Not So Docile Sheep

Article excerpt

In late March, I accepted a challenge from William Donohue of the Catholic League to debate him in New York. The motion before the audience, which gathered in the Lincoln Hall of the Union League Club, was that "The American Intellectual Elite is Hostile to Religion in General and to the Catholic Church in Particular." Mr. Donohue's task was the more difficult one, since it was as easy for me to maintain that the proposition was untrue as it was to argue that it would be nice if it were true.

The event took place in the week of the pope's very generalized and vague "apologies" for the innumerable past sins of the Church and was sponsored by the Catholic group Christe Fidelis, which hopes to mount further events "in the spirit of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc." It taught me a good deal about the different strands of belief that secularists might profit from distinguishing.

There was nothing to learn from Donohue himself. He is a bilious thug in the tradition of Father Coughlin and Joseph McCarthy; you may have seen him making a spectacle of himself outside the Brooklyn Museum of Art and other sites of blasphemy and profanity. In the course of the debate, he delivered himself of the view that all critics of the Church are bigots, that the press consistently downplays anti-Catholic outrages, and that Hollywood and the networks say things about priests that they would never dare say about rabbis or imams. He also accused me of being a sympathizer of fascism and anti-Semitism (this was perhaps his pre-emptive strike in defense of Pope Pius XII) and--oddly for an evening dedicated to Chesterton and Belloc--of being an agent of English cultural poison. It was a real whiff of old-style Francoism, rather as I imagine it would be to argue with Patrick Buchanan when he was on acid.

However, the largely Catholic crowd evidently didn't sympathize with this stuff, and the National Review--cosponsor of the evening--reported rather generously that I had won the debate. (I don't know if they mean I also won the argument.) Donohue got no applause for his amazing attack on evolution and only a muted response for his foul remarks about AIDS victims. I was jeered by a section of the audience when I said that homosexuality was a form of love as well as a form of sex, but when I repeated it for emphasis the jeering diminished. Afterwards, I was kept around for a long time by friendly and courteous and intelligent questions and discussion, and not a few apologies (which I didn't need, as I have a thick skin and a broad back).

What emerges in these confrontations is always the same. When people hear their own faith being articulated by someone who crudely and literally believes it, they become uneasy. How many of that audience were really convinced that the Roman Church is the exclusive route to salvation, despite being so horribly persecuted in the United States? …