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Playing the Anti-Catholic Card

"There is vehement anti-Christian sentiment out there," Mel Gibson is quoted as saying in the September 15 issue of the New Yorker. "It's vicious. I mean, I think we're just a little part of it, we're just the meat in the sandwich here. There's huge things out there, and they're belting it out-we don't see this stuff. Imagine: There's a huge war raging, and it's over us!"

These days, anything Gibson says should be taken with a grain-make that a pillar-of salt. After all, he had to be coaxed into adding English subtitles to The Passion, his forthcoming opus shot entirely in Aramaic and Latin.

But incendiary language of that caliber (well, almost) is being bandied about far beyond Hollywood-where anti-Catholic accusations have historically been hurled at films, from The Last Temptation of Christ to the recent Magdalene Sisters--not to mention the Brooklyn Museum and Broadway and Barnes and Noble. Lately, this kind of rhetoric has also been echoing around the Capitol.

In July, as the Senate Judiciary Committee geared up to vote on the controversial nomination of Alabama Attorney General William Pryor to the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals, a group of Republicans organized as the Committee for Justice accused Senate Democrats and moderate Republicans of anti-Catholic bias in their efforts to block the nomination. And they did it publicly with ad space and radio time in the heavily Catholic states of Maine and Rhode Island, where memories of "Irish Need Not Apply" still strike a nerve. The Committee for Justice, with funding help from a new outfit calling itself the Ave Maria List, ran a print ad depicting a courtroom door with a sign: "Catholics Need Not Apply." "Some in the US Senate are attacking Bill Pryor for having 'deeply held' Catholic beliefs to prevent him from becoming a federal judge," said the ad. "Don't they know the Constitution expressly prohibits religious tests for public office?"

The accusation stunned the committee's Catholic Democrats, who understandably bristled at being called anti-themselves in the same way that, say, Jews who are critical of Israel are often labeled "self-hating."

To many religious observers, the whole thing stank of bullying and baiting. Mark Silk, director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, calls the accusations, "One hundred percent bogus. There are a whole lot of Catholics on the courts that Democrats have been happy to support. It's pretty amateurish and stupid, just the kind of thing that was dreamed up by non-Catholics."

"Senator Leahy has never met a Christian that he likes," charged [Traditional Values Coalition Executive Director Andrea Sheldon] Lafferty . As it happens, Leahy was at Mass during the broadcast.

It's hard to argue that Pryor's views, religiously motivated or not, are not extreme. He has said, "God has chosen, through his son, Jesus Christ, this time and this place for all Christians…to save our country and save our courts." He filed an amicus brief in Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court case challenging Texas's sodomy law, and according to the Human Rights Campaign, his statement, "likens homosexuality to incest, necrophilia, pedophilia, prostitution and adultery…and fails to recognize GLBT individuals as people worthy of the same constitutional rights and protections that other Americans take for granted." He said of Roe v. Wade that, "seven members of our highest court ripped the Constitution and ripped out the life of millions of unborn children," and he has argued to dismantle the Violence Against Women Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, and the Voting Rights Act. He's also pro-death penalty, which, of course, is anathema to the Catholic church.

"When somebody is on the record as strongly as Pryor saying what he said about Roe v. Wade and then claiming that he'll uphold the law, I think one is then entitled to raise some eyebrows," says Silk. Still, the Committee for Justice stirred up accusations that Pryor's opponents were using a de facto religious test, which flew even from the mouths of Orrin Hatch and Jeff Sessions, two usually civil Republican members of the committee. Various others fed fuel to the fire, including some clergy. Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver wrote that "a new kind of religious discrimination is very welcome at the Capitol, even among elected officials who claim to be Catholic." Speaking on CSpan one summer Sunday, Andrea Sheldon Lafferty of the Traditional Values Coalition blasted Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont-the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Senator Leahy has never met a Christian that he likes," charged Lafferty. As it happens, Leahy was at Mass during the broadcast, according to New York's Newsday columnist Marie Cocco, who pointed out the disingenuousness of those playing the anti-Catholic card because abortion is the only church position that they care about. "They do not worry about blocking an increase in minimum wage. Or ignoring the church's call for generosity toward immigrants. They proudly supported the Iraq war, despite the church's opposition. By these measures, they could call even themselves anti-Catholic. They don't."

Opportunistic Invectives

The Family Research Council, a right-wing heavyweight, jumped into the ring when Colin Stewart, the organization's executive vice president, called Senator Chuck Schumer (Democrat, New York) "the picture of religious profiling" because he "is leading the attack, targeting Pryor simply because he is a Catholic with deeply held beliefs." The American Center for Law and Justice, which is led by Pat Robertson, founder of 700 Club and the Christian Coalition, chimed in on September 2. "The fact is there is a religious litmus test for judicial nominees," said Jay Sekulow, Chief Counsel of the ACLJ. "It is clear that there are those in the Senate who oppose nominees who are conservative, pro-life, and have deeply held religious beliefs. It's time for these Senators to discard their discriminatory tactics and consider nominees on the basis of their qualifications and records-not by applying a religious or ideological litmus test." Robertson initiated "Operation Supreme Court Freedom" after the Texas sodomy decision, when, in Robertson's words, the high court "opened the door to homosexual marriages, bigamy, legalized prostitution, and even incest."

Things certainly came to a boiling point over Pryor, but they had been heating up for months. The Committee for Justice was founded by former counsel to Bush senior C. Boyden Gray more than a year ago, in July of 2002, along with other Republicans frustrated over the coordinated and successful campaigns against judicial nominees like Charles Pickering. Gray told the Washington Post that the organization would "offset the influence of People For the American Way" and lobby on behalf of President George W. Bush's judicial nominations.

William Weigand, the bishop of Sacramento, publicly admonished Governor Gray Davis to renounce his prochoice stance or forego Communion. Following that, Davis was refused entry to a Catholic children's home.

Back then the committee was experimenting with ways to disrupt growing resistance to Bush's court stacking. The committee's first strike was a TV commercial that ran in Texas. A voice announces, "A new gang's riding into Texas gunning for our judge. President Bush wants Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen on the federal bench. But liberal special interests are holding up her confirmation. Hillary Clinton, Tom Daschle, Pat Leahy, and groups like People For the American Way want to stop Judge Owen. Now they're being helped by one of Texas's own. At first, Ron Kirk [Democrat, Texas] said the Senate needed to confirm judicial nominees. Then he met the East Coast liberal gang [emphasis added], took their money, and changed his mind. Call Ron Kirk. It's time to confirm Justice Priscilla Owen." Damn Yankees. In an interview with the FOX network, Gray was asked how he planned to "blast" Pat Leahy out of the way. "By trying to embarrass him," said Gray.

Perhaps the committee got religion after the Vatican issued a "Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life" in January of 2003. The statement reminded Catholic civil servants to be "guided by their Christian conscience," and it no doubt inspired some bishops to publicly pressure their local prochoice Catholic politicians. William Weigand, the bishop of Sacramento, publicly admonished Governor Gray Davis to renounce his prochoice stance or forego Communion. Following that, Davis was refused entry to a Catholic children's home. In South Dakota, it was reported that Bishop Robert Carlson sent a letter to Senator Thomas Daschle questioning his legitimacy as a prochoice self-identifying Catholic.

In April, the American Life League disseminated their "Deadly Dozen" ad, which names twelve US senators "wanted for fraudulently claiming Catholic faith." The ad, which ran in newspapers across the country, calls on "all bishops and priests to respectfully refuse Holy Communion to these and all public figures whose unrepentant support for the killing of babies in the womb defiles the Mass and the Body of Christ." The League created a specialized ad for California politicians (President Judie Brown told the Sacramento Bee that "in California, we need a deadly two dozen"), with none other than the embattled Governor Gray Davis leading the pack.

And Deal Hudson, publisher and editor of Crisis magazine, launched a "major initiative" to "expose these phony 'Catholics.' " Hudson wrote a four-page letter appealing for donations. "We have a plan for exposing these so-called pro-choice 'Catholic' politicians for the hucksters they are." But, he wrote, "exposing error and standing up for truth is expensive, very expensive…unlike the pro-abortion groups, we don't have millions of dollars at our disposal."

At the same time as the Pyror drama unfolded, the Vatican issued a 12-page paper against legalizing gay marriages. The media-which takes accusations of bias on the chin every day and was lam basted for exhaustively reporting on the church sex abuse scandal-now found itself in the battle as well. Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago, said "a line was crossed" when the Chicago Sun-Times wrote the headline, "Pope launches global campaign against gays." "What does the printing of a false accusation against the Holy Father in a major Chicago daily say about anti-Catholicism here? This is a question, as a native of Chicago, I never believed I would have to ask." Does this mean it's open season? On September 16, the Catholic League ran a quarter-page ad on the op-ed page of the New York Times asking in huge block letters, "Why are the Democrats insulting Catholics?" The smaller print explains the group's outrage over the Democratic National Committee having a link to Catholics for a Free Choice on its web page.

Catholics for a Free Choice President Frances Kissling calls the-two pronged bullying effort--accuse anti-extremists of being anti-Catholic and question the legitimacy of Catholic politicians who base their decisions on the Constitution rather than the pope--a purely political tactic that reveals a weakened and intimidated Republican base. "This time around they are taking seriously the Democrats' political will to block some nominees, and they're trying to find some way to break that blockade. Because who wants to be called an anti-Catholic? It's not nice." Silk agrees. "I think what this indicates is a strong effort on the part of Republicans, led by the White House, to appeal to groups on the basis of their religious affiliation." Silk has no evidence that the White House is directly involved, but he says, "it certainly looks that way. It's about as hardball as it gets." In fact, Karl Rove, Bush junior's chief strategist, is known for targeting blocks of potential Republican voters, and in the pantheon of potential voting blocks, "church-going" Catholics rank very highly. The White House's outreach to Catholics includes a weekly conference call between Bush's political staff and leading conservative Catholics, including Deal Hudson, that discusses how to convince Catholics to vote Republican.

Getting Religion

Indeed, while some Catholic leaders may have jumped on the bandwagon, follow the money through any of the organizations lashing out at Democrats and they trace back not to Catholics but to the right-wing policy organizations, neo-con think tanks, and big industry. Crisis magazine, for instance, which claims to be a Catholic magazine about "Politics, Culture, and the Church," is published by the Morley Publishing Group, which is mostly funded by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, which is one of the country's largest and most influential right-wing foundations in favor of the deregulation of business, elimination of social programs, and privatization of government services. Bradley writes huge checks, for instance, to the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute.

"This time around they are taking seriously the Democrats' political will to block some nominees, and they're trying to find some way to break that blockade. Because who wants to be called an anti-Catholic? It's not nice."
- Frances Kissling

C. Boyden Gray, founder of the Committee for Justice, is a close family friend of the Bushes and has his hands in so many organizations that a 1997 New Republic profile of the heir to the Reynolds Tobacco fortune said, "So many different money trails lead to, by and through Gray it is bewildering." Citizens for a Sound Economy, his free market think tank, reportedly gets their funding from the American Petroleum Institute, the American Plastics Council and the Chemical Manufacturers Association.

The Committee for Justice never claimed a Catholic affiliation, but the Ave Maria List, named as co-sponsor of the "need not apply" ads, does. "In response to the call by Pope John Paul II and the Catholic Bishops to take our faith into the political arena and restore the culture of life in our country, a group of leading Catholics have formed the first national lay-Catholic political action committee, The Ave Maria List," says the only page of the group's web site, which gives no address and no funding information, nor the identity of the "group of leading Catholics." Elsewhere, however, Bowie Kuhn, former commissioner of Major League Baseball--famous for barring a female Sports Illustrated reporter from postgame interviews at Yankee Stadium during the 1977 World Series--has been named as vice-chairman, and Newsweek reported that the fund is bankrolled by Kuhn's friend Thomas Monaghan, the former CEO of Domino's Pizza and the founder of the ultra-conservative Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida, which enrolled its first students this fall.

Whatever conservatives would have us think, polls have shown that most Catholics are prochoice, and preliminary data from 2002 congressional election exit polls show that while Jews and Protestants are moving slightly to the right, more Catholics are voting Democrat. The anti-Catholic charges didn't stop the block on Pryor, and they may very well backfire, sending more Catholics--who by and large seem to support the notion of separation of church and state-to the left. As former governor of New York Mario Cuomo said in a 1984 speech at the University of Notre Dame, "The Catholic public official lives the political truth most Catholics through most of American history have accepted and insisted on: the truth that to assure our freedom we must allow others the same freedom, even if occasionally it produces conduct by them which we would hold to be sinful. We know that the price of seeking to force our beliefs on others is that they might some day force theirs on us."

Jennifer Block lives in New York and has written for the Nation, the Village Voice, and Ms., where she was an associate editor.

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