Techniques used by the Catholic League to suppress criticism of the Catholic Church
By Stephen D Mumford, DrPH
This excerpt has been adapted from Chapter 15 of our Chairman Dr. Stephen D. Mumford’s seminal book, The Life and Death of NSSM 200: How the Destruction of Political Will Doomed a U.S. Population Policy (1996). The book is available at Kindle here and to read for free here.
The Catholic League was founded in 1973 by Jesuit priest Virgil Blum. William Donohue assumed leadership in July 1993. Since then, the membership has grown from 27,000 to 200,000. According to Donohue, the League has “won the support of all of the U.S. Cardinals and many of the Bishops as well…. We are here to defend the Church from the scurrilous assaults that have been mounted against it, and we definitely need the support of the hierarchy if we are to get the job done.” Thus it can be considered an arm of the Church. It supplements or replaces priest-controlled organizations of the past described by Paul Blanshard and George Seldes. The League apparently has a single mission: suppression of all mainstream criticism of the Roman Catholic Church.
— Raw Story (@RawStory) June 28, 2016
According to Donohue, it is fortunate that, “the Catholic Church is there to provide a heady antidote to today’s mindless ideas of freedom.” He is a strong advocate of the Church’s positions on restriction of the freedoms guaranteed by the American Constitution and condemned by popes for nearly two centuries, especially those regarding the press and speech. He informs us that: “the Catholic League is there to defend the Church against its adversaries.”
There are many recognizable principles governing the behavior of the League. One is revealed in a vicious 1994 attack against the New London newspaper, The Day, for an editorial critical of the Catholic Church: “What is truly ‘beyond understanding’ is not the Catholic Church’s position, it is the fact that a secular newspaper has the audacity to stick it’s nose in where it doesn’t belong. It is nobody’s business what the Catholic Church does.”
A second basic premise is the League’s commitment to canon 1369 of the Code of Canon Law: “A person is to be punished with a just penalty, who, at a public event or assembly, or in a published writing, or by otherwise using the means of social communication, utters blasphemy, or gravely harms public morals, or rails at or excites hatred of or contempt for religion or the Church.” Canon law is the law of the Catholic Church. All criticism of the pope or the Church is in violation of this law in one way or another. This chapter will make clear that the League follows this canon to the letter and demands that all others conform—or pay the price for their violation.
Another principle is aggressive action. Says Donohue, “I defy anyone to name a single organization that has more rabid members than the Catholic League. Our members are generous, loyal and extremely active. When we ask them to sign petitions, write to offending parties and the like, they respond with a vigor that is unparalleled…. We aim to win. Obviously, we don’t win them all, but our record of victories is impressive.” To justify this stance, he identifies with Patrick Buchanan’s resistance to the “Culture War” against the Catholic Church: “We didn’t start this culture war against the Catholic Church, we simply want to stop it.”
Donohue also justifies the League’s aggressive behavior by claiming that it is culturally unacceptable for nonCatholics to criticize the Catholic Church. “Perhaps the most cogent remark of the day,” he asserts, “came from the former Mayor of New York, Ed Koch, who politely remarked that his mother always advised him not to speak ill of other religions. It is a lesson that apparently few have learned…. Non-Catholics would do well to follow the advice of Ed Koch’s mom and just give it a rest. Their crankiness is wearing thin.” This cultural norm is widely accepted in America, to the enormous benefit of the Vatican. What role, one wonders, did the Catholic Church play in its adoption? Certainly, in the case of population growth control, its consequence has been catastrophic.
The Catholic League strongly discourages criticism of the Church, especially attacks by the press. Says Donohue, “It does no good complaining about Catholic bashing if all we do is wait until the other side strikes.” Prevention of such publications is of the essence. Yet Donohue is convinced that this is not censorship: “The press and the radio talk shows asked me if the Catholic League was engaging in censorship by responding the way we did. As always, I informed them that only the government has the power to censor anything.” This is patently untrue.
Another tenet enunciated by Donohue:
“I think it is a gross mistake to give elevation to fringe groups. Our basic rule of thumb is this: the more mainstream the source of anti-Catholicism, the more likely it is that the Catholic League will respond…. The mainstream media, after all, have the credibility and influence that the fringe lacks, and they are therefore much more likely to do real damage.”
“When major universities, TV networks and government officials engage in Catholic-baiting, it is a far more dangerous situation than the venom that emanates from certifiably fringe organizations.”
“When an establishment newspaper such as the Sun-Sentinel [Fort Lauderdale] offends, it cannot be ignored.”
Donohue goes on to explain the Sun-Sentinel example. On February 9, 1995, it ran an ad, paid for by a Seventh Day Adventist group, which claimed that the Catholic Church is seeking to create a New World Order to take command of the world and that the Pope and the Catholic Church were in a league with Satan.
Accordingly, the Catholic League contacted the radio and television stations in the area, the opposition newspaper, and the nation’s major media outlets registering its outrage and its demands. We demanded nothing less than ‘an apology to Catholics and a pledge that no such ads will ever be accepted again.’ We added that ‘If this is not forthcoming, the Catholic League will launch a public ad campaign on its own, one that will directly target the Sun-Sentinel.’
“What exactly did we have in mind? We were prepared to take out ads in the opposition newspaper, registering our charge of anti-Catholic bigotry. We were prepared to pay for radio spots making our charge. We were prepared to buy billboard space along the majority arteries surrounding the Fort Lauderdale community. Why not? After all, … we are in a position to make such threats…. This is the way it works: if the source of bigotry wants to deal with lousy publicity, it can elect to do so. Or it can come to its senses and knock it off. In the event the anti-Catholic bigots want to bite the bullet and stay the course, we’ll do everything we can within the law to make sure that they pay a very high price for doing so.” It goes without saying that anyone critical of the Vatican, or the hierarchy, or the Roman Catholic Church is, by definition, an anti-Catholic bigot—including Catholics themselves.
One final element makes clear the objective of the Catholic League—protection of the papacy against all criticism. Writes Donohue, “It is the conviction of the Catholic League that an attack on the Church is an attack on Catholics.” He offers no rationale to support this theory. Obviously, millions of liberal American Catholics would disagree outright, for it is they who have been attacking the Church.
Throughout American history, the job of combating anti-Catholicism fell to the clergy, and especially to the Archbishops. But times have changed…. The type of anti-Catholicism that exists in American society today is fundamentally different from the genre that marked this country’s history from the outset. From colonial times to the election of John F. Kennedy as President of the United States, anti-Catholicism was vented against both individual Catholics and against the Catholic Church itself. But over the past 30 years, it has become evident that most of the Catholic-bashing centers on the institution of the Church …
The hierarchy cannot be effective against criticism of the institution because they are the institution. Thus, the hierarchy has had to call on the laity to protect the institution in this way. In 1971, the League’s founder pointed out, “If a group is to be politically effective, issues rather than institutions must be at stake.” In other words, the laity, if left to their own devices, will not defend the institution but they will defend their interests as individuals. Hence, the League has adopted this principle and has convinced its members that “an attack on the Church is an attack on Catholics.” In this way, the institution is successfully using individual lay Catholics to shield it from all criticism.
The Church and Its Image
The Catholic Church in America has good reason to be intensely concerned about its image and any criticism. Donohue cites a 1995 study, “Taking America’s Pulse,” undertaken by the National Conference (formerly known as the National Conference of Christians and Jews). Despite the almost complete suppression of all criticism of the Catholic Church in America, a majority of non-Catholic Americans (55%) believe that Catholics “want to impose their own ideas of morality on the larger society.” The survey also found that 38% of non-Catholics believe that Catholics are “narrow-minded because they are too much controlled by their Church.” Obviously, there is a highly receptive audience in this country for any justified criticisms of the Catholic Church. If the floodgates ever opened, it is unlikely that the Church would be able to close them again. Only too well understood by the hierarchy, and the Catholic League, this perhaps explains their unmitigated intolerance for criticism.
Methods of the League
Donohue has cited many of the methods used by the League, including some we have already mentioned. “We specialize in public embarrassment of public figures who have earned our wrath and that is why we are able to win so many battles: no person or organization wants to be publicly embarrassed, and that is why we specialize in doing exactly that …” Elsewhere he writes, “The threat of a lawsuit is the only language that some people understand. The specter of public humiliation is another weapon that must be used. Petitions and boycotts are helpful. The use of the bully pulpit—via the airwaves—is a most effective strategy. Press conferences can be used to enlighten or, alternatively, to embarrass.” “Ads taken out in prominent national newspapers are quite effective.”
But probably the most effective means of suppressing criticism of the Catholic Church through the press is a constant “in your face” attack of local newspapers. In a 1995 report on the Massachusetts Chapter of the Catholic League, it is noted that the president and the executive director had been on the attack, “appearing in the media more than 600 times” in the previous five years. In a single state, 600 times in five years! It is no wonder that newspapers in Massachusetts are very reluctant to print any criticism of the Catholic Church, no matter how justified, given this constant barrage of punishment.
Intimidation of the media leadership and of our government by the League is achieved through the wide distribution of frequent news releases, its monthly newsletter and an annual report. Individual attacks are often announced through widely distributed press releases which are bound to capture the attention of members of the press.
Success of the League
The Catholic League has been remarkably successful in achieving its goals. Donohue rightfully gloats: “One of the major reasons why people are giving [donations] is the success the Catholic League has had.” As noted earlier, membership grew from 27,000 to 200,000 in the first two years after Donohue took control. He continues, “We have had a string of victories and we have also had an unprecedented degree of media coverage. We don’t win every fight but our overall record is quite good. Our presence on radio and TV, combined with coverage in newspapers and magazines—both religious and secular—is excellent.” “We’ve been featured on the television program ‘Entertainment Tonight’ and received front page coverage from national newspapers including the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.” The number of apologies and promises it extracts from the nation’s newspapers, TV networks and stations and programs, radio stations, activist organizations, commercial establishments, educational institutions and governments is most impressive.
The suppression of all criticism of the Catholic Church and its hierarchy is the goal of the Catholic League. The visit of the pope to the U.S. in October 1995 was a major media event. Given all the gravely serious problems faced by the Church and the enormous amount of dissent by American Catholics, as well as the growing hostility from non-Catholics as a result of the Church’s interference in American policy making, one would expect wide coverage of these realities in the media during his visit. Instead, it was treated as a triumphant return.
The Catholic League believes that it played a major role in this great public relations success—and with good reason. In August 1994, it launched a campaign to intimidate the press in an astounding advance warning to media professionals preparing for the pope’s visit to New York in late October. A letter signed by Donohue announced a press conference to be held just prior to the pope’s visit that will present “10’s of thousands of petitions from active Catholics” that have been collected over the past year. What else but intimidation of the press is the intent of this campaign?
The November 1995 issue of the League’s journal, Catalyst, is headlined, “Media Treat Pope Fairly; Protesters Fail to Score.” Donohue writes, “By all accounts, the visit of Pope John Paul II to the United States was a smashing success. Media treatment of the papal visit was, with few exceptions, very fair. Protesters were few in number and without impact. From beginning to end, this papal visit proved to be the most triumphant of them all.” A month later he writes, “The relatively few cheap shots that were taken at the Pope by the media in October is testimony to a change in the culture.” And of course the desired “change in the culture” is the elimination of criticism of the pope and his hierarchy. The Catholic League is succeeding on a grand scale far beyond what all but a handful of Americans realize.
Intimidation Prevents Criticism
It is clear from Donohue’s own words that prevention of any criticism is the goal of the League and that intimidation is its means of achieving this end. In a fund-raising letter mailed in December of 1995, Donohue appeals for funds to hire more staff: “We could have done more…. We could have tackled other issues, thereby adding to the number of people who will think twice before crossing Catholics again.” From the League’s 1995 Annual Report: “It is hoped that by …[attacking critics], potential offenders will think twice before launching their assaults on Roman Catholicism.” This statement also makes it clear that it is the protection of the institution that is the goal, not protection of individual Catholics.
It appears that the most aggressive and extensive attack in League history was one directed at Disney for its release of the movie, “Priest.” In an editorial, Donohue forthrightly says that the purpose of the intensive attack on Disney is the prevention of the production of such critical movies in the future: “Our sights were set on what might be coming down the road, not on what had already happened.”
The advice given by Ed Koch’s mother—do not speak ill of other religions—has been a national ethic for nearly all of this century. This ethic, inherent in our culture, has served to suppress nearly all criticism of the Catholic Church. As a result, until its political activities were unveiled with the implementation of the bishops’ Pastoral Plan for Pro-life Activities in 1975, the Church had been relatively immune from mainstream criticism. Because this ethic has served the Catholic Church so well, the Church may very well have played a major role in its inculcation into our culture. With its political activity becoming increasingly evident, critics are more than ever convinced of the need for public criticism of the Catholic Church.
However, this ethic does not protect the Church from dissent within its confines which has been growing since Vatican Council II in the 1960s, and most remarkably in recent years. The American media, to avoid flying in the face of American culture by ignoring this dearly held belief, have occasionally provided a forum for this protest. The dissenters have been a significant source of criticism. The Catholic League has not overlooked this problem—indeed, it takes it very seriously. All criticism is targeted from whatever source, including members of the Church.
For example, on January 22, 1995, CBS’s “60 Minutes” broadcast a segment by Mike Wallace on the Catholic dissident group Call to Action. The Catholic hierarchy did agree to appear but dictated terms that were unacceptable to CBS. Then, according to Donohue, the Catholic League sent two letters to executive producer Barry Lando and issued the following press release on January 25:
The entire Call to Action segment was, from beginning to end, an exercise in intellectual dishonesty and journalistic malpractice. The decision to give high profile to the Catholic Church’s radical fringe was pure politics, and nothing short of outrageous…. Allowing extremists an uncontested opportunity to rail against the Catholic Church distorts the sentiments of most Catholics and provides succor for bigots. There is a difference between reporting dissent, and promoting it…. ‘60 Minutes’ made clear its preference, extending to the disaffected a platform that they have never earned within the Catholic community…. This is propaganda at work, not journalism.
This press release, of course, was received across America as a powerful warning to others to steer clear of Catholic dissidents. The Catholic League then launched a national postcard mailing campaign directed at Lando personally: “… we are angered over the way you continue to present the Catholic Church…. We are tired of having our Church viewed from the perspective of the disaffected.”
In another example, the League attacked the October 5, 1995 edition of “NBC Nightly News” with Tom Brokaw for providing a platform for Catholics for a Free Choice and Dignity. The League’s press release included the following:
The media do a great disservice to Catholics and non-Catholics alike when Catholics for a Free Choice and Dignity are presented as though they were genuine voices in the Catholic community. The effect of such misrepresentation is to promote dissent rather than to record it. As such, it is irresponsible for the media to allow itself to become willing accomplices to public deception.
The continuous intimidation is bound to have its desired effect. The April 22, 1996 issue of the New Republic magazine criticizes the League’s annual report as indicative of the League’s “paranoia.” The New Republic completely misses the point. One need only look at the language used in the League’s attacks. It is not defense. It is intimidating language. The report is an offensive weapon used to silence critics of the Catholic Church.
The Catholic League focuses it attention on five types of institutions: media, activist organizations, commercial establishments, educational institutions and governments. Donohue attributes the League’s success, in part, to its ability to stay focused. The League’s 1994 and 1995 annual reports alone offer 350 examples of League attacks.
As one surveys its material, it becomes evident that all criticism of the Church or anything that places the Church in a negative light is deemed anti-Catholic, despicable and impermissible. The Church is simply above all criticism. The Catholic League obviously rejects America because it rejects what America stands for, including the freedoms of speech, expression and the press. This stand taken by the Catholic League is consistent with nearly two centuries of Catholic teaching on these matters and we should expect nothing different.
Intimidation by Catholic institutions over the past hundred years, has resulted in a populace woefully ignorant of the threat to American democracy and security posed by the Church. This intimidation has made it possible for the Church to go unchallenged.