire on Mon Jun 05, 2006 at 12:22:56 PM EST

I will take a crack at your questions, for which you should not apologize. It is a great sign that people are starting to ask questions about the CL, many of which will be answered in future installments of this series on the Catholic Right.

Just how large is the [Roman] Catholic League in terms of the size of its coffers and membership roles? The League has chapters in the following cities: Ann Arbor, Michigan; Baltimore, Maryland; El Paso, Texas; Long Island (Garden City); Miami, Florida; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Rockford, Illinois. Right now I'm researching their membership, but it would not surprise me if they don't have that many members. They seem to have the earmarks of an "Astroturf" organization -a front group for the Scaife, Bradley and Coors family foundation. I based that assumption upon their board membership, but I will look to confirm that with further research

Does the conservatism of Roman Catholicism in the U.S. follow geographical trends relative to U.S. conservatism in general--e.g., is the Catholic League particularly strong in the South, while much less visible elsewhere? Maybe in the South where folks are generally more conservative, but definitely not among most Northeastern and West coast Catholics. No one in my family or my wife's family is a CL member or takes Donohue seriously

Does it get money from the Vatican? The CL claims all private donations. As to who is doing the giving will be a subject of a future installment

Has a survey been done by Pew or another organization that might determine how accurately the Catholic League's opinions reflect those of U.S. Roman Catholics in general? None that I am aware of.

I would like to think that the Catholic League is, at the end of the day, probably more respected by the Protestant Christian Right than the vast majority of Roman Catholics themselves, but I have no idea. I would definitely believe that to be true among the IRD types!

Donohue's angry--his utter wrathfulness--when he speaks and writes seems so un-Christian. Do you think The Vatican uses people like him to reach out to other angry people in a way that bishops, cardinals, and the Pope can't because they always need to appear meek or at least more reserved?  That's a tough one. I believe there is actually a power struggle going on in the Vatican between the progressives and the ultra-traditionalists, with swing middle group. I definitely believe that the CL serves both the reactionary "Church within a church" (Opus Dei, Legatus types) as well as the fringe NEO/THEOconservative Right in America--Remember: the CL is way off on many Church teachings concerning social justice.

 And by the way, the bombastic one will be on CNBC's "The Big Idea with Donnie Deutsch," June 5,2006 at 10:00 pm EST

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon Jun 05, 2006 at 08:22:02 PM EST

Thank you for the very informative reply. I look forward to reading the other posts re: the CL.

by IseFire on Tue Jun 06, 2006 at 12:18:36 PM EST
I was intrigued by your comment about the power struggle. I'm not up on the inner politics of the Roman Catholic Church by a long shot, but it had always been my tentatively-held conclusion that liberals had already lost the struggle. I didn't base that on a wealth of facts, just the realities of Ratzinger being elevated to Pope and the huge numbers of (from what I understand) of conservative bishops JPII created. I figured: well, new bishops are the new leaders, out!

I saw the document (a bull?) on gay seminarians The Vatican issued as confirmation of my assumptions, too, as well as what I took to be the growing popularity of conservative Roman Catholics in some of the newer Eastern European democracies like Poland. Before that, I took as evidence of a "lost battle" the anti-Kerry involvements of U.S. bishops during the 2004 General Election.

However, I'm certain that there are many positive things on the Catholic Left going on--and various trends among Catholics--that I'm not aware of. I hope so. That would, however, potentially beg the question as to why I don't know about them, but do know the "bad news," when--as a non-Catholic observer--my sense of what's going on in the Church is pretty much limited to what I see on the BBC website or maybe hear on CNN. I'd hazard a guess that if there are successes for the Catholic left underway, they're being under-reported.

by IseFire on Tue Jun 06, 2006 at 12:29:06 PM EST

by IseFire on Tue Jun 06, 2006 at 12:29:49 PM EST
...well worth it!

by Frank Cocozzelli on Tue Jun 06, 2006 at 12:42:53 PM EST

There is not only a Catholic Left, but also a Catholic middle as well as a politically conservative, but religiously liberterian-minded group o American Catholics; most of which are disgruntled with the ultra-orthodox clique. That constitutes the majority of North American an European Catholics.

The Catholic Left--the Catholic Worker movement, centrist distributive justice liberals (such as myself) and the faithful such as Sister Joan Chittister, E.J. Dionne, Marie Cocco and Garry Wills might be temporarily on the outs, but we  are far from licked.

What's more, we ain't giving up the fight!

by Frank Cocozzelli on Tue Jun 06, 2006 at 12:58:57 PM EST

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