American Catholics' Pit Bull

A confrontational pugilist who believes that, in this fight, dialogue doesn't work

President of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. Always out-spoken. Early in 1998 ABCTV canceled the show Nothing Sacred. The League led a boycott that caused dozens of advertisers to drop the show. Last fall, Donohue went after the off-Broadway play Corpus Christi, which closed after a short run. He spoke recently in New York with Register national affairs correspondent Brian Caulfield.

Caulfield: What direction do you see our culture taking in relation to the Catholic Church?

Donohue: I say the culture is up for grabs. It can be won either by those who think that the answer to greater liberty is the secularization of society, on a mostly hedonistic bent, or by those who are of a more traditional persuasion, such as myself, who think that a healthy public display of Catholicism is in the best interest of the United States. Not that I expect all people to become Catholic or follow the teachings of the Church, but what the Catholic Church teaches in terms of morals, particularly in terms of restraint and self-denial, is something that once was imbedded in our culture and no longer is. I think many of the social pathologies we see today are a direct result of the abandonment of these Catholic teachings.

Many people see the Church as opposed to individual freedom. How do you address that?

Much of my educational and professional background has been focused on the question, What makes for a free society? I believe you must have civil liberties, and in this I agree with the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), but I part company with them in asserting that there must be a modicum of civility and community. Radical advocates of civil liberties stress the individual as triumphant over the group, whereas civility and community are predicated on the idea that the individual will be subordinate to the group, that there's such a thing as the common good to which all must contribute. There's a tension here, and it's a healthy one. Our society, however, has veered off too far in the direction of radical individualism.

What Catholicism teaches is that you've got to be is responsible before you can exercise rights, that you have to have certain communitarian values imbedded in you—such as duty, honor, responsibility, and commitment. But the Church also places a great emphasis on human rights. Pope John Paul II has stressed the absolute dignity of each man and woman, and says that freedom is the right to do what we ought to do, not simply what we want to do. I think this teaching needs to be spread as far as we can take it. The Pope's teaching, particularly in Veritatis Splendor, is a manifesto for human liberty.

I say the culture is up for grabs. It can be won either by those who think that the answer to greater liberty is the secularization of society, on a mostly hedonistic bent, or by those who are of a more traditional persuasion, such as myself, who think that a healthy public display of Catholicism is in the best interest of the United States.

Is the Church, as an institution, under attack?

I have been president of the Catholic League for five years and in my tenure I have not seen a significant increase in attacks on the rights of individual Catholics. I have seen an increase in hostility against the institutional Church, particularly in its teachings in the area of sexual ethics, and I think that it's most viciously exhibited by the artistic community. I disagree with those who say the main culprit is the media. True, in terms of mere volume, the media clearly dwarfs any other vehicle of anti-Catholicism. But in terms of pure viciousness, there is a hatred against the Church and its teachings in the arts which is rivaled perhaps only by those in higher education. The premium that educators put on moral relativism has led in part to our moral collapse, to the point that many young people in college today do not have the moral grounding to declare that something as horrible as the Holocaust is absolutely wrong. They have been taught that morality is personal and that good is whatever the lone individual decides.

What do you see as the motive behind anti-Catholicism?

Every day tracts and books pass my desk which say that Protestants should have no association with Catholics and that Satan has guided the Catholic Church since the dawn of Christianity. However, that element of Protestantism, while it's important to monitor, does not occupy most of my time. I'm more interested in what is happening in the publishing world, the world of broadcasting and academia, the real centers of opinion, where ideas are disseminated from the top, so to speak. There is a definite animus coming from those sources, from these very well-educated, very well-heeled men and women who would die to think that they were in any way a bigot, but who can say with such great aplomb that the Catholic Church does not deserve the same respect as other institutions. I've gone on radio and I'm shocked to hear very educated people say that the reason we have a degree of anti-Catholicism in this country is because this is payback time. You had your chance at influencing the culture, they say, and we didn't like it.

What really gets to me is the control non-Catholic institutions seek to have over the teachings and policies of the Church. For example, the Ford Foundation has been over the past several decades the No. 1 funder of the notoriously anti-Catholic group called Catholics for A Free Choice, which has been denounced by the bishops. By its funding the Ford Foundation is trying to subvert public opinion on what the Church teaches and to give the impression that there are multiple positions on the killing of innocent children.

Some Catholics have said that your methods are too confrontational.

I have often been described as too pugilistic, too controversial, and I have an answer. No. 1, we are not a pastoral organization, we are a civil rights organization. Two, we are not located in the hinterlands, we are in New York City, the media capital of the United States. Three, to those who prefer a more nuanced, more compromising approach, in which dialogue is their God, I can only say that they've had their chance and their method has proven to be an utter failure. We get results. Once you step into the arena with the ACLU, the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, Planned Parenthood, and others, you have to play on their turf. We are here to win, and when we lose, we want the respect of our adversaries. I think we've achieved that.

Critics have said the Catholic League is a right-wing organization and point out that you're a scholar for the conservative Heritage Foundation.

The Catholic League defends the Church and its members from defamation and discrimination. If the attacks come disproportionately from the left, as they have been recently, then we are going to appear to be a right-wing organization. I won't be intimidated by that label. Many times I have been told, “Bill, don't rock the boat.” My answer is, “I didn't start the rocking, you people stirred up the waters.” I'm trying to return things to normalcy, so the Church and the people can practice the faith in tranquillity.

Your offices are in the Catholic Center, where you share the top floor with John Cardinal O‘Connor. How close is your association?

Do I meet with the cardinal on occasion? Of course. Do I do it on a regular basis? No. If the cardinal were to ask me to do a favor me, of course I would do what I could do help him. But the cardinal does not have many requests, and I do not have many of him. People on the outside would have a tough time understanding this. I think I have his support in general, as I think I have the support in general of Cardinal Mahony (of Los Angeles), whose name appears on one of our brochures, and Cardinal Bevilacqua (of Philadelphia).

You say the League does not enter issues within the Church, yet you have stirred up some controversies in those quarters.

We don't address internal affairs directly, but sometimes it is unavoidable that we do so indirectly. When we took the stand that we did on Nothing Sacred we were drawn into all the tensions that exist within the Church over the issues the show dealt with [abortion, women's ordination, sexual morality]. Here you have a dissident priest (Father William Cain SJ) who was a writer for the show, who teamed up with Hollywood people who very openly said back in July of 1997 that their goal was to create dialogue on certain issues where it is needed in the Church. I think it was outrageous propaganda from the beginning.

We never did label Nothing Sacred anti-Catholic. Why object, then? It fed anti-Catholicism by presenting dissenting Catholics in a good light and those who are loyal to the Magisterium in a negative light. The goal was to manipulate public opinion, and that's what was so offensive.

Who have been inspirational figures for you?

One of my intellectual heroes clearly was Sidney Hook, the philosopher, who taught me at NYU. I remained close to him up to the time of his death and he supported my work on the ACLU. As far as more well-known people, clearly it's Mother Teresa, Ronald Reagan, and Pope John Paul II. Also, (Marist) Father Philip Eichner, chairman of the board of the Catholic League. He's not just a fantastic priest. He's a fantastic intellect, and a fantastic human being. He is a source of great counsel and inspiration to me.

What will it take for the Catholic League to declare it mission accomplished?

I could pare back a bit if a year went by without any movie, play, or television show that was cause for grave concern. Or if on the campuses throughout the country, no major cases of anti-Catholicism came to our attention in a given academic year. If we saw that debates regarding school vouchers and choice in education could be conducted without the taint of anti-Catholicism by those who are opposed to vouchers, that would be a signal to me that we have made tremendous progress. If everywhere we had a menorah on public property, we had a créche also and not simply a Christmas tree. If these things began to happen, we at the Catholic League could begin to pack our bags. But I don't see that happening. The fact that this anti-Catholicism comes so much from the affluent and educated segment of society shows me that our work is far from over.

—Brian Caulfield