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Bill Donohue: Defender of Glenn Beck.

Originally posted at Talk to Action.

Glenn Beck’s recent admonition that people who attend a church that teaches social justice should leave — was anti-Catholicism. This was obvious from a wide range of perspectives –from a Jesuit scholar to a liberal newspaper columnist and a neoconservative evangelical blogger.

Yet perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this tawdry episode was that stepping forward to defend Glenn Beck was none other than Bill Donohue leader of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

But before we get too deeply into the scandal, let’s recap: On the March 2, 2010 Fox News TV show that started it all, Glenn Beck said:

“I’m begging you, your right to religion and freedom to exercise religion and read all of the passages of the Bible as you want to read them and as your church wants to preach them . . . are going to come under the ropes in the next year. If it lasts that long it will be the next year. I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes!”

James Martin, S.J., writing in the Jesuit journal America, observed:

“Of course this means that you would have to leave the Catholic Church, which has long championed that particular aspect of the Gospel.”

Martin elaborated on the thinly veiled anti-Catholic vitriol of Beck’s pronouncement:

The term “social justice” originated way back in the 1800s (and probably predates even that) and has been continually underlined by the Magisterium (the teaching authority of the church) and popes since Leo XIII, who began the modern tradition of Catholic social teaching with his encyclical on capital and labor, Rerum Novarum in 1891.  Subsequent popes have built on Leo’s work, continuing the church’s meditation on a variety of social justice issues, in such landmark documents as Pope Pius XI’s encyclical on “the reconstruction of the social order,” Quadregismo Anno (1931), Paul VI’s encyclical “on the development of peoples,” Populorum Progressio (1967), and John Paul II’s encyclical “on the social concerns of the church” Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987).  Social justice also undergirds much of Catholic social teaching on peace.  “If you want peace,” said Pope Paul VI, “work for justice.”

On his March 11, 2010 radio program, Beck went even lower, conflating real Catholic social justice with the bigoted Rev. Charles Coughlin, which was a thinly veiled effort to equate the social justice teaching of the Church with fascism.  But it as with most such coarse demagoguery, what is left out is as misleading as what is actually said.

Washington Post op-ed writer Harold Meyerson helped correct the historical record.

The most celebrated and notorious Catholic of the New Deal era was radio priest Charles Coughlin, the Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly of his day. On his weekly nationwide radio broadcast, the Detroit-based Coughlin was a staunch FDR supporter during the initial years of Roosevelt’s presidency. He approved of the first phase of the New Deal, the National Recovery Act, which rejected laissez-faire capitalism and endeavored to replace it with a managed economy that balanced opposing social interests — echoing Catholic economic doctrines propounded by Pope Leo XIII in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum and by Pius XI in his 1931 Quadragesimo Anno. By 1935, however, Coughlin had split with Roosevelt over the issue of America’s recognition of the World Court (the very kind of issue that today’s talk-show fascisti also love to demagogue). The cosmopolitanism of the New Deal and the new CIO was increasingly unbearable to the anti-Semitic Coughlin, and by 1936 he was attacking “Franklin Double-Crossing Roosevelt” in every broadcast.

Initially Roosevelt sought to keep Coughlin in the fold, sending such prominent New Deal Catholics as Joseph P. Kennedy and Frank Murphy, who’d recently been mayor of Detroit and was soon to become governor of Michigan, to try to rein him in. But Coughlin had made up his mind, and as the 1936 election drew near, he was calling FDR a “liar” and a “communist.”

Then Meyerson compared Coughlin with Monsignor John Ryan and other Catholic economic liberals:

But Roosevelt also had allies within the Catholic hierarchy, and he made sure to showcase them whenever possible. Foremost among these was Monsignor John A. Ryan, a professor of political science and moral theology at Catholic University and the longtime director of the Social Action Department of the National Catholic Welfare Council. Inspired by Rerum Novarum, Ryan helped create a distinctly Catholic brand of American economic progressivism. (His dissertation, completed in 1906, was titled “A Living Wage.”) In 1936, in an address he called “Roosevelt Safeguards America,” Ryan took to the airwaves to denounce Coughlin’s attacks on the president. Ryan also delivered the invocation at FDR’s 1937 and 1945 inaugurals.

Ryan’s labor Catholicism probably claimed the allegiance of several million adherents during the New Deal years. Among the most prominent were New York Senator Robert Wagner, who authored both the National Labor Relations Act and the Social Security Act, and Philip Murray, the first president of the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) and the second president of the CIO.

Coughlin was a renegade who, like Beck has moved from any semblance of mainstream political philosophy, to embrace one that is increasingly conspiratorial and radical.

Also criticizing Beck was Baptist neocon Joe Carter. Writing in First Things the journal founded by John Richard Neuhaus  Carter asked: “Could Beck’s claim be construed as “anti-Catholic?” Yes and no. I think if anyone else had made the remark it would have been hard to dismiss the anti-Catholic undertones.”

Carter went on to say:

“But Beck is a special case: He is too prone to say any dumb thing that pops into his head and too ignorant about history and religion to truly understand the implications of his statement. This doesn’t excuse him, of course, but it certainly is reason not to be too shocked when a self-professed “rodeo clown” advises people to leave their churches over Catholic “code words” like social justice.”

Carter closed his piece by wondering, “Still, I’m curious to see how Beck’s loyal defenders will excuse his latest outrageous remarks.”

Joe Carter, say hello to Catholic League President Bill Donohue!

In a March 12, 2010 Catholic League press release Donohue declared:

Many are hammering Beck for saying, “Am I advising people to leave their church? Yes!” A closer read of what he said shows he followed that quip with, “If I am going to Jeremiah Wright’s church. If you have a priest that is pushing social justice, go find another parish.”

Beck didn’t say Christians should abandon their religion. He recommended shopping around to find a more conservative parish if one is dissatisfied with hearing left-wing sermons. Nothing new about that. In the Catholic Church, there are priests who are stridently left-wing and stridently right-wing; many parishioners shop accordingly. Protestants shop by leaving one denomination for another. And so on.

See? Glenn wasn’t trying to strip Catholicism of a central tenet; he just wants us to go shopping!

Then Donohue tried to deflect attention away from Beck’s anti-Catholicism. But nowhere does he make any effort to explain the meaning of Catholic notions of social justice:

Some of those who have criticized Beck have done so in a sincere way. Others are just phonies. Just yesterday, we dealt with an issue which is far more serious than a sarcastic remark-we called out a radical feminist leader for branding pro-life Catholic congressman Bart Stupak “un-American.” And the day before we protested news stories accusing the bishops of “polluting” the health care debate. But we heard nothing from the social justice crowd about these matters. Wonder why.

Donohue does not in any way rebuke Beck, let alone defend Catholoic notions of Social Justice or such leaders as  Monsignor Ryan, Robert Wagner, Sr. and Dorothy Day.

But this is nothing new.  I’ve written before that for Donohue, movement conservatism always takes precedence over addressing ant-Catholicism.  

Glenn Beck not only launched a frontal assault on Catholic theology, but provided an opportunity for Donohue’s Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights to carry out its stated mission.  That the League deflected for Beck rather than standing up for the social justice teaching of the Church ought to be a singularly illuminating moment for American Catholicism.

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