Politics & Policy

Anti-Catholicism on the Left

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd
Maureen Dowd disapproves of Paul Ryan’s Catholicism.

Following on my prediction of last week that the selection of Paul Ryan as the Republican vice-presidential candidate would energize what had been shaping up to be an extremely lackluster campaign, the undergrowth has already erupted with Democratic sniper fire in an unholy crusade to portray Paul Ryan as the reincarnation of Torquemada, trying to starve to death the elderly and disadvantaged of America while forcing American women of all ages into chastity belts, and distributing tax rebates to billionaires. Maureen Dowd, the female cardinal archbishop of schismatic America and Democratic sharpshooter-in-chief, with Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Gingrich, and Santorum all notches on her anti-habit, shattered the summer air with her disconcertion. The fierce cuckoo bird that quite often debouches from her forehead on Catholic issues hurtled out, shrieking and snapping, three times in one week.

Ms. Dowd’s opening cannon was that Ryan was a new Dick Cheney. To Democrats, that is like a young Lucifer. In her pyrotechnic horror at the thought that the election might not be just a good Mitt-shoot, for which she had been in disciplined target practice for all six years of his announced campaign for the presidency, with the prize to whoever pours more buckshot into the candidate, and that there might actually be a discussion of issues, she was reduced to citing the hitherto underrecognized political scientist Tom Morello, guitarist in the band Rage Against the Machine. Morello wrote in Rolling Stone that Ryan himself is in a rage against women, immigrants, workers, gays, the poor, and the environment. Rather than write it herself, Ms. Dowd, with uncharacteristically demure reserve, also quoted journeyman liberal political correspondent Howard Fineman (chiefly associated with Newsweek on the left, but ranging all the way to the Washington Post, the New York Times, and The New Republic on the left, before arriving at the Huffington Post, also generally on the left). Fineman wrote that Ryan was a “power-hungry, ladder-climbing trimmer,” a description that could be applied at times to every president except Andrew Johnson, Warren Harding, and Gerald Ford, who won only one presidential election between them.

#ad#Adding her own sage impartiality to these disinterested commentators, she observed that a presidential candidate who can be animated only by an outside source is doomed, and cited Dukakis’s dependence on his wife and Robert Dole’s on C-SPAN. She was foraging desperately to produce that absurd analysis, but felt more sure-footed with Grover Norquist’s comparison of Ryan with Cheney, whom Dowdists regard as a horned, spike-tailed, trident-wielding denizen of Washington’s darkest lagoon. She breathily warned that Ryan (like most members of Congress) supported funding the Afghan and Iraq wars (while opposing most abortion bills (a position, in these particular cases, held by about half the voters). The belligerently lapsed Dowd put Ryan into a distant purgatory because “even Catholic bishops, who had to be dragged toward compassion in the pedophile scandal, were dismayed at how uncompassionate Ryan’s budget was.” Jesuits and nuns were cited in ideological dissent to Ryan, and he was chastised for stipulating in one bill that rape be “forcible.” (As Dowd will recall, Rome is a broad church and contains many liberals and no shortage of outright socialists. It wasn’t conservative economic and social policy that drove her into the thickets of heresy.) My views on this subject are not controversial and would give no offense to any sane feminist, but unless Dowd is going to declare all intercourse criminal, even between fully consenting spouses, there has to be some degree of force, physical or otherwise, to make it rape. 

Dowd allowed only five days before she erupted again. Tarring Ryan with the brush of being less compassionate than child-molesting clergy would not suffice. Because he had voted with Missouri’s Senate candidate Todd Akin on some abortion bills, and despite the fact that Ryan has urged Akin to withdraw from the race, Dowd assimilated him to Akin’s infamous acknowledgment of the notion of “legitimate rape.” This was an outrageous smear even by the most frenzied Dowdist standards.

Republicans should be satisfied that the Ryan nomination snatched from the fantasies and mouths of the Dowdists the prospects of an election that would only be an escalated turkey shoot, while the Obama administration ignored its $5 trillion of new deficits, its unfathomable credulity toward the Iran it attempted to engage, the Russia with which it tried to reset, and the 77 poorer countries that it tried to shower in $100 billion of annual Danegeld to appease our Western consciences for having prosperous economies. The success of the Ryan nomination is capable of almost scientific calibration in the fury and frequency of Dowdist fulminations. Paul Ryan is a traditional Roman Catholic, but to imply that he is morally on a plane with the tiny minority of Catholic clergy guilty of sex offenses, or that he is indulgent of rape, is so scandalous it must be considered aberrant.

#page#Indeed, if it were not the case that what is needed is a deescalation of these wild accusations and smears, I would describe it as insane. It has been a notorious fact for many years that Maureen Dowd was irrationally partisan, and that somewhere in her feminism there was a revulsion against traditional Catholicism that was very searing. Further speculation in such matters would be inappropriate, and anything so heartfelt must be respected, at least in its privacy, if not necessarily in where it ramifies in public-policy advocacy. But for a prominent columnist of the New York Times, a newspaper whose rabid antagonism to the Roman Catholic Church is notorious and caused it at the height of the sex-abuse scandal virtually to offer a free tour of Manhattan capped by dinner at a five-star restaurant to anyone who could remember being looked at raffishly by a member of the Catholic novitiate in Patagonia in the Thirties, to utter such maniacal slurs at a vice-presidential candidate who is a moderate and decent man demonstrates more strikingly than any previous evidence how severely riven philosophically America has become. 

The (“Know-Nothing”) American party, running against the eligibility of Roman Catholics for public office and advocating severe restriction of Roman Catholic immigration, got 22 percent of the vote in 1856. Alleged proximity to the Roman Catholic Church was raised unsuccessfully as an issue against the Democrats (Grover Cleveland) in 1884. There was great hostility to popery and the perceived personal religious habits of Roman Catholics when Alfred E. Smith was the first major-party presidential candidate of that faith, in 1928. These issues were very civilly discussed in the 1960 election, won by John F. Kennedy. Since then, the Democrats have unsuccessfully run Roman Catholic candidates for vice president in 1968, 1972, 1984, and for president in 2004, and elected Vice President Biden in 2008, but religion played no discernible role in those elections, as it didn’t when there was a Jewish nominee for vice president on the Democratic ticket in 2000.

#ad#This year, the administration has overtly attacked the Roman Catholic Church with the attempt to force it to pay for contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing medicine for employees and students of Catholic institutions. And now that the Republicans have nominated a practicing Roman Catholic for national office, there is a systematic effort to detach him from “Democratic” Catholics who profess fidelity but are more liberal in their theological views. I have commented here before on the incivility and illegality of this attempt to alter the correlation of forces between sectarian and secular elements in the public life of the country, and on the wisdom of Governor Romney’s choice of a candidate who will force an adult discussion of the very worrisome condition of the country, fiscally and in several other areas, including education, health care, energy, and justice. 

The gravity of the problem and the poverty of the Democrats’ reply is well illustrated by the hysteria of its official and unofficial campaign against Paul Ryan the man, not the budget-committee chairman. The Republicans have asked New York’s Cardinal Dolan to give the closing prayer at their convention, and the Catholic Church has already started an advertising campaign warning Americans of all faiths (and none) of the authoritarian appetites of this administration. This is a far more serious divide than Maureen Dowd’s infantilist onslaught indicates, and no one can foretell where it will lead or end. Those Americans with any propensity to pray should do so now, for their country.

— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, and, just released, A Matter of Principle. He can be reached at cbletters@gmail.com.

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