I love attending mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral. I last took part in a mass celebrated by a cardinal there about six years ago, but found myself having to jump clumsily off one side of the Communion line to the other, at the last minute, in order to avoid receiving it from (then, Cardinal) Edward Egan. I couldn't do it; I had just read a particularly damning report about him in the context of the Bridgeport Connecticut diocese's sex scandal.
I haven't yet attended one of Timothy Dolan's masses. I imagine I'll do so soon. Will I take Communion from him, or scoot to the other line? I don't know. I suppose I could go either way. Why? Maybe because this is New York City where it is folly to underestimate the charm of an Irish priest. Although I'd never put a nickel in his collection basket, I almost like Timothy Dolan sometimes. And that's the point.
The Dolan appointment was a shrewd one and the packaging of him is shrewder still. We keep hearing how unambitious Timothy Dolan is. Certainly he has been packaged as such. So down-to-earth is the sound bite-chirping, hot-dog chomping, New York Giants-loving Dolan that one can almost forget his long stint as rector at the Pontifical College in Rome. Sure, one more easily pictures this bishop drinking a beer at the ball game, than a three-hundred dollar Bordeaux in a brocade gown beneath a gold leaf ceiling, but humble priests rarely get Vatican City gigs, and this is how politics works. Just as our last few presidents pushed off Harvard and Yale in the service of folksy appeal when the moment called for it, so does Dolan push away his experience as a Vatican City insider when he needs to be a regular guy.
Dolan's penchant for politicking is what landed him his two big jobs -- as New York's top bishop and president of the USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops). Timothy Dolan will be incardinated on Saturday. This comes as no surprise -- the last four New York Archdiocese bishops wound up in the College of Cardinals -- but what is a bit surprising how much the pomp surrounding his elevation, which will be televised this coming weekend, is able to push away. Dolan's elevation is as much a campaign as it is an event of religious solemnity, and whether by design or accident -- it hardly matters which -- Dolan's promotion to "Prince" (of the Church") coincides with a presidential election the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy is in the process of losing.
Dolan is much more than a prelate. He is the pope's man in New York and Washington where his mission is twofold. His job is to toe the (hard) line -- but while remaining affable. The Vatican's hope is that Dolan can influence secular legislation while keeping disgusted Catholics tithing in the pews. Because those two aims are at cross purposes, much blarney is needed. Dolan excels at blarney, and tends not to be publicly shrill.
Dolan's charmless predecessor, Edward Egan was alleged to have shuffled pedophile priests from parish to parish, and to have refused to provide thousands of pages of documentation relating to cases filed on behalf of victims of sex crimes perpetrated by pedophile priests in the Bridgeport, Connecticut diocese he ran. Timothy Dolan is the anti-Egan. Although hardly squeaky clean, Dolan has all of the warmth Egan lacked and bears a relatively slight taint of the church sex abuse scandal.
There are accusations of fiscal improprietyand laxity in the context of sexual abuse cases in the Diocese of Milwaukee where Dolan served as archbishop between 2002 and 2009.
One curious section of Dolan's Wikipedia profile makes oddly specious reference to a claim that he had been excessively zealous in in dismissing abusive priests:
As an auxiliary Roman Catholic bishop, Dolan was criticized for his handling of Roman Catholic priests accused of sexual misconduct, accused of being on a "witch hunt" to dismiss abusive priests.
However, as it turns out, the St. Louis Beacon article cited suggests that the "witch hunt" accusations were made by a small, distraught group of parishioners in the immediate aftermath of learning that their beloved priests had been credibly accused of sex crimes against children. Dubious Wikipedia distortions notwithstanding, Dolan is more often accused of over protecting priests accused of predation, not their victims.
Dolan testified in Senate to block legislation that would temporarily extend the grace period for adults filing child sexual assault charges against priests. He explained:
"There is no Catholic Superfund that can provide the monies this legislation require of the church."
There are worthy arguments to be made against legislation that expands statutes of limitations for sex crimes against children; "it's too expensive" is not one of them. While every Catholic in the church should question the moral authority of a priest who would exhort his flock to settle for injustice on the grounds that justice costs too much, it is unlikely a bishop who would put the the suffering of victims and the safety of children before the reputation of Mother Church and the Vatican bank could never become a "Prince of the Church" under today's pontificate.
The man began the process of coming forward with his complaint by calling Timothy Dolan (who was, then, the bishop in charge of the diocese in which the alleged incidents had occurred), and later, filed a complaint against the St. Louis priest he claimed had molested him years earlier at a group home for boys. (The priest admitted having hosting sleepovers for boys in his living quarters, but denies having molested anyone.) After being cleared of the charges, the priest decided to sue his accuser. The Archdiocese of St. Louis agreed to pay costs associated with this defamation suit. (The priest was demanding an apology but no financial settlement.) At one point in his communications with the Archdiocese of St. Louis, noticing that explicit mention of the diocese's earlier agreement to pay his legal costs was absent from a particular correspondence, the priest sought to confirm the St. Louis diocese's intention to finance the suit. 'Copying' his superior, Timothy Dolan, the Vicar of Pastoral Planning wrote back: (See page 28 of the document.):
The reference to the Archdiocese accepting responsibility for the legal fees was
not deleted because there has been a change. That commitment stands. Rather the
reference was deleted because of recent calls publicized in the media for a complete
disclosure of total dollars spent on settlements and treatment for victims to be contrasted
with total amounts spent for treatment, ongoing salary and benefits compensation, and
legal fees for priests against whom there have been allegations. The media fueled interest
is in pointing up the disparity between victims and clergy. Bishop Wilton Gregory has
recently made such a full disclosure in Belleville. The Archdiocese might do this, though
it would be some time before the data could be assembled. The deletion was simply
precautionary in the event the letter might find its way to the media and make the
disclosure calls more strident..
In a 2003 deposition, New York's new cardinal denied having seen this letter, but he acknowledges it is likely he received it. Clearly its author presumed his boss, Dolan (who had resolved in earlier correspondence relating to this case to "support" the priest in suing his accuser) would sign off on a plan to pay the legal fees in question. It is also obvious that the vicar expected that his bishop would not object to keeping this plan a secret from "the media."
Any analysis of this is ugly: Dolan was willing to use St. Louis Diocese money to help a fellow priest sue a man who was obviously deeply troubled. Whether this man was troubled as a result of having been molested in boyhood by a trusted priest or whether he was troubled enough to falsely accuse a priest who had ministered generously to him -- the man the Archdiocese of St. Louis went after was indeed troubled. A shepherd doesn't attack his troubled sheep on the diocese's nickel. This shepherd, Dolan, tacitly supported his vicar's choice to use funds donated by St. Louis Catholics to sue a troubled Catholic. Where's the Christ in this? How many bowls of rice for the hungry might those lawyers' fees have purchased? And what kind of message does that send to a victims of sexual abuse by priests?
The pomp that attends Dolan's elevation to cardinal will swell then fizzle out, and Dolan will be back to work, crusading to remove our incumbent president from office. Dolan will lose this battle. One of the interesting ironies at hand is that the more Dolan tries to muscle legislators and executives, the more alienated moderate and progressive Catholics become. The cardinal-to-be in a quicksand with this. The more he moves to govern non-Catholics, the deeper he sinks with moderate Catholics. Dolan's goal of keeping moderate and progressive Catholics tithing takes a hit every time he tries to strong arm government leaders.
Conservative Catholics are in denial about it -- but most Roman Catholics and most of the non-Roman Catholic world alike recognize that Roman Catholicism in the United States and Western Europe is slowly bleeding out. The sex abuse scandal chased active Catholics away in droves. In New York City even thriving parishes are closing. Vocations are way down throughout the US and Europe. So desperate for male priests is the Vatican that it now has special rites for initiating married priests it poaches from the Anglican Church. Women have stopped waiting for the pope to ordain them; the number of women priests ordained in the Roman Catholic tradition is growing. It won't be long before the question of whether they are "real priests" becomes moot.
Especially since, as parishes close and the shortage of priests becomes more of a problem, lay people women are assuming more and more pastoral duties. Lay women minister to the sick, distribute the Eucharist, conduct Communion services, and prepare children and adults to receive the sacraments.
Fear for the safety of their children has led many Catholic parents who would otherwise use them to abandon Catholic schools. The church gains many a "cradle Catholic" by means of parents seeking to replicate what they view as their wholesome, ideal Catholic educational experience. Catholic schools are fertile (pun intended) ground for growing compliant, birth control-eschewing Catholic families. The closing of these schools will have dramatic ramifications down the line. As Catholic schools decrease in number, so will the supply of ready-made, cradle Catholics.
We'll soon see more and more parishes run by lay people who hire a priest to celebrate mass on Sunday. Should this trend take hold, hard-line doctrine will take a major hit. Unlike priests; lay ministers, lectors, catechists, altar servers, religious educators and adult formation leaders are not bound by vows of obedience. They don't have to uphold doctrine the way priests do. The dearth of priests will continue to change the message, and the absence of pastors in parishes will give all Catholics -- at both poles of the traditional-to-progressive Catholic spectrum -- much more freedom from Rome.
Even as things stand now, the pope's capacity for policing the behavior of Catholics is waning. I attend many different Roman Catholic churches in New York City, and I know many Roman Catholic churches in which cohabiting and married gay people not only receive Communion regularly but also distribute it. I know many divorced and remarried Catholics who receive the sacraments without the slightest fear of being challenged by their pastors. In large American cities like New York, parishes are closing rapidly. Active Roman Catholics are walking away or defecting to other Christian churches.
What should worry God's Rottweiler and God's Beabull is the growing trend toward refusing to tithe. Three years ago I knew not one, but today I know a dozen active Catholic families who inform me they have stopped contributing to diocesan appeals on principle. Many Catholics in the pews tell me that for reasons of conscience they can no longer contribute to parishes knowing that their parishes send money to the diocese and that their dioceses kick back to the Vatican. As a girl growing up in the church, I would have found the notion of not putting something into the basket unthinkable. Now, withholding collection money has become a socially acceptable form of conscientious objection among many devoted Catholics. The bottom line is that that Eucharistic minister distributing Communion on Sunday may well be a divorced woman married to a woman boycotting the collection basket and there's not much God's Rottweiler can do about it.
There are expansive-minded bishops in charge of dioceses all over the country, but Ratzinger would never put one of those in charge of New York, because, like much of the Roman Catholic world, the Vatican sees New York City as a latter-day Sodom and Gomorrah in need of a firm hand. Timothy Dolan's makes much of his great love for New York City, but although he may like the Giants and Nathan's hotdogs well enough, his recent resolution to "defend New York to the Vatican" tells (us) Catholic New Yorkers how the archbishop really feels.
Dolan wouldn't be the Vatican's choice to serve as president of the policy-making/enforcing USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) if he weren't willing to carry Ratzinger's water without spilling a drop; and while only a bishop willing to carry Ratzinger's water without spilling a drop would ever be made a cardinal under the current pontificate, there's no law in the Canon Code that says a bishop can't put a little "spin" on the tyranny.
Dolan excells at spin. He turns in a fine performance in the role of likeable guy capable of hating the sin while slathering the sinner with warm caritas. The packaging of Dolan was calculated. Ratzinger wanted a top bishop who could hold the Vatican's ground in New York and nation-wide (via the USCCB), a prelate who could play both sides against the middle, one who would kiss his flock while sticking it to them. Timothy Dolan is a plus-size, Father Flanagan-style good cop and bad cop rolled into one ruddy, affable, Irish priest from central casting, a saber-toothed Teddy Bear to take on "Sin City" and the American Presidency. Most of all Dolan is a masterful politician. If Ratzinger is "God's Rottweiler," Dolan is perhaps God's "Beabull," part beagle, part bulldog -- a dog with a pedigree for scrapping and a beagle's waggling cuteness. A pooch who'll climb up your leg for a scratch on the head before biting off the hand that feeds him.
This week in New York City, more than fifty churches renting space in public schools are faced with finding alternate venues in which to worship. Should churches be able to rent space for religious services in public schools? I don't know.
On one hand, the erosion of the "religious" (for lack of a better term) rights of atheists and agnostics worries me. I am deeply concerned about the way "God" creeps into speeches delivered by my president, governor and mayor, and alarmed by what I see as the escalating prejudice toward those who do not believe in God. This tyrannical disposition strikes me as the opposite of enlightenment.
On the other hand, I have strong religious feeling. I attend (I'm Catholic. ) worship services regularly and pray daily. I am grateful, also, for the exquisite sacred spaces in which my family gathers to celebrate, meditate and worship. Too often, I take the beauty of our sanctuaries for granted.
Although I feel strongly that a public school should never be identified with any one religion, I tend to think a church group has as much right to rent space in a public building as a theater group has. Further complicating my analysis of this question is that I come to it as a parent of public school students. A desire for diversity drove my thinking as I chose the schools my children attend; I don't want their schools to be identified with any church.
In New York City where I live, many Roman Catholic parishes are closing. Why?
Money is the main cause. The choice of Catholics fed-up with hierarchy's response to the sexual abuse scandal and disgusted with its positions on gay marriage, women's ordination and contraception is beginning to get expensive. I believe we )Catholics) have barely begun to experience the full force of the fiscally ravaging effects of this great exodus. Many parents of young children now take part in parish life just long enough to ensure that their children prepare for first Holy Communion and, then, leave parish life. (Children can complete preparation for First Eucharist by seven or eight years of age.) A growing trend towards substituting time and talent (for financial contributions to parishes) increases lay participation -- which is a good thing, mostly -- but this practice is poised to take a big bite out of Sunday collections. As legislation creates increased opportunity for victims of pedophile priests to prevail in court, dioceses proven to have abetted predator priests stand to loose millions.
When dioceses are called upon to tighten their belts, poor parishes (not the Vatican City kickback) are the first to go. This is sad for many reasons, not the least of which is that it is poor families and the elderly who most need parish life. Many elderly New York City Catholics walk to daily mass and tithe beyond their means; for them, the closing (and "merging") of their parishes often marks the beginning of their lives as "homebound" Catholics.
What, then, becomes of the many lovely churches that sit empty in the wake of this religious austerity plan?
What an act of generosity it would be were the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Brooklyn and Queens to offer these churches to religious groups who have recently lost their worship spaces in public school buildings!
Many shuttered Roman Catholic churches in New York City are fine works of contemporary, modern and Victorian architecture. They should not be razed. Nor should they remain empty and unused while our neighboring Christians are scrambling for somewhere to worship.
If the New York ad Brooklyn/Queens dioceses were to offer these spaces to churches in need of worship spaces, everyone would win. It is likely that congregations renting or borrowing the Catholic-owned spaces would, in time, be able and eager to help to maintain these structures; this gesture would be great for Roman Catholic public relations; and New York's Roman Catholic community would enjoy the chance to "throw down" in genuine good faith, with the kind of ecumenism that is spelled out in Pope Paul VI's 1965 Nostra Aetate:
Likewise, other religions found everywhere try to counter the restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by proposing "ways," comprising teachings, rules of life, and sacred rites. The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men....
New York's Catholics bishops should figure out how to share our surplus of sacred spaces in Christ's name, but I doubt they will; I think they'll prefer choose lucrative solutions over light-bearing ones. But I'd sure love to be wrong about this.