Anti-Catholicism, Real and Imagined.
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sun Oct 28, 2007 at 09:56:09 AM EST
The Catholic Right, Forty-three in a Series

It never ceases to amaze me how the Catholic Right often react to imagined or what are at best, attenuated acts of anti-Catholicism-often while ignoring the real McCoy.  The litmus test for reaction is not as much based upon actuality, as much as providing currency for advancing a politically conservative agenda.

Now again comes Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, claiming that author Philip Pullman's series of books, His Dark Materials and the soon-to-be-released film based upon these works, The Golden Compass is both anti-Catholic and anti-religious. Using one of his standard techniques, Donohue has spun any criticism of organized religion into what he claims is a Pied Piper's tune for  neo-atheism.   As a response, the League's president recently announced a two month long boycott of the film which he claims is designed to act "as bait." Donohue foresees that upon seeing the movie, children will beg their parents to get them Pullman's books as Christmas presents. Then-as some sort of grand plan--the books will turn the kiddies into neo-atheistic zombies.

The story, which has been described as an inversion of Milton's Paradise Lost. Scholastic Books' web site describes the trilogy's plot as follows:

His Dark Materials is a reworking (not a retelling) of the story of the Garden of Eden and the Fall of Man. It shares all the scope and grandeur of that story yet takes us far beyond. His Dark Materials is utterly original.

At its simplest it is a story of courage and humanity about a boy and a girl with a destiny to fulfill. At its widest it whirls the reader into a universe of wonders and dazzling marvels. The gently probing moral debate and new myths for our age that the author works into his narrative do not in any way mar or block the wonderful story that he unfolds. Here is a magnificent tale, rich in incident and character, that takes the breath away and leaves the reader with a sense of wonder. There is a terrible and abiding sense of loss when the book is finished.

Donohue's gripe with Pullman's story is simple and two-fold: First, one of the chief villains in both the books and the movie  is "The Magisterium," an obvious allusion to the Catholic Church.  Secondly, God -- or more accurately, the authority figure-is killed by the two protagonists.

The Catholic League is going full-court press on this one. In addition to an on-line video, for five bucks you can purchase a twenty-three page book that explains the whole diabolical plot. "Though the movie promises to be fairly non-controversial, it may very well act as an inducement to buy Pullman's trilogy, His Dark Materials. And remember, his twin goals are to promote atheism and denigrate Christianity. To kids."

In both the video and statement found on the League's web site, Bloviating Bill goes on about how Pullman is allegedly a "militant atheist" and apparently in cahoots with a mysterious  "they" who have set a release date during the Christmas season  -- December 7, 2007.  (As comedian Jerry Seinfeld often asked: "Who are 'these people'"?)   This is the kind of stuff we have come to expect from the demagogic Donohue. And the anti-Semitic overtone of his not-so-subtle insinuation that faceless Hollywood figures are behind this conspiracy is consistent with his history.

But is that actually the case?

Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams for one, has responded to the the alleged anti faith aspect of Pullman's work:

What the story makes you see is that if you believe in a mortal God, who can win and lose his power, your religion will be saturated with anxiety - and so with violence. In a sense, you could say that a mortal God needs to be killed, from the point of view of faith (as the Buddhists say: "If you meet the Buddha, kill him"). And if you see religious societies in which anxiety and violence predominate, you could do worse than ask what God it is that they believe in. The chances are that they secretly or unconsciously believe in a God who is just another inhabitant of the universe, only more powerful than anyone else. And if he is another inhabitant of the universe, then at the end of the day he just might be subject to change and chance like everything else. He needs protecting: churches are there to keep him safe.

Archbishop Williams further observed,

I read the books and the plays as a sort of thought experiment: this is, after all, an alternative world, or set of worlds. What would the Church look like, what would it inevitably be, if it believed only in a God who could be rendered powerless and killed, and needed unceasing protection? It would be a desperate, repressive tyranny. For Pullman, the Church evidently looks like this most of the time; it isn't surprising that the only God in view is the Authority.

And unlike Donohue's seemingly constricted sense of faith, Archbishop Rowan comes away with his belief in God less threatened, if at all...

I end where I started. If the Authority is not God, why has the historic Church so often behaved as if it did indeed exist to protect a mortal and finite God? What would a church life look like that actually expressed the reality of a divine freedom enabling human freedom?

Rowan does not panic, but instead, confronts Pullman's theme with cool reason:

A modern French Christian writer spoke about "purification by atheism" - meaning faith needed to be reminded regularly of the gods in which it should not believe. I think Pullman and Wright do this very effectively for the believer. I hope too that for the non-believing spectator, the question may somehow be raised of what exactly the God is in whom they don't believe.

This whole episode underscores Donohue's relentless hypocrisy. As I asked in earlier posts, where was Bill when fellow Religious Right cohort John Hagee when the Texas preacher outrageously linked Hitler and the Roman Catholic Church in a conspiracy to exterminate Judaism? Likewise, where was the supposed defender of the faith when the Left Behind video games appeared, replete with it's very obvious anti-Catholic overtones.  Like The Golden Compass, Left Behind:  Eternal Forces was clearly marketed to target to a young, impressionable audience. Donohue's actions consistently prove him to be more of a conservative movement hack than a defender of the faith -- offering little defense of Catholics against ancient bigotries when they come from his Protestant allies in the Religious Right.

But the issue here is not really anti-Catholicism. As usual, Donohue has pulled a bait and switch; trying to twist an idea with some justification behind it into an imagined act of hate against Catholics. Can the Church be overly dogmatic at times, stifling free thought? If we could travel to the past, just ask bullied victims of the Inquisition from the Cathars then to Galileo and then the parents of Edgardo Mortaro, the Jewish child kidnapped by Pope Pius IX and raised against his parents wishes as a Catholic. Even today we can see such heavy-handiness when a unresponsive hierarchy evades accountability for the horrific pedophile scandal.  It is this dogmatic faction within the Catholic Church that sets my religion up for criticism and mockery. More so, it is a greater source of actual apostasy.

Beyond the Catholic League's selective vigilantism, this anti-book and movie campaign package reveals a top-down distrust of the ability of ordinary folks to think for themselves. This issue -- like many others raised by the Religious Right -- is not as much about belief versus atheism, but stridency in conflict with enlightened faith.

As a Catholic, I see Donohue's interpretation of our common religion as one filled with anxiety and fear; an authoritarian faith that tells its congregants what to watch, what to read and most of all, what to believe on even the most minute matters. It is Catholicism based upon control more than on faith. Do Donohue and his ilk fear the individual exercise of free will?

For all of us, (as I mentioned above) it comes down to a simple choice between an Enlightened Catholicism based upon tolerance, reason and inclusion; or a more strident Catholicism based upon vindictiveness, arbitrary authority and exclusion. Unlike Mr. Donohue, I choose the former over the latter.
The Catholic Right: A Series, by Frank L. Cocozzelli :

Part One  Part Two  Part Three  Part Four  Part Five  Part Six   Intermezzo   Part Eight   Part Nine  Part Ten   Part Eleven   Part Twelve   Part Thirteen   Part Fourteen   Second Intermezzo   Part Sixteen   Part Seventeen   Part Eighteen   Part Eighteen   Part Nineteen   Part Twenty   Part Twenty-one   Part Twenty-two   Part Twenty-three   Part Twenty-four   Part Twenty-five   Part Twenty-six   Part Twenty-seven   Part Twenty-eight   Part Twenty-nine   Part Thirty   Part Thirty-one   Part Thirty-two   Part Thirty-three   Part Thirty-four   Part Thirty-five   Part Thirty-six   Part Thirty-seven   Part Thirty-eight   Part Thirty-nine   Part Forty   Part Forty-one   Part Forty-two

And in the end, Donohue is in fact directing more attention and curiosity towards this movie he says he wants people to avoid. Perhaps in the end it is really all about Bill being a splashy media personality.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Oct 28, 2007 at 09:57:55 AM EST

...they're gnostic.  Big difference.  

by Browsercat on Sun Oct 28, 2007 at 12:20:34 PM EST
The problem is that for bombthrowers like Donohue the truth is often more of a hindrance than something to be striven for.

Good observation, though.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Oct 28, 2007 at 03:14:18 PM EST

I am on vacation this week, and catching up on my rest. Great article, Frank. It seems to me that Bill Donohue can't live with any sort of doubt at all, and if anyone comes along to cast any shadow of doubt on anything, they are targets for attack. In the final analysis, I do think it boils down to what's best for Bill Donohue and his political/religious movement, and how much air time, press time, and attention he can get for himself and his cause.

Apparently we haven't moved as far from negative historical examples as we would like, and the current management of the Church would like to return us to that hoary mindset. So much for free will and the informed conscience.


by khughes1963 on Mon Oct 29, 2007 at 09:56:43 AM EST

We started moving away from the bunker mentality with Vatican II. Unfortunately, the neo-orthodox faction wants to either backtrack or go more Resourcement and forgo Aggiornamento.

As for Bill, he has to try to justify that $3000,000 plus salary (plus a hefty retirement plan) somehow.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon Oct 29, 2007 at 02:15:56 PM EST

I've been busy so haven't had a chance to read all of your posts recently.  Informative as always (and I need to put Pullman's books on my to-read list.  I did the same with the Harry Potter books).

FWIW, the pastor at my (former) parish took the National Catholic Register off the reading rack, and eventually got rid of the reading rack altogether.  Guess he didn't trust adults to make their own choices about what to read (among other things, but that's another rant).

by hedgehog on Mon Oct 29, 2007 at 11:08:26 AM EST

I meant National Catholic Reporter.  (Small point, but they are two different publications--the Reporter is a progressive publication.  Never post before coffee.)

by hedgehog on Mon Oct 29, 2007 at 12:38:03 PM EST
One possible reason why the National Catholic Reporter might have been taken away is because of Sister Joan Chittister's featured presence. For example, in Newark, New Jersey where Opus Dei's Bishop John Myers runs things he wouldn't let his teachers attend a conference at which she was speaking.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon Oct 29, 2007 at 02:21:47 PM EST

The Legionaries of Christ bought the National Catholic Register and Twin Circle, which ought to give you some idea of their respective editorial leanings. I subscribe to the National Catholic Reporter, which isn't afraid to be honest.

by khughes1963 on Mon Oct 29, 2007 at 05:59:27 PM EST

the Index of Forbidden Books can be revived, and we can all go back to ignoring it. ;-)
Thank you for another great story, Frank.

by nogodsnomasters on Sun Oct 28, 2007 at 10:00:16 PM EST
According the the Opus Dei Awareness Network, the list is alive and well, sad to say.

And thanks for the kind words.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon Oct 29, 2007 at 07:47:52 AM EST

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