Cardinal Dolan and the Soap Opera of American Catholicism

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York sent a controversial book to all his fellow cardinals. The Next Pope is a thinly veiled attack against Pope Francis.

The author, George Weigel, is a right-wing Catholic author who works for an ultra-conservative advocacy group. His views on trickle-down economics, anti-immigration, and pro-American international policy have set him opposed to Pope Francis.

Weigel has disputed other popes for being too liberal also.

He once notoriously asserted that Pope Benedict did not mean what he wrote in the papal encyclical Caritas in Veritate. Weigel suggested that the reader can use a Weigelian hermeneutic to strike everything with a red pen that disagrees with his views. A gold pen can highlight everything that Weigel upholds.

Without offering any names in his new book, Weigel suggests qualities he believes the next pope should have. However, this is no mere theoretical exercise. Weigel is a known political operative seeking to shape the outcome of the next papal conclave that will occur following the death or resignation of the current Supreme Pontiff.

Originally from St. Louis, Cardinal Dolan has nurtured an image of a midwestern everyman with a big personality. Long-time Catholic reporter John Allen described Dolan and other appointees of Pope Benedict as “conservative in both their politics and their theology, but also upbeat, pastoral figures given to dialogue.” According to some reports, Dolan received votes in the 2013 conclave to become pope.

As the head of the leading archdiocese in the United States, Dolan has done good works, such as fostering Catholic-Jewish relations.

Nevertheless, he (like many bishops) has a controversial history of dealing with child-abusing priests. Dolan also received monetary gifts from corrupt former prelate from West Virginia, Bishop Bransfield, along with his brother bishops and former disgraced nuncio Archbishop Viganò.

For all his loud, attaboy, backslapping exterior he is a sly power player who appears to be desperate to keep his place and advance his agenda.

In recent weeks, Cardinal Dolan has made a series of overtly political actions. In late April, he participated on a conference call with President Trump in which the president described himself as the “best [president] in the history of the Catholic Church.” The conversation continued.

Dolan was the first to speak, whom the president hailed as a “great gentleman” and a “great friend of mine,” adding that he respects what the cardinal “asks for.” The New York cardinal said he was “honored to be the lead-off batter, and the feelings are mutual sir,” noting that the two had been on the phone often in recent months and joking that the cardinal’s 90-year-old mom in Missouri says “I call you more than I call her.”

Days later, Cardinal Dolan gave a special greeting to the president during a live-streamed Mass from St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The following day, he appeared on Fox & Friends to heap praise on the president. “I’m in admiration of his leadership,” he proclaimed.

In June, Cardinal Dolan penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal entitled “The Bible is Full of Flawed Characters.” In it, he opposed the removal of statues around the country. Three days after that, he published another op-ed; this time in the New York Post. He drew upon his midwestern image to praise the NYPD amid nationwide demonstrations against police violence.

All three media outlets that gave Dolan a platform are Murdoch properties.

Weigel’s book distribution sits within a broader context of a divided Catholic Church . In 2018, there was an attempted overthrow of Pope Francis with Archbishop Viganò as the front man. His alleged financiers and public backers includes some American “culture-warrior” bishops and Catholic media organizations.

Vigano has called Francis a “false shepherd” and rejected the authority of the Second Vatican Council. Both are fundamental to Catholic teaching and structure.

Although the former-papal nuncio’s takeover failed, his role in the slow-motion schism among Catholic prelates in the U.S. continues. Viganò (who remains in hiding after he lost a $2 million court case to his brother) has composed multiple missives, and his latest was a conspiratorial letter filled with apocalyptic imagery sent to President Trump. In short order, the archbishop made his way into a flattering presidential tweet.

Dolan has never denounced the actions of Viganò; instead, he has equivocated. “The cardinal said that he takes the account of the former papal envoy ‘seriously,’ and that he trusts Francis to respond appropriately.” Dolan went on to offer implicit support of Viganò.

George Weigel has offered support for Viganò too, describing him as “an honest man, courageous reformer, and loyal churchman.”

The opposition to Pope Francis among the Catholic hierarchy in the U.S. did not begin with Dolan or Viganò. From the early days of the Francis pontificate, the high-ranking Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke (also from St. Louis) teamed up with three other prelates. Disgruntled because Francis did not share his ultra-conservative approach or clerical careerism, the Pope removed Burke from his Vatican post and gave him a lesser assignment. He and his collaborators composed a series of questions (a dubia) suggesting the Pope was unorthodox, and they demanded answers from the Pontiff.

Asked if it was wrong for Viganò to demand that Pope Francis resign, Cardinal Burke responded, “I cannot say it is wrong.” He elaborated.

I can only say that to arrive at this one must investigate and respond in this regard. The request for resignation is in any case licit; anyone can make it in the face of whatever pastor that errs greatly in the fulfillment of his office, but the facts need to be verified.

There have been other rifts between the American bishops and the pope, including the last-minute attempt by some bishops at the 2018 fall meeting of the U.S.C.C.B. to create a procedure for dealing with abuse without notifying the Vatican authorities in a timely manner.

Fault lines in the U.S. episcopacy appeared again at the 2019 meeting over the bishops’ voting guide.

Cardinal Dolan certainly noticed the message Francis sent when he appointed another charismatic midwesterner, Cardinal Joseph Tobin, to the neighboring Archdiocese of Newark. Tobin has a reputation for being progressive and a close ally of Pope Francis.

Along with Tobin, other cardinals from the States have gained prominence under the Francis pontificate thereby moving the spotlight away from Manhattan. Cardinal Cupich of Chicago and Cardinal Ferrell (prefect of the Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life) have influential voices. Cardinal Dolan may perceived the door to have closed on his only opportunity to have become pope.

The publisher of Weigel’s book, Ignatius Press, has involved itself in the high-level Catholic intrigues over the years. Their most recent controversy came in late 2019 when they presented Pope Emeritus Benedict as co-author of a book with Cardinal Sarah. The book was Sarah’s attempt to head-off the potential decision of the Amazon Synod to ordain married men to the priesthood. Benedict wrote one short essay in the book and asked not to be included as the author. Ignatius Press refused.

Ignatius has denied any wrongdoing in sending Weigel’s book. However, by distributing it to all cardinal-electors, Dolan was acting as more than a marketing agent.

Dolan and his publisher have immersed themselves further into the soap opera that is the U.S. Catholic hierarchy. He understands Weigel’s political agenda, and his own history of advocacy indicates he tacitly approves of it. This is why Dolan’s act is so scandalous.

Cardinals elect popes from their ranks. By sending Weigel’s book about the next pope to the cardinals who will elect that pope, Dolan is using Weigel’s book to influence the outcome of the next papal conclave while the current Supreme Pontiff is alive and in good health.

It is like creating a Tinder account while you are still married.

Josh McElwee interviewed four cardinals who received the book from their colleague. One opined, “Many of us were left speechless that this American cardinal sent us the book.”

Besides being in poor taste, Cardinal Dolan appears to have ignored the essence of the apostolic constitution Universi Dominici Gregis, written by Pope John Paul II. It forbids cardinals from discussing possible papal successors.

I likewise forbid anyone, even if he is a Cardinal, during the Pope’s lifetime and without having consulted him, to make plans concerning the election of his successor, or to promise votes, or to make decisions in this regard in private gatherings.

The Catholic Church in the United Stated suffers from numerous crises. Prelates who covered up for the abusers of children, seminarians, nuns, and others have exacerbated the catastrophe.

Related to abuse is the financial crisis. Dioceses have paid millions to victims. While it is not enough, the Church consequently wrestles with finding enough money to keep its parishes, schools, and charitable organizations afloat. This makes bishops susceptible to following the lead of wealthy donors, and Cardinal Dolan’s renowned ability to raise funds appears attractive. The Archdiocese of New York recently stirred up controversy by receiving $28 million in PPP loans for its executive offices. All of this stands in contrast to Pope Francis’s vision of a “poor church for the poor.”

More than a financial crisis, the Catholic hierarchy in the U.S. is undergoing an integrity crisis. What is the Church in the U.S. about? It is the spiritual wing of the GOP, or does it stand as a non-partisan religious body following the steps of Christ by siding with the poor, immigrants, and those on the margins?

In order to bring about the conversion of the Church in the U.S., Pope Francis could shuffle the hierarchy. Consider the positive changes that might occur if someone like Cardinal Dolan was moved to a border diocese (say El Paso) or a poor diocese (like Gallup) and one of those bishops transferred to New York.

Outside of the limelight in a difficult situation, Cardinal Dolan could use his episcopal power, penchant for gaining media attention, and fund-raising acumen to lighten the plight of immigrants and aid people who are poor. Meanwhile, a border bishop could transform a powerful archdiocese to reflect more accurately the Gospel priorities of Pope Francis.

Of course, that is not going to happen. Nor should it. A churchman like Cardinal Dolan has the resources and skills he needs to bring about a deeper conversion in himself and in his diocese.

In his first Papal Audience in March 2013, Pope Francis addressed church politics.

Ecclesial events are certainly no more intricate than political or economic events! But they do have one particular underlying feature: they follow a pattern which does not readily correspond to the “worldly” categories which we are accustomed to use, and so it is not easy to interpret and communicate them to a wider and more varied public. The Church is certainly a human and historical institution with all that that entails, yet her nature is not essentially political but spiritual: the Church is the People of God, the Holy People of God making its way to encounter Jesus Christ. Only from this perspective can a satisfactory account be given of the Church’s life and activity.

Events in the Church involve people making decisions, creating consensus, and resolving disagreements. However, Francis insists that the Church’s nature is fundamentally spiritual, not political. The Church is not a vehicle for wielding power; it is the Body of Christ. It’s leaders are entrusted with the mission of proclaiming the Gospel of Christ crucified and risen.

In that same audience, the new pope explained his reasons for selecting Francis as his name. Upon being elected, Cardinal Hummes of Brazil encouraged him.

And he gave me a hug and a kiss, and said: “Don’t forget the poor!” And those words came to me: the poor, the poor. Then, right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi. Then I thought of all the wars, as the votes were still being counted, till the end. Francis is also the man of peace. That is how the name came into my heart: Francis of Assisi. For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation; these days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we? He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man … How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor!

Instead adopting a Franciscan vision that values the spiritual over the political and poverty over wealth, Cardinal Dolan seems to have opted for a Weigelian church that serves as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican party. The clever Cardinal seems to have received a red zucchetto with print on it similar to red baseball cap worn at political rallies.

He is not alone; others among the episcopacy share his sentiments as they hope for the day a new pope replaces Francis. This sad episode is another outlandish scene in the soap opera that is the hierarchy of American Catholicism.

A former elementary educator with a physical disability. @disabledsaints

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