Bill Donohue: Dorothy Day, Cardinal Dolan obviously Republicans

By now you've likely seen the New York Times story by Sharon Otterman about the push to canonize Dorothy Day: "In Hero of the Catholic Left, a Conservative Cardinal Sees a Saint." We might discuss the pros and cons (mostly cons, I think) of telling this story this way, lining up the players on either side of a left/right divide. I will say that I think the article is most interesting when it steps outside that framework and visits Maryhouse to talk to Martha Hennessy, Day's granddaughter, and then St. Joseph House for a discussion with volunteers. The Catholic Worker context of those last few paragraphs makes the struggle over Day's place in Catholic culture wars seem as petty as it is.

What I really want to talk about, though, is this paragraph, speculating about what might be motivating Cardinal Timothy Dolan to support Day's cause:

"It is an opportunity for him to demonstrate that conservative Catholics are not uncaring, without accepting liberal principles in how you service the poor," said William A. Donohue, president of the Catholic League, a conservative antidefamation organization. "She was not, like many liberal Catholics today, a welfare state enthusiast."

When the bishops won't speak to the NYT, who will speak for the bishops? Our friend Bill Donohue stands ready as always to step into the breach. Take note, all those who get offended when anyone suggests that the U.S. bishops' recent forays into public-policy discussions have been self-defeatingly partisan. It is true that most (though not all) of the more vocal U.S. bishops try to avoid sounding overtly partisan when they speak to political issues. Donohue has no such compunctions. Which is just one reason the bishops ought to be concerned about allowing him to position himself as their surrogate in the media.

We've been over this before, and whenever Donohue comes in for criticism, someone will surely say, "I think there's a real need for what he does, but...." By "what he does" I believe such people mean the "antidefamation" work of the Catholic League -- protesting insults to and attacks on the Catholic faith and people. I actually would not agree, but let's set that aside. Is that, in fact, what Donohue does? Is it the principal work of the Catholic League? I don't think so. Yes, Donohue occasionally finds a legitimate insult to get worked up about. But for the most part, he is a public figure who engages in conservative Catholic identity politics for fun and profit.

We looked once before at the Catholic League's Twitter account, which at that time was largely dedicated to cataloging mentions of gay people (or things gay people might enjoy) in the New York Times. During the height of election season it was dedicated to promoting the cause of Mitt Romney and griping about the successes of Barack Obama -- for example, after the second presidential debate, offering this helpful suggestion: "Maybe they can find a male moderator with a pulse or a female one who isn't an ego-driven partisan." (My favorite election-season tweet was the one where Bill Donohue learned about the Electoral College: "California, 1/50th of the states, has 20% of all the electoral votes. Romney may very well win the popular vote and still lose." You don't say!) And recently, Donohue was convinced that a joke made by Jamie Foxx about how conservatives caricature liberals is actually proof that the caricature is accurate (they DO worship Obama!).

None of this activity can be said in any way to defend the "civil rights" of Catholics. And when Donohue does turn his attention to Catholic matters, it is often to defend the faith against the bad influences of his coreligionists on the left. (Remember this?) The fact that he calls Catholics he doesn't like "anti-Catholic" suggests that he may not be the best person to head up a legitimate antidefamation effort.

So let's just agree that protesting legitimate offenses to Catholicism is a very small part of what Donohue does as head of the Catholic League, and that he devotes most of his time and energy to being a would-be surrogate for the conservative cause. The funny thing is, Donohue is not a very good surrogate, for either Republicans or Catholic bishops. He's sloppy, he wanders off-message, he makes ridiculous mistakes. That time he took a swing at Obama supporter Hilary Rosen and ended up insulting adoptive parents, the RNC's communications director issued an embarrassed disavowal of Donohue's remarks. (Donohue sulked: "RNC is a joke anyway.") And his recap of the latest USCCB meeting follows the usual template -- "Bishops Reject Left-Wing Agenda" -- but look at what he thinks happened: "A vaguely worded document on the poor, which was not distributed to the bishops until they arrived at the meeting, was shot down." Yeah, nice try, left-wingers! This is not the take of a man who is privy to inside information. This is the take of a man who couldn't be bothered to follow even the publicly available information about the meeting.

So, I doubt that what Donohue had to say in the NYT about Dorothy Day and the "welfare state" -- which boils down to "Cardinal Dolan wants to use her to look like he cares about the poor but cares more about Republican priorities" -- came directly from the Cardinal's mouth. But Donohue always talks as if he knows the minds of the bishops, and they allow it -- not just by refusing to speak for themselves, but by embracing Donohue and conveying legitimacy on his enterprise. As Eugene Carraher noted in his essay "Morbid Symptoms," Donohue's recent book Why Catholicism Matters boasted glowing endorsements from four prominent American bishops, with Cardinal Dolan leading the pack. "[T]he church, and Dr. Donohue himself," Dolan says, "give an emphatic YES! to all that is good, noble, and uplifting in the human person."

Are we talking about the same Dr. Donohue? The one who made a video of himself brandishing an Obama figurine in a jar of feces? (Skip ahead to 3:35 -- and don't worry, the poop was fake!)

Seriously, your excellencies and eminences: what will it take to make you rethink the wisdom of encouraging Bill Donohue to act as your public interpreter?

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads