Neither Religious nor Civil: The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights
MOST AMERICAN CATHOLICS would look at you blankly if you asked them to enumerate the number of times in their lives they had experienced anti-Catholic sentiment. But Bill Donohue lives in another America--one where anti-Catholicism is alive and well and spreading like wildfire. It is the America of the Catholic League, a small, reactionary, conservative Catholic organization that has practiced the art of media manipulation to claim majority status for what is a very minority worldview.
In Donohue's own words, the Catholic League, of which he is president, specializes in "public embarrassment of public figures who have earned our wrath." In addition to embarrassment, the organization uses intimidation, bullying and distortion to suppress critics of the Catholic church, the Vatican, and the church's many controversial policies. It is an ally of the radical religious right, helping to promote its anti-reproductive rights, anti-gay fights, pro-censorship agenda by labeling progressive Catholics as "anti-Catholic" and using its "Catholic" nomenclature to try and undermine support for the Democratic Party among religious voters.
The Catholic League is the subject of a recent report by Catholics for Choice in our Opposition Notes series. Some highlights of that report follow. The full report is available on our Web site, www.CatholicsForChoice.org and may be purchased in hard copy.
The Catholic League for Religions and Civil Rights was founded in 1973 in Milwaukee by Father Virgil C. Blum, a conservative Jesuit priest and professor of political science at Marquette University, following the Roe v. Wade decision to fight legalized abortion and what he saw as the removal of religious values from American public life. He believed that anti-Catholicism was widespread and increasing and that Catholics needed a "civil rights" organization. This, despite the gains made by Catholics in almost ever sector of life in the second half of the 20th century, including the election of a Catholic president, the rise of numerous Catholics in politics and business and the end of formal discriminatory practices against Catholics.
The Catholic League immediately set itself up on the right flank of traditional conservatives in order to dictate its concept of morals to society--including the suppression of abortion and homosexuality and dissent against the Catholic church. "The high priests of the religion of secular humanism are striving mightily to drive religion out of human affairs--out of education, business, the professions, and in recent years most pronouncedly out of government. It is our position that religious-based values are fundamental to all aspects of human affairs," Blum explained in 1982.
From the beginning, the organization was marked by the schizophrenic attitude that would become its hallmark: It simultaneously argued for the right of conservative Catholics to impose their values in the public sphere, while arguing against the right of others in the public sphere to offer legitimate criticism of Catholics or Catholicism.
In 1993 the board appointed William A. Donohue to replace Blum as president. Donohue came to the Catholic League from the Heritage Foundation, where he specialized in attacks on the ACLU, and had connections within the conservative community. He attracted a list of prominent Catholic conservatives to the Board of Advisors, including Mary Ann Glendon, Michael Novak, Linda Chavez and George Weigel.
Donohue quickly hit upon a strategy to increase the profile of the beleaguered organization. The Catholic League protested an ad on New York City buses that showed Madonna (the singer) next to the Madonna in an ad for VHI, the music TV network, which read: "VHI, the difference between you and your parents." Donohue argued that the city bus was public property and as such no religious symbolism was allowed; however, "if it's used with Madonna in a form of blasphemy, it is acceptable. …