The cooler heads among Catholicism know this, but cable news programmers do not rush cool heads into a studio to remain placid in front of a comedian’s jab or emit sorrow over an abuse case. When they need someone to decry and denounce—to say absurd, insulting, and crazy shit—they can always count on Bill Donohue, president of the august-sounding Catholic League, to show up and act pissed.
Bill Donohue is a professional bully. Since he bullies on behalf of religion, he creates a hard-edged irony that makes for good TV. Actually, that’s a cliché: it makes for extremely shitty TV, but it makes for good ratings.
I’m not gonna play his game by quoting his obnoxious copy (the advertising term is apt) about gays, Jews, women, liberals, or whoever is the target of his silly ire. If you are not familiar with him, just imagine someone saying something outlandish and cruel in the name of Jesus. Bonus points if you imagined an assistant dean.
Donohue’s Catholic League is not to be confused with the real Catholic League: Chicago’s mightiest high school athletic conference. (Go Wolfpack.) However, they’re just about as authoritative on matters of doctrine. Yet journalists, ignorant and otherwise, are happy to pass them off as an official Catholic mouthpiece and let Donohue rant and rave in the name of some 75 million people. But be not mistaken: many of us in the 75 million cringe every time opens his maw.
Bill Keller, the former executive editor for the New York Times and current op-ed columnist, has gotta be somewhat media savvy. He knows Donohue’s gimmick. Yet today, he writes about Donohue in an article titled, “The Rottweiler’s Rottweiler.” “I can’t believe I’m saying this,” he begins, “But Bill Donohue is right.”
A few hundred words passed as I wondered what Donohue could be right about: does he like Bob Dylan? Does he prefer creamy peanut butter over crunchy? Is his watch accurate within twenty seconds? Impossible, I thought. That guy is so obnoxious, he could not possibly be right about anything.
Finally, Keller gets to it: “Much as I wish I could encourage the discontented, the Catholics of open minds and open hearts, to stay put and fight the good fight, this is a lost cause. Donohue is right. Summon your fortitude, and just go.”
That is what Donohue is right about: that the Catholic church is no place for a liberal. The Bill Donohues have become so loud and the Bill Kellers have become so willing to hand them megaphones that—whelp! You liberals should just quit your beloved church.
Curious: the former executive editor of a newspaper so regularly attacked for its dissent sees no point in dissent here. There’s some bad faith in this. I mean, do you really think Bill Keller, a self-professed “collapsed Catholic,” wishes he could tell us to fight the good fight? I doubt it. I bet he, like all evangelists, wants people to think like him. His circumlocution is akin to saying, “Buddy, I hate to break it to ya,” when really? The guy loves to break it to ya.
Imagine he made a similar argument for the healthcare crisis: “Much as I wish I could encourage the discontented, the patients and providers struggling to change the system, this is a lost cause. The Republicans are right. Summon your fortitude and just deal with the healthcare we have.” Imagine he said this to those who seek a fairer tax system, to those who call for corporate accountability after the mortgage crisis, to those who protest militarism: “This is a lost cause.” The argument would have been laughable.
…or, so I wish.
To be part of a religion is to be part of a landless country. It’s easier to pick up and go when “go” is a metaphor, a mere change of mind. Really, however much I may like my physical parish church, we could have just as fine a mass in a gym or a garage. The location does not matter.
An actual country is different: let’s say I objected to a war in “Iraq.” (Just making up names here.) Then, say my articulate objections against war—emailed to only like all my friends—went unheeded. So, then what? Summon the fortitude and go? Hell no. Moving to Sweden would be a complete hassle. Instead, we dissenters speak up, vote, write letters to congressmen, donate to groups we believe in, and try to reform from within. We carry on with our causes, lost and otherwise, because that’s what you are supposed to do.
But religion is different. I wouldn’t have to move to Sweden to completely renounce the scandals of my church. I wouldn’t have to change my address, or even many of my habits, to put some distance between myself and Bill Donohue. All I’d have to do is, “Summon my fortitude, and just go.”
And maybe I wouldn’t go anywhere. Just change my mind and stay home next Sunday. Or maybe I’d go elsewhere, to some sect that already thinks like Dennis O’Toole. Maybe there’s some splinter group that feels Catholic, looks Catholic, but is shed of its Bill Donohues (which is a sort of reverse excommunication). Sure, I could do it. It’d be like flipping a switch.
Several months ago a group of atheists named the Freedom from Religion Foundation took out a full page ad in many newspapers—the Times included—addressed directly to progressive Catholics and made the exact same argument that Keller makes here. Screw it. Quit. Give up. You are powerless to change the institution that you so love.
Now, the Freedom from Religion Foundation (who I have knocked before) speak for American atheists in the way Bill Donohue speaks for American Catholics: obnoxiously. But, as Keller proves today, it’s a popular and timely argument, one ready for the tempered tone of a Times op-ed.
Keller is right: it would take a certain amount of fortitude to give up the fight, to light out for a new landless country of a different belief—or non-belief. And I definitely respect the splinter Catholics Keller mentions in his article. I doubt their struggle has been easy.
But dissent also requires fortitude. To stay within the system and advocate reform, to voice opposition to TV-ready blowhards like Donohue, to dissent from leaders like Cardinal Dolan (again and again) all requires fortitude.
It is definitely a trying time for liberal Catholics. It often seems hopeless, that the light of Vatican II is getting snuffed out and that the church will be reduced to a haven for anti-modern reactionaries. But no cause is ever lost, least of all the cause of Christianity.
So my fellow liberal Catholics, summon the fortitude and stay. I mean, you think it’s bad now? It was once far, far worse. Let’s go way back to the beginning:
In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Peter Guillam, a secret agent, and Inspector Mendel, a retired cop, are having a beer. It’s a brief, mundane break during their hunt for a Soviet mole tearing the British Secret Service apart. Guillam is stressed—breaking down, really—so Mendel consoles him with the long view.
“Cheer up, Peter, old son. Jesus Christ only had twelve, you know, and one of them was a double.”