Cardinal Dolan: pope or pope maker?

The Dolan buzz is building. At first I thought it was part of the typical hype before a conclave. After … Continued

The Dolan buzz is building.

At first I thought it was part of the typical hype before a conclave. After all, if you’re in a big media market it makes sense to ask whether the local bishop is going to be pope.

Early-on editorials did emerge making a serious case for the cardinal archbishop of New York as someone who could be an effective bishop of Rome and head of the universal church. So, while it wasn’t really a buzz, there has been a consistent low frequency hum surrounding Dolan, punctuated by media-induced exclamatory pauses like “Wow!” and “Just maybe!”

Cardinal Dolan has repeatedly pushed back against speculation–sincerely, not with a false humility. But now the Italian press has really begun to push his candidacy. As the conclave approaches, he’s being seen as the anti-establishment candidate, the one who could bring the curia into line and also bring his common touch and plainspoken ways to the highly academic teachings of Benedict XVI and the mysticism of John Paul II.

Cardinal Dolan also seems to be very close to the action as the pre-conclave reaches its conclusion. In spite of the media blackout, he’s continued to blog, emphasizing the hopefulness of the deliberations with characteristic optimism and down-home Catholic spirituality.

A case could be made that the stage is now set for Dolan to receive serious consideration as a contender for the Chair of St. Peter.

I personally like Cardinal Dolan very much. In November 211, I wrote an On Faith piece about his inaugural address as president of the USCCB. I wrote the piece carefully but it wasn’t puff–I was a little nervous that it could be interpreted in ways that would not be to my advantage, personally or professionally. Shortly after the piece was posted, I received a favorable mention on the then archbishop’s blog and also a short personal email from him thanking me. As much as I was touched, the larger point was that Timothy Dolan is a person who does go out of his way to be gracious, encouraging, and open. It is rare indeed to see such qualities embodied by a Catholic bishop in this day and age.

Cardinal Dolan has also become an intellectual leader, at least on this side of the Atlantic. His short monograph, True Freedom, has drawn praise from a variety of quarters for its clear and concise discussion of how American notions of religious liberty relate to ongoing discussions of the HHS mandate. He also carries himself somewhat like a CEO: He is plain spoken, not afraid of conflict, and he’s very much focused on results and doing what needs to be done.

Most media commentators have understood that these same personal qualities play differently in different contexts—being boisterous can be good in New York, but not in Rome. Some commentators have also argued that a Dolan candidacy is a non-starter precisely because of the demographic shifts toward the Catholic South and the decline of Catholicism in the U.S. Others draw attention to how the cardinal was recently deposed in a case relating to sexual abuse suits against the diocese of Milwaukee, which he led for seven years.

But what perhaps has not been sufficiently acknowledged is how inward looking American Catholicism is. The Catholic Church in the United States seems obsessively focused on issues surrounding sexuality, gender identity, and secularism. But any pope, if he is to really address the needs of the universal church, is going to have to be aware that secularism means something different in India than in America, that the pressing issues surrounding sexuality in sub-Saharan Africa are different from those in Western Europe, and that Catholicism’s relationship with Islam is different in Pakistan, compared to Indonesia or in France. Added to this perception of insularity are the negative views of the United States overall, especially when seen through the prism of Catholic values—a point made quite well by my colleague Fr. Thomas Worcester. The problem with any American pope is not simply that he has an American way of doing things, it’s that he might believe that the American way is the only way.

But the American way of doing things can have a significant role to play behind the scenes. Cardinal Dolan is exactly the kind of person who can build coalitions and cut through the complex and veiled maneuvers that characterize pre-conclave papal positioning. If non-Vatican cardinals eventually come together in a serious way, it is very likely that Timothy Dolan will be responsible for it. He may not be next pope, but he could be the man who makes him.


Mathew N. Schmalz Mathew N. Schmalz is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at The College of the Holy Cross.

    Give Tim a beer but he is not just one of the many but a RCC administrator of the unbending side.

  • StephenReal

    Cardinal Dolan is the man, in my opinion, to lead the church out of crisis and into the 21st century. He’s got my vote even if I hardly agree with all his theological and political decisions.

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