William Donohue's no-holds-barred style has won him friends and enemies — and victories.
He's president of the Catholic League, an organization that gets its reputation from high-profile fights about anti-Catholicism but has built its resume with smaller, sweeter wins that don't always make the front page.
Responding to complaints that he tends to be brash, Donohue said that off-camera, he's quite different. Last year, for example, Donohue and Bishop Thomas Doran of the Diocese of Rockford, Ill., saved a beloved church from being torn down. This year, Donohue put out a statement congratulating U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat, for a bill giving federal money to restore 21 Spanish missions in California. Last November, a high-school student near Rochester, N.Y., told Donohue the school newspaper refused to print his article about religion. Donohue contacted the principal and resolved the matter via email.
He spoke with Chicago seminarian Raymond Cleaveland about his work.
Tell me what the Catholic League is trying to do.
Our role is fairly narrow, but it must be understood for what it is: to make certain that the Catholic voice is heard. If people disagree with what the Catholic Church says, that's okay. All we Catholics want is a fair hearing, without people throwing church-and-state arguments at us and telling us to shut up. So we see ourselves kind of like the Marines — we go in to clear the forest.
Our role is to get in front and make it easier for the bishops, priests and nuns to have a fair hearing in the media. And it must be a lay group because, as a layman, I can go out into the foray first; I can have an “edge” to me, and then it becomes easier for the bishops to take positions.
You described yourself as having an “edge.” Some even say you have a “chip on your shoulder.” Do you?
Let's put it this way. When you do talk on TV, as I do frequently, you're engaged with some bright people, generally on the left, and I think it would be a mistake to project an altar-boy, blue-nosed, nerdy kind of image of Catholics — which is precisely the stereotype that our adversaries have of us — and I'm not that way. Look, I'm a regular guy who's just fed up with the attacks on our Catholic Church. I'm New York Irish and, yeah, there is a tough edge to me when I'm on TV, but when people get to know me, I don't think they would say I have a chip on my shoulder. But I'll say one thing, when I'm in a debate on TV, I go in prepared and I go in to win.
What exactly do you deem “anti-Catholic”?
Take the movies or the theater, for example. I don't care if they portray one priest in a movie as a drunk or as a sexual predator — that's not anti-Catholic. It's anti-Catholic if the only priests that the audience meets are dysfunctional and you never see a good-guy priest. Like the 1995 Miramax movie Priest. In that movie, the audience meets five priests and all of them are dysfunctional, and they explain their dysfunctionality as a result of their being Catholic.
Do you respond to every anti-Catholic claim you get?
No. If I shoot wide and call everything “anti-Catholic,” my credibility will disappear. When in doubt, we leave it out. Let's say there is an art exhibit with five offensive portraits, but there are gradations of offense. Do we go after all five? No, we go after the one that's the most outrageous; that way we win the argument.
Does the Catholic League just respond defensively and “put out fires,” or are you also playing offense?
We usually put out fires, but sometimes we're arsonists. By that, I mean that we don't just settle scores — we go to win. Mel Gibson was the subject of the most vicious attack I've ever seen on a public person, and all he wanted to do was put out a movie about Jesus Christ. Gibson had a lot of cheerleaders in the Christian community, but not at the Catholic League. We weren't cheerleaders; we were gladiators. We went straight at his most vociferous enemies and we took them on directly: on TV, in the press, in an open letter to the Jewish community. Mel Gibson didn't need another pat on the back. He needed someone to come to his defense in a very strong way, and if you weren't strong, the other side would have run you over.
Do you just take high-profile cases like that of Mel Gibson?
Not at all. Let me give you one example from Spencerport High School up near Rochester, N.Y. We were contacted by a student who alleged that he was not allowed to write about his religion in the student newspaper. I contacted the principal via email and told him that if this was true, he (the principal) had no grounds to stand on. I showed him the 1996 memo from Richard Reilly, secretary of education under President Clinton, which supports the right of students to express themselves. It ended amicably. Now, all it cost me was an email. And, there it is — this kid's rights have been secured.
Are the people in the “blue” states more anti-Catholic, more secular?
No. It's not the average guy who is a union worker and wants better health care or wages and thinks that the Democrats can deliver on these issues. Those aren't the people who are anti-Catholic. It's the playwrights, the artistic community, college professors — principally in the humanities, social sciences and law schools — people in the major media — not small-town newspapers — the entertainment industry, Hollywood and the publishing world. So, I'm not talking about blue-state or red-state people. I'm talking about a small segment of very influential people who are profoundly hostile in their thinking to the Catholic Church.
Will anti-Catholicism ever disappear like other prejudices have?
I don't see it in the near future, but hopefully anti-Catholicism will wane. But there are really two genres of anti-Catholicism. One is toward the individual; the other is toward the institution. I think that in this country we have made tremendous progress in the former. Not too long ago, for example, Ivy League schools wouldn't even accept Catholics. But we've gone backwards in the way that the institutional Church is treated in the media and by the cultural elites who will not stop until they “sanitize” our society of religion.