"U kidding, Empire State Bldg officials?" Palin Tweeted when she heard of the controversy. "U won't honor Mother Theresa's [sic] compassionate, selfless efforts for humanity, but honor Communist Mao?" (Palin was referring to the decision to light the skyscraper last year to honor the 60th anniversary of China's Communist Revolution.)
To make matters worse, Anthony Malkin
, scion of the real estate clan that owns the Empire State Building, has steadfastly refused to explain the decision in detail, which makes it appear as though he's scorning Mother Teresa in particular -- sticking "his middle finger into the face of Roman Catholics in the United States," as Donohue, the ever-quotable megaphone of the Catholic right, has put it.
"This guy's his own worst enemy. I've never seen anything like it," Donohue told me. "Prudence would dictate that you just slap on the blue and white lights and be done with it."
The iconic 1932 skyscraper was lit in red, white and blue in honor of the 90th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment that granted women the vote. That decision was apparently made after the Mother Teresa dispute erupted.
Donohue had recruited a slate of speakers
, including Jewish representatives and a Hindu and a Muslim, as well as comedian Jackie Mason and Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa. Still, only a few politicians were expected, and those slated to come are mostly local types.
More telling is the fact that only one priest is set to speak at the Catholic League's
rally. Given the sainted place Mother Teresa still occupies in the Catholic imagination, that is a decidedly low-wattage turnout from official Catholicism. Donohue said all the bishops in the area were invited, and all wrote back saying thanks but no thanks, and good luck.
But if bishops think the protest rally is too controversial, what would Mother Teresa say?
A coalition of liberal Catholic groups -- folks Donohue doesn't even consider Catholic -- have sent a letter
to the management of the Empire State Building expressing support for the decision to deny Mother Teresa the lighting honor, and blasting Donohue as a "dishonest" provocateur who is using the issue as a fundraising tool while ignoring Mother Teresa's own habit of self-effacement. The founder of the Missionaries of Charity, who died in 1997, was the only Nobel Prize recipient to forego a celebratory luncheon, and she insisted the money be given to charity instead, for example.
"As those who know her work have attested, Mother Teresa rarely celebrated her birthday herself, and would, we are sure, be appalled to hear that this anniversary of her birth had been used to create such a storm," the protest letter reads. "There are many ways to mark the life of Mother Teresa, and true to form Mr. Donohue has chosen the wrong one."
Donohue, who is nothing if not endearingly frank, admits they make a good argument.
"I don't think it's a great leap to concede the point that given her humbleness, that [Mother Teresa] wouldn't want to be the source of such acclaim and controversy." He said that's why the Catholic League has a place on its website directing visitors how to donate to local convents of the Missionaries of Charity.
Besides, he added, "I don't run a pastoral institute. I run a civil rights organization. I have a different mission."
The uproar grew out of Donohue's unsurprising request in February that the Empire State Building light the top of the tower to honor Mother Teresa's birth. The Empire State Building routinely lights
the upper stories to mark various holidays, troop homecomings, sporting championships, ethnic festivals and so on -- green for St. Patrick's Day, for example, or red, white, and blue for July Fourth and Labor Day. And of course the 60th anniversary of the Chinese revolution.
In May the request was rejected without explanation. Donohue then wrote to Malkin asking him to reconsider or to explain the decision. Donohue received no answer, so he did what he does best -- started a media campaign and a petition.
Donohue said he had 40,000 signatures by June when Malkin -- described by associates as a strong-willed character who was provoked by a challenge from an equally stubborn personality like Bill Donohue -- issued a statement saying, in effect, no dice. "As a privately owned building, ESB [Empire State Building] has a specific policy against any other lighting for religious figures or requests by religions and religious organizations."
The statement added: "The Empire State Building's tower lights recognize key milestones, events, charitable organizations, countries and holidays throughout the world, not political or religion related events."
Donohue and others quickly pointed out that, uh, the skyscraper has in recent years been lighted at the death of New York Cardinal John O'Connor and dimmed for the passing of Pope John Paul II, and that it routinely changes its colors for Christmas, Hanukkah, Eid al Fitr (the Muslim holiday that ends Ramadan) and other religious holidays.
The ESB website then posted an expanded policy
saying that the honors for O'Connor and John Paul happened before 2006, when the Malkin family installed new management at the tower. The new policy said that while the Empire State Building will continue to honor religious holidays, "we do not accommodate requests for religious figures or requests by religions and religious organizations," and "our policies and practices are subject to change in accord with ownership's preferences."
Those preferences apparently don't include honoring Mother Teresa -- though in April 2009 the tower was lighted in blue and pink to honor the centenary of the U.S. mission of the Salesian order of Catholic nuns. Go figure. Calls to Malkin's spokesperson have not been returned, an apparent no comment policy he is maintaining across the board.
Donohue, as usual, is not so reticent. He dismisses charges that he created this controversy to raise money, but at the same time he revels in the money and new members the furor has brought the Catholic League.
"Has it been a bonanza? You bet. Anthony Malkin has been the best the greatest catalyst for new membership for the Catholic League that I've seen in 17 years."
He said fundraising has been "magnificent," though he wouldn't say how much the Mother Teresa controversy has brought in. He did note that staging the event will cost some $15,000, with $6,300 just for the Jumbotron to broadcast video images of the nun, who is on the Vatican fast-track to sainthood. But he expects to recoup that, and then some.
Donohue is also laughing over the fact that while Malkin is avoiding the media on Mother Teresa, he has had to go before the City Council to lobby against plans by a competing real estate agency to erect a tower near the Empire State Building that would be almost as tall and would, in his opinion, ruin views of Manhattan's iconic skyscraper. Of course, the Mother Teresa issue always comes up. But Malkin scoffs at any suggestion that city leaders angry over Malkin's seeming dis to the sainted nun would approve the rival tower to spite him.
"The City Council is the elected representative body of the City of New York and I hardly think that anyone would sit there and think, 'You know what? Let's screw over the people of New York City, the people of the United States and the international iconography of New York City because of one guy who we think is a jerk.' " Malkin said
after a City Council hearing this week. "I'll gladly take the responsibility for that, but I don't think that they would want the responsibility."
Donohue doesn't care whether the other skyscraper is built or not, but he does like the sense of divine justice in it all.
"It's like Mother Teresa is guiding us from the heavens."