The Catholic League revises its policy regarding those who criticize the pope

Dr. William A. Donohue, PhD, took issue over the weekend with my dotCommonweal post about Pope Francis's inadequate response to the sex-abuse crisis. He didn't actually disagree with what I said, at least not in so many words; rather, he took the occasion of my post and some other, similarly disappointed reactions elsewhere to air a few of his favorite themes: first, that the sex-abuse scandal was really all the fault of the gays and is totally over anyway; and second, that -- just as he predicted -- liberals never really liked Pope Francis and are now showing their true colors by turning on him. (There's also a delightfully bizarre detour into some book from the 1970s that is supposedly motivating all us liberals to this day -- the secret key to all grievances. I guess I'll have to look it up.)

That Donohue's grasp on the abuse scandal's particulars -- most especially the cover-up part -- is at best grossly misinformed and at worst actively mendacious is old news, not that it stops people from quoting him when it's convenient. But that he should be so exercised about what was, let's be honest, quite mild criticism of Pope Francis is news, because attacking people for criticizing the pope is something the Catholic League never, never does. I know that because Donohue said so way back in December 2013: "[The] Catholic League," he explained on Newsmax TV, "has never, never been after anybody for criticizing the pope or a priest or a bishop."

In that instance Donohue was responding to a question about recent comments made by Rush Limbaugh, who -- you probably remember -- was highly critical of Francis's economic views as laid out in Evangelii gaudium. "So reading what the pope's written about this is really befuddling," said Limbaugh, "because he's totally wrong -- I mean, dramatically, embarrassingly, puzzlingly wrong." (He went on to explain that trickle-down economics does too work!)

Would the Catholic League push back? Not at all. "We get involved when you hit below the belt, when you start becoming insulting, like -- Bill Maher would be a classic example," Donohue explained. As for Rush: "He didn't like the pope's views on economics. Rush Limbaugh is entitled to that. ...Everyone's entitled to criticize the Catholic Church on any public policy issue just so long as it's not hitting below the belt." So, the interviewer asked, did Limbaugh's remarks cross that line? "No, of course not." Of course!

Neither Donohue nor his interlocutor mentioned that the Catholic League also issued one of its trademark hard-hitting press releases in response to the Limbaugh interview, in which Donohue went after...Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. They'd had the temerity to criticize Rush, forcing fair-minded Dr. Donohue (who knows from professionalism) to expose their true nature as a "bogus Catholic entity."

So, to sum up: Rush Limbaugh declaring, in response to a papal exhortation, "This is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the pope" -- totally in bounds. This, however, merits strong pushback. I can only assume that some aspect of the Catholic League mission statement has been updated since December. Donohue even followed up Friday's press release with a clarifying tweet:

Another opportunity for all Catholics to be grateful we have such a discerning arbiter of justice looking out for our civil rights.

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.

Please email comments to editors@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

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