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Whenever you see Bill Donohue’s name you can be sure that whatever follows is a vigorous defense of Roman Catholicism –  and his new work, “Why Catholicism Matters” is true to form.   But Catholics would be ill-advised to use Donohue’s presentation as part of their own defense simply because it is so poor.  Donohue lets his Catholic friends down by engaging in what can only be described as intellectual sleight-of-hand and by misrepresenting the history and teachings of his denomination in ways that would make any honest scholar blush.

Donohue begins his work by crediting the Catholic Church with everything from creating the university, art, architecture and music.  He says that “were it not for several popes who intervened against those who sought to deny academic freedom, the course of learning in the time to come would have been stifled.” (Page 5)  But what he is apparently unaware of is that these universities effectively replaced the local bishops as the source of doctrine – and the concept of the bishop is central to Catholicism.    But a true scholar has this to say of the effect of the creation of the university upon society and the Church:

“In the thirteenth century the schoolman replaced the bishop and the abbot as the typical exponent of doctrine…What had happened was that the masters had emerged alongside the bishops and the abbots as formative influences in the life of the church.  As a source of doctrine, they had indeed superseded them.”  (Professor Colin Ferguson, “The Papal Monarchy:  The Western Church from 1050 to 1250”; Oxford, 1989.  p. 507)

So Donohue is unwilling or unable to interact with this fact – that the university whose creation he credits to the Church of Rome became an extra-ecclesial body which replaced the bishops as a source of doctrine.  Given Rome’s doctrine of the Magisterium this would seem then to be not such a good thing!

And what, exactly, was taught in these universities?  According to Donohue, “Students learned from Aristotle and Cicero, drawing on their philosophical genius as bedrock for Christian thought.” (p. 5).   So Donohue’s idea of the Catholic contribution to education is that Rome built the universities, not on Christian thinkers or the teachings of Christ, but on two pagans who never even heard of Jesus Christ.
Today’s leading scholar of the Reformation, Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch shows how deadly this conflation of paganism and Christianity actually is as it was applied as dogma by the Catholic Church:

“From the fourteenth century, most philosophers and theologians, particularly in Northern Europe, did not in fact believe this [i.e. the doctrine of transubstantiation]  They were nominalists who rejected Aristotle’s categories…it [transubstantiation] ought not be approached through the Thomist paths of reason, but most be accepted as  a matter of faith…Those who remained in the Roman obedience generally did this; but in sixteenth-century Europe, thousands of Protestants were burnt at the stake for denying an idea of Aristotle, who had never heard of Jesus Christ.”  (Diarmaid MacCulloch.  “The Reformation.”  Penguin Books, New York; 2003.  p. 26)

But Donohue’s admiration for both Aristotle and Aquinas puts him in a very difficult spot later in his book.  On page 84 he makes this unsupportable declaration: “The Catholic Church has never had to switch gears; it has never been anything but pro-life.”  (And by pro-life he means the belief that life begins at conception.)  But neither Aristotle nor Aquinas was pro-life in that sense.  Aristotle taught a doctrine of “delayed ensoulment” and Aquinas, because he was an Aristotelian, taught a similar doctrine.   Add to this the fact that as a “Doctor of the Church” the works of Aquinas have been declared free from defect or error by Rome.  Does Mr. Donohue have the gravitas to supplant those credentials or is he just wrong?

In addition to these rather egregious philosophical and theological errors, Mr. Donohue makes an excessive number of historical mistakes such that they cannot all be dealt with here.  The most offensive is his attempt to piggy-back Catholicism on the backs of America’s founding when this country was clearly an escape from the Catholic totalitarian states of Europe.  Where he does note that less than 1% of the colonists at the time of our founding were Roman Catholics he fails to deal with the fact that America’s Founders were opposed to Catholicism precisely because it historically led to despotism and not the republican principles the Founders espoused.

Dr. Brion McLanahan documents the sentiments of the Founders this way:

“Amos Singletary said in the Massachusetts Ratifying Convention that he was troubled that “there was no provision that men in power should have any religion; and though he hoped to see Christians, yet by the Constitution, a Papist, or an Infidel, was as eligible as they . . . in this instance, we were giving great power to we know not whom.”  (The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution. Regnery Publishing, 2012.  Kindle Location 2700-2703)

The Founding Fathers were overwhelmingly Calvinist so the idea that Roman Catholicism had a role in America’s founding is simply untenable.

But the error that is by far the most blatant and deserves to be discredited in the most forceful terms is Donohue’s treatment of Nazism.

Mr. Donohue takes credit for the Catholic Church in the verdicts rendered at the Nuremberg trial of the Nazis:  “Thus the Catholic natural law tradition was vindicated.” (p. 50).  What Donohue obfuscates or ignores was that the Nazis WERE Catholics.  Hitler himself came from Catholic parents and was baptized and confirmed in the Roman communion.  And, likewise his most influential lieutenants!  Later in the text, Donohue goes completely off the reservation when he describes Hitler as an “atheist”.  Apparently it’s an inconvenient truth that once someone is baptized into the Catholic faith, unless they make a specific request outlined in the Canon Law to be witnessed by two deacons, they are forever a Catholic.  Hitler was a Catholic – period.

But more damning for Mr. Donohue and his cause is the influence that Catholicism had on Hitler and the Nazis.  The question has to be asked, where did the Nazis get the idea to put Jews in “ghettos” and concentration camps?  And the only answer is that they got that idea from the Roman Catholic Church.  We now know with absolute certainty that the Church of Rome imprisoned Jews in ghettos throughout the Papal States for 700 years!  That is exactly where Hitler got the idea for the camps!  And the follow-on question, which is equally as tantalizing – is why were ALL the Nazi death camps in Poland the only European country not touched by the Reformation and whose population is entirely Catholic??

And Donohue’s abuse of the record with regard to Nazism leads inevitably to his errant, one-sided defense of Pius XII.  What must always be kept in mind in this discussion is that Pius XII (as Eugenio Pacelli) negotiated the Reichskonkordat with the Nazi’s that gave them their initial prestige.  This was a Catholic-to-Catholic negotiation because Pacelli conducted his negotiations with Franz von Papen who Hitler’s biographer, Ian Kershaw described as “an urbane and well­connected member of the Catholic nobility.” (Kershaw, Ian. Hitler: a biography. London:  W. W. Norton & Company, Ltd., 2008.  P. 230.  The effect of this concordat was to silence the German episcopacy and forbid it to publicly comment on politics.  So Pacelli (later Pius XII) was the one who lent the prestige of the Vatican to the young Nazis which propelled them to power. To suggest that as pope, Pius would go back on his previous commitments leads to the conclusion that he was not a man of his word, or worse.

A couple of the more humorous errors you can look for in this book are that Gregory of Nyssa was the pope (he was not) and that Galileo was an “astrologer”.   (That last one provided a much needed laugh for which I am grateful!)

If Catholicism needs a defense, this is not it.  And if Catholicism needs a defender Donohue is not him.  If you are interested in defending the Catholic Church, I beg you not to use any information in this book.  You will only serve to embarrass yourself and hurt the cause.

To God alone be the glory!

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