Introduction: A People of HopeJOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Perhaps the most encouraging thing about Cardinal Timothy Dolan is that his continual optimism is not founded in Pollyanna-style cheeriness but anchored in a tough, clear-eyed reality.
Historic runs of success always become the stuff of legend. In baseball, Joe DiMaggio's ﬁfty-six-game hitting streak in 1941 still sets the standard for consistent excellence. Basketball fans will always celebrate the eighty-eight-game winning streak the UCLA Bruins put together from 1971 to 1974, as well as the companion ninety-game unblemished mark posted by the Lady Huskies of the University of Connecticut from 2008 to 2010. In the world of entertainment, people still marvel at the thirty-seven-week run of Michael Jackson's Thriller album atop the Billboard charts in 1983 to 1984, or the ﬁfteen consecutive weeks as box ofﬁce champ logged by the blockbuster movie Titanic in 1997.
While there's no exact parallel in the Catholic Church to a winning streak or a long run at the box ofﬁce, perhaps the closest anyone's come in recent memory was the eye-popping run of promotions, honors, papal votes of conﬁdence, and signs of growing celebrity racked up by Archbishop Timothy Michael Dolan of New York from February 2009 to June 2011. Consider the record put together over that span by Dolan, sixty-one years old as of this writing, which, by ecclesiastical standards, is still quite young:
Collectively, this was a remarkable rise to prominence in a short arc of time, especially in an institution typically inclined to think in centuries. By the time the dust had settled, there could be no doubt about Dolan's status. Prior to February 2009, one could have made a compelling argument that Timothy Dolan was a key to the American Catholic future. By the spring of 2011, it had become crystal clear that Dolan is very much the Church's present — Rome's go-to guy in America, the prelate other American bishops look to for leadership, and the new media darling of the Church in the United States. Nor is Dolan quite ﬁnished yet. Sometime in 2012 or 2013, right around the time his term as president of the U.S. bishops' conference is ending, Dolan will likely be inducted into the College of Cardinals, making him "Cardinal Dolan" and thus eligible to vote for the next pope.
One can celebrate Dolan's ascent or lament it — and, to be sure, there are examples of both views, inside and outside the Catholic Church — but at a purely descriptive level, the bottom line seems clear. Anyone who wants a sense of where the Catholic Church in the United States is headed, at least over the next couple of decades or so, must get to know the man who is now its preeminent face and voice. Further, Dolan's extroverted personality and media savvy suggest that he won't just be a behind-the-scenes power broker, but also an important voice of conscience in public debates for some time to come. A bit like Pat Robertson on the right or Jim Wallis on the left, Dolan is fast becoming one of those religious leaders in American life with impact well beyond the boundaries of his own confessional group.
At a time when the public image of Catholic bishops in the United States is arguably at an all-time low as a result of a persistent sexual-abuse crisis, bruising political ﬁghts over health care reform and gay marriage, and a variety of other issues, not to mention the general difficulty of asserting religious authority in a culture profoundly skeptical of such claims, Dolan stands out as a towering exception to the dour stereotype — a truly nice guy who also happens to wear a miter. In general, people tend to be so dazzled the first few times they encounter Dolan that it takes a while for their critical faculties to come back on-line, so they can begin to ask: "But what is this guy really all about?"
In truth, Dolan is far more than simply a charmer. There are at least three deep currents to his personality, which sometimes sit in uneasy tension with one another. First, Dolan tends to be an ideological conservative on matters both secular and sacred, giving him a strong sense of identity and a clear vision for where the Church ought to go. (In his 60 Minutes interview, Dolan said that if "conservative" means "somebody enthusiastically committed to and grateful for the timeless heritage of the Church . . . I'm a conservative, no doubt.") Second, he's a country pastor, whose implied model for Catholic life is his father's backyard BBQ pit in Ballwin, Missouri, where all are welcome and everyone gets along. Third, Dolan is a keen Church historian, having studied under the legendary Monsignor John Tracy Ellis at the Catholic University of America. That training affords him a striking ability to ask probing questions, to stand back, and to size up debates objectively, being fair to all views.
Part of the drama of Tim Dolan — part of what makes him such a fascinating, and at times unpredictable, force in Catholic life — is trying to guess which combination of those instincts will prevail in any given situation.
I was hovering off to the side, trying to watch the scene unfold. At one stage, a member of the temple's governing board pulled me aside for a chat. He asked what I did for a living, and I said I'm a journalist who covers the Catholic Church. That prompted this proud septuagenarian Jew to launch into a semi-tirade about Pope Pius XII, the mess over Pope Benedict's decision to lift the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop, and what he sees as broad rollback on relations with Judaism from the Church. Having worked himself into a lather, he then asked what I was doing in New York, and I explained that I was working on a book about Dolan.
The guy's body language changed in a ﬂash. Conspiratorially, he drew close, smiled, and offered this sotto voce comment:"He's such a magniﬁcent human being . . . If every bishop were like Dolan, even I'd consider joining the Church!"
Just days before the Spoleto event, I had written a piece proclaiming Sandri a leading candidate to be the next pope. Such perceptions are sort of the third rail of Vatican politics — no one, ever, wants to be seen as campaigning for the job. As fate would have it, I ended up seated next to Sandri at lunch, which could have made things a bit awkward. In the course of conversation, however, I mentioned that I was working on a book with Dolan, and the previously restrained Sandri lit up:"Ah, my friend Dolan!" It turns out that Sandri served in the papal embassy in Washington, D.C., during the same period that Dolan worked there in the late eighties and early nineties, and like so many others, Sandri was won over by the up-and-coming young American cleric.
From that moment on, the ice at our table was melted — an instance, perhaps, of Dolan working his charm even at a distance. Among other things, the loosened-up Sandri told a hilarious story of visiting Los Angeles in summer 2009 for a meeting with the Maronite church, which has its origins in Lebanon. When Sandri presented his Vatican passport at LAX, an ofﬁcial of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection service apparently asked him:"Oh, are you part of the Vatican delegation for the Michael Jackson funeral?" Sandri laughingly said he had to explain there was no such animal.
As the lunch broke up, Sandri made a point of asking me to be sure to pass along my regards to his "good friend" in New York.
One night in late 2009, I watched Dolan make one of these visits in afﬂuent Westchester County, where an overﬂow crowd kept him shaking hands and having quick chats almost until midnight. At one point, a woman spent a few minutes talking to Dolan, got tears in her eyes, and then made her way over to a corner of the room to compose herself. I happened to be standing nearby, so she introduced herself and asked if I was from the parish. I explained that I was a journalist working on a book about Dolan, and she said:"I'm a lifelong Catholic, but the last few years it's been so hard . . . with the sex-abuse scandals, with bishops who don't seem to listen, with all of it."
She told me she was basically on the liberal wing of many intra-Catholic debates and couldn't help feeling that the authorities in her own church are trying to squeeze her out because of her views on women, on authority, and on any number of other issues. Her encounter with Dolan, however, had given her a new perspective.
"I came tonight not knowing what to expect," she said, "but this guy . . . I don't know, somehow he just makes me feel good about being Catholic."
To explain what I mean by "the rest of the story," I need to inject myself into the narrative just a bit.
My beat as a journalist is the global Catholic Church, with a special eye on the Vatican and the papacy. In practice, that means a considerable percentage of my time is devoted to stories of crisis, scandal, and controversy, the kinds of things that tend to dominate secular coverage of religion. Aside from the sexual-abuse crisis, I've covered political tensions within Catholicism in the United States over President Barack Obama, health care reform, and abortion; interfaith spats between the Catholic Church and both Muslims and Jews, not to mention other Christians; a global cause célèbre about a decision of Pope Benedict in 2009 to lift the excommunications of four traditionalist Catholic bishops, including one who is a Holocaust-denier; and a whole cluster of eternal Catholic debating points, such as priestly celibacy, contraception, the ordination of women to the priesthood, gay rights and gay marriage, ecclesiastical power and the limits of dissent, and so on.
These are all important stories, and conspiracy theories about how the media is out to get the Catholic Church can't dissolve the legitimate questions they raise. That said, these stories nevertheless leave an obvious question hanging: If this is all there is to the Catholic Church — scandal, controversy, public-relations meltdowns, and bruising political ﬁghts — why would anyone bother being Catholic? Surely there's enough pain and polarization in the outside world, so why would anyone go looking for it in church? If one had to assess Catholic fortunes in America merely on the basis of most media coverage, the surprise would not be that there are an estimated twenty-two million ex-Catholics out there, who taken together would form the second largest religious body in the country. The real surprise would be that anyone has stuck it out at all.
And yet, they come. Hundreds of millions of Catholics across the globe, including an estimated sixteen to twenty million in America, still show up for Mass every Sunday. The numbers of young people opting for the Catholic priesthood and religious life are slowly inching up, even in the United States. Tens of millions of Americans, and hundreds of millions more around the world, still turn to the Church for inspiration, for its sacramental life, for its experience of community and service. In every diocese in America, if you look hard enough, you can ﬁnd parishes that are ﬂourishing — where the music is good and the preaching at least passable, where the parish itself is a beehive of charitable activity and youth ministry and adult faith formation and on and on. That's not to suggest that everything in the Catholic Church is peaches and cream, but there must be something that draws all those folks, despite the truckload of challenges and headaches facing the Church. Given public images of Catholicism, it's often tough for outsiders to imagine what that "something" might be.
What is it? In a word, it's faith. By that, I don't mean an exaggerated religious frenzy that feeds an uncritical view of the Church. Catholics are nothing if not sober realists about the humanity of their institutions and leaders. One of my favorite writers of detective stories, John Sandford, once had his hero, Lucas Davenport, offer this utterly spot-on observation about Catholic psychology:"Catholics don't scream about Jesus. They scream about the bishop."
It's not that Dolan is somehow responsible for the personal decisions of roughly 16 million American Catholics, about one-quarter of the country's total Catholic population of 67 million, to get out of bed on Sunday and go to Mass. Even in New York, where Dolan has a high media proﬁle, probably few Catholics could pick their archbishop out of a line-up. What I mean instead is that Dolan, at his best, incarnates the kind of upbeat, hopeful, afﬁrming Catholicism that's the untold story about the Church today . . . the counterpoint to the Sturm und Drang of crisis and scandal, and at least a partial explanation as to why so many people still turn up at the Church's door. While currents of life are often buried under an avalanche of bad news, Dolan is that rare senior ﬁgure who manages to put a warm human face on the Church's public image. As Monsignor Michael Turek, a Saint Louis pastor and former classmate of Dolan, says: "When you meet Dolan, you don't meet a bishop. You meet a real human being who happens to be a bishop. You're not talking to an ofﬁce or a hat, but a man."
Probably my chief professional frustration is that the Catholic Church I have come to know from the inside — the warmth and laughter one ﬁnds in most Catholic circles, the rich intellectual tradition, the vast body of lore, the incredible range of characters, the deep desire to do good, the abiding faith against all odds that thrives even in a secular world, the ability to go anywhere and feel instantly at home, even the love of good food, good drink, and good company — rarely ﬁnds an echo in my reporting. I wanted to tell the Tim Dolan story in part because it wouldn't leave me with a sense of dissonance between the inner experience of being Catholic, and the public perception of what the Church is all about.
Archbishop Timothy Dolan is Afﬁrmative Orthodoxy on steroids. He is, to adapt the marketing slogan for the sugar and caffeine-rich Jolt Cola, "all the orthodoxy and twice the afﬁrmative!"
Without any doubt, Dolan is "orthodox," so much so that most observers would place him ﬁrmly on the conservative, if not actually neo-conservative, wing of intra-Catholic debates. When the University of Notre Dame invited Obama to deliver its commencement address in 2009 and awarded him an honorary doctorate, Dolan was among those American bishops who complained that the university had compromised its Catholic identity. When the Catholic Health Association came out in March 2010 in favor of Obama's health care reform package, Dolan told me he agreed with the conservative chorus denouncing the association for appearing "soft" on abortion. He's the kind of bishop who will not tolerate dissent from Catholic teaching on the church's payroll, and he openly admits that he has a second-grader's sense of awe and unquestioning loyalty when it comes to the pope. Dolan proudly proclaims that he's a "John Paul II" bishop, as opposed to the more liberal category of "Vatican II" bishop, meaning someone shaped by a reform-oriented and progressive outlook.
Given the persistent divisions in Catholicism, it's no surprise that some quarters in the Church have been cheered by Dolan's neo-conservative outlook and others frightened by it. Yet whatever one makes of it, it's not really his deﬁning trait, in part because it's widely shared among a growing swath of American bishops. What makes Dolan unique is instead his generosity of spirit, a determination to keep lines of communication open, and a deep conviction that most of life's problems can be solved by sitting down with people over a couple of beers and talking things out. If faced with a choice between reconciliation and recrimination, Dolan will almost invariably prefer the former. For example, while he strenuously objected to Notre Dame's handling of the Obama affair and the Catholic Health Association's position on the Obama reform package, he has resisted calls from some quarters to impose sanctions. Instead, he says he wants to sit down and talk to the leaders at both places, arguing that conversation rather than confrontation is generally the right way to deal with disagreements.
Dolan's guiding philosophy is that when people look at the Catholic Church, they should see a happy place. It's his drive to foster relationships and to preserve an "open door" policy, which insulates him from becoming an ideologue and protects his theology from becoming sectarian.
In terms of the Catholic landscape in the early twenty-ﬁrst century, Dolan is a leading force in the "evangelical" movement coursing through the Church. Inspired by Pope John Paul II, Catholic evangelicals are tired of internal debate over traditional markers of Catholic identity such as priestly celibacy or episcopal authority. They take a strong sense of Catholic identity for granted, and are eager to use it as a lever with which to transform the world. Though there's nothing necessarily ideological about the evangelical impulse, it tends to be more congenial to the Catholic right than to the left.
Yet, it's striking that so far into his tenure in New York, whatever criticism Dolan has attracted seems fairly evenly divided between the right and the left. Liberals have objected to some of Dolan's public policy pronouncements, such as a blog post in May 2011 in which Dolan referred to proposals for gay marriage as an instance of "Orwellian social engineering." Yet conservatives have also complained about Dolan's reluctance to bring the hammer down. To date, Dolan has not publicly threatened disciplinary measures against New York governor Andrew Cuomo, a pro-choice and pro-gay marriage Catholic Democrat. Dolan himself said he heard more blowback from conservatives after his election as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, mostly along the lines of how he doesn't walk the talk: "There were some on the right who said Dolan's no more a conservative than anybody else," he said."He talks a good game, but when it comes to the hard choices, he's not going to pull the trigger."
Dolan is that one kid in the American Catholic Church.
That's not just a matter of a velvet glove ﬁtting neatly over an iron ﬁst. Dolan's soft touch is so celebrated that his critics usually feel compelled to begin their indictment there, suggesting that all the schmaltz amounts to a clever way of masking what the man really represents. They say that Dolan is part of a rollback on the reform vision of the Second Vatican Council, someone bent on propping up an authoritarian and ultra-clerical version of the Catholic Church. To those inclined to skepticism, Dolan's effervescence can seem like a Star Trek–esque "cloaking device" for a bare-knuckles strategy, from a hierarchy threatened by loss of power and control. In other words, they warn, beware the real Dolan beneath the kindly, good-humored façade.
Yet the more time one spends with Dolan, the more one begins to suspect that perhaps the façade is the real bishop — in other words, that his love for people and zest for friendship is what's truly fundamental about the man, not a PR device calculated to conceal some other agenda. That's not to say that Dolan can't, or won't, draw lines in the sand when he believes that core matters of Catholic identity are at stake. He's well aware that we live in a deeply secular world in the West, in which powerful pressures, both subtle and overt, seek to blur the counter-cultural message of Catholicism on many fronts. One key to Dolan's character, however, is that changing hearts, not knocking heads, is always his ﬁrst instinct.
The genesis of this book is not that Timothy Dolan is the most compelling Catholic story in America. There are 67 million Catholics in this country and just over 400 bishops, which means that without breaking a sweat, one could ﬁnd plenty of American Catholics who are smarter, holier, even kinder and more loving. The point is rather that those qualities, which are very much part of the contemporary Catholic story, rarely break into public discussions about the Church. Given that they are also very much part of Dolan's own personality, the spotlight he attracts gives them a ﬁghting chance to see the light of day.
Initially, my thought was to approach this project like an extended magazine proﬁle, interviewing people who've known Dolan over the years, including both friends and foes (the latter are more difﬁcult to ﬁnd, but they're out there), reading his works, conducting some interviews with Dolan, and then offering my own analysis and forecasts. The more I thought about it, however, the more it seemed that not only has that been done before, but it's not the most informative approach. Inevitably, such a book would be more about me, how I see the state of the Church and Dolan's role in it, than it would be about the man himself. To understand where Dolan wants to take the Church, what's really necessary is to get inside his head and then let him speak for himself.
The solution I settled upon was to model this book after one of the more famous contributions to Catholic literature in the last quarter-century, a book called The Ratzinger Report (ﬁrst published in Italian as Rapporto sulla fede in 1984). It was a conversation between a prominent Italian Catholic journalist,Vittorio Messori, and then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the man who is today Pope Benedict XVI. In many ways, it was the book that made Ratzinger a star. Prior to 1984, his role as the chief of the Vatican's doctrinal ofﬁce made him a known quantity among Catholic insiders, but The Ratzinger Report introduced him to the wider world. Messori ran Ratzinger through the gauntlet of all the controversies swirling in the Catholic Church at the time, from women priests to liberation theology in Latin America, and Ratzinger delivered the trenchant, crystal clear defense of orthodoxy that has long been his trademark. The book fell upon the world like a thunderbolt, because it offered the clearest possible evidence that the winds in Rome had shifted — a period of reform and introspection had closed and a newly assertive and muscular defense of the faith had begun. The genius of The Ratzinger Report was that it allowed Ratzinger, in his own words, to draw a set of lines in the sand that in many ways framed Catholic debate for the next quarter-century.
By no means am I predicting that this book will resemble The Ratzinger Report in the sense of propelling its subject to the papacy, and Lord knows that Dolan cringes at even the hint of such a thought . . . though in the deeply improbable event that it should happen, I'd be thrilled to collect the royalties. Instead, I adopted the Messori model of setting the scene, framing the questions, and then allowing Dolan largely to speak for himself. This is really a book "with" Dolan, rather than a book "about" him, which is probably the best way to catch a glimpse of what his ascent augurs for the Church.
Dolan agreed to the format, and over the course of late 2009 and on different occasions in 2010 and 2011 he agreed to sit down for several hours of interviews spread over the course of two days. All together, we spent about thirty hours in formal on-the-record conversation, with several dozen more hours of me tagging along behind Dolan at various events, riding with him in the archbishop's minivan on the way to and from various appointments, and sitting around in his study in the residence at St. Patrick's Cathedral late into the night. I've taken those sprawling, unsystematic conversations and organized them into three basic categories: a brief look at Dolan's biography and its inﬂuence on who he is today; a review of all the hot-button debates about Catholicism, and how Dolan thinks about them; and a consideration of the spiritual essentials of Catholic life, including Dolan's reﬂections on how Catholicism can best offer a message of hope to the modern world.
There are a few revelations scattered throughout, such as Dolan's close friendship with a priest who died of AIDS in the mid-1980s and the impact of that experience on his thinking about the importance of compassion in relating to people who fall short of the ideals of Catholic morality. Dolan also talks candidly about his relationship with two men he's replaced over the course of his career, who for different reasons are polarizing ﬁgures: Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee and Cardinal Edward Egan of New York. At various points, Dolan reveals a few behind-the-scenes details of interactions over the years among the American bishops, or between American bishops and the Vatican, and he also talks about his encounters with U.S. president Barack Obama (whom he admires for both his civility and his political shrewdness). For the most part, however, our conversations were not about a search for "scoops," but rather an exploration of Dolan's mind.
Here's one other key difference between this book and The Ratzinger Report: While the essence of Messori's book may have been to draw lines in the sand, the primary thrust this time around is to try to explain what Catholicism is for rather than what it's against. In other words, the agenda here is to take a trip in Affirmative Orthodoxy with the Catholic leader in America who best seems to embody its spirit. At the end, one can agree or disagree with Dolan's outlook, but one may at least be better equipped to understand why thoughtful modern women and men might still believe there's something worth considering in the Catholic message.
As Dolan himself notes in our interviews, he's basically beyond the point at which careerist ambitions would make much sense. He's already the archbishop of New York, so the only real higher rung left on the career ladder is the papacy — the longest of long shots, and in any event, the trash heaps of church history are littered with the carcasses of journalists who have tried to predict the next pope. A much safer forecast is that whatever the future may have in store for Dolan — whether he stays in New York until he dies, whether he's eventually called to Rome to work in a senior Vatican post, or something else entirely — he will be a force in the Catholic Church both nationally and internationally, and it's well worth trying to discern what that might mean.
John L. Allen Jr. "Introduction." from A People of Hope: Archbishop Timothy Dolan in Conversation with John L. Allen Jr. (New York: Image Books, 2011).
Excerpted by permission of Image, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. Introduction copyright
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Copyright © 2011 John L. Allen
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