Affirmative Orthodoxy

Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan of New York is becoming the most visible Catholic churchman in the Western Hemisphere. He is also a down-to-earth pastor – a clavicle-crushing six-foot-three teddy bear of a man whom you meet for the first time and, ten minutes later, feel you’ve known for a decade. I’ve met other archbishops and cardinals, and not one has impressed me as so thoroughly in love with the People of God as is the tenth archbishop of New York.

And this is essentially the conclusion of A People of Hope, by the National Catholic Reporter’s John L. Allen, Jr. – a book-length interview with Archbishop Dolan. Mr. Allen writes that his literary model is The Ratzinger Report (1984), but Vittorio Messori’s interview with Cardinal Ratzinger, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was a broadside against the “hermeneutic of rupture” after Vatican II.

Allen acknowledges that his book is more anecdotal and less doctrinal: that A People of Hope intends to be upbeat – about “what Catholicism is for rather than what it’s against,” which seems a backhanded slap at the man who is currently pope – who’ll present the red hat to Dolan next month.

Tim Dolan, as Mr. Allen insists on calling him, is nobody’s typical archbishop. He’s a serious, scholarly man, but there’s little solemnity in his manner. This rankles those (sedevacantist traditionalists, for instance) for whom a member of the episcopate ought to be all-but-unapproachable. Cardinals should be heard but not seen. (Well, maybe seen on the steps of St. Patrick’s, waving to marchers on the saint’s grand day.)

That sedevacantist delusion began during the papacy of Paul VI, not least because the Holy Father was so visible, being the first pope to travel outside Italy in a century and a half, and, with his predecessor and successors, to engage modernity by reframing Catholicism’s exposition of eternal truth.

Like Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, who rejects Jesus when He appears in Seville because His humanity interferes with the affairs of the Church, so the chiggers of Traditionalism will nibble on some of Dolan’s off-the-cuff remarks. His self-deprecating wit may arch eyebrows among those whose pale, bony fingers will tap-tap over every word of every sentence in A People of Hope.

For instance, when asked by Allen about becoming pope, Dolan replies:

That’s so beyond anything I can imagine, that I wouldn’t even fantasize about it. I mean, heck, the day before St. Patrick’s Day it was great I was able to meet Sharon Stone. Talk about fantasies! Wow, there goes Lent! [p.28]

Traddies will swoon. Liberals in the College of Cardinals will post it in the visitors’ locker room at the next conclave, but it’s a joke, folks! Although it’s fair to say it’s not a quip you’d have heard from Cardinal Spellman. For several reasons.

And there are times when the archbishop’s spontaneous word choices seem a bit incautious. Allen asks: “What about a woman heading a Vatican congregation?” Dolan responds: “I would think that the prefect . . . probably needs to be in holy orders . . .” Probably? Aren’t the heads of congregations always priests and usually cardinals?

In Chapter Four, which Allen inelegantly titles “Pelvic Issues,” the archbishop handles questions concerning, as a famous Vatican document puts it, The Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, with the compassion and commonsense of Catholicism’s natural-law teaching.

But, again for the nit-pickers (or is it the nits?), Archbishop Dolan speaks about accepting into a Catholic school the child of a same-sex couple, and says the child would be welcome, then adds, speaking as if to the “parents” [scare quotes in the book]: “But you do realize . . . that . . . in their catechesis, the child might learn that the kind of life you are leading might be contrary to the teaching of the Church.” Those mights will inflame certain “conservatives,” but this is the pastor at work: opening doors, not closing them; gently presenting hard truths. There’s no argument more winning than love.

Mr. Allen refers to the Dolan approach as affirmative orthodoxy, and anybody who has seen and heard – let alone met – the archbishop understands what that means. Benedict XVI certainly does, and the Holy Father also knows the occasional pitfalls of these extended interviews. (The pope has done at least four.)

We recall the flapdoodle over condoms that came out of his conversation with Peter Sewald. That’s unlikely in this case, since Mr. Allen is a liberal Catholic and the liberal media have no wish to pounce on him and may actually hope that Archbishop Dolan’s ebullient ministry is somehow an affirmation of the “spirit of Vatican II” – that’s the orthodoxy of their fantasies. If only he’d switch out the scarlet biretta for a black beret! Hope and change!

An example of a statement His Excellency (soon to be His Eminence) makes to Allen that could backfire: He says that in his assignments in St. Louis and Milwaukee, he never saw evidence that a “bishop did not take it [sex-abuse] seriously.” He mentions Rembert Weakland – that he “did take it seriously,” and of the Catholic authorities more generally that “they took it seriously.” End paragraph.

Then in the very next sentence: “Tragically, what they meant by taking it seriously now seems almost risible.” I think I hear the archbishop’s rhetorical cadences and inflections leading to that sentence, but rarely have I read such a gold-etched invitation to be quoted out of context. It’s superficially contradictory and, therefore, confusing.

When the archbishop speaks (in person), you hear (in the words of St. Benedict) with “the ear of your heart.” A stenographer’s report is not the medium for expressing the Christian dynamism of Timothy Dolan.

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.