The Angry, Lazy Bigotry of Maureen Dowd

The New York Times columnist has passed caricature and is heading for complete farce

Maureen Dowd, as most readers know, writes a regular op-ed column for the New York Times. Her dislike for certain people and institutions is quite obvious, mostly because she fixates on them in nearly every column: men, the Catholic Church (specifically, the pope, bishops, priests), Republicans (especially men who are leaders in the GOP), and men. Oh—and men.

But what Dowd seems to have a special aversion to is not male or female, nor does it belong to a political party: facts. She avoids them like she apparently avoids straight, white, conservative Catholic men—with a snarky, snarling vengeance.

Her most recent screed, disguised as a column in a classic black-and-white serif font, is titled, “Bishops Plays Church Queens as Pawns” (Apr. 28, 2012). Not surprisingly, it is filled with sneering at Catholic bishops and Church authority; it is not, however, filled with facts, documented information, or even cogent arguments. That would be too much work, I suppose, for a liberated woman such Dowd, whose has been liberated not only from men but also from the reality and appearance of actual research and thoughtful writing. Sadly, she has a loyal readership, and her particular style of lefty, drive-by op-ed writing appeals to a swath of people who are, for the most part, practitioners of a convenient and trendy bigotry. It’s not just that they, like Dowd, dislike and even hate the Catholic Church, but they do so with such an audacious lack of reason and intellectual integrity that they can best be described as lazy and self-serving—the two qualities being joined at the hip, as they usually are.

With that said, let’s take a look at some of the howlers, mistakes, curiosities, and falsehoods in Dowd’s screed:

It is an astonishing thing that historians will look back and puzzle over, that in the 21st century, American women were such hunted creatures.

Goodness, this is a badly written sentence. Does Dowd mean to say it is astonishing that historians of the future will be historians and look back at history with the intent of examining and analyzing the historical record? Should we be astonished that historians will do their jobs in the years to come? She meant to say, of course, the following: “It is astonishing that American women are hunted creatures in 21st century—and that historians will therefore study and puzzle over this fact.” But that is hardly any better, for at least two reasons.

The first is that Dowd positions herself as a sure-footed prophet: this is what historians will do and “puzzle over” in the future. Really? How does she know? And considering how poor she is at understanding what has happened in the past (even in the very recent past) why should readers trust her abilities to discern the outlines, never mind the specifics, of the future? More importantly—as her first sentence is merely a bit of shoddy rhetorical ammunition—the alleged “war on women” is a farce, a political smokescreen constructed out of anger and desperation. I don’t know what historians in 2079 will discuss most about 2012, but if I had to guess, it will be the debates over the scope of governmental power, the nature and extent of religious liberty, and the continuing conflicts over the foundational institutions of family and marriage. Since neither Dowd nor I will be around in 2079, we’ll have to leave it at that.

Even as Republicans try to wrestle women into chastity belts, the Vatican is trying to muzzle American nuns.

More silliness. Anyone who thinks the debate over the HHS mandate is about “chastity belts” is an ideologue who thinks the ultimate meaning of “liberty” is to serve one’s libido at the drop of a suggestive remark made at closing time. No one’s right or ability to have sexual relations has been curtailed or outlawed. As for the dread “Vatican” and the “American nuns”, Dowd does not and will not bother to even attempt an explanation, even a most cursory one, of the forty year long (or longer, really) story of tension and difficulties involving the leadership of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) and the episcopal leadership of the Catholic Church. (An excellent account is Ann Carey’s article, “The Church and the Sisters: What Is Really Happening?”) Instead, she will use cleverly chosen verbs—”wrestle” and “muzzle”—to reinforce a perspective that has no basis in reality.

Who thinks it’s cool to bully nuns? While continuing to heal and educate, the community of sisters is aging and dying out because few younger women are willing to make such sacrifices for a church determined to bring women to heel.        

Who thinks it’s cool to mislead readers? To misuse words such as “bully”? Again, as is Dowd’s usual practice, the appeal is to emotions. Who can be against healing and educating? Why, only the most hard-hearted, power-hungry, and cynical of men: Catholic bishops! (My vote is for “Catholic” politicians such as Pelosi, Biden, and company.) Here, by the way, is some of that vicious bullying, from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s doctrinal assessment: 

The Holy See acknowledges with gratitude the great contribution of women Religious to the Church in the United States as seen particularly in the many schools, hospitals, and institutions of support for the poor which have been founded and staffed by Religious over the years.  Pope John Paul II expressed this gratitude …, etc., etc.

Ouch! And, if you can handle more nastiness, there is this important qualifying statement, a bit later:

While recognizing that this doctrinal Assessment concerns a particular conference of major superiors and therefore does not intend to offer judgment on the faith and life of Women Religious in the member Congregations which belong to that conference, nevertheless the Assessment reveals serious doctrinal problems which affect many in Consecrated Life.  

In other words, the CDF document is not a general statement of judgment on “sisters” and “nuns”, but is addressed at specific problems within the leadership (“a particular conference of major superiors”) of the LCWR—a group, by the way, which does not represent all women religious in the U.S., but about 80%. (Also notable: the average age of a LCWR sister is seventy, while non-LCWR sisters average thirty-some years of age.) But Dowd, in order to play her perpetual theme of “men oppress women, and religious men really oppress women”, avoids the background, the facts, the details. All the better to set up this sort of nonsensical remark, a hunk of pink slime thrown to her unwitting fans:

Yet the nuns must be yanked into line by the crepuscular, medieval men who run the Catholic Church. 

Get it? The pope, cardinals and bishops, and priests and deacons are all women-oppressing, power-hungry barbarians who have been transported from the Dark Ages into an enlightened, secular age that tolerates their eccentric nastiness, if only for a while. 

“It’s not terribly unlike the days of yore when they singled out people in the rough days of the Inquisition,” said Kenneth Briggs, the author of “Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church’s Betrayal of American Nuns.”

Why bother to analyze and report some basic data when you can take a quote from a former New York Times religion editor and throw in a smoke bomb about the Inquisition? (Hey, don’t forget to mention Galileo!) The leadership of the LCWR has been, from the start (in 1972) openly opposed to Church authority and to many essential tenets of Catholic teaching. Yet no women religious, to my knowledge, have been tortured, arrested, hung in chains, or put under house arrest. I don’t even think any have lost their cable connections or have been forced to wear traditional habits. Analogously, if the Church was a business corporation, the LCWR would be the rogue department that continually subverts the business’s mission and work, misrepresents its own agenda, and fails to the comply with the sort of basic criteria that all other employees are asked to follow.

Now, having played the Inquisition card, Dowd plays her favorite ace in the hole, meant to shut up any and all objections to her utterly lacking case:

How can the church hierarchy be more offended by the nuns’ impassioned advocacy for the poor than by priests’ sordid pedophilia? How do you take spiritual direction from a church that seems to be losing its soul? 

Is the church hierarchy really more offended by the “nuns’ impassioned advocacy for the poor than by priests’ sordid pedophilia”? Dowd assumes so. No surprise, she provides no evidence or argument. But this statement, in every way, is an insulting falsehood. After all, we’ve already seen the CDF’s overt praise for the work of women religious with the poor; that is not the issue here, not in the least. The doctrinal assessment is named so for a specific reason:

On the doctrinal level, this crisis is characterized by a diminution of the fundamental Christological center and focus of religious consecration which leads, in turn, to a loss of a “constant and lively sense of the Church” among some Religious.

Now, it may well be that Dowd doesn’t care at all about doctrine and theology. Perhaps those heady topics are beyond the scope of her pay scale and intellectual interests. Fine. But it is assuredly unfair and disingenuous to criticize the “church hierarchy” for something it doesn’t do while ignoring what is actually at the heart of the matter. Besides, when she writes of the church “losing its soul”, it begs some serious—and theological!—questions: What does she mean? What is the “soul” of the Catholic Church? What does the Church herself say is her nature and mission? And why should the Church, which has been around for over 1900 years prior to Dowd’s birth, cater to Dowd’s opinions and prejudices? In fact, the CDF document is very much concerned with the essential beliefs and nature of the Church. To provide just one example:

Addresses given during LCWR annual Assemblies manifest problematic statements and serious theological, even doctrinal errors.  The Cardinal offered as an example specific passages of Sr. Laurie Brink’s address about some Religious “moving beyond the Church” or even beyond Jesus.  This is a challenge not only to core Catholic beliefs; such a rejection of faith is also a serious source of scandal and is incompatible with religious life.

Does Dowd think the Church can exist without belief in Jesus? Does she think women religious can be fully and really Catholic if they deny the centrality of Jesus Christ and the Church he founded? Does she think a Catholic can reject Catholic beliefs and still, in good conscience and without a trace of cynicism, say, “I’m a good Catholic”? (I suspect the answers are “Probably, sure, and yes”.)

It has become a habit for the church to go after women. A Worcester, Mass., bishop successfully fought to get a commencement speech invitation taken away from Vicki Kennedy, widow of Teddy Kennedy, because of her positions on some social issues. And an Indiana woman named Emily Herx has filed a lawsuit saying she was fired from her job teaching in a Catholic school and denounced as a “grave, immoral sinner” by the parish pastor after she used fertility treatments to try to get pregnant with her husband.        

If that is a “habit”, then Dowd’s obsession with denouncing men and the Catholic Church resembles the intensity of Alexandra Forrest in Fatal Attraction. Is it really so offensive that Catholic bishops might expect Catholic colleges to uphold Catholic teaching? Would Dowd be offended if the New York Times hired and supported a female reporter who practiced plagiarism? If such a reporter were fired, would she blame it on the newspaper’s “habit of going after women”? (Answer: probably.) Once again, the central issue for Dowd is gender: there is no concern for principles, beliefs, tradition, morality, or common practice. Just gender. It is difficult to imagine a more truncated and crude view of the world. 

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York recently told The Wall Street Journal that only “a tiny minority” of priests were [sic] tainted by the sex abuse scandal. But it’s a global shame spiral. The church leadership never recoiled in horror from pedophilia, yet it recoils in horror from outspoken nuns.

Cardinal Dolan is correct (as even Newsweek and USA Today have acknowledged in their pages). And he did not mean it as a dismissal of the heinous nature of actual abuse—and no bishop, to my knowledge, has done so. So, there are the facts, but what is this strange thing called a “global shame spiral”? Does it glow? Spin? Or simply set off empty, emotional fireworks in the minds of Dowd’s disciples? Her second statement is a flatly false; in fact, I would say it is openly slanderous. Pope Benedict XVI has famously referred to the “filth” of the grave sins committed by certain priests. And, to provide just one of many possible examples, there is this opening paragraph from the pope’s 2010 pastoral letter to the Catholics in Ireland

Dear Brothers and Sisters of the Church in Ireland, it is with great concern that I write to you as Pastor of the universal Church. Like yourselves, I have been deeply disturbed by the information which has come to light regarding the abuse of children and vulnerable young people by members of the Church in Ireland, particularly by priests and religious. I can only share in the dismay and the sense of betrayal that so many of you have experienced on learning of these sinful and criminal acts and the way Church authorities in Ireland dealt with them. 

By “recoil in horror” does Dowd mean, “resign and commit public suicide on television, even if you had nothing to do with the scandals”? Sadly, one can only conclude that Dowd expects her readers to be just as lazy as she is. And she is obviously correct, because anyone who bothered to examine her statements with a modest amount of critical discernment would stop reading her columns (unless, like me, they take some pleasure in exposing her laziness and bigotry). 

There is much more, but I will conclude with a quick look at a couple more ridiculous statements.

The stunned sisters are debating how to respond after the Vatican’s scorching reprimand to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the main association of American Catholic nuns. The bishops were obviously peeved that some nuns had the temerity to speak out in support of President Obama’s health care plan, including his compromise on contraception for religious hospitals.        

Obviously. Or not. Because the document in question has been in the works for over ten years, and the issues addressed in it go back even further, into the 1970s. Not everything is political, but Dowd will have none of it. Having given in to laziness and bigotry, she has taken the next logical step and become a paranoid conspiracy theorist.

Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a Catholic lobbying group slapped in the Vatican report, said it scares the church hierarchy to have “educated women form thoughtful opinions and engage in dialogue.”

She told NPR that it was ironic that church leaders were mad at sisters over contraception when the nuns had committed to a celibate life with no families or babies. Given the damage done by the pedophilia scandals, she said, “the church’s obsession, at times, with the sexual relationships is a serious problem.”

“Thoughtful opinions and dialogue” is, for those with some knowledge of how LCWR dissenters have worked over the past several decades, code for undermining and attacking Church teaching while drawing out the process of communicating with bishops about said dissent year after year. Besides, I’m not sure how “scared” the hierarchy is of smart women; it’s not as if these men just crawled out of the woods of Montana and have barely passed their GEDs. Regardless, Campbell’s rhetoric is, like Dowd’s, very savvy, playing as it does into crude stereotypes long used with great effectiveness by feminists and other dissenters. And the remark about contraceptive is patently silly: does one have to be married in order to teach error about sexuality? I didn’t realize that criteria existed. Besides, anyone (like myself) who has spent time at a retreat house run by LCWR nuns knows how whacky and non-Catholic things can be.


Church leaders behave like adolescent boys, blinded by sex. That’s the problem with inquisitors and censors: They become fascinated by what they deplore.        

Does anyone else see the irony here? Indeed. Who, exactly, is obsessed with sex? And who is fascinated by what she deplores? Hmmm.

What cannot be denied is that the sexual revolution has changed life in the West (and other places) quite radically in the past fifty years. We inhabit a sex-drenched and sex-obsessed society; the dominant culture is constantly sending the message that sex, really, is the final frontier for human freedom, realization and “personal” expression. Those who dissented from Church teaching the most vocally in the 1960s did so regarding contraception; they continued on with abortion in the 1970s, and have since moved on to homosexuality and “same sex” marriage. Saying the bishops are “blinded by sex” is like saying firemen are “blinded by fire” or that police are “fascinated by what they deplore”.

The other irony, equally sad, is that Cardinal Dolan rightly laments how, over the past few decades, the bishops often failed to speak up about sexuality and related matters:

 “We have gotten gun-shy . . . in speaking with any amount of cogency on chastity and sexual morality.” He dates this diffidence to “the mid- and late ’60s, when the whole world seemed to be caving in, and where Catholics in general got the impression that what the Second Vatican Council taught, first and foremost, is that we should be chums with the world, and that the best thing the church can do is become more and more like everybody else.”

The “flash point,” the archbishop says, was “Humanae Vitae,” Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical reasserting the church’s teachings on sex, marriage and reproduction, including its opposition to artificial contraception. It “brought such a tsunami of dissent, departure, disapproval of the church, that I think most of us—and I’m using the first-person plural intentionally, including myself—kind of subconsciously said, ‘Whoa. We’d better never talk about that, because it’s just too hot to handle.’ We forfeited the chance to be a coherent moral voice when it comes to one of the more burning issues of the day.”

Dowd, in conclusion, gets almost nothing right about the Church; she does get much wrong, and in a way that speaks poorly about her motives and integrity. Her writing is lazy, her arguments are non-existent, and she is so intent on grinding her axe she cannot see the forest for the trees. She is, in sum, a female Dan Brown, but without the bestsellers or the movies. Her column is just the latest in a long line of similar pieces. David F. Pierre, Jr., a regular contributor to CWR, puts it very well in a recent post on The Media Report site:

The Times‘ obsession with the Catholic Church has clearly become pathological. It is unwavering in its ideological commitment to bludgeon the Church by any means necessary, and the principle means by which it does this is to endlessly rehash the sex abuse scandals.

Anti-Catholicism is indeed pervasive at the Grey Lady. The paper intensely dislikes the Catholic Church and what it represents. And it cannot countenance the fact that the Vatican is finally pushing back against openly dissenting individuals who have opposed the Church by speaking favorably on “progressive” issues with which the Times aligns itself.

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About Carl E. Olson 1197 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.