Dolan has worked hard not to attract controversy in his first few months. When he has emerged in public, it’s been mostly to do things like bless the extension tunnel of the 7 subway line. He explains this by saying that he needs time to get used to the size of the job: “Sometimes I find my head just spinning with, ‘My Lord, how am I gonna get to 410 parishes? How am I gonna get back to this woman who just asked me to pray for her little child, who’s with cancer?’ ” This month, he’ll be returning to leading Mass at St. Patrick’s most weekday mornings as well as Sundays, just as Cardinal O’Connor did. Egan used that time to visit parishes, but Dolan will save that for Sunday afternoons. “Any parish that has a chicken dinner,” he says. “If you want to put the word out there, they’ll know how to get me: chicken and dumplings.”
In private, though, he’s already impressed New York’s political class. “He’s very much in the mold of John Cardinal O’Connor,” says Ed Koch. “He’s a guy who I have concluded is fearless and outspoken—aware of the power and majesty of the role. I like Cardinal Egan, but he was a more withdrawn figure. I believe there’s been no one since John Cardinal O’Connor who has had a major public role on behalf of the Catholic Church. That’s gonna change.”
When talking about repairing the church’s reputation, Dolan describes two competing schools of thought within Catholicism—“an ongoing conversation on whether or not we are the church of the catacombs or whether we’re the church of the marketplace.” It’s a debate that ran all the way up the Vatican. “Ratzinger and Wojtyła would spend a lot of time arguing about that,” he says. “They said that Ratzinger,” who became Pope Benedict XVI, “would be more about the church of the catacombs, and if we lose people, so what? Because he used to love to quote, ‘It’s when you prune that you have growth.’ And Wojtyła”—Pope John Paul II—“would say, ‘Joseph, my brother, no. Are we not best when we stand high and stand tall and try to be a light to the world and salt to the earth?’ ” Dolan suggests that even Benedict has done more to embrace the secular world than anyone had expected. He once heard Benedict say, “The church is all about yes, yes, not no, no.” “And I thought, Bingo! You know, the church is the one who dreams, the church is the one who constantly has the vision, the church is the one that’s constantly saying ‘Yes!’ to everything that life and love and sexuality and marriage and belief and freedom and human dignity—everything that that stands for, the church is giving one big resounding ‘Yes!’ The church founded the universities, the church was the patron of the arts, the scientists were all committed Catholics. And that’s what we have to recapture: the kind of exhilarating, freeing aspect. I mean, it wasn’t Ronald Reagan who brought down the Berlin Wall. It was Karol Wojtyła. I didn’t make that up: Mikhail Gorbachev said that.”
“God made me with a particular soft spot in my heart for a martini.”
“I guess one of the things that frustrates me pastorally,” he adds, “is that there’s this caricature of the church—of being this oppressive, patriarchal, medieval, out-of-touch naysayer—where the opposite is true.”
That said, the church must say no when to do otherwise would be to threaten its very identity. There simply can’t be compromise on some issues—like abortion—no matter how nuanced or compassionate the conversation is around them. Suppose a pregnant woman were to come to Dolan and say “I’m thinking of having an abortion.”
“I wouldn’t get argumentative,” he says. “But I would say, ‘Well, you’re kind enough to ask me. So what I think I hear you say is what guidance and enlightenment can I give.’ Would I be a bully about it? In no way whatsoever. I would hope I would come across as tender, as compassionate as possible, but that wouldn’t lessen the cogency of my saying ‘Please don’t do this. We’re talking about an innocent life here. What can I do to help you make the decision to keep your baby?’ ”
And this is true with cases of rape and incest as well, I ask?
“Yeah,” he replies.
Then there is the clergy sex-abuse issue. Dolan has been laudably frank about the damage inflicted on so many Catholics. “We’ve got a lot of credibility to regain,” he said shortly after he arrived in New York. “And we’ve still got a lot of victims, survivors, and their families out there who are hurting big-time.” But he also fully supported the work of the archdiocese’s lobbying arm to sideline two bills in Albany that would have rolled back the statute of limitations and allowed more alleged abuse victims to make their claims in court. (A version of one or both of those bills might return in the next session.) “I don’t think it’s any accident that once he showed up in New York, the lobbying became more bare-knuckled and political,” says Marci Hamilton of Cardozo law school, a critic of the church’s role in abuse legislation.