One of the most entertaining characters on the current American Catholic scene is William A. Donohue, who heads the semiparanoid organization named The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Liberties.
Nature has endowed Mr. Donohue with a very sensitive nose, capable of sniffing anti-Catholicism on every tainted breeze. If some movie or TV program has a plot line that may be construed as anti-Catholic, you can be sure Donohue will promptly issue a press release anathematizing the offender.
The trouble with the Donohue nose, however, is that it fails to distinguish between two radically different phenomena that may both be given the "anti-Catholicism" label.
On the one hand there is discriminatory anti-Catholicism. This is the kind that tries to keep Catholics out of good jobs, schools, apartment buildings, social clubs, etc. Once upon a time this was quite common in the United States, though it seems rare nowadays.
On the other hand there is philosophical anti-Catholicism. This is the kind that considers the Catholic church to be the teacher of false doctrine and morality—and not only false but dangerously so.
Once upon a time this was widespread among Protestants mindful of their Reformation heritage, who considered Catholicism a perverted form of Christianity, presided over by a papacy that was symbolized in holy Scripture by the Whore of Babylon. Since liberal Protestantism has largely lost touch with its Reformation heritage, there is now little of this kind of thing found among liberal Protestants; but it continues to flourish at the fundamentalist end of the Protestant spectrum, where the Reformation still lives.
A very different variety of philosophical anti-Catholicism is common today among secularists. They are less likely to view Catholicism as a perverted form of Christianity, more likely to view it as a quite authentic form. But since they regard Christianity in general to be false and dangerous, this concession of authenticity hardly gets Catholicism off the hook.
Now, given the rules of American pluralism, the discriminatory species of anti-Catholicism is taboo, but the philosophical species is legitimate. The rules say we mustn’t discriminate against the other fellow on the basis of creed, but we’re perfectly free to disagree with the creed itself, even to disagree strongly.
Here is where Donohue’s nose goes wrong. It smells just as many bad odors in philosophical objections to Catholicism as in discriminatory objections to Catholics. It wants to establish a moral equivalence between the former and the latter. It would like the former to vanish just as thoroughly as the latter has.
I suppose it would be pleasant if no one ever had an unkind word to say about any idea, value, or institution that is dear to one’s heart. Perhaps heaven is like that; and perhaps Mr. Donohue, in yearning for an America in which no one ever has a harsh thing to say about Catholicism, is yearning for heaven. Who can blame him for desiring heavenly peace and quiet? But the United States is not paradise, nor is it meant to be. It is meant to be an open society, in which people are free to argue for and against a wide range of ideas and values. And the rules are supposed to be the same for everybody: if, for example, secularists are not free to criticize Catholicism, then Catholics are not free to criticize secularism. In short, there is something un-American in Donohue’s attempt to silence critics of Catholicism by labeling them bigots.
But Donohue isn’t the first to play the un-American bigotry card. In fact, he’s very much a late-comer to the game. For decades now we’ve all been in danger of being called "anti-Semitic" if we found fault with the government of Israel, or "racist" if we criticized affirmative action, or "sexist" if we disapproved of abortion, or "homophobic" if we considered homosexual conduct immoral, and so on.
We Americans commit intellectual errors with a perfectly good conscience, but we recoil from bigotry. Like John Wayne, we don’t claim to be smart, but we do claim to be fair. So you can’t silence us by threatening to expose our opinions as erroneous, but you can shut us up in a minute by redefining those opinions as forms of bigotry. It’s the old political correctness game, and Donohue has decided Catholics ought to play it.
One trouble with his strategy is that, if it catches on among Catholics, it will make us look foolish in the eyes of our more sophisticated non-Catholic neighbors. "Just when political correctness is going out of fashion," they will say, "the Catholics, with their characteristic ineptitude at reading the signs of the times, have decided to jump on the bandwagon."
A more serious trouble is that the strategy may actually succeed. It may silence the philosophical opponents of Catholicism—especially the secularist critics, who are foes not so much of Catholicism in particular as of Christianity in general. But the silenced critics won’t go away; the secularist section of the American nation is now too large and too influential for that to happen. Silenced, their criticism goes underground or takes more subtle forms. Instead of making an explicit, head-on attack on Christianity, it attacks indirectly, campaigning against traditional Christian moral rules and values.
The secularist critique takes the form of a conditional syllogism with the conclusion suppressed: "If Christianity is true, then so is its moral code. But its moral code is false. (Therefore Christianity is false.)"
Catholics, including many in the clergy, generally underestimate the strength of the anti-Christian element in contemporary American culture. If we are to defend the faith effectively, we have to see the enemy out in the open. It is not the least of the faults of the Donohue strategy that it encourages the foe to hide behind trees and bushes.