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Benedictions: The Pope in America

Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights–basically a Catholic version of the Anti-Defamation League, or a wannabe, some would say–is often over the top in denunciations of anti-Catholicism, real or perceived, and of other Cathoilics who Donohue sees as not toeing the proper Catholic line. But even Bill Donohue may have outdone himself, and done in his own organization, if his latest press release prompts an IRS investigation.
The May 2 release is “Catholic Dissidents Advise Obama,” and it draws down on Obama’s Catholic National Advisory Council, made up of Catholics in public and religious life, ranging from Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania to the Sister of St. Joseph, Sr. Catherine Pinkerton. Also included are a few Catholic writers and theologians and others who I know well, and others whose work I have long admired. Point of disclosure: I have also known Bill Donohue for years, and while I think he is completely wrongheaded many times, and inimical to the church’s well-being other times, he can also be a good guy to have a beer with, as well as someone who does not run from an argument, and an advocate who can point out indisputable cases of anti-Catholicism that still persist.
That said, this latest blast is way outta line. Donohue not only labels these Catholics as “dissidents” but he says “Practicing Catholics have every right to be insulted by Obama’s advisory group”–setting up Catholics who back Obama as bad Catholics and opponents of Obama, by implication, as good Catholics. Donohue employs his favorite trick of the invidious–and distorting–comparison, saying he wouldn’t have gay advisors who “don’t reflect the sentiment of the gay community”–as if these Obama-backers don’t reflect Catholic opinion. (In fact, they largely do. Not that this should be about public opinion, no?)
In his closing, Donohue takes a real potshot, saying that “If these are the best ‘committed Catholic leaders, scholars and advocates’ Obama can find, then it is evident that he has a ‘Wright’ problem when it comes to picking Catholic advisors.” As if these Catholics–check out the list–are the equivalent of Jeremiah Wright…!
But let me dissect this a bit more analytically. I see four chief problems.
One is that Donohue bases his criticism of these dozens of advisors principally on the “scores” that the abortion rights group NARAL gives some of the political figures on the committee (conveniently not mentioning the presence of Democrats Bob Casey and Tim Roemer, also on Obama’s committee, who have taken stands against abortion rights in many cases). Donohue also states that Obama’s pol pals do not agree with the church’s “three major public policy issues: abortion, embryonic stem cell research and school vouchers.” That is a rather selective list, in that the bishops’ own statement on political participation, titled “Faithful Citizenship,” lists seven principal policy areas, and they include “Option for the Poor and Vulnerable,” “Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers,” and “Caring for God’s Creation.” Not to mention the church’s opposition to the Iraq War, which John McCain wants to continue.
Indeed, while Donohue has criticized McCain’s alliance with the rock-ribbed televangelist and preacher of standard anti-Catholic rhetoric, John Hagee, he has not brought similar scrutiny to McCain’s own Catholic advisory board.
And that raises the second problem, which was noted by the liberal group, Catholics United, namely that Donohue’s apparent partisanship could jeopardize the League’s 501c3 non-profit status. Catholics United also cites passages from “Onward Christian Solders,” a new book by Deal Hudson–a longtime GOP advisor and guest blogger at Casting Stones–that show how Donohue has been active in helping the Bush White House and the Republican Party woo the Catholic vote.
This adds up to a big potential problem for Donohue. Yet it also adds up to a big payday for him. As the League’s publicly-available financial forms show, Donohue takes in a whopping $343,000 a year in salary and compensation. He can rightly claim that he has turned the League from a penny-ante mom-and-pop shop into the $20-million-dollar a year culture war machine that it is. But while few would disagree with fighting anti-Catholicism, I wonder how many will see Donohue as getting rich off anti-Catholicism.
A final point: Pope Benedict XVI, who Donohue spares no effort to defend, even when the pontiff is not under attack, made an explicit call during last month’s visit for Catholics to seek unity, not division. I’m not sure how Donohue’s internecine and potentially partisan sniping achieves that end, or even how attacking other Catholics connects with fighting anti-Catholicism.

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