I was reading a fine First Things column by Fr. Hans Feichtinger , about Germany’s “Synodal Way,” in which he used a word and a phrase I’d not heard before: Symbolpolitik and ecclesia invisibilis. His very good points were: first, that in Germany some effective narratives are attractive to power seekers as symbols, even if they are false; second, that the efforts by German bishops to make the Church there more relevant to mainstream German thinking guarantees that such a complaisant Church will all but disappear.
I don’t know how actually visible the Church is in German life. For that matter, I’m not sure how visible the Church is in the United States, even when comments by the Holy Father awaken the media for a day or two or three. But as I thought about this, the image of New York’s Cardinal Dolan came to mind. I know him slightly, and some years ago, I described him here as “a clavicle-crushing, six-foot-three teddy bear of a man” because of his habit of putting his arm around you and squeezing – a kind of endearing gesture of a large man who’s the ultimate “people person.”
And it occurred to me, speaking of the Church’s visibility, that if you were with Cardinal Dolan and walking down just about any street in the Big Apple a significant portion of the people you’d pass would call out to the Cardinal by name. He’s that visible, that mediagenic.
If, on the other hand, you walked down that same street with the Rt. Rev. Andrew M.L. Dietsche, the Episcopal Bishop of New York, practically nobody would recognize him. No disrespect to Rev. Dietsche – but it’s just that in New York the Catholic Church remains THE ecclesia visibilis. (Searches of Dietsche’s name and Dolan’s at the website of the New York Post brought up 4 stories that mentioned Dietsche and 674 by or about Dolan.)
I hear from Cardinal Dolan frequently, although not in communications of a personal nature. As in every archdiocese, there are appeals from the archbishop’s office for money. This is usually accompanied each year by a video from the Cardinal that is shown on a given Sunday at Masses – with envelopes and pencils in the pews – and is preceded by and followed up by snail mail to one’s home asking for donations to support the Cardinal’s Annual Stewardship Appeal. Obviously, 2020-2021 has been different.
The pandemic has meant that putting a big TV screen in the center aisle near the altar steps to show the Cardinal’s video pitch made little sense when Mass attendance in New York churches was capped at 80 and, in practice, was usually half that. And the most recent mailing I’ve received (titled, “All Things Are Possible”) came in concert with news that the U.S. Church received billions of dollars in COVID relief from the Feds’ Paycheck Protection Program. According to Associated Press reporters Reese Dunklin and Michael Rezendes (the latter formerly of the Boston Globe “Spotlight” team), the U.S. Church received $1.4 billion . To which they add:
The church’s haul may have reached – or even exceeded – $3.5 billion, making a global religious institution with more than a billion followers among the biggest winners in the U.S. government’s pandemic relief efforts.
And this: “The Archdiocese of New York, for example, received fifteen loans worth at least $28 million just for its top executive offices. Its iconic St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue was approved for at least $1 million.”
Well, the Archdiocese serves some 2.8-million Catholics and has more than 2000 priests and other religious in 288 parishes, and the shortfall in weekly in-Mass contributions would surely have been more devastating without the government relief. But for many, the optics are lousy, especially because the Archdiocese has paid out millions in sex-abuse restitution and because the Vatican recently announced that it will “rob Peter. . .to pay Peter,” so to speak: a portion ($37 million) of the annual Peter’s Pence fund, traditionally used for papal philanthropy, will be used to cover operating expense, leaving just $20 million for charity.
I’ve always supported the Cardinal’s Annual Stewardship Appeal and will again this year, but it has taken me months to finally decide to do so. The delay was partly due to the problem of those “optics” in New York and that Vatican decision about Peter’s Pence, and what’s made me decide to finally loosen my purse is the recent announcement that the Holy Father has ordered salary cuts  for pretty much everybody in Rome who is employed by the Church. But it’s also because I do appreciate what the Church does – here in New York and around the world – to aid the poor and to educate the young.
And then there’s the ebullient Cardinal Archbishop of New York himself. Rather like the pope, he sometimes says things that have you scratching your head, but I believe he’s a solid, theological traditionalist. Liberal Catholic Paul Elie recently quoted the Cardinal in a hand-wringing column in The New Yorker about the Vatican’s reaffirmation against same-sex unions:
In a rambling, casual conversation. . .Dolan spoke of the responsum solely as a reaffirmation of the traditional view of marriage. “That ain’t news. . . .That’s as old as the hills,” he said, noting that “the Catholic Church reaffirms the Biblical teaching, as, by the way, the Orthodox Jews, and Muslims, and the evangelicals do.” He added, “I don’t get it,” and bemoaned the sense “that we need to change timeless teaching to ‘keep up’ with the chic cause du jour. . . .Please, change the subject!” At no point did Dolan refer to gay people, much less extend to them the “respect and sensitivity” that the responsum itself calls for.
I’ll translate that into English: Dolan is for the Church; Elie is for Elie.
So, not to worry, Your Eminence, my check is in the mail.
*Image: Cardinal Dolan [credit: Getty Images]
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