The newly elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has expressed his enthusiastic support for the Catholic League, which under the leadership of William Donohue has become one of the most divisive and polarizing organizations in the U.S. Catholic community. The move is seen by many as a deepening of the Catholic Church's affiliation with political forces on the far right.
The favorable comments appeared last week in an opinion piece entitled "Why We Need the Catholic League," posted on the Archdiocese of New York's official blog. In the piece, USCCB president Archbishop Timothy Dolan explains that despite the fact that "some may take occasional issue with [Donohue's] style," Dolan is "glad to express ... encouragement for the work he does." "Keep at it, Bill!" the archbishop writes. "We need you!"
Donohue recently captured headlines by bullying the Smithsonian into censoring a four-minute video piece by the artist David Wojnarowicz because it depicted a crucifix lying on the ground covered with ants. There's no indication in the piece of whether the imagery is intended as an insult to Catholicism. Nevertheless, Donohue declared it "hate speech" and House Speaker-in-waiting John Boehner soon followed suit.
Anyone who has followed Donohue's career knows that this sort of behavior is par for the course. Donohue makes a tidy living -- $400,000 a year, in fact -- manufacturing controversies in order to make the Catholic Church look like a persecuted minority. He's the guy who brought you the flare-up over President Obama's speech at Notre Dame last year. He's the guy who took out John Kerry's religious outreach director in 2004 because she once spoke at an AIDS rally on behalf of an anti-poverty group, then defended Bush's Catholic coordinator when allegations surfaced that he had date raped one of his students at Fordham (Donohue blamed the victim).
More recently, Donohue tried to bait state governors into a Christmas culture war by sending all 50 of them cheap tabletop nativity scenes, then threatening a media campaign against those who refused to display the pieces in their state capitol buildings.
Up until now, it's been easy to dismiss Donohue and the Catholic League as a faith-based fringe movement. The bishops' sin -- if any -- was one of omission: a failure to put adequate distance between their ministry and Donohue's antics. But Dolan's recent comments are cause for much deeper concern. They suggest that the Catholic League has now been welcomed as an official ministry of the church.
Sadly, there's little reason for surprise. After all, these are the same bishops who came out against the health care reform act at the request of their Family Research Council-affiliated lobbyists, then stood by silently as Republican super-PACs executed a political hit job on pro-life Democrats who supported the legislation. These are the same bishops who, in January 2009, used their pulpits to wage war against a non-existent abortion bill, even as job losses approached 600,000 a month. These are the same bishops who voted down a moderate candidate for president last month -- one known for resisting the church's foray into partisan politics -- and instead voted in Archbishop Timothy Dolan.
Catholics who still believe in the church's social justice mission aren't taking this lying down. Catholics United -- the organization I direct -- recently launched an e-mail campaign asking Archbishop Dolan to retract his support for the Catholic League. As of this writing, nearly 4,500 of our members have sent messages to the archbishop. If we can make Dolan and the USCCB understand the full extent of Donohue's inappropriate behavior, and the embarrassment he causes many Catholics to feel, perhaps they will refrain from supporting him in the future.
PFAW's Right Wing Watch blog has a great run-down on the man the bishops' conference is supporting here.