Religious squabbles generate much heat, little light

By Gene Lyons

People act oddly during times of political uncertainty. Even so, I’ve been surprised lately to find myself agreeing with the perennially aggrieved William A. Donohue. For the uninitiated, Donohue serves as president, CEO and chief controversialist of “The Catholic League,” a laymen’s organization devoted to the dubious premise that bias against Roman Catholics is “more virulent and more pervasive than ever before in American history.”

He’s always on television, and he’s almost always furious.

Actually, overt religious bigotry has become so rare as to be almost quaint in American life. That’s not to say the Catholic League’s brand of pre-Vatican II moral and theological conservatism is regnant everywhere – particularly not among Catholics. Even so, Donohue’s recently had a couple of real humdingers to wax apoplectic about.

First came Sally Quinn, the famous Georgetown hostess and founding editor of the Washington Post-Newsweek Web site “On Faith.” Quinn’s marriage to legendary Post editor Ben Bradlee – the story of their adulterous courtship is narrated in his book “A Good Life” – has made her a Washington social arbiter.

Attending Tim Russert’s funeral Mass, Quinn decided to receive communion, then wrote about it. “Oddly,” she reported, “I had a slightly nauseated sensation after I took it, knowing that in some way it represented the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Last Wednesday I was determined to take it for Tim, transubstantiation notwithstanding. I’m so glad I did.”

Has “On Faith” no adult editors to inform Quinn that Catholic communion isn’t for spiritual tourists? For once, Donohue got it right: “Just reading what Sally Quinn said is enough to give any Christian, especially Catholics, more than a ‘slightly nauseating sensation.’ ... Moreover, Quinn’s statement not only reeks of narcissism, it shows a profound disrespect for Catholics and the beliefs they hold dear.”

Elsewhere, a hubbub broke out at the University of Central Florida over a student who absconded from Mass with a consecrated communion wafer, either to exhibit it to his roommate or protest student funds supporting religious organizations on campus. The young man gave conflicting explanations to reporters. Church officials called his actions disruptive and disrespectful. He, in turn, complained that a woman attempted to wrestle the purloined Eucharist from his hand, and demanded a meeting with the bishop regarding church policy on physical force.

The word “hostage” appeared in local news accounts, along with overheated rhetoric about “hate crimes.” Certainly “sacrilege” would apply. A week later, after allegedly receiving unconfirmed death threats, the student returned the consecrated wafer to church officials in a Ziploc bag. Everybody involved promised to pray for everybody else.

There this sorrowful little farce ought to have ended. Alas, the controversy caught the eye of P.Z. Myers, a University of Minnesota biology professor well known as the proprietor of “Pharyngula,” a Web site mainly devoted to explaining and defending evolutionary theory against creationist nonsense. Alas, Myers also turns out to be a militant atheist. Infuriated by news accounts of the Florida debacle, he posted an essay titled “It’s a Frackin’ Cracker.”

Denouncing “crazy Christian fanatics” filled with “Dark Age superstition and malice” threatening to kill a young man over a “cracker,” Myers asked readers to “score me some consecrated communion wafers.”

“I’ll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare,” he vowed. “I won’t be tempted to hold (the Eucharist) hostage ... but will instead treat it with profound disrespect and heinous cracker abuse, all photographed and presented here on the Web.”

In short, the learned Myers made Quinn look like a scholar of comparative religion, and the young fool in Florida a diplomat. He proposed to defend reason and the scientific worldview by means of a juvenile publicity stunt. This, in turn, baited the Catholic League’s Donohue into the fray, no doubt precisely as the professor intended.

Donohue issued a comparatively restrained statement citing the University of Minnesota’s own “Code of Conduct,” calling upon faculty and staff to be “respectful, fair and civil” in their dealings with others. He asked the school to remove a link to “Pharyngula” from the university Web site and urged Catholic League supporters to send e-mails and letters of protest to its president.

Myers, a tenured associate professor, said he’d received several death threats along with letters demanding his firing. He characterized the Catholic League’s efforts as an “inquisition.” Well, boo-hoo-hoo. Liberal Web sites sprung reflexively into action, generating letters in Myers’ defense. A typical one called the professor a “thoughtful human being under attack by a horde of hypocritical, anti-intellectual troglodytes for merely pointing out the absurdity of a group of superstitious miscreants.”

Hey, does that guy know some big words or what?

Look, as I find it necessary to remind somebody about once a month, threatening people you don’t like is a felony. Pointing out that Myers is acting like an adolescent jerk, however, is not.

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at

Copyright 2008, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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