The Times lets the big man speak for himself

In light of his upcoming elevation into the red-hat crowd, I thought it would be good to dip into my GetReligion folder of guilt and take a look at that recent New York Times mini-profile of New York Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan.

Of course, it is also important that the Cardinal-designate Dolan — as leader of the U.S. Catholic bishops — has been in the headlines throughout the religious-liberty battles between the Obama White House and a coalition of traditional religious groups over the new Health and Human Services regulations.

Here is my main comment about this solid feature story, other than one or two points about the accuracy of some language about doctrinal issues: It’s hard to write a nasty, unbalanced profile of a man who is an effective, unapologetic communicator, one who is not afraid to state his viewpoints clearly and with a touch of zip. It’s hard for reporters to do fair, informed coverage of religious leaders who — either through design or lack of talent — surround their most important statements with clouds of boring fog.

The bottom line: It’s much easier to accurately and fairly quote a religious leader who is not hiding, who is not terrified of being quoted in defense of his or her faith.

This comes across quite clearly in the Times article through its emphasis on Dolan’s often earthy sense of humor. Here’s what that looks like in practice, describing the soon-to-be cardinal’s radio show:

Since arriving in New York from Milwaukee, Archbishop Dolan, who was raised 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. His show, “A Conversation With the Archbishop,” which is broadcast on Sirius XM satellite radio, is an attempt to change that. It uses a modern talk-show format, with an Ed McMahon-like sidekick and guests, and features the archbishop’s booming bass voice and interest in subjects as varied as the Sept. 11 attacks and exorcism, along with jokes when the tone gets heavy. …

There is trendy theme music (“City of Blinding Lights,” by U2). And after his regular sign-on, “Praise be Jesus Christ,” the 6-foot-3, barrel-chested archbishop finds ways to work in regular jabs about his own weight (“I’m the only guy that breaks a sweat while he’s eating”), his ratings (“my mother is my only listener”) and his Irish heritage (“I tried to trace my family roots in Ireland, but I got so embarrassed that I had to stop. It was not a pretty picture.”).

His humor is both authentic and strategic, as he readily acknowledges. His hope is that by highlighting the ebullience he finds at the heart of the faith, he will win back some of the nation’s millions of straying or ex-Catholics. “Happiness attracts,” he often says.

The key question, of course, is whether it is possible to communicate the basic facts — as opposed to opinions — of Catholic doctrine in a way that would be winsome in any context defined by the Times.

Now, please understand that when I say “facts” I am not saying that Catholic doctrines are facts for those who have not chosen to be part of the Catholic Church. I am saying that these doctrines are the facts on the ground — for centuries — for those who want to take part in the sacramental life of the Catholic faith. Thus, a man like Dolan is not simply expressing his own feelings and opinions when he defends basic Catholic doctrines in statements to his fellow Catholics.

So, it probably is true that Dolan is the voice of “no” in relation to the Manhattan public. He is much more than the voice of “no” when talking to Catholics who genuinely seek to be in Communion with the Catholic Church, which is not a democratic, public institution. The Times is not the only publication that struggles to grasp the difference between these two roles, often struggling for reasons openly articulated by it’s former editor Bill “collapsed Catholic” Keller.

Take, for example, any statements that Dolan might make on — pick an issue — “sex education in public schools.” Dolan is speaking with one level of authority when he talks to practicing Catholics about that issue, perhaps suggesting that they should seek tolerance for their beliefs when wrestling with school administrators. He is speaking with a different, and less authoritative voice, when he speaks to those very administrators as part of an open, public debate.

With this distinction in mind, note this crucial paragraph in the Times mini-profile:

Pope Benedict XVI plans to make Archbishop Dolan a cardinal at a ceremony on Feb. 18 in Rome, giving him the red hat that signifies his new stature as a prince of the church. But even now, two and a half years after Archbishop Dolan arrived at the helm of the New York Archdiocese, his personality 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. …

Archbishop Dolan’s style is a striking shift from that of the man he replaced, Cardinal Edward M. Egan, who was known as a no-nonsense and at times aloof administrator during his tenure overseeing the New York Archdiocese, from 2000 to 2009. The last charismatic figure to lead the archdiocese was Cardinal John J. O’Connor, from 1984 to 2000, whose eloquence in expressing the church’s views made him a major figure in the life of the city and beyond.

Key word there? That would be “eloquence.”

By all means, read this whole piece. It’s worth the effort, because the Times lets Dolan speak for himself as much, or more, than is the norm. Readers can make up their own minds when it comes to accepting what the archbishop has to say.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.samueljhoward.us Samuel J. Howard

    It strikes me as not clear in the article that the radio show is not, in fact, an initiative of Archbishop Dolan, but began under Cardinal Egan.

  • Passing By

    ‘The Times was not so kind to Cardinal O’Connor when he was still breathing.

  • Bill

    Very nice piece nice to see in the NYT. I like that it’s a profile that focuses on Archbishop Dolan and, while referencing the HHS mandate and sex scandals, does not dwell on them. They have been well covered elsewhere. I’d still caution the archbishop to watch his back.

    Catholicism in the key of joy is not an easy sell.

    That is true of most flavors of Christianity. How can one find joy in all those “dos and don’ts?” Think Easter.


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