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Not So Docile Sheep

by Christopher Hitchens


The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 20, Number 3.


In late March, I accepted a challenge from William Donohue of the Catholic League to debate him in New York. The motion before the audience, which gathered in the Lincoln Hall of the Union League Club, was that "The American Intellectual Elite is Hostile to Religion in General and to the Catholic Church in Particular." Mr. Donohue's task was the more difficult one, since it was as easy for me to maintain that the proposition was untrue as it was to argue that it would be nice if it were true.

The event took place in the week of the pope's very generalized and vague "apologies" for the innumerable past sins of the Church and was sponsored by the Catholic group Christe Fidelis, which hopes to mount further events "in the spirit of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc." It taught me a good deal about the different strands of belief that secularists might profit from distinguishing.

There was nothing to learn from Donohue himself. He is a bilious thug in the tradition of Father Coughlin and Joseph McCarthy; you may have seen him making a spectacle of himself outside the Brooklyn Museum of Art and other sites of blasphemy and profanity. In the course of the debate, he delivered himself of the view that all critics of the Church are bigots, that the press consistently downplays anti-Catholic outrages, and that Hollywood and the networks say things about priests that they would never dare say about rabbis or imams. He also accused me of being a sympathizer of fascism and anti-Semitism (this was perhaps his pre-emptive strike in defense of Pope Pius XII) and-oddly for an evening dedicated to Chesterton and Belloc-of being an agent of English cultural poison. It was a real whiff of old-style Francoism, rather as I imagine it would be to argue with Patrick Buchanan when he was on acid.

However, the largely Catholic crowd evidently didn't sympathize with this stuff, and the National Review-co-sponsor of the evening-reported rather generously that I had won the debate. (I don't know if they mean I also won the argument.) Donohue got no applause for his amazing attack on evolution and only a muted response for his foul remarks about AIDS victims. I was jeered by a section of the audience when I said that homosexuality was a form of love as well as a form of sex, but when I repeated it for emphasis the jeering diminished. Afterwards, I was kept around for a long time by friendly and courteous and intelligent questions and discussion, and not a few apologies (which I didn't need, as I have a thick skin and a broad back).

What emerges in these confrontations is always the same. When people hear their own faith being articulated by someone who crudely and literally believes it, they become uneasy. How many of that audience were really convinced that the Roman Church is the exclusive route to salvation, despite being so horribly persecuted in the United States? How many really believe that the current search for a miracle, attributable to the intercession of Mother Teresa on her fast-track to sainthood, will be both credible and successful? This is why His Holiness's campaign of contrition is always so carefully phrased, and the blame so widely distributed. One more step of logic or reason, and the mystique of the Church is dispelled. It ceases to be divinely ordained and becomes just another human and political institution. I suspect that this realization is only just buried in the minds of many ostensible believers.

I was reminded also of another less encouraging factor. Increasingly, demagogues like Donohue speak of the Catholic "community." Thus, those who criticize the fantastic edicts and dogmas of the Vatican can be accused, not of confronting the Church, but of insulting or offending its congregation. Since a plurality of Catholics in America are probably recent immigrants from poor and misgoverned countries, this offers a potential marriage between clerical self-pity, identity politics, and political correctness. (Donohue himself talks as if the Irish potato famine was still raging.) Some years ago, after the New York Times had asked why my documentary on Mother Teresa could not be shown on American television, I had an embarrassed meeting at the offices of a certain network. The film would not be shown, I was told, because there were many Jews in senior positions at the network, and it would not be prudent to invite the accusation that they put out anti-Catholic propaganda. Thus "sensitivity" anticipated the work of bigotry. (And, indeed, I can just imagine what Donohue would have said; only he wasn't put to the trouble.) 

The Bible, of course, teaches Christians that they must expect to be reviled and derided for what they believe, and should welcome the abuse and scorn as part of the price of their faith. While in the United States "In God We Trust" is on the money, "Under God" has been shoehorned into the Pledge of Allegiance, the president- any president-is never happier than at the "National Prayer Breakfast," the pope is invariably received as a moral potentate, and a Catholic chaplain has been appointed to Congress. This makes it doubly unattractive that certain pious bigmouths should attempt to have it both ways-seeking the status of victim while sharing fully in every tax-break for religion and seeking every imaginable alliance with earthly and secular power. It's important, therefore, that skeptical and rationalist critics look carefully and considerately for the corresponding pulse of doubt among the faithful, and not make the task of the self-pity faction any easier. 


Christopher Hitchens is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, a columnist for the Nation, and a professor of Liberal Studies at the New School for Social Research.


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