Is Bill Donohue a Haagen-Haas Liberal? _The Simpsons_ versus _Sister Act_.

There is a popular notion that Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, is a conservative. This comes from his outspokenness against abortion and for certain positions regarding public religious displays that come in line with views generally considered “conservative” or “Republican.” Yet Donohue, at least early in his career, tried to make clear that he was actually more of a “Reagan Democrat,” and, a Sociologist, he of course was working for a Civil Rights organization.

Now, I’ve criticized him in the past for how he has shifted away the focus of the Catholic League from being a civil rights organization to being just another right wing Catholic sounding board. I don’t disagree with a lot of what he says, but I disagree in his using his position to say it, when he is supposed to be helping Catholics fight discrimination. Back in the 1990s, the Catholic League would issue press releases about nurses fired from nursing homes for wearing ashes on Ash Wednesday. If you sent them a request for help, you’d get *some* kind of response, if only that your report did not really constitute anti-Catholicism, or they’d give some advice.

The last several times I’ve written to the Catholic League about anti-Catholicism I’ve encountered, I’ve garnered *no* response.

Also, about 10 years ago, I responded to a survey in writing, saying that they needed to praise *positive* treatments of Catholicism and religion in popular culture, as well as condemn. I got a nice personal reply to my message, and, shortly after that, Donohue wrote a stunning review of the recently released _Prince of Egypt_.

On the other hand, a recent trend in the Vatican Newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano has been to try and point out what’s right in popular culture, sometimes leading to gaffes almost as bad as what comes out of the USCCB on a regular basis. A recent article by a Jesuit priest in L’Osservatore claims that “The Simpsons” are Catholic. The claim is, prima facie, true, depending upon one’s view of the series’ narrative canon. Five years ago now, there was an episode called “The Father, the Son and the Holy Guest Star,” in which Bart and Homer convert to Catholicism because they want the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It’s one of the only times Ned Flanders is a bad guy, and Marge has a hilarious vision of how “Catholic Heaven” is more fun than “Protestant Heaven” (and that Jesus is in Catholic Heaven, partying with the Spanish, Italians and Irish, while the WASPS in Protestant Heaven are boring).

So, this article, which mainly discusses that one episode, comes out, and the blogosphere naturally erupts. A minority of us are agreeing with the article’s assessment. A lot of people who by their own admission have never watched the show or only parts of it, are pulling Dan Quayles by condemning all the things about it they think it contains (half of which are wrong). Secularists and, now, the Producers themselves are criticizing the article insisting that “the Simpsons” are liberal Protestants, not Catholics. This is true, except that Bart and Homer do convert in the aforementioned episode, and it is hypocritical of the producers to make Lisa’s conversion to Buddhism “stick” but not Bart and Homer’s conversion to Catholicism.

So, of course, Bill Donohue has shot off a press release, proclaiming, “So is Homer Catholic? If so, we missed his conversion.”
Well, Bill, see the aforementioned episode.

But it got me to thinking about *why* Bill Donohue finds _The Simpsons_ offensive. When Donohue charged that _Dogma_, a film made by “Old Catholic Church” member Kevin Smith, was “anti-Catholic,” some responded that, technically, it was not “anti-Catholic” but “liberal Catholic.” Same can be argued for _Nothing Sacred_. Both cases featured a “positive” portrayal of “liberal Catholic” ideas. If your view is that the Catholic Church is a collection of people, well, the unlamented TV series _Nothing Sacred_ could be seen as an accurate portrayal of Catholicism, since it accurately portrays how some Catholics think and behave. Indeed, if you *are* one of those Catholics, or one of the members of the wider Left who agree with them, _Nothing Sacred_ or _Dogma_ would be a “positive” portrayal of Catholicism. If, however, you see Catholicism as essentially a set of beliefs, then _Nothing Sacred_ and _Dogma_ mock those beliefs and are “anti-Catholic.”

Most references to Catholicism on _The Simpsons_ are no worse than a lot of television shows these days, and often the same kind of wisecracks Catholics ourselves make, and often can be seen as mocking non-Catholics as much as Catholics.
But here, in Bill Donohue’s own words, is the “controversial” scene he attacked in the January 31, 1999, Super Bowl episode (the scene in question is a fake Super Bowl ad depicted on the show):

there was a segment in which a nerdy-looking man drives up to a gas station and is greeted by three buxom, scantily-clad women. One of them is wearing black and she is the most scantily-clad of all. She’s also shaking her body more than the others to the rock music which is playing in the background. As she bends forward, the camera zooms in on her to reveal a large cross, and then says, “The Catholic Church, we’ve made a few changes.”

And this is offensive to Catholicism why? The scene suggests that Catholicism seems to be going out of its way to be cool, hip and more “user friendly”, and that the trend to do such things is ridiculous and needs to be mocked. How is *that* anti-Catholic? The scene depicts scantily clad women serving as Extraordinary Ministers of Communion. And, yes, there are lots of scantily-clad women distributing Communion in Catholic Churches, and yes, that should be roundly mocked. The scene depicts rock music played at Mass. Again, both happens and needs to be mocked. If mocking liturgical change for the sake of popularity, scantily clad women distributing communion or rock music at mass constitutes “anti-Catholicism,” then why have we not seen a press release from Bill Donohue condemning The Catholic Cartoon Blog?

Here’s a possibility: Bill Donohue is a liberal. He may not agree with Kevin Smith on theology and morality and politics, but he agrees with Kevin Smith on liturgy (or, perhaps not, Old Catholics are notorious for having “traditional” liturgical practices–since their schism is based upon Vatican I–but being liberal on theological and moral issues).

I’ve seen several occasions when Bill Donohue has pointed to _Sister Act_ (which I find horribly offensive) as an example of inoffensive humor directed at Catholicism. For documentation sake, here’s one.

So, on the one hand, we have a movie that says that Catholicism, even with the many liberalizations of Vatican II, is boring and outdated, and that it needs a Las Vegas lounge singer to come in and liven things up to get people filling the pews. Bill Donohue says this is great.

On the other hand, we have a TV show mocking “spirit of Vatican II” liturgical changes.

So, which is it, Bill Donohue? Are you the real anti-Catholic, opposing the liturgy of the ages? Is Bill Donohue telling us he supports scantily clad women (or women of any kind of attire) distributing Communion? Is Bill Donohue telling us he supports rock music at Mass? Is Bill Donohue telling us he supports changes to the liturgy?

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5 responses to “Is Bill Donohue a Haagen-Haas Liberal? _The Simpsons_ versus _Sister Act_.

  1. Theodore Seeber

    Am I evil for liking both Sister Act AND the Simpsons? I also liked Nothing Sacred, Boys Town, and Dogma (the last, if for nothing else, as a conversation starter- on how screwed up some people’s theology and “essential beliefs” can become- but it only makes sense if you watch the 4-hour extended director’s cut by pausing the DVD and putting back in the deleted scenes that Hollywood wouldn’t let Kevin Smith show, including a discussion between Bethany and Rufus that really should have been in there because it was Kevin’s main point about the difference between faith and belief- but was left on the cutting room floor because it was long and boring).

    But then again, I’ve got some pretty liberal ideas about economics as well (the priest in Nothing Sacred pointing out that the soup kitchen was full, even though the DOW had hit 10,000)- though in keeping with subsidiarity (in that I think the biggest injustice of capitalism is economy of scale).

    Oh, and in the stroyline, Flanders and the Simpsons are “MethodPresboLutheran” and follow “His Holiness, The Parson”. This despite the three conversions to Buddhism and Catholicism.

  2. To each his own, but do you think I’ve nailed it on Donohue?

    I’ve gotten the impression that Trads don’t like him, but I’ve never made the connection till now.

  3. I should also add that it’s not uncommon to see people at folk masses shaking their hips to the music.

  4. I think this was a fair-minded and interesting take on this contentious issue. Your assessment of the varying degrees of acceptance by tv and print media is very illuminating.

    Truthfully, I never really bought into _The Simpsons_ as Catholic theme, despite that incredibly humorous episode. I think that episode is Catholic and portrays the Church in a positive way, but I never expected much to come out of it — largely because it’s just too hard for anyone or anything to be pro-Catholic in “Hollywood.” I also find _Lost_ to be subversively pro-Catholic, but I don’t think the producers, writers, or actors would ever admit to it. In many ways, it seems like it’s politically incorrect to be pro-Catholic (that is, pro-AUTHENTIC Catholicism) in mainstream media today. As such, I tend to expect the worst from tv and am generally content when a movie or show refrains from expressing outright condemnation or ridicule.

  5. Thanks! There was one time in the early 1990s when the USCCB published a list of the most pro-Catholic shows at the time. I remember _Who’s the Boss_ was on the list. I forget if they included _Homicide: Life on the Streets_, but in my aforementioned letter to Bill Donohue ca. 98/99, I specifically mentioned _Homicide_, which consistently represented both Catholicism and the pro-life viewpoint in a fair manner, particularly in the character of Frank Pembleton, played by Andre Braugher (who after being nearly killed by a stalker, and told by his partner he was lucky to be alive, said, “Luck had nothing to do with it. The Hand of God reached down and graced the fool with wisdom”). One of my favorite quotes (from Det. Lewis on _Homicide_–should I add him to my banner?) is, “You’re born. You die in your bed of old age. Everything else is homicide.”

    One of the makers of _Homicide_ was Paul Attanasio, who currently works on _House, MD_ (I call “House” the “anti-Pembleton” and was very hopeful at the idea of Andre Braugher playing House’s psychiatrist, but that fizzled when Braugher got his series with Ray Romano and Scott Bakula).

    Attanasio used to work for Paulist Media and directed or produced _The Fourth Wiseman_ as well as a bunch of lesser known Paulist productions in the 80s. He also did a famous interview with Mother Teresa, though he criticied her for supporting the Church’s teachings on birth control.

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