The American Pope

New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was interviewed by Morley Safer on 60 Minutes last month where he was described as the American pope. Dolan was articulate, jovial, self-deprecating (especially about his weight), and eager to vigorously defend the church’s familiar positions on issues such as same-sex marriage and the celibate, all-male priesthood.

It is not easy to make a persuasive case, especially in an abbreviated TV interview, for the church’s theologically sophisticated, if much-contested, teachings on such difficult questions. It is also true that what passes for argument on these matters in the media are sound bites, quips, and clever analogies. In both the broadcast interview and the supplementary video footage 60 Minutes made available on its Web site (see 60 Minutes Overtime), Dolan seemed to operate on that level. In explaining the church’s opposition to same-sex marriage, for example, the archbishop noted that while he loved his mother he did not have the right to marry her. Dolan also reached for a baseball analogy, saying he had a strong desire to play shortstop for the Yankees, but that his desire alone did not give him a right to do so. Those comparisons may blunt facile invocations of “love” or the assumption that social institutions can be subjectively redefined. But they hardly respond to arguments advanced by the most thoughtful advocates of same-sex marriage, which emphasize the virtues of monogamy and the equal rights and dignity of every person. Nor do they help us with the question of whether the skills intrinsic to marriage can or cannot be developed by same-sex couples, and whether this question is something open to examination or something decided a priori. Pursued seriously, Dolan’s comparisons might open up lines of discussion; but wherever one stands on same-sex marriage (and this magazine has not endorsed the idea), they are not likely to be convincing on their own.

Dolan was excellent on why he thinks the church should not try to “get over” the sexual-abuse crisis but remain “haunted” by the scandal. He also gave a good summary of the reasons the church claims it is not able to ordain women to the priesthood. In doing so, he acknowledged that the argument against women priests based on what is called the “nuptial mystery”—the symbolic marriage of the male priest to his spouse the church (even if it is his “mother”)—needs more development. He did not say, however, that one of the reasons the argument needs development is that it is an entirely novel explanation of why women are by their nature unsuited to the priesthood. The traditional arguments, based largely on the historically commonplace assumption of women’s inferiority, are no longer credible. Even many conservative theologians worry about justifying the exclusion of women from the priesthood on a gender-based interpretation of the church’s most fundamental self-understandings.

Dolan also tried to make the case that because Jesus chose only men as apostles the church must do likewise when it comes to the priesthood. The fact that, while Jesus chose only Jews as apostles, the church later had no difficulty ordaining gentiles went unmentioned. Jesus did not hesitate to give women prominent roles elsewhere in his ministry, Dolan said in an effort to turn the feminist argument on its head. The fact that he chose only men as apostles therefore suggests he did so for a very good reason. Point well taken—as long as one recognizes that such a good reason might have everything to do with the symbolism of twelve apostles in the new Israel and not with the later development of a cultic priesthood.   

No one expects a bishop to evince ambivalence about church teaching in public. Still, something about Dolan’s unabashed “conservatism” gives one pause. Safer pressed Dolan regarding the possibility that “certain changes may be necessary.” Most Catholics, Safer suggested, are living their lives in ways that do not uphold traditional Catholic understandings regarding, for example, birth control and homosexuality. And they don’t see why women shouldn’t be priests. Dolan seemed to concede as much, but then insisted that an equal number of Catholics do not want the church to change, and are attracted to the church precisely for that reason. “I’m in one world, you’re in another,” Dolan told Safer, adding, “I’m glad you’re visiting.”

It is not entirely clear what the archbishop was suggesting in saying that people who share Safer’s views, including many Catholics, live in a world separate from his own. One way to interpret his remarks is simply to note that what seems self-evident to the archbishop about the correctness of the church’s teachings is very hard to convey to those who do not share his faith. Yet many who do indeed share Dolan’s faith, who come like him every Sunday to the Lord’s Table, who share with him the desire to carry out the spiritual and corporal works of mercy and to witness to the coming reign of God, nevertheless find the church’s disciplines or teachings on these matters far from self-evident. It would be disheartening to think that the archbishop, president of the USCCB, regards these members of his flock as mere “visitors” in the church. The National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen, who is writing a biography of Dolan, has recently written of the “fortress mentality” of many church leaders who see “the world as fundamentally hostile, and thus [seek] a more inward-looking church capable of staying true to itself.” Allen contrasts the fortress mentality to an ‘“open door’ policy emphasizing dialogue with the world, presuming its goodwill, and meeting it halfway.” On 60 Minutes, Dolan seemed to move guardedly between the fortress and the open door. It will be interesting to see which doors, if any, he will open in the future.

Published in the 2011-04-22 issue: 
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