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Archbishop Timothy Dolan Wins the Third Annual Coughie Award!

Originally posted at Talk to Action.

Well, it’s that most wonderful time of the year when this column presents out its annual Coughlin Award to someone who best exemplifies an exclusionary, strident interpretation of the Catholic faith. The award is named for Father Charles Coughlin, the notorious radio priest of the 1930s who is the role model for today’s Religious Right radio and television evangelists and other conservative media personalities.

This year’s field of finalists included, Bishop Thomas Olmstead of Phoenix, notable for excommunicating and disciplining Sister Margaret McBride, a hospital administrator who allowed an abortion in order to save the life of a critically ill pregnant woman. Until this very weekend our panel was leaning towards presenting the award to a a group of orthodox Catholic bloggers who seek to stifle progressive dissent in the Church. And there was of course perennial favorite, Catholic League President Bill Donohue — who may very well have an award named for him someday.

Although Donohue lost again this year — he nevertheless had a hand in the winning performance by New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan. The newly elected President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops nosed-out his fellow Coughie finalist by imploring: “Keep at it, Bill! We need you!”

But before we discuss Archbishop Dolan’s stunning last minute victory, a few words about the award’s namesake.

The Coughlin Award (aka “the Coughie”) is named after the infamous 1930s radio priest and noted anti-Semite, Rev. Charles Coughlin whose media diatribes against FDR and Judaism were openly sympathetic to the racist policies of Adolph Hitler made him. Such advocacy was clearly antithetical the very definition of the word “catholic,” which, according to Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary means:

Catholic Cath”o*lic\ (k[a^]th”[-o]*[i^]k), a. [L. catholicus, Gr. kaqoliko`s, universal, general; kata` down, wholly + “o`los whole, probably akin to E. solid: cf. F. catholique.]

1. Universal or general; as, the catholic faith.

Men of other countries [came] to bear their part in so great and catholic a war. –Southey.

Note: This epithet, which is applicable to the whole Christian church, or its faith, is claimed by Roman Catholics to belong especially to their church, and in popular usage is so limited.

*Not narrow-minded, partial, or bigoted; liberal; as, catholic tastes.

*Of or pertaining to, or affecting the Roman Catholics; as, the Catholic emancipation act.

So in order to win a Coughie, a candidate must do something that makes the faith less inclusive; furthers the culture wars with some incendiary behavior, and thereby ultimately embarrass the Church. This year’s winner has risen to the challenge by completing all three tasks with breathtaking simplicity, snatching the victory from a determined field of tough competitors.

Archbishop Dolan is a rising star of the culture wars. When the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops elected him as president, they signaled their intention to escalate the culture wars at the expense of economic justice, and push strident orthodoxy over inclusiveness.

In October 2009 Dolan went after two New York Times” reporters for their examination of Church obstruction in cases of sexual abuse. Taking a page from Bill Donohue’s playbook, Dolan equated any critical discussion of Church affairs as anti-Catholic bigotry — while ignoring acts of real anti-Catholicism by the likes of movement conservative-friendly John Hagee and the New Apostolic Reformation.

Yes indeed, those were deeds that made the archbishop a contender. But what clinched the Coughie for Dolan was his brilliant last minute praise for Donohue’s demagogic attack upon the Smithsonian Institution for displaying a work by David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1992. At issue was a short film that portrays a crucifix with ants on it. In the context of the film, it appears to be a commentary on human suffering, — including that of Christ.

But this very same image caused Donohue to bluster that the piece was a “vile display” and accused the Smithsonian of using federal money “to bash Christians.” Misinterpretation of art is, of course, nothing new.

As NJ.com recently observed:

Salvador Dali believed ants represented corruption, and painted them frequently; his many crucifixions, like the “Corpus Hypercubus” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, have nonetheless won acceptance from many of the faithful over time.

Besides, though crucifixions have changed throughout history, the trend has actually been toward a more graphic depiction of corruption and degradation.

At the beginning of the Christian era, for example, Christ was usually shown clothed on the cross, even wearing fine robes and a crown, to emphasize his triumph over death.

Representations of Christ’s naked and tortured body, meant to convey divine sympathy with human suffering, only became common in the 10th century. From time to time over subsequent eras, particularly in the German and Spanish traditions, gruesome and quite disturbing images of hideous wounds and appalling humiliations of Christ’s flesh, rendered in realistic detail, have been popular and won Church approval.

And of course, Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” which showed crucifixion as a gory and some thought masochistic display, was hugely popular with devout conservatives in 2004.

As well as:

The difference here is that “A Fire in My Belly” is clearly about the corruption AIDS has brought to Wojnarowicz’s body, and the crucifix is meant to express sympathy not just for humankind’s generalized suffering but for the horror and loss caused by the epidemic.

Wojnarowicz’s life story — abandoned as a toddler, shifted from home to home, becoming a gay prostitute and then an AIDS activist and world-famous artist – is inimical to many conservatives, but he did attend a Catholic grade school, and his frequent use of Catholic imagery is in that sense entirely legitimate. Even historically accurate.

But of course misinterpretation of art has long been a tool in the culture war arsenal of the Religious Right. For Archbishop Dolan, it is an easy and inexpensive way stoking misplaced anger and misdirecting attention of among rank-and-file Catholics, from the misdeeds of the hierarchy itself — especially from the astounding costs of settlements in the sex abuse scandals. And that is why Dolan’s cheer leading for Howlin’ Bill Donohue put him over the top.

Catholics United perhaps put it best:

In order to understand why Dolan’s comments are so unfortunate, one should consider why Donohue is simply bad for Catholicism. Donohue personifies that white older male constantly at odds with the changing world around him. He’s like the Catholic version of Archie Bunker, only with fax machine and a $350,000 salary. But the worst part of Donohue’s shtick is that his message has no semblance to the teachings of Jesus Christ, who spent his time forgiving sinners and healing lepers, not complaining about art.

Enter Timothy Dolan, the newly elected president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Dolan was elected to lead the bishops in an age of the New Evangelization, an effort to rekindle Catholicism in an increasingly secular world. By defending Donohue’s latest charade, Dolan is showing us what his preferred method of evangelization looks like. And that doesn’t portend well for the next four years of his leadership of the conference.

CU then explains why Dolan’s shout-out for Donohue is so misplaced within our current economic climate:

Our nation is in the worst economic recession of my lifetime. More than nine percent of our workforce is unemployed. Millions of households are dealing with foreclosure or underwater mortgages. And in this Advent season, we have families that can’t afford a full tank of gas, let alone gifts for the Christmas tree.

This is why Dolan’s attitude is so disappointing. By defending a manufactured controversy during a time of great suffering, he trivializes the meaning of Jesus’ birth: to bring good news to the poor. And the worst consequence of this behavior is that it is driving young Catholics away from the church. So as Dolan and the bishops get to work on their evangelization strategy, I suggest they spend less time following in the footsteps of Bill Donohue and focus more on Jesus.

Archbishop Dolan’s eleventh hour victory was no small feat. To out-do the master of making mountains out of non-existent anti-Catholic molehills takes skill and determination. And for this, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, deserves our hearty acknowledgment of his remarkable achievement.

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