The image Timothy Dolan projects

Pope Benedict XVI named 22 new cardinals today, forming the “electoral college” that picks the next pope. John Allen offers general observations on the announcement, but he and other reporters are especially zeroing in on Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, who was elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last year.

The news offers New York publications the chance to dig into how Dolan has adapted from Milwaukee to New York and how his prominence has risen on a national level. On cue, the New York Timesprofile of the cardinal pick launches with a grand statement about the Catholic church in America.

IT is not a good time for the Roman Catholic Church in America, but Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan has made it his mission to remind people that there is more to the church than scandal. Taping his weekly radio show last month, he praised the beauty of a recent church service in Yonkers, and recounted an emotional visit to the solitary confinement wing at Rikers Island.

It’s surprising to me that a piece like this would make assumptions about whether it’s a good or a bad time for the Catholic church without adding a bit more to back it up. Perhaps it could talk about the sex abuse allegations, but the pronouncement offers the reader little context.

Archbishop Dolan is not well-known outside of religious circles. And the question remains whether this distracted, liberal, scandal-weary city is willing to listen to a conservative voice even as entertaining as his.

Since arriving in New York from Milwaukee, Archbishop Dolan, who was born in Ballwin, Mo., has most often caught the public’s attention as the traditional unyielding Catholic voice of “no” — to same-sex marriage, to abortion, and to sex education in public schools.

Dolan is often in the news (especially with New York’s gay marriage vote), but the reporter just assumes he’s not well-known to those outside of religious circles. If he isn’t, why doesn’t the profile spend a little more time explaining his background, going into more depth on what led him to church leadership? And is he known as the voice of “no” on those issues, or is that how media outlets like the Times portray him?

The piece spends most of its time describing Dolan as a warm and funny guy that doesn’t budge on doctrine or social issues and wants to reform the image of the church.

But his goal is even larger: to be a force for restoring the image of the Catholic Church in America in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis.

“What weighs on me the most,” he said in an interview in December, “is the caricature of the Catholic Church as crabby, nay-saying, down in the dumps, discouraging, on the run. And I’m thinking if there is anything that should be upbeat, affirming, positive, joyful — it should be people of faith.”

The reporter stresses his image through his radio show and the Catholic Church’s image but it doesn’t really offer anything new that I can tell. I do love this anecdote at the end, which could have been brought up even higher.

Ever the faithful Catholic, he is quick to stress that humor — and the faith and hope he says undergird it — is a gift from above. And humor is present at even the highest level of the church, Archbishop Dolan said, illustrating that assertion with a story about his visit to Pope John Paul II in 2004 to report on the state of the Milwaukee archdiocese.

“I said, ‘Holy Father, we have good news. The Archdiocese of Milwaukee is growing’,” he said.

The pope stopped and said — and here the archbishop switched into an impression of the pope’s throaty Polish accent — “So is its archbishop.”

Then the archbishop let out his signature hearty belly laugh, as if to prove the pope’s point.

“I said, ‘Holy Father,’ ” he continued, “ ‘please assure me that is not an infallible statement.’ ”

This adds some color and a fun story to remember about Dolan. Still, the piece could have offered more details about the archbishop’s background, the state of the Catholic church, and the significance of being named a cardinal, pieces of information that fill out a basic profile. The piece just doesn’t get beneath image to much substance.

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  • Chris B

    “Not well known outside religious circles”? Right. A full segment on 60 Minutes. Pretty regular appearances on the Today Show. And that’s just the national legacy media.
    Nice to see that Pauline Kael’s spirit lives at the(doddering)Grey Lady.

  • Martha

    “(T)he traditional unyielding Catholic voice of “no” — to …sex education in public schools.”

    Back up there a minute, Patsy. No to sex ed in schools? I think even the most rigid Catholic prelate would agree that teaching the biology of human reproduction in school is unremarkable.

    If, however, we mean certain aspects of sex education (such as masturbation is not sinful, contraception is vital for health and prevention of pregnancy, abortion is a choice, and whatever sexual practices one chooses to engage in are all equally innocuous and value-free, as long as one remembers to use protections), then we’re talking about something else.

  • Julia

    The article should have described “Ballwin, Missouri” as a suburb of St Louis or readers are having visions of him coming from a small town Iowa-like background a la Stephen Bloom.

    And at least mention that he had been a very successful rector of the North American College in Rome for some years.
    Not to mention that the Pope has given him some important assignments – I think one of them was reporting to him on the situation in Ireland.

    They make Dolan sound like some goofy guy from the sticks.
    He’s already seen more of the world than most reporters.
    Heck, he was showing Matt Lauer around Rome and giving him tips on restaurants and wine on the Today Show.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    “Ever the faithful Catholic”???? Does the reporter expect something else from a Catholic cardinal-to-be. Maybe she should mention that cardinals wear red–not to match cardinal birds–but as a sign of their willingness to live and die (through martyrdom, if necessary ) as a faithful Catholic.
    And, of course, the Times is one of those secular institutions that cannot tolerate (as the secular world becomes increasingly intolerant and decadent) the Church having a moral backbone and promoting traditional Christian morality through democratic procedures in the “Public Square.”

  • Passing By

    While he gives no ground on doctrinal issues, he also makes it clear that weakness is human.

    And how, precisely, do the two halves of that sentence relate to each other?

    I submit that the failure to understand human weakness and how it relates to belief contributes to – possibly drives – the failure of the press to ”get religion”. I’m assuming goodwill here (not a fair assumption in all cases, to be sure) but until you grasp and accept the fundamental problem with the human condition (which Christians call ”the Fall”), I think belief and weakness will always seem a contradition.

  • Trex

    Then there’s this bizarre quote from the Archbishop himself:

    It’s as if Pope Benedict is putting the red hat on top of the Empire State Building, or the Statue of Liberty, or on home plate at Yankee Stadium; or on the spires of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral or any of our other parish churches; this is the successor of Saint Peter saying to the clergy, sisters, brothers, lay faithful of this archdiocese, and to all of our friends and neighbors of New York: Thank you! Keep up the good work! You are a leader, an inspiration, to the Church and to the world.

    Um. Except the Pope didn’t say that. And I don’t think Catholic doctrine calls for Catholics to look for leadership and inspiration from any source other than Rome. I don’t think, for example, that Il Papa wants the Roman Church’s faithful to be looking to an imam for leadership and inspiration. Nor a gay married couple, for that matter, whether they are Catholic or not. Nor the mayor, who happens to be Jewish by faith. We can perhaps chalk up the Archbishop’s misstatement to the tiny bubbles that surround such heady moments.

  • Julia

    And I don’t think Catholic doctrine calls for Catholics to look for leadership and inspiration from any source other than Rome.

    Where do you get that??

    The Archbishop was very clear in saying the honor was for the CAtholics of his archdiocese, not the general NY population.

  • Trex

    No, Julia. My analysis of the quote and the Catholic Chatechism stands. The Archbishop was NOT clear. He invoked decoration of a large office building, a public monument and a sports stadium as evidence of his divine heritage.

    Where “I get that” is the Roman Church’s chatechism. You may look it up.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Please keep the discussion focused on journalism, thanks.