Spring 2009, Vol. 12, No. 1

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Articles in this issue:

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
Our Excellent ARIS Adventure

The Madoff Disgrace

Keeping the Faith-Based

Dolan Does Gotham

No Friends on the Right

A Buddhist Bishop in the UP

Breaking Up Is Hard to Adjudicate

Praise God and Pass the Diapers

Haggard Agonistes


New books


Dolan Does Gotham
by Steven M. Avella



It took Timothy Dolan two separate sets of taps from what appeared to be a carpet tacking hammer for the massive bronze doors of St. Patrick’s to open. The small tinny sound, barely amplified inside by a microphone, evoked mirth and good-natured applause and did not provide the desired sound-effects for the new archbishop’s maiden sermon (“Open the Door”).

But no matter. The smiling, sweating Dolan was given entrance and was presented with a crucifix, which he kissed and embraced. He stood by restlessly as his predecessor, Cardinal Edward Egan, spoke words of welcome followed by a similar message delivered in the lovely Italo-English of Apostolic Nuncio Pietro Sambi.

As the choir intoned Ecce Sacerdos Magnus (“Behold the Great Priest”), Dolan moved like a battleship up the aisle of St. Patrick’s, sprinkling holy water, bestowing smiles and waves, and gesturing with his hands in a manner reminiscent of popes Paul VI and John Paul II. The cathedral erupted in applause for the first of several times as he made his way to the sanctuary and eventually was escorted to the imposing cathedra, still positioned on the “gospel side” of the altar.

Many may look back on this evening event as a microcosm of Dolan’s tenure. The atmosphere was “formal informality”: mitered heads, cardinaltial scarlet, hovering monsignori, priests in Roman cassocks—all excessively serious and solemn but lightened by the irrepressible archbishop’s colloquial comments, wise-guy asides, toothy grins, and blown kisses.

Watching him take possession of his cathedral church, it was apparent that St. Patrick’s neo-gothic grandeur more befits the tastes and theology of Timothy Dolan than the modernistically decorated cathedral of Milwaukee ever did. Vaulted arches, elegant bronze reliefs, devotional statuary, and the hanging galeros (broad-brimmed cardinal hats) of his predecessors all seemed to complement rather than shrink this very large man who now calls the Archdiocese of New York his new family.

Dolan is tall and heavy—the latter a matter of concern to him when he first came to Milwaukee in 2002 and for a time remedied by an Atkins-type diet. Self-deprecating jokes about weight are now part of his standard repertoire. (“Thanks for opening the door wide enough even for me to get in,” he quipped at Vespers.) As has been pointed out over and over again by various commentators (myself included), his high-voltage gregariousness will be a refreshing contrast to his predecessor’s reserve and formality.

To say that New York welcomed him with open arms is an understatement. For a couple of days, the Daily News functioned as archdiocesan newspaper, featuring stories and columns with headlines that read: “WITH A SIMPLE KNOCK, HE’S JOINED FAMILY”; “AT ST. PAT’S, IT WAS ONE BIG EMBRACE”; “THE ‘HAPPY BISHOP’ Dolan vows to bring joy and laughter as he takes over New York Archdiocese”; and “PROUD MOM SAYS SPARK ‘IS IN HIM.’”

“The conviction grows that Archbishop Timothy Dolan will be a blessing for the soul of New York,” the long-time paper of the city’s Catholic working class opined April 15. “This is a priest who conveys that belief is a matter of inspiration rather than prescription, a thing of joy rather than dour obligation. May the feeling be infectious to all, Catholic and not.”

Not to be outdone, Dolan’s own Daily News op-ed the same day proclaimed, “It’s a blessing to be here: Why I’m proud to lead the wonderful Archdiocese of New York.”

Egan is not a tough act to follow, although Dolan is no doubt extremely grateful for some of the heavy lifting the cardinal did with archdiocesan finances and personnel issues. He will nonetheless enjoy being the “Un-Egan” and New York will love him for it. David Letterman will see a spike in his ratings when he schedules the new prelate for a few minutes of banter and fun.

The new archbishop is the product of a typical middle class Catholic family in Missouri, trained by Catholic schools and part of a generation of baby boomers who identified their priestly vocations very early in life. (He is what they call a “lifer.”) Like Egan, he is a Roman through and through, and his ascent to New York really began when he was selected to go to Rome for studies as a seminarian in the 1970s.

From 1983 to 1987 he worked as an auditor (staffer) at the Apostolic Delegation—raised to the status of a Nunciature (an ambassadorial post) in January 1984 under Archbishop (later Cardinal) Pio Laghi. A faithful foot-solder of Pope John Paul II’s restorationist agenda, Laghi sought to rein in the “disobedient” American church by systematically appointing more “orthodox” and administrative-type bishops to American dioceses—canonists, chancery staffers, even the occasional church historian.

By contrast with the “pastoral” bishops appointed by his predecessor, Belgian Archbishop Jean Jadot, Laghi’s appointees brought reputations for running tight ships, bolstering priestly vocations, and adhering tightly to Roman lines on birth control, abortion, homosexuality, and women’s ordination—all flash points of controversy.

Dolan’s next task for Rome came in 1994, when he was asked to serve as rector of the North American College in Rome (NAC). He increased the college’s enrollment by assuring nervous and sometimes disgruntled bishops (many of whom were graduates) that a steady, orthodox hand was at the tiller. Visiting bishops often spent time with the gregarious rector, who was then as he is now, unfailingly hospitable and kind. He strengthened his Roman connections and sharpened his understanding of the politics and requirements of church administration.

Dolan loved Italy (especially Italian food) and his understanding of Roman ways meshed well with his personal skills and political savvy. He is a Midwesterner with a keen sense of the idioms of his own country and an innate grasp of what appeals to many American Catholics: informality of style, self-deprecating humor, and a common touch.

Interspersed with his Roman years were returns to his native St. Louis. Ordained to the priesthood in 1976, he worked first as a parish priest until he was selected for seminary work. In 1979, he was sent to The Catholic University of America, where he studied for a degree in church history.

The field of American Catholic history was already undergoing a great deal of change as social and cultural historians pushed for more history “from the bottom up” and pioneered studies in a host of new areas. But Dolan—who had come under the influence of the dean of American Catholic history, Msgr. John Tracy Ellis—chose to work from the top down.

He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the life of Archbishop Edwin Vincent O’Hara, who—every bit as energetic as his biographer—created the Catholic Rural Life Movement, promoted the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD), encouraged American devotion to Pope Pius X, and played a role in the formation of the Catholic Biblical Association. Dolan’s revised doctoral dissertation, Some Seed Fell on Good Ground (1992), was published by the Catholic University of America Press and is his only scholarly publication.

Church history, however, was only a way station on a relatively traditional apprenticeship in church administration that marked him for higher office. In this, Dolan was well served by his Roman education and his work as a go-to man for various St. Louis hierarchs, including the now-powerful Archbishop (later Cardinal) Justin Rigali.

He steered clear of current theological controversies, never letting himself be drawn into questioning the Roman line on anything that mattered. He knew the importance of bella figura—the good image. And he took pains to never appear openly ambitious, always declaring that his current assignment was the best and that he intended to stay forever. Yet even as he met the demands of the moment with gusto and sincerity, it was clear that he had his cap set for greener pastures than Milwaukee.

He traveled around the United States and overseas, giving retreats and talks as an episcopal representative of the Catholic Relief Services. His service in the Nunciature, Rome, Catholic University, and Milwaukee made him lots of friends around the country. Even before New York catapulted him onto an international stage, he was one of the best known clerics in America.

In June 2002, after serving less than one year as an auxiliary bishop of St. Louis under Rigali, he was tapped to succeed Rembert G. Weakland as Milwaukee’s tenth archbishop. This was an emergency appointment that came a month after Weakland (who had already tendered his resignation upon turning 75) had been outed in a case of “inappropriate conduct” with a young man. The ensuing press frenzy and the collapse of confidence among clergy and staff in Milwaukee meant a successor had to be chosen quickly—and Dolan was the man.

Even before Dolan formally took over, he made a spectacular appearance at a Mass celebrated at Irish Fest—one of Milwaukee’s summer-long lakefront ethnic festivals. After his August 28 installation, he settled comfortably into his house on the seminary grounds and began to make the rounds of parishes, high schools, religious houses, and other public venues, throwing out quips and pledging his allegiance to Milwaukee’s local culture of brats, beer, and the Brewers. Of his tenure in Milwaukee, several things can be observed.

Despite the frame put on the archdiocese as a hotbed of clerical dissent and unorthodoxy (fanned in part by the conservative Catholic press and some disgruntled local clergy and laity), Dolan discovered that his new home was heavily invested in the reforms of Vatican II. It had an influential local seminary and several Catholic institutions of higher learning that anchored its theological and liturgical traditions.

But the tenor and direction of the city’s ecclesial life was virtually indistinguishable from other Midwestern dioceses: large parishes, a strong network of Catholic institutions (schools, hospitals, etc.), and a fairly active and generous laity. Milwaukee’s priests are even today a coherent and hard-working group of men—most of them hailing from the neighborhoods and parishes of the ten-county archdiocese. Few are the dissidents portrayed by outsiders—in fact extremism of the left or the right really doesn’t fly in the Milwaukee presbyterate.

Weakland, though demonized as an out-of-control liberal, was himself a hard-working and intellectually gifted man who, like Dolan, once had the promise of ecclesiastical advance as long as the patronage of Paul VI and Jadot held. Like many of his contemporaries, he expanded the circles of archdiocesan consultation to include women and minorities. He put a lot of emphasis on process—meetings, goal setting, mission statements—and he held a synod.

By contrast, Dolan was never big on “process,” nor was administration his strong suit. But he later admitted that he failed to find the archdiocese in the kind of disarray that some had reported. To the consternation of some, Dolan did not clear out the Weakland holdovers, but instead allowed natural attrition as well as needed budget cuts to do the work of changing the existing bureaucracy.

He did, however, change substantially the program of priestly formation at St. Francis Seminary. Using the high costs of the 150-year old seminary as his pretext, he shut down the seminary’s academic program, transferred most of the clerical students to nearby Sacred Heart School of Theology (a national seminary for second-career vocations run by the Sacred Heart priests), and retained the venerable St. Francis building as a center for priestly formation.

Pressing hard for new vocations, Dolan sent college seminarians to Chicago’s seminary program, and dispatched a number of Milwaukee students to Rome, Louvain, and Theological College in D.C. And he appointed a bright young rector who restored a sense of clerical decorum to St. Francis. Milwaukee will ordain six men this year—one of the largest classes in a long time. But even these numbers will not be enough to meet the steady decline of active priests for Milwaukee parishes.

Dolan also spent time trying to know the clergy and religious of the archdiocese. His appearances at confirmations, blessings, and dedications became more and more popular. He cultivated the local media, perhaps with some coaching from his brother Bob, who was a radio personality in Milwaukee.

He showed himself adept at handling questions—often parrying thrusts with humor followed by a fairly serious statement. He made a strong point of transparency in areas where the church was weakest, such as its handling of the sex abuse crisis. He publicized the names of proven offenders—something not all dioceses have done.

His conservative ideological preferences were reflected in his choice of speakers for a lecture series he created to celebrate his reception of the pallium (the white lamb’s wool band worn around the collar of a metropolitan archbishop) in 2003. The Pallium Lecture series, which became dependent on a grant from the right-wing Bradley Foundation, featured prominent “theocon” speakers such as authors Michael Novak, his old friend George Weigel, and the late Lutheran pastor-turned-Catholic priest Richard John Neuhaus. It also brought to Milwaukee the press’s favorite Vaticanologist John Allen (one of those who predicted as early as 2006 that Dolan would go to New York) and Cardinal Francis George of Chicago.

On the question of giving communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians, Dolan kept a respectable silence and preferred the less confrontational approach. There were no warnings delivered to pro-choice Catholics in high places, including Wisconsin governor James Doyle and Milwaukee mayor Thomas Barrett.

Judging from the warm City Hall sendoff he got before he left, Dolan apparently made many friends in local government. Still, the impact of the Catholic church on Milwaukee’s public life seems fairly minimal. Gang violence, racial tensions, and one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world are to be found in Milwaukee today.

Within the church, Dolan’s closest associates appeared to be fairly conservative young priests who shared his politics, loyalty to Rome, and affable style. He relished the occasional clerical confab—sitting around with the “guys,” smoking cigars, and holding forth on matters great and small.

Dolan’s concern for priests extended not only to the seminarians whom he took under his wing (and to Rome), but also to the rank-and-file clergy whom he invited to his home for lunch and conversation and even the sharing of holidays. Priests occasionally picked up their phones on their birthdays or anniversaries of ordination to hear, “Timothy Dolan here...” The conversations, usually brief and pleasant, created a lot of good will and even cracked some of Milwaukee’s toughest clerical nuts.

Dolan handled potentially dissident clergy by not over-reacting to apparent challenges to his authority. When 165 priests signed a petition asking for a discussion of mandatory celibacy, he merely restated the official discipline of the church and let it go at that. The petition, submitted to Catholic Bishops Council president Wilton Gregory, was ceremoniously ignored and went nowhere. A local Priest Alliance, derisively termed a “Priest’s Union” (as though that was some sort of insult), flourished for a time, but rarely merited Dolan’s attention or much press coverage.

In all, the priests of Milwaukee had little to complain about under Dolan. He let them alone, valued their service, and went out of his way to be friendly and helpful. Even when he had to administer bad news or mild discipline, it was always in a “C’mon fellas...” tone that offended no one and avoided needless confrontations.

Although it was apparent, especially at the end of his term in Milwaukee, who his favorites were, being in or out in “Dolan world” did not mean unequal treatment. He was kind and complimentary to everyone and tremendously compassionate toward priests who had lost their way. No one feared him.

“In many ways,” wrote former Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel religion editor Ernst-Ulrich Franzen February 24, “he was a perfect match for Milwaukee: self-effacing, friendly, funny—a guy you wouldn’t mind sharing a beer with, yet sympathetic and caring as a parish priest should be and still a man with clear intellectual depth.”

Dolan the church historian maintains a love for American Catholic history, has a well-stocked library, and apparently kept up a regimen of reading (one of his favorite periodicals is Neuhaus’ First Things)–even joining a fairly active book club of local Milwaukee clergy. His installation day address included reference to a litany of famous Catholic New Yorkers and he occasionally draws historical analogies between vigorous Catholic opposition to abortion and to the actions of Archbishop Joseph Rummel of New Orleans, who in 1962 publicly excommunicated recalcitrant segregationists in his archdiocese.

But his career trajectory has left him little time to study and teach this field (he did so in St. Louis and in Rome), and no time to research and write. He instead has used the subject matter of U.S. Catholic history as the basis for retreats that he gave around the country—especially for priests and even for major addresses, such as the rededication of the historic Baltimore Cathedral in 2006.

In New York, there are historians aplenty for him to turn to—including his former Catholic University classmate (and Msgr. Ellis’s last student), Msgr. Thomas Shelley. An important bellwether of his interest in history will be his policies of access to the New York Archdiocesan Archives, which have been unevenly opened to scholars for years. A willingness to share the riches of the papers of that important See—particularly those of his predecessor Cardinal Francis Spellman—would be an important boon to historians.But Dolan himself will make history, not record or interpret it.

What will Dolan’s lively brio of good humor and theological and (probably) political conservatism mean for New York? He will likely have a protracted honeymoon, but if he remains there until the age of 75 it will be his longest single stint in one place. Perhaps after a while the quips and jokes will lose their charm, particularly with his priests and other co-workers.

Repeating Roman lines on abortion, homosexuality, bioethics, and the like will refresh his retainer in Rome, just as his invocation of pro-life issues won him a standing ovation at his installation. However, many thoughtful Catholics wonder if simply turning up the volume on standard church teachings on a variety of subjects will make much headway with his own flock. The applause inside the cathedral does not necessarily translate into support for his positions on the sidewalks of New York.

On his way out of Milwaukee, Dolan mildly rebuked the University of Notre Dame for giving President Obama a platform and an honorary degree—and did so on the radio show of one of Milwaukee’s more strident talk-show jocks, Charles Sykes. But his own constituents in Milwaukee (and now New York) voted in large numbers for Obama.

Even though bishops like to dismiss such inconvenient truths with an airy, “We don’t make doctrine by polls,” the support Obama currently enjoys among American Catholics cannot be quite so easily set aside. In a democracy, votes mean something. Like Supreme Court justices, even religious leaders follow the election returns.

Like others in the American hierarchy, Dolan may simply persist in condemning abortion as an intrinsic evil that can never be tolerated, and continue to invoke his Rummel analogy. But he may also re-read his mentor John Tracy Ellis’ two-volume biography of Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore. Gibbons, the most respected Catholic churchman in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, sought ways to harmonize Catholic ideals with the realities of American political culture.

Although one wouldn’t bet the family farm on it, Dolan may be one of the first bishops to accept the offer of the pro-choice president to work together to bring down the number of unwanted pregnancies. Perhaps Obama’s gracious call to him on the day of his appointment will open up a back channel of communication and dialogue that can advance the pro-life cause in some substantial ways.

Dolan too will have to face the continued challenge that same-sex marriage poses in his state, as it has in nearby Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and Maine. One day after shaking Dolan’s hand at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York governor David Patterson introduced into the state legislature a same-sex marriage bill.

Although prospects for passage were unclear, there is no question that the issue will keep reasserting itself, with very challenging implications for Catholic leaders throughout the country. Here too, Dolan is likely to face a divided flock, and even he hedged a bit when asked if homosexuality was an inherited or a chosen orientation. He may not be able to respond to that very serious question in a clear and unambiguous way, but many of his flock do not see gay marriage as a moral failure nor sense any kind of societal collapse to come in its wake. 

In his installation sermon, Dolan lamented “our seeming inability to get the gospel message credibly out there.” His ability to do so will be the truest measure of his effectiveness as spiritual leader of his very large archdiocese and to many more who will seek out the words and wisdom of the archbishop of New York—the American Pope, as he was once called. Timothy Dolan may become the best loved of all New York’s bishops. But will he be the most effective?

His sincere piety might respond, “That’s up to the Lord who chose me for this place.” But Dolan the historian knows that the Lord relies on the intellect, will, and courage of his human instruments. As Ellis liked to say about developments yet to unfold, “Videbimus.” We shall see.


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