In the years since O’Connor’s death in 2000, American Catholicism has entered a troubled period—marked by sex-abuse scandals, parish and parochial-school closings, and a dire shortage of new priests. Egan, O’Connor’s successor, was in large part an embattled, defensive, practically Nixonian figure, presiding over ugly budget cuts, avoiding comment on the sex-abuse cases, and, by the end, even alienating many of his own priests. Church attendance across the country has continued to slip, as the Vatican’s positions on social issues seem more and more out of step with those of contemporary American culture. Today, a growing number of Catholics in the U.S. are openly campaigning to let priests marry; to have women assume leadership roles; to foster more acceptance of gay men and lesbians. Our pro-choice president was even invited to speak at the University of Notre Dame. Catholic leaders across America are now faced with the same dilemma: How do you maintain the message of the church when that message is being questioned with ever-greater frequency? In choosing Timothy Dolan for the critical New York post, Rome has picked someone who is, if nothing else, an expert message-deliverer, blending the spotlight-loving tendencies of an O’Connor with all of the warmth and approachability that Egan lacked. But if you can’t alter the content of the message, is the delivery enough?
In the middle of one of his first homilies at St. Patrick’s last spring, Dolan told a story about a precious set of rosary beads, bestowed upon him by Pope Paul VI as a gift for his parents—“to thank them for giving their son to the church.” His mother, Dolan explained, keeps those beads safely inside her purse to this very day—“right,” he added with a glint in his eye, “on top of her lottery tickets.” It took a while for the laughter to die down.
His entire career, Dolan, 59, has approached the job of being a priest not as a daunting paterfamilias but as that heckuva-nice-guy you meet at some wedding who turns out to be a priest. He is what other priests call a “lifer,” someone who found his calling early and steered a course to the seminary right after grammar school (last spring, his first-grade teacher flew in to do the reading at his installation in Manhattan). He grew up in Ballwin, Missouri, the oldest of five children. His mother still lives in the St. Louis area, but his father, an aircraft engineer, died of a heart attack, in 1977—just nine months after Dolan was ordained. “He doesn’t have to put on any kind of show,” says Monsignor Michael Curran, a Brooklyn priest who has known Dolan for two decades. “He’s very comfortable with who he is and what he’s been called to be. And he uses his personality, his human gifts, to communicate a very powerful spiritual message. Maybe a psychologist could put it better, but I think there’s probably not a trace of an identity crisis in the man.”
Sex, he says, is not a human right, even if modern culture has made it appear that way.
As a priest, Dolan found inspiration in Pope John Paul II, who had no ambivalence about engaging the world at large, expressing the joy he found in his faith rather than playing the public scold. Dolan was also quite ambitious. After studying church history at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. (Dolan is one of just two active Catholic bishops to have earned a Ph.D. in the subject), he served as a parish priest in St. Louis before returning to Washington to be secretary to the pope’s ambassador to the United States. Later he moved to Rome for seven years to run the school for American seminarians. His inspirational book, Priests for the Third Millennium, has become a textbook in many seminaries, and he likes to talk about how the priest’s lot is not some endless ordeal of self-denial. “True freedom is the liberty to do whatever we ought, not the freedom to do whatever we want,” he has said. “We are at our best when we give away freely what’s most inside of us.”
In 2001, Dolan was summoned back from Rome to become the auxiliary bishop in the St. Louis archdiocese, where he was put in charge of responding to the sex-abuse scandals there. Then, a year later, came the call to become archbishop of the Milwaukee archdiocese in the wake of a very public scandal: Rembert Weakland, a liberal mainstay for more than twenty years, had stepped down as archbishop after it was revealed that he had paid $450,000 in 1998 to silence a man with whom he’d once had an affair.
The Weakland situation alone would have been difficult, but fund-raising was in tatters and church attendance was way off, as was enrollment at the seminary. Dolan seemed undaunted. “Are we going to retreat to the bunkers,” he said, “or are we going to go to the housetops?” He convened a meeting of sex-abuse victims, mental-health professionals, law-enforcement officers, and church hierarchy—and even published the names of some offending priests. (Cardinal Egan never did anything remotely this conciliatory.) Under Dolan, the archdiocese also paid out $26.5 million in sex-abuse cases, settling with more than 170 people.