Catholic Bashing has been around for about as long as anyone can remember, so long that many Catholics are either inured or indifferent to it. Some were lulled into complacency by the election of John Kennedy, thinking that the “Catholic question” had been settled. In their enthusiasm for JFK’s victory, however, they conveniently forgot that he deferred to anti-Catholic prejudice during the 1960 campaign by emphasizing whenever he could that his religion was entirely a private affair. No need for anyone to worry, in short, that his Catholicism might make its mark on public policy.
The political culture, of course, was far healthier then, and for all the sectarian differences among our citizenry, there was fundamental agreement on most questions of public and private morality. Not only has the culture come to tolerate what was once roundly condemned as deviant behavior, but assaults against the Church and her teaching have acquired a more sinister and even demonic character.
Whereas Catholicism was once suspect because its adherents questioned the central premises of the Reformation, the chief threat today comes from those who ridicule with savage intensity the very idea of Christianity itself. It is far less likely that some future Al Smith will be accused of taking political orders from the pope than that he will be excoriated for daring to believe in the divine origin and order of the universe. Our Evangelical brethren have come to discover that militant atheism and nihilism pose a far greater danger to their beliefs than any imagined conspiracy emanating from the papacy. And generally speaking, they are more vocal and better organized than Catholics when it comes to defending their honor.
But Catholics are beginning to rouse themselves, thanks in no small part to the indomitable Bill Donohue, who heads the Catholic League for Civil and Religious Rights. (Check it out at www.catholicleague.org and join.) The league, at 350,000 strong and rising, assumes you’re not sup-posed to enjoy it when someone insults your religion. Believing that the best defense is a good offense, Donohue and his colleagues have been marvelously successful in their war against those who promote or indulge the anti-Catholic swill so commonly found in popular culture.
They are also alert to propaganda that has as its purpose the distortion of the historical record. A case in point is the recently published Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII, which seeks to blacken the name of a good and courageous pontiff. Author John Cornwell claims to have reached his conclusions after researching hitherto secret or unexamined archives, though he has done nothing of the sort. The book is a hackneyed reworking of libelous canards against Pius XII that have been more or less routinely re-circulated for years by axe-grinding ideologues. As if in anticipation of this latest assault, the Catholic League many months ago prepared a defense of Pius XII that sets the record straight. (It is available in print or electronically on the league’s Web site.)
But it is in the rough-and-tumble of the political arena that the league excels. Donohue, who can spot anti-Catholic bigotry ten miles off, takes no prisoners. When ABC launched its aptly titled Nothing Sacred a couple of seasons ago, Donohue went after the network and the show’s sponsors with bulldogged persistence until the show slithered out of town with its tail between its legs.
Given the increasingly lurid condition of modern culture, defenders of sacred things necessarily have their hands full. Consider, for example, the hateful assault on Catholic sensibilities in the Brooklyn Museum’s tax-supported exhibit, featuring among other things an obscene and sacrilegious portrait of the Blessed Mother. Mayor Guiliani, inspired in large part by the league’s leadership and example, has responded with hammer and tong. The average Joe may be complacent about the latest contrivances of “artistic” depravity, but he’s not complacent about having his tax dollars support it.
Next on the target list: the newly released motion picture Dogma, an unspeakably vulgar and incoherent piece of adolescent rage against all things sacred. And beyond it, who knows what manner of sacrilegious garbage will come before us?
Bill Donohue and the Catholic League are fighting the good fight, but where are the rest of the faithful? Is it too much to hope that they will rouse themselves and act as if the faith of their fathers still matters?