What Made Archbishop Dolan Famous in Milwaukee Hasn’t Saved Him From Losing Here

Archbishop Dolan had had it—he took to his blog.

“Last time I consulted an atlas, it is clear we are living in New York, in the United States of America—not in China or North Korea. In those countries, government presumes daily to ‘redefine’ rights, relationships, values, and natural law. There, communiqués from the government can dictate the size of families, who lives and who dies, and what the very definition of ‘family’ and ‘marriage’ means.”

The head of the nation’s second-largest Catholic archdiocese and the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a man 60 Minutes had declared “The American Pope” only months before, felt himself staring into the abyss. And the abyss seemed to be staring back: New York was on the eve of voting in gay rights—at the urging of a Catholic governor, no less!—and his months of trying to stop it had come to naught. So he did what a lot of us do and vented on the Internet, seemingly resigned but combative nonetheless.

It was 9:26 a.m. on June 14—10 days, it turned out, before gay marriage would pass.

“But, please, not here! Our country’s founding principles speak of rights given by God, not invented by government, and certain noble values—life, home, marriage, children, faith—that are protected, not re-defined, by a state presuming omnipotence.” Bam!

Who was to blame for this absurdity? Who else?

“The media,” the archbishop typed, “mainly sympathetic to this rush to tamper with a definition as old as human reason and ordered good, reports annoyance on the part of some senators that those in defense of traditional marriage just don’t see the light, as we persist in opposing this enlightened, progressive, cause.” Bam, bam!

On June 18, Maureen Dowd, fallen Irish-Catholic, answered the man she calls “the starchbishop” in the world’s most influential newspaper: “In the same blog, Mr. Dolan snidely dismissed the notion that gay marriage is a civil right. ‘We acknowledge that not every desire, urge, want, or chic cause is automatically a “right,”’ he wrote. ‘And, what about other rights, like that of a child to be raised in a family with a mom and a dad?’

“And how about the right of a child not to be molested by the parish priest?”


It can’t be easy being Timothy Dolan. Every time he tries to score a point for the Catechism—on women in the church, on abortion, on gay marriage especially—here comes the liberal media with its invocation of the epic Catholic clergy abuse scandal that claimed the well-being of thousands of victims, billions in church property and investments, and large chunks of the reputations of men like Mr. Dolan.

Even when he tries to do the whole Irish thing—talking and drinking, and talking about drinking (see the above clip of him, his predecessor, Edward Egan, and the governor at the Puerto Rican Day Parade in June); lots of back-slapping and references to his mom—it can’t seem to charm the likes of Ms. Dowd (who did not respond to an interview request).

There is a pattern here. Before being posted in New York, the archbishop was in Milwaukee, where in 2002, he succeeded Archbishop Rembert Weakland, an aptly named sport who, while fighting the claims of clergy abuse victims, carried on an affair with another man, whom he later paid off with $450,000 in church funds.

Mr. Dolan’s appointment was no accident. Mr. Weakland was an intellectual, the church’s version of a hierarchical radical, though pedantic and reserved per his calling as a Benedictine monk. The Times in 1996 called him “one of the most eloquent spokesmen for the liberal wing of American Catholic bishops, a frequent thorn in the side of the Vatican establishment.” The New Yorker five years earlier suggested he might be the first American pope, for real. Mr. Dolan, by comparison, was your uncle three hours into the Fourth of July barbecue—a smart man, a Ph.D. in church history, in fact, with fluency in Italian, but he didn’t come off as a know-it-all egghead.

“He seemed like a big shift from Weakland, who was more cerebral, a classical pianist and a hit with the East Coast media,” said Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Kim Kissinger, who occasionally covered both archbishops.

So Mr. Dolan, now enjoying his own papabile moment, hit northeastern Wisconsin like a bracing mug of Irish coffee. “What I can tell you is that Dolan had a meeting with reporters early in his time here,” Ms. Kissinger said, “and made something of a hit drinking beer and joking around. … Lots of jokes about the Brewers and the Cardinals.”

Reality, however, eventually overtook perception. Mr. Dolan spent a lot of his seven years in Milwaukee racing to the bottom on the crisis, keeping up the legal fights like his predecessor while begging forgiveness at every turn (though being more transparent financially), eventually settling to the tune of at least $26.5 million.

Then, in 2009, it was on to New York City, where the Vatican dispatched him in no small part because of his way with reporters (Time called it “a winning papal P.R. move”). The glare of the world’s media capital has, however, only accentuated the uphill climb Mr. Dolan faces against the news of the day. A few wisecracks might have charmed and disarmed them in the territories, but here? Not so much.

Most of the people who run this city and state agree with gay marriage (the mayor and the governor, for a start), as do a fair amount of reporters, whether they say so out loud or not. Railing against it as the celibate head of an organization inextricably linked in the public mind to rampant sexual abuse can’t be easy. How do you out-message The New York Times, after all? Especially from such a weakened position?

Mr. Dolan carries the additional crucible of succeeding the man Edward Egan succeeded. Where Mr. Egan was perceived as taciturn and aloof, the late John J. O’Connor was perceived—simply was—bold and savvy, gleefully combative during his tenure as archbishop from 1984 into 2000. O’Connor took on all comers, here and everywhere. This reporter, a former altar boy who grew up in Charlotte, remembers reading in the old Time magazine about his feud with Ozzy Osborne in the late 1980s, a fight over the interpretation of the song “Suicide Solution,” wherein Mr. Osborne insisted that “solution”  meant liquid, as in the booze that killed a close friend, while O’Connor interpreted it to signify the ultimate trump card. (Those were the days.)

“In some way Archbishop Dolan is a throwback to Cardinal O’Connor in style after the mostly silent Cardinal Egan,” said Peter Steinfels, who wrote the Beliefs column in The Times for two decades and who is now the co-director of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture. “Now, however, he has a blog to do what Cardinal O’Connor used to do with curbside comments or his after-Sunday Mass press conferences at St. Patrick’s.

“I think Cardinal O’Connor’s years in the Navy gave him perhaps a greater savvy about the impact of his remarks. When he wanted to stir up a brouhaha by tossing some red meat to reporters, he often did so in a premeditated manner. I am not sure about Archbishop Dolan.”

The loss on gay marriage won’t likely cow Mr. Dolan, though for now he appears to be laying low, perhaps wary and weary of the microphones. “There are no events planned for him to do any radio appearances, sit-downs with journalists, press conferences, related to the vote last Friday in Albany,” a spokesman said in response to questions from The Observer about the media strategy in the vote’s wake. “He spoke with the press [Sunday] morning, but has no other such events planned.”

That impromptu press conference was outside St. Patrick’s after the 10:15 Mass (during which, he did not mention the Friday night rights). “I would have to say I was sad because it’s not good for the common good,” he told reporters, according to City Room. “I think society and culture is at its peril.”

Somewhere, Maureen Dowd started typing.


Video clip courtesy of Azi Paybarah at PolitickerNY.