Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Maureen Dowd and the New Anti-Catholicism

In her latest column in the NYT, Maureen Dowd introduces her brother Kevin with a comment about how, since she gets attacked "vitriolically" for her anti-Catholic series of columns and is not taken seriously as a woman, perhaps "they" (the bishops of the Church) will listen to her brother, a man and a faithful, conservative Catholic. Incidentally, she mentions, no doubt to the astonishment of many of her readers, that she is herself a Catholic.

Her remarks are interesting on several levels. First, she herself has just written some of the most vitriolic attacks on a religion and its leaders ever to appear in the New York Times. Second, she treats the bishops and the pope with complete disrespect and yet complains in a rather hurt tone that she is not respected. Not because she is rude, belligerent, and completely unfair. Not because she is reckless and irresponsible in her fueling a new wave of anti-Catholicism in North America and Europe. (Two friends already have sent me her columns by way of saying that I ought to leave the Church.) Not because she attacks personally the head of the Church, who precisely has been resolute and effective in addressing the clergy abuse issue and who is completely innocent, personally, as former head of the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith and now as pope. Not because her columns have been full of factual errors for which she has not apologized or provided corrections. Not because, unlike her target of attack Pope Benedict, she offers no constructive way forward. But because she is a woman.

Finally, her remarks and previous columns are typical of a trend within the Church among liberal elites--declining in numbers but still full of resentment and bile--to attack the Church and its teachings especially on matters of sexual morality in terms as extreme as almost any outright enemy of the Church. They use as outlets for their attacks reputable publishers and newspapers many or most of whose readers are secularist enemies of the Church. (Every time Dowd publishes one of these columns in the NYT, it is followed by hundreds of comments vehemently denouncing, not just a Church policy or leader, but Catholic Christianity as a whole.) It is the phenomenon of the anti-Catholic Catholic. This open attack on the Church from people themselves claiming to be Catholic provides the cover for expression of some of the deepest prejudice and bigotry, not in fringe nativist or Klan papers but in mainstream secular-liberal newspapers like the New York Times. In this sense, Dowd's columns are symptomatic of something larger than her own tendency to express herself in the form of intemperate rants.

There's an excellent book by an Episcopalian, Philip Jenkins, called The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice. It is very insightful about U.S. history beyond its immediate topic. It is unsparing about some of the more embarrassing figures in American Catholicism, like Fr. Coughlin and Sen. McCarthy, but he has a good analysis of the deep anti-Catholicism in the U.S., both at the nativist level of the KKK and fundamentalist (and until recently, even mainstream) Protestants on one hand and among academics and the media on the other. On the first, Jenkins points out (in a context very different from that of the Vatican preacher's recent comment--that of a serious analysis of anti-Catholicism in its historical and contemporary forms) how similar the images and themes of anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism are--sexual depravity, danger to children, divided loyalties, etc. That was of course big still in the 1920s, with the populist response to Al Smith's candidacy and the KKK's propaganda and thuggery against Catholics, Jews, and Blacks. (None of which is to say that the current wave of anti-Catholic media attacks can be compared with the killing of six million Jews--no-one made such a comparison of verbal attacks with physical genocide, including the Vatican preacher. Father Cantalamessa's comparison of anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic stereotyping was nevertheless grievously inappropriate and insensitive because it was, precisely in its context, so open to that kind of interpretation.)

Jenkins describes well the huge shifts that occurred in the 1970s, with the sexual revolution, abortion, contraception and the corresponding shift in the base and nature of the Democratic Party. From a time when almost all Catholics were instinctively Democrats, mainly on class grounds as well as because the Church's teaching on social justice is more naturally aligned with the DP, the party has become uninhabitable by faithful, orthodox Catholics. The party downgraded class in favor of identity politics, took up abortion as the litmus test for any DP leader (leading such luminaries as Jesse Jackson, Edward Kennedy, Al Gore, and even Bill Clinton to abandon their pro-life positions). I think the Obamacare vote was the last gasp for pro-life Democrats--they really showed there was no place for them in the party and the question will never be even discussable again in it.

The relevance of all this is that this huge sea change we usually call the Sixties for short--sexual liberation, moral relativism, abortion, contraception, along with collapse of family structure, etc., etc.--was not only a big pressure on the Church to secularize and accommodate as the mainstream Protestants did (thereupon rapidly disappearing or breaking up in disarray like the Anglicans). It was also a big pressure within the Church. So you had seminaries becoming places of active gay culture, rejecting celibacy and chastity as unrealistic, and generally treating the moral teaching of the Church over the previous millennia as old hat. (This is well documented in a study by Michael Rose, Goodbye, Good Men. It shows how pious, orthodox, and "manly" applicants were turned away--generating a shortage of priests that fueled a push for married and women priests--in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.)

All this led to several investigations that cleaned up the seminaries--which Dowd conveniently ignores when denouncing the equally necessary investigations of the rapidly declining sisters' communities. Their problem had a different aspect, in that it led to a strongly New Age, separatist-feminist wackiness and joined up with the anti-Catholic Catholic stream associated with people like Garry Wills, John Cornwell, and James Carroll. Whenever the Church comes under attack and has its back to the wall, these people join in the fray...against the Church. This is a new trend in anti-Catholicism. In the past Catholics would close ranks in face of external attacks in a deeply anti-Catholic culture. Now the anti-Catholic Catholics provide cover for the most vicious and strident bigotry, as we are seeing now.

So back to Maureen Dowd. The first of her columns lionized the dissident nuns who broke with the bishops in a letter saying that the health bill did not open loopholes for federal abortion funding and would not lead to a big increase in abortions. This is an empirical question that calls, one would think, for an examination of the facts--by looking, for example, at the wording of the legislation then before the House. Given Dowd's claim in this latest column that it was not the devil, but the facts that led her to launch her attacks, you would think she would have some interest in the facts of the matter. But no, she launches into a gender-based rant about the excellence of the nuns and the rottenness of the bishops, as if that settled the point at issue. I think the old exorcist was probably closer to the truth than the amazingly insight-lacking Dowd. In the course of that column and subsequent ones, she showed an equally reckless disregard of the facts. For example,
• she follows the dissident nuns and some major media outlets in stating as a fact that the signatories of the letter represented 59,000 nuns in the U.S.--i.e., the sum total of American nuns. The truth is that we don't know what the dissident group represents in the way of sisterly opinion, but we can be sure it is nothing like the numbers claimed. We do know that a real, recognized group of nuns with 10,000 members signed a letter supporting the bishops. These are the nuns that like the younger JP II priests and seminarians of the last decade or so, are orthodox, loyal, and deeply religious unlike the "liberal" old guard from the 1960s and 1970s. (Those seminaries and religious communities are thriving by the way--for an example of their spirit, see the story of the young nuns who appeared on Oprah recently;
• she plays up the case of the Wisconsin priest Murphy as grounds for attacking the pope personally and calling for his resignation; but after the whole argument has been debunked as factually wrong without anyone producing a shred of evidence that Ratzinger or his office did anything wrong, she offers not a hint of retraction or apology;
• she ignores the fact that sexual abuse is a plague across society and the world, no more common in Catholic settings than any other, and today much less so. Most sexual abuse of children happens not by celibate clergy but in the children's own homes, from parents, live-in boyfriends, etc.
• she demonizes the Pope in the most intemperate way, when a cursory knowledge of the facts reveals that he has done more than anyone in the Church and probably the world to reduce the incidence of sexual abuse of children;
• relatedly, none of these cases is less than ten years old, and Catholic clergy abuse has virtually ended in the U.S., which cannot be said of public schools, Orthodox Jews, or many (any?) other religions or child settings;
• today, the Church and its schools are the safest place for boys (and the abuse has nearly all been homosexual in nature, involving for the most part not young children but adolescents and homosexual priests at a time when open homosexuality was practically the norm in seminaries);
• the media, and Dowd in particular, have singled out the Church (and Ratzinger in particular) for relentless and vicious attack in a way that no-one would dare publish against any other religious group, Muslims and Jews included (see NY archbishop Dolan's column at which the NYT declined to publish). Only fundamentalists who see the Church as the new Babylon and the pope as the anti-Christ approach such extremes of bigotry and hate.

In her latest column, just published in the NYT, Dowd hands over the space to her brother Kevin, whining that she is not being taken seriously because she is a woman. Her own columns are as nasty and vitriolic as anything I have ever seen in the NYT, yet she complains that she has been attacked (in vitriolic terms, even!) by those who have come to the Church’s defense.

But unlike her rants, Kevin's comments are worthy of respect, not because he is a man, but because he offers a much clearer perspective on the Church than Ms. Dowd. He acknowledges the seriousness of the problem in past decades--though neither he nor anyone offers a shred of evidence that it was ever more serious in the Church than anywhere else--but he does not incite a wave of anti-Catholic bigotry and hatred as did Ms. Dowd with her venomous columns--just look at the hateful and bigoted anti-Catholic comments her columns elicit by the hundreds. Kevin also accurately identifies the corrosive effects of the post-Vatican II changes, the destruction of sacred liturgy, the stripping of the altars, the erosion of piety and traditional devotions, and most damningly, the corruption of the seminaries and religious communities.

Most important, he doesn’t follow Maureen and the rest of the mainstream media here and in Europe in targeting the one man who, apart from being innocent, has done most to correct these abuses. No-one in the Church, and probably in the world, has done more than Pope Benedict to address the problem of clergy sexual abuse of young people, with the result that all these abuses are over ten years old and nowhere are children and adolescents today safer than in the Church, its schools, and other bodies. But the real agenda of the attack on Pope Benedict is to bring down this close ally of John Paul II who, with him, helped save the Church from the ravages of post-Vatican II liberalism. That is why he is attacked most vehemently precisely in the areas where he has done most good (for a good essay on this point, see Sandro Magister’s “The Passion of Pope Benedict: Six Accusations and One Question” (

As for celibacy as the problem, which Kevin suggests, let's not forget that most sexual abuse occurs in families. It was not the standard and vow of celibacy that were the problem. As Kevin himself points out by reference to Rose's Goodbye, Good Men, it was rather precisely the loosening and relativizing of the Church's moral teaching among liberal Catholics and in the gay subculture of the 1970s seminaries--from which pious, orthodox, and upright men were systematically excluded according to Rose's report—that led to this spate of homosexual encounters between priests and young men in this period.

No comments:

Post a Comment