John Allen's new project for the Boston Globe, Crux, launched with a lengthy interview with New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan. The first section, published yesterday, focused on Dolan's impressions of Francis, and (as ever) the Cardinal strikes a very cheerful note. "Look, as a local bishop, I’m pretty pragmatic," Dolan said. "My question remains, is the pope helping me or hurting me? This pope is helping me immensely. At this stage, it’s not about specific programs, but it’s a matter of persona, of tone, of personality."
But there is one area, he admitted, where the transition has been a challenge:
I will tell you that there are some aspects [of the Vatican under Francis] that are frustrating. For instance, as a bishop, one of the things you want to do is to get people access to the pope. In the old days, when I had an influential person I wanted to get into the line at the audience to shake the pope’s hand, or into his morning Mass, that used to be easy because you knew who to go to. Now, you don’t. I can write, and they seem very attentive, but it doesn’t seem as predictable as it used to be.
For instance, I’ve got the coach of the New York Giants, an influential Catholic who takes his faith seriously, who says to me, ‘Cardinal Dolan, I’m going to Rome. Would it be possible to get into the pope’s morning Mass?’ I have to say, ‘Coach Coughlin, I hope you can. Something tells me that if the pope knew you were coming, he’d sure like you there. I don’t quite know how to do it now, but I’ll try my best.’ There’s an area where some of the wondering, and the benevolent confusion, might be a little frustrating.
What the Cardinal is describing is influence peddling, however benevolent, and while it would be naive to be shocked by its existence, it is surprising to me to hear him describe it so candidly as part of his job as a bishop ("These are just housekeeping details," he goes on to say). That fundraising for major projects, like the ongoing renovation of St. Patrick's Cathedral, requires massaging the egos of our nation's very sensitive super-rich is not news; recall the sound of the world's tiniest violin playing for Ken Langone, who took his hurt feelings over Francis's critiques of exploitative capitalism to CNBC.
Still, if church leaders have to act like politicians, they might at least be a little embarrassed about it. I don't begrudge any particular person, influential or otherwise, his chance to shake the pope's hand, but it seems like an impertinence to expect the pope to make room at his morning Mass for, say, an American football coach on vacation. So, although Dolan may not see it this way, to me his newfound troubles granting privileged access to the pope reflect well on Francis. Evidently his talk about wanting "a church that is poor, and for the poor" is not just talk, or an act for special occasions. In his Vatican, making it easy for the well-connected to get close to the pope is not a priority. Considering what can happen when the very wealthy and well-connected enjoy privileged access to the pope, this change in policy is potentially a bulwark against corruption.