Watch ON THE RIGHT: A League of the Pope’s Own. John M. Swomley reveals the Catholic League as the agent for censorship of any critique of the Catholic church and for the establishment of a Catholic culture as the norm in American public relations. From: THE HUMANIST, January-February, 1998
Watch ON THE RIGHT
A League of the Pope’s Own
by John M. Swomley
One of the least known and most dangerous of the far-right organizations is the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. It is little known because it masquerades as a civil rights organization; it is dangerous because it redefines religious and civil rights as opposites to those normally under stood as constitutional rights. Chiefly, its mission is to censor or suppress any activity, language, speech, publication, or media presentation that it considers offensive to the papacy, the Vatican, or the Catholic church in America.
The Catholic League was organized in 1973 by a Jesuit priest, Virgil Blum, who in 1959 had organized Citizens for Educational Freedom to launch the campaign for government funding of parochial schools through tax vouchers. In 1993, William Donohue took over the leadership of the Catholic League, with the assistance of Robert Destra as general counsel. Donohue has worked hard to redefine civil liberties away from individual rights so as to oppose affirmative action, gay rights, women’s rights, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press.
According to the league’s bylaws, the organization defends
the right to life of the unborn, the aged, and the handicapped; the rights of the family to protection against threats to morality such as . . . pornography, amoral approaches to sex and the like; and the rights of parents to direct the education of their children.
The league, however, is not simply a collection of right-wing individuals. It claims “the support of all the U.S. cardinals and many of the bishops” and exists in response to Canon 1369 of the Code of Canon Law:
A person is to be punished with a just penalty, who, at a public event or assembly, or in published writing, or by otherwise using the means of social communication, utters blasphemy, or gravely harms public morals, or rails at or excites hatred of or contempt for religion or the Church.
Donohue has on various occasions stated the Catholic League’s strategy. In the December 1995 Catalyst, the league’s journal, Donohue boasted:
We specialize in public embarrassment of public figures who have earned our wrath and that is why we are able to win so many battles: no person or organization wants to be publicly embarrassed, and that is why we specialize in doing exactly that.
In The Life and Death of NSSM 200, author Stephen Mumford quotes Donohue as saying:
The threat of lawsuit is the only language that some people understand. The specter of public humiliation is another weapon that must be used. Petitions and boycotts are helpful. The use of the bully pulpit-via the airwaves-is a most effective strategy. Press conferences can be used to enlighten or alternatively to embarrass.
Before Pope John Paul II visited the United States in October 1995, the Catholic League launched a campaign to intimidate the press so as to avoid any critical reporting of the pope. According to Mumford, it collected thousands of signatures of its members to the following petition:
We, the undersigned, call on the media to act responsibly when Pope John Paul II comes to New York in October. It is not acting responsibly to give a high profile to the voices of dissident and alienated Catholics. It is not acting responsibly to focus almost exclusively on those issues of Catholic teaching that are in tension with the values of culture; worse, it is wrong to lecture the Church on getting into line. It is not acting responsibly to neglect coverage of the good work that Catholics and the Catholic Church have done in serving the least among us. It is not acting responsibly to deny that anti-Catholic sentiment is a force in our society.
It is worth noting that the above petition objects to reporting protests by Catholic dissidents and believes that “Catholic tensions” with American culture should be offset by the good work done by those Catholics who themselves are restricted or dominated by the Vatican.
The league’s campaign largely succeeded in intimidating the press. The November 1995 Catalyst carried the headline “Media Treat Pope Fairly; Protesters Fail to Score.” Inside, Donohue trumpeted the pope’s visit:
From beginning to end, this papal visit proved to be the most triumphant of them all. . . . The relatively few cheap shots that were taken at the Pope by the media in October is testimony to a change in the culture.
In other words, the “change in the culture” is the elevation of the pope and church hierarchy to a position above criticism.
The Catholic League claims that any criticism of the pope, the hierarchy, and the Vatican is bigotry. The league says it has attacked CBS’s 60 Minutes for a January 22, 1995, broadcast featuring the progressive Catholic group Call to Action. The league also attacked NBC Nightly News for referring to Catholics for a Free Choice and another Catholic group, Dignity. When the Associated Press mentioned that a federal appeals court judge who barred doctors from engaging in assisted suicide is a Catholic, the league launched a protest that resulted in an AP apology. That apology prompted Donohue to boast in the May 1995 Catalyst that the league “will not have to call attention to such errors in the future.” In other words, the league’s threat to the American press is clear: it is not permissible to identify public servants as Catholics when their public actions uphold papal teachings.
The Catholic League has called upon a Los Angeles radio station to fire its talk show host Bill Press, a Roman Catholic, for remarks critical of the pope. It has also criticized FOX TV, Bravo, ABC, Newsday, and numerous others for critical comments about the pope or the Catholic church. Mumford writes that the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel even dropped Ann Landers’ advice column because of the Catholic League.
In the fall 1997 season, ABC launched a series called Nothing Sacred about a modern-day priest who occasionally has doubts about his calling. In an opening segment, the priest tells a woman who confesses her intention to have an abortion that she should follow her own conscience. The Associated Press reported on October 5, 1997, that Catholic League objections brought about the cancellation of sponsorship by fifteen national advertisers, including Isuzu, Weight Watchers, Chrysler-Plymouth, and American Honda.
The media are not the league’s only target. It has attacked colleges for re marks professors made in classrooms and the University of Michigan for cartoons which ran in a student newspaper. After a threatening letter from Donohue to the president of the university, the cartoonist apologized and the president wrote a conciliatory letter.
The league has also threatened members of Congress-both House and Senate-calling upon them to resign from the Population Institute because, according to Mumford, the institute’s May 1995 fundraising letter contained the following:
The Vatican continues to undermine the advancements we’ve made in Cairo on issues of pregnancy prevention. The anti-contraceptive gestapo has vowed to double the number of its delegation to 28 and to turn once more to weaken the cause of reproductive rights.
The October 1994 Catalyst carried the headline “League Assails Clinton Administration for Bigotry” because of a State Department spokesperson’s disagreement with the Vatican over the Cairo conference on population. The league also published an “open letter” to President Clinton as an advertisement in the New York Times, asking the president to apologize for the State Department’s statement.
The Catholic League has attacked government employees and even the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish organization, for its decision to present a literary award to Richard Lukas for his book, Did the Children Cry? Hitler’s War Against Jewish and Polish Children.
In a directory of right-wing Catholic organizations published by Catholics for a Free Choice, the Catholic League’s main office is listed as 1011 First Avenue, New York, New York, which is the head quarters of Cardinal John O’Connor’s archdiocese. In short, that address increasingly has been the agent for censorship of any critique of the Catholic church and for the establishment of a Catholic culture as the norm in American public relations.
Democracy, however, depends upon the free flow of information and opinion and the people’s right to know. There is a serious danger to any society or government when the leaders of any church or secret organization under its control can intimidate and suppress information and opinion. The people need to know when taxes are used to finance church institutions or when churches use political and judicial power to write church doctrines into law. Ultimately, the church, the state, and the media face a decline in public confidence when important information is suppressed.
John M Swomley is an emeritus professor of social ethics at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri, and president of Americans for Religious Liberty.