There is a thing called Godwin’s Law on the internet. It holds that if an online argument goes on long enough, someone will drag in a reference to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. At that point, that person has lost.
Today I’d like to propose a corollary to Godwin’s Law: Anyone who compares a non-racist organization to the Ku Klux Klan has lost as well.
I got to thinking about this because last week, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York City wrote a column for the New York Daily News attacking Donald Trump’s views on immigration. For some reason, Dolan decided to add a gratuitous mention of Americans United to his column, comparing AU to the KKK!
This was curious because Americans United has never taken, and does not today take, a stand on the issue of immigration. We work strictly on issues related to separation of church and state.
I don’t want to take this down to the level of a fourth-grade schoolyard brawl, but Dolan started this, and we decided to finish it. The Daily News ran our response on Friday. In it, AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn opined that Dolan is just sore because Americans United has been so effective in foiling schemes by the Catholic bishops to force us all to live under their theology.
“I think I know why Dolan reached for this cheap smear: Over the years, Americans United has blocked efforts by the bishops to censor books and movies, restrict adults’ access to birth control and raid the public treasury to prop up the church’s private school system,” wrote Lynn. “Today, we continue to oppose efforts by the cardinal and others, such as religious right groups, to force all of us to live under their religions’ rules. I realize Dolan is unhappy with our success in these areas, but that’s no excuse for telling lies about our organization.”
Since Barry had dared to speak ill of a high-ranking Catholic cleric, it was only a matter of time before William Donohue, resident foghorn at the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, decided to sound off.
Donohue begins by noting that Lynn wrote “a lengthy letter” about Dolan to the Daily News. He can’t even get the basic facts right. The letter is 200 words – hardly Moby Dick.
Things go downhill from there as Donohue recycles old charges of anti-Catholicism against AU that he has been peddling for years.
Here’s the thing about that: Donohue sees anti-Catholicism lurking behind every rock. Have you ever pointed out that some of the things the Catholic Church’s leadership did in the past (the Crusades, the Inquisition, blessing the subjugation of native populations in the Americas, etc.) were not so good? You’re an anti-Catholic bigot! Have you ever opposed any of the church’s political goals, such as its ongoing attempt to restrict access to birth control, take away the rights of LGBT Americans and ban all abortions for any reason? Welcome to the club, you’re an anti-Catholic bigot!
But if you really want to get Donohue worked up, just mention the church’s handling of the pedophilia crisis. See, in the Bill Donohue Bizarro World, the victims were to blame. Yep, those sexy altar boys just wouldn’t stop seducing priests.
Disgusting? You bet. Yet some in the media (OK, mainly Fox News) actually turn to this guy for opinion from time to time.
One more thing about this: Many of you know that Americans United was founded in 1947 with strong roots in several Protestant churches. Occasionally people ask why some Protestant leaders were so aggressive in responding to the Catholic Church’s leadership back then.
The answer is that at that time, the Catholic Church had not officially endorsed the doctrine of religious liberty, and its clergy was actively working to subvert that principle in the United States. The church’s view was that “error” (that is, every other religious and philosophical system) had no rights. Church leaders were demanding full tax funding for their private school system and sought laws that enshrined Catholic theology into law for everyone to follow -- because, you know, theirs was the one "true" church.
Church leaders at that time were operating under an 1892 encyclical promulgated by Pope Leo XIII titled “Au milieu des sollicitudes.” Although technically it was a statement about church-state relations in France, many observers extrapolated it to other nations. In section 28, the document calls separation of church and state “an absurdity.”
It was not until 1965, during the Second Vatican Council (commonly known as “Vatican II”), that the bishops approved a Declaration on Religious Freedom called “Dignitatis Humanae.” Even here the endorsement of this fundamental human right is tepid at best, and some conservative Catholic commentators have pointed out that nowhere does the document call for the separation of church and state.
Of course it’s true that liberalizing movements did spring up in the Catholic Church, often led by laypeople, and that many individual Catholics today fully embrace church-state separation and disagree with the bishops on questions like legal abortion, human sexuality, birth control and so on.
I had eight years of Catholic education as a youngster and can assure you that these views aren’t just found among the laity; many priests and nuns hold them as well. But these progressive laypeople, priests and nuns, no matter how well intentioned they may be, aren’t calling the shots right now. People like Dolan and, unfortunately, his defender of the faith Donohue are in the driver’s seat.
As long as they are, Americans United (and other groups) will continue to oppose efforts by dogmatic clerics (of any denomination) to compel all of us to subsidize, support or live under the tenets of their faith.
That doesn’t make us anti-Catholic or anti-anything, for that matter. It makes us pro-Constitution.