The “affirmative orthodoxy” of Archbishop Dolan

Now that he’s about to get the red hat, Archbishop Timothy Dolan is getting a closer look — and it sounds like a new book about him may be a good introduction:

Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan of New York is becoming the most visible Catholic churchman in the Western Hemisphere. He is also a down-to-earth pastor – a clavicle-crushing six-foot-three teddy bear of a man whom you meet for the first time and, ten minutes later, feel you’ve known for a decade. I’ve met other archbishops and cardinals, and not one has impressed me as so thoroughly in love with the People of God as is the tenth archbishop of New York.

And this is essentially the conclusion of A People of Hope, by theNational Catholic Reporter’s John L. Allen, Jr. – a book-length interview with Archbishop Dolan. Mr. Allen writes that his literary model is The Ratzinger Report (1984), but Vittorio Messori’s interview with Cardinal Ratzinger, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was a broadside against the “hermeneutic of rupture” after Vatican II.

Allen acknowledges that his book is more anecdotal and less doctrinal: that A People of Hope intends to be upbeat – about “what Catholicism is for rather than what it’s against,” which seems a backhanded slap at the man who is currently pope – who’ll present the red hat to Dolan next month.

Tim Dolan, as Mr. Allen insists on calling him, is nobody’s typical archbishop. He’s a serious, scholarly man, but there’s little solemnity in his manner. This rankles those (sedevancantisttraditionalists, for instance) for whom a member of the episcopate ought to be all-but-unapproachable. Cardinals should be heard but not seen. (Well, maybe seen on the steps of St. Patrick’s, waving to marchers on the saint’s grand day.)

That sedevancantist delusion began during the papacy of Paul VI, not least because the Holy Father was so visible, being the first pope to travel outside Italy in a century and a half, and, with his predecessor and successors, to engage modernity by reframing Catholicism’s exposition of eternal truth.

Like Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, who rejects Jesus when He appears in Seville because His humanity interferes with the affairs of the Church, so the chiggers of Traditionalism will nibble on some of Dolan’s off-the-cuff remarks. His self-deprecating wit may arch eyebrows among those whose pale, bony fingers will tap-tap over every word of every sentence in A People of Hope.

For instance, when asked by Allen about becoming pope, Dolan replies:

That’s so beyond anything I can imagine, that I wouldn’t even fantasize about it. I mean, heck, the day before St. Patrick’s Day it was great I was able to meet Sharon Stone. Talk about fantasies! Wow, there goes Lent! [p.28]

Traddies will swoon. Liberals in the College of Cardinals will post it in the visitors’ locker room at the next conclave, but it’s a joke, folks! Although it’s fair to say it’s not a quip you’d have heard from Cardinal Spellman.

Check out more.

Meantime, I can recommend a great read by author Dolan: “Priests for the Third Millennium,” a collection of his talks when he was seminary rector.


  1. David_J_White says:

    I wonder whether Allen himself in his book has set up traditionalists and conservatives as a straw man for gratuitious pot shots, or if that’s just Brad Miner in the article which you have excerpted here. Either way, it’s unnecessarily, insulting, and shows that at least one of them has an axe to grind that, as far as I can tell, is completely irrelevant to discussing soon-to-be Cardinal Dolan.

  2. Dan Andriacco says:

    It’s simply not well informed for the author to say that talking about what Catholicism is for rather than what it’s against “seems a backhanded slap at the man who is currently pope.” Pope Benedict, in an interview with a German newspaper about five years ago, said that the Church should say more about what it stands for rather than what what it stands against. John Allen has been writing for years about what he calls the “affirmative orthodoxy” of B16.

  3. I agree with David White. Very tiresome on Allen’s part.

  4. Agreed with the above poster. The article seems a bit uneasy and harsh with a slanted tone that really didn’t need to come into a “book review”.

  5. Thank you for calling this statement by B16 to the attention of the readers of this blog. While reading the blog posting the statement by Pope Benedict came immediately to mind. I begin my college course on Catholicism with this statement of the Pope.

  6. Kevin, have you read any of John Allen’s writings or books? John writes in a very glib, matter-of-fact way – stating the facts and backing up his thinking. His writings, while they may be long and scholarly, flow well. And I would very much doubt that he’d want to present Cardinal-designate Dolan in a bad light – nor do I believe Brad Miner would, either (although perhaps as David White implies, Miner is taking a shot at the humorless neocons – or, as I like to call them, tradrads – the ones who seem to have a stick up their rear ends). I think both would want to present Cardinal-designate Dolan in a light-mannered way – as a man who is a leader of the Church, but doesn’t take himself too seriously and is proud of who he is, faults and all.

    And lest anyone think that Allen would take a back-handed slap at the Pope – if you read carefully, Miner implies that it “seems” that way, not that it is – we’re dealing with two different personalities. Pope Benedict presents himself as a more serious personality than Cardinal-designate Dolan does. Each uses his own way to portray a positive face of the Church. Each has his critics. But what the review of the book tells me is that Allen wants to show us who Cardinal-designate Dolan is and perhaps contrast him with the current Holy Father, but certainly not to pit one against the other, or demean one while exalting the other. Perhaps Miner may appreciate the more glib/less serious Tim Dolan more so than the scholarly/serious Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, but does his review – or Allen’s writing – imply that there is a genuine dislike/criticism of either approach or either man? I think not.

  7. I commented over at Brad’s piece about this. I am in complete agreement with Dan above, that it is quite silly to think Allen was taking a shot at the Pope to point out Dolan’s affirmative orthodoxy. Allen himself practically coined that phrase early in Benedict’s pontificate, to describe the Pope himself. And as we can see by the red hat fast tracking, Benedict seems quite in favor of the same trait in Dolan.

    I actually am in agreement with Miner’s premise about the hyperscrupulousity of some traditionalists. But I also agree his presentation of it was not totally fair and left something to be desired.

    Has any other reader of PoH found Allen’s prose to be atypically superficial for him? I certainly did, compared say to “Future Church”.

  8. Ditto on the “affirmative orthodoxy backhanded slap”. It makes absolutely no sense that Allen would imply this since he would only be contradicting himself.
    And like many other readers, I find the reviewers liberal/conservative talk to be tedious and counterproductive.
    The book sounds great though!

  9. I doubt you could find any differences on what soon Cardinal Dolan believe and teach about the Catholic Church actual teachings and that of our Pope Benedict XVI. There will always be some differences in style between two people, especially when they come from different generations and from radically different backgrounds. I certainly remember soon Cardinal Dolan fighting NY on the marriage issue and strongly proclaiming marriage is and always will be between one man and one woman and he is also staunchly pro life. Both of these were delcared non negotiable issues for all Catholics to believe by Pope Benedict XVI. I would suspect they agree on other issues like birth control, IVF, and every other issue as well. But the style is where you will see differences and frankly, I suspect that Dolan will be a hands down winner when it comes to understanding Americans and also marketing. We need a Cardinal Dolan just like we need a hopefully soon Cardinal Chaput and others of the next generation of those who came to their new postions within the Church as Bishops under then Pope JP II.

    Also, the Catholic Church needs to have positive bold leaders who open wide the doors to what the Cathoic Church actually teaches in a bold new way as we saw with the book and DVD set Catholocism. We need to stop dissenting and start backing up the Bishops and Cardinals who boldly proclaim this good news.

  10. David_J_White says:

    John writes in a very glib, matter-of-fact way – stating the facts and backing up his thinking.

    You and I must have different definitions of “glib”. Where I come from, calling someone’s speech or writing “glib” is not a compliment, and it most certainly doesn’t mean “stating the facts and backing up [one's] thinking.”

  11. David_J_White says:

    Miner is taking a shot at the humorless neocons – or, as I like to call them, tradrads – the ones who seem to have a stick up their rear ends).

    I don’t deny that there are some traditionalists who are like this — though please don’t conflate traditionalists with neocons — but in my experience some of the most intolerant, my-way-or-the-highway types I’ve met in the Church have been some of the “Spirit of Vatican II” folks.

  12. The first definition of glib in the American Heritage College Dictionary is “performed with a natural offhand ease.” That’s the definition I was referring to in my comment. (The next two definitions are more negative, BTW.)

    You can certainly state the facts, back up your thinking, and do so with a natural, offhand ease. You have to be a good writer and know the subject matter quite thoroughly, and I would daresay that John Allen meets those qualifications.

  13. Above reply actually meant for David’s reply to my reply to Kevin’s comment – somewhat earlier in the thread.

  14. (Now replying to the correct thread…)

    I don’t deny that there are some of intolerant SOVII (Spirit of Vatican II) folks, but some of the harshest comments these days come from neocon blogs. (In the secular world, ironically, it tends to be the other way around – the more liberal types can take the most negative approach in debates/discussions. Just see any debate on social issues.)

    BTW, tradrads is an acronym for “traditional radicals”: those I consider to be most intolerant of anyone who doesn’t see the world the way they do, or – in the Catholic world – act as if they know more than the Pope or the bishops. Thank God many traditionalists prefer to tell you why “their way” is better than to tell you that you’re stupid and your way leads straight to hell (or something of the sort). Hence, affirmative orthodoxy.


  1. [...] reason Dolan is so effective with new media is that he’s a master at “affirmative orthodoxy“. Coined by Vatican reporter John Allen, the terms suggests an emphasis on what the Church is [...]

  2. [...] reason Dolan is so effective with new media is that he's a master at "affirmative orthodoxy". Coined by Vatican reporter John Allen, the terms suggests an emphasis on what the Church is for [...]

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