NEW YORK—On an average morning in his 20th-story office overlooking midtown Manhattan, William Donohue read with special satisfaction letters recently received from a host of U.S. bishops. Not surprisingly, there were encouraging words from Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb., Archbishop Edwin O'Brien of the Military Services archdiocese and others who are usually in sympathy with the Catholic League.
Donohue also received words of support, however, from Paterson, N.J., Bishop Frank Rodimer and Bishop Joseph Imesch of Joliet, Ill., two shepherds not ordinarily associated with the causes and methods of the cultural trench warfare Donohue engages in as president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.
“I don't think we've heard from [the two bishops] in the past,” Donohue said in an interview late last month with the Register, a few days after his organization celebrated its 25th anniversary in gala fashion.
He declined to use the terms “liberal” or “conservative” to describe the different bishops because he thinks such terms are loaded “flashwords” that mislead more than inform. Rather, he said he was “very, very encouraged” that his latest charge of anti-Catholicism against ABC-TV had apparently struck a chord across a wider range of perspectives within the Church than usual. The bishops’ letters were in support of the League's stand against an April 6 episode of the ABC series That's Life, aired during Holy Week — which Donohue called the most anti-Catholic show he has ever seen — with attacks on central dogmas, the sacraments, pious Catholic practices, and the saints.
“Some letter writers say that they were not on board with us in our critique of Nothing Sacred, but this latest ABC offense is just too much,” Donohue said. “In terms of our credibility with some people who have not supported us in the past, this could not have come at a better time.”
Reporting on the life and deeds of the Catholic League is risky business, because just as news of one cause goes to press, there is a good chance that a newer and bigger crusade may be declared by Donohue. Some critics charge that the League looks under rocks for targets in defensive paranoia or sees affronts to Catholics and the Church in every media depiction that does not ring to the tune of the Bells of St. Mary. Donohue has been called a conservative reactionary who wants to undo the work of Vatican II and suppress varying opinions within the Church.
Charges of political conservatism are certainly well founded, given the fact that he worked for the Heritage Foundation (a conservative think tank) and was a sought-after expert on the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) after George Bush called Michael Dukakis a “card-carrying” member during the 1988 presidential campaign. He has written three books on American culture and the decline of political and personal liberty under the “libertine” agendas pursued by such groups as the ACLU. He holds a doctorate in sociology from New York University and is still a scholar with the Heritage Foundation and an adviser to the Rockford Institute.
The League has episcopal support from New York's John Cardinal O'Connor, who was keynote speaker at the group's anniversary reception last month. Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, Bernard Cardinal Law of Boston, and Roger Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles are quoted in promotional material.
Donohue took the reins of the League in 1993, three years after the death of its founder, Jesuit Father Virgil Blum of Marquette University, who focused on advancing the rights of Catholic parents in education. The organization had fallen into disarray and membership rolls were at a dismal 11,000. Donohue saw a chance for growth and appealed to Catholics of America through a direct-mail survey that attacked dissident positions within the Church and affirmed loyalty to the Pope. The survey harvested a wealth of new members and Donohue trumpets the fact that the League receives no Church or foundation funds, relying instead on the $30 membership fees of “Joe Six-pack.” There are chapters across the country and members mail the Manhattan headquarters countless newspaper and magazine clippings and call with daily reports of anti-Catholicism, only a few of which Donohue finds worthy enough to follow up.
The League has gone after Disney for the release of the movie Priest (which features four confused and sexually frustrated priests), Calvin Klein ads for placing a crucifix on a scantily clad youth, and was an early voice against the secret taping of an inmate's confession in Oregon. The League last year ran an op-ed ad in The New York Times that simply quoted the paper's praise of Pope Pius XII for his heroism regarding the Jews during the war, and the current Times attack against the Pope on the same issue.
Donohue calls anti-Catholicism “the last respectable bias” and has gained a measure of respect and credibility among the secular media, which seek Donohue's comments as “the other side” in various Church-related disputes. His latest tussles with ABC have gone far to gain a more sympathetic treatment from many media outlets. He sent 1,200 videotaped copies of the episode to bishops, Members of Congress, and media outlets and hopes this is the issue that will turn things around not only for the Church but for the culture in general. He makes it no secret that his organization is out to have a significant effect on the civitas—the political and moral life of the nation.
Although Donohue insists that the League does not enter debates within the ecclesial fold — such as the disagreements about the translation of the Lectionary — many stands he takes inevitably throw light on serious intramural divisions. The prolonged and weighty debate about the drama Nothing Sacred, which was taken off the air due to poor ratings, started as a familiar League attack against ABC and its parent company, Disney, and evolved into a showdown between supporters of two very different views of the Church.
Donohue claims the show was not so much anti-Catholic as anti-faithful Catholic, as each episode portrayed dissident Catholics and priests to be more intelligent and compassionate than their orthodox counterparts. The main character, Father Ray, doubts the existence of God and his vocation and refuses to counsel a pregnant woman against abortion in the confessional. Yet he is almost violent in his support for a parish soup kitchen. The main writer was Jesuit Father William Cain of New York City, who accused Donohue of anti-Semitism for pointing out that the show's producers were Jewish. Donohue challenged the priest “to put up or shut up,” threatened him with a libel suit, and received a retraction of the accusation and an apology.
The lines of debate about the TV show were laid out by the National Catholic Reporter. The Oct. 31 cover headlined, “Who Speaks For Catholics?” Despite its critical assessment of the League, Donohue said he saw the article as a backhanded compliment because the underlying theme was how the Reporter saw its own claim of speaking for U.S. Catholics threatened. As prominent commentator and League adviser George Weigel is quoted in the article, the League has become “a player” in the struggle for America's conscience.
Father Gregory Coiro, director of communications for the Los Angeles Archdiocese, who worked closely with Donohue before the release of Nothing Sacred last summer, said that the League doesn't pretend to speak for all Catholics.
“It is an independent, lay Catholic organization that seeks to defend Catholics” in various ways, he told the Register. “It has no official standing in the Church and as such can have a great deal more latitude” in the stands it takes and the methods it uses.
The League may not speak for Catholics, but Donohue wonders whether the heads of Catholic media organizations want it to speak to Catholics. In a fall meeting of the national Catholic Press Association, a forum was held among editors and journalists about Nothing Sacred, yet Donohue was not invited. Father Coiro expressed concern to the organizers but failed to change their minds.
“It seemed a little unbalanced to me,” he told the Register. “How can you discuss a controversy without the major critic being there?”
“That's some people's idea of dialogue, I guess,” Donohue quipped.
His group has a somewhat different mission from the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, he told the Register, but he admires the ADL for an effectiveness that is exhibited almost silently these days, in the fact that Jews are rarely the object of media or government animus. Meanwhile, to reach that level of effectiveness, Donohue thunders.
After reading from an ABC letter that stated That's Life was not meant to offend any religious group, Donohue stated at a press conference, “I don't buy that anymore. There's a pattern here. Something is seriously wrong with ABC and Catholics are fed up with it.”
Brian Caulfield writes from New York.