William A. Donohue is a New York-based author, sociologist, and political activist who has been president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights since 1993. He holds a PhD in sociology from New York University and is an adjunct scholar at the Heritage Foundation. He is the author of several books, including the 2012 best-seller Why Catholicism Matters: How Catholic Virtues Can Reshape Society in the 21st Century and the just published The Catholic Advantage: Why Health, Happiness, and Heaven Await the Faithful.
Mr. Donohue took over the Catholic League after the death of founding president Father Virgil Blum, S.J., in 1990. As president of the organization, he seeks to counter anti-Catholic bias in the secular media. I recently interviewed Mr. Donohue about his work by email.
You’ve spent much of your career fighting “defamation and discrimination” against Catholics in the American secular media. How do you understand these words?
We spend most of our time defending the institutional Church against defamation, and much less time defending individual Catholics against discrimination. Since the time of President John F. Kennedy, Catholic men and women have made great progress, but the defamation against the Church has grown much worse.
By defamation, I do not mean criticism; I mean insult. I do not have a problem with those who criticize the Church’s positions on public policy issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, school vouchers, and the like. But if the comments hit below the belt—this is obviously a judgment call—that is a different issue.
What does defamation mean to you in the context of today’s public discourse?
It is not defamatory to harshly criticize a particular bishop or priest, but when sweeping generalizations are made about all bishops or priests, that is unfair and the offenders need to be called out on it. There is a difference between disagreement and disdain, and between statements meant to inform and those that are meant to hurt. For example, late-night TV talk-show hosts like to take pot shots at the pope, and when it is done in a light-hearted manner (most of Colbert’s jokes are of this vein), then that is fine. But when the host becomes vile (Bill Maher is the classic example), then we are dealing with bigotry.
What do you believe is the biggest example of anti-Catholic bias in the U.S. today?
The biggest threat to religious liberty today is coming from government at the federal, state, and local levels. When Catholic non-profit organizations are being redefined by the federal government not to include those that hire and serve non-Catholics, e.g., the Little Sisters of the Poor, that is unconscionable. Would these same officials like it better if the sisters discriminated on the basis of religion?
The hostility at the state level is also real. When Catholic social service agencies are told they must violate their religious teachings as a condition of public funding, that is morally wrong. At the local level, the attempt to rid the public square of religious expression, e.g., banning nativity scenes (while hosting anti-Catholic exhibitions), is pernicious.
In your mind, what’s the best way for American Catholics to resist anti-Catholic bias?
The best way to resist anti-Catholic bias is to fight it. Jews are relatively free of anti-Semitism in the U.S. not because they are passive, but because they fight back when attacked. We need to model ourselves on them, and not on those who think we need to lower our voice.
People have sometimes claimed that your methods are too aggressive, insensitive or sensationalized. How do you respond to them?
I see the Catholic League as being responsibly aggressive. We are responsible because we are Catholic, and we are aggressive because we are a civil rights organization based in New York City. Is there a tension there? There can be. To those who say I am too aggressive, insensitive, and sensationalized, all I can say is there is a difference between being responsibly aggressive and irresponsibly aggressive. I try, but do not always succeed, in being the former. If I am sensationalized, it is due to the high profile I earn with the media. On this note, I have no publicist, and have never paid any agent to get me on TV or radio. In other words, the media may not like my content, but they like my style, so I’ll take it. As for being insensitive, I am a civil rights leader who is expected to combat injustice, so being sensitive to bigots is not a priority.
Because of your regular national TV appearances, even critics have called you media-saavy, and a 2000 editorial in America once lauded your bi-partisan willingness to break ranks with Republicans and others who agree with you on most issues. What’s the secret to your success in the secular media?
The media like me because I am quick, pithy, and unafraid of criticism. They like my passion, and ability to deliver with clarity. That is what I have been told by friend and foe alike in the media.
Politically, I started as a Democrat, got fed up with them, joined the Republicans, got fed up with them, and have been happily independent for more than two decades. I have a problem with Catholic Democrats who have lost their moorings on the life issues. I have a problem with Catholic Republicans who are more Republican than Catholic, and Washington is loaded with these people. Many of them no longer trust me because I have attacked Republican politicians and have a reputation of not being a player. The reputation is accurate. Thank God we are headquartered in New York, and not in Washington where the operatives want to own you.
Your book Why Catholicism Matters talks about the potential for “Catholic virtues” to reshape society in our century. How do you see that happening?
Operationalizing the cardinal virtues is the key to success, both for individuals and society. If prudence were exercised more, we wouldn’t have the kind of right-wing and left-wing extremism in our politics. If we were motivated more by justice than greed or indifference, we would redirect our sails. If fortitude were more frequently exercised, the dispossessed would have more friends than enemies. If temperance were inculcated in young people, reckless behavior would be curbed. We need to employ all four cardinal virtues.
Do you have any hopes for the future?
If I didn’t have hope for the future I would quit my job. I am an optimist by nature, but I am not naive. This country is in trouble. The elites share much of the blame, along with citizens who are more interested in texting their friends than participating in civic affairs.
Do you have any regrets about the past?
I regret that so many Catholics have tuned out, leaving all the problems to the clergy. Father Blum, who founded the Catholic League in 1973, called Catholics political eunuchs. While things have improved a little, there is still too much passivity. I do not want to see all Catholics become politically charged activists, but complacency in the face of bigotry and injustice is no virtue. Catholics need to adopt a NATO Article 5 mentality: an attack on one [in this case the Church] is an attack on all [in this case Catholics].
You lead an organization that Father Virgil Blum, S.J., founded in 1973. If you could see Father Blum alive again today, what would you say to him?
If I could see Father Blum alive today I would congratulate him on having the prescience to launch a lay Catholic civil rights organization. Then I would ask for his advice, over a beer, of course.
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