Mad Men, Obama vs. Dolan

We haven’t always been terribly upbeat about Newsweek‘s religion coverage in the past. And it’s hard to tell under its new leadership whether it’s really committed to straight reporting or a more op-ed oriented style.

A new piece from Peter Boyer hints at a positive direction, at least as long as the magazine assigns Boyer to the religion beat.

The Mad Men theme is pretty clever (hello, 1960s!), but I wish the cover had instead featured Boyer’s profile of Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York. As much as I want to read about sexism, bras and ads (I own a Mad Men dress from Banana Republic), the pieces were no match in substance next to Boyer’s reporting. For instance, the lead piece has this unfortunate correction: “A previous version of this article erroneously reported Weiner’s parents divorced when he was 10. They have been married for over 50 years.”

Boyer’s profile on Dolan hooks onto the contraception fight, demonstrating how reporters can use politics to get into religion without letting the political details overshadow the religious ones. Check out the opening paragraph and see if it doesn’t make you chuckle.

Just inside the heavy front door of the 19th-century neo-Gothic mansion at 452 Madison Avenue, the official residence of Timothy M. Dolan, archbishop of New York, rests a telling clue about the resident’s personality. Perched on a tray atop a side table in the entry hall is the scarlet red biretta placed on Dolan’s head by the pope last month when Dolan was elevated to the College of Cardinals in Rome. Next to it sits another scarlet hat—a ball cap bearing the insignia of Dolan’s beloved St. Louis baseball team. “I don’t know all the protocol,” Dolan says. “I was told I was supposed to place the Cardinal hat by the entrance, so …”

Boyer suggests that “Dolan already is, in effect, something like America’s pope,” a pretty strong description since you probably don’t want to throw around the description “pope” too loosely.

But precisely because of that role, Dolan now finds himself having to play against type, leading the high-stakes fight against the Obama administration’s mandate that employers provide insurance coverage for services and products the Church finds morally objectionable—including contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs.

The piece shows why the battle is particularly unusual for Dolan, who is known more for the upbeat and positive face he gives the Church.

Dolan insists that it’s not a fight he wanted. He arrived on the national stage with the reputation of a conciliator, one who believes that the church should not be in the business of weeding out those who dispute some of its teachings. As archbishop of Milwaukee, he disagreed with those bishops who advised punishment of politicians (by denial of holy communion or parishioners’ votes) who supported policies the church opposes. … [Dolan says,] “I would be one that would much prefer to sit down with people, to say, let’s sit down and talk about this, let me try to be a pastor first, let me try a conversion of heart.” Since Dolan’s rise in the national church, “wafer watches,” such as that to which John Kerry was subjected in his 2004 presidential run, have virtually vanished (much to the relief, perhaps, of Kathleen Sebelius, the Catholic secretary of Health and Human Services, and of Catholic governors Andrew Cuomo of New York and Martin O’Malley of Maryland, who signed same-sex marriage legislation into law).

The story takes a step further beyond the 2012 election to put the issue of life ethics in larger context. It spotlights historical figures in the Catholic church had an emphasis on social justice and those who focused emphasized evangelism, drawing parallels between Dolan and Sister Carol Keehan, head of the Catholic Health Association, an Obama ally on health care. Boyer also shows why the bishops have raised religious freedom concerns before the contraception issue came up.

But going into that Oval Office meeting last November, the bishops had a lot at stake. They were partners with the government in many of their social projects, and heavily dependent upon government funding. Just a few weeks before the Oval Office meeting, the administration had relieved the conference of its role of overseeing relief for human-trafficking victims because Catholic workers wouldn’t refer victims to abortion or contraceptive services. Now, some bishops worried that many on Obama’s team viewed fundamental Catholic teaching on moral issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, as homophobic, sexist, even potentially illegal.

The piece shows the relationship between President Obama and Dolan, illustrating how the archbishop has the president’s attention, at least to some extent.

Dolan admits he felt awestruck about being in the Oval Office, and was impressed by the president; he left the meeting feeling reassured about the regulations. Obama told him, Dolan says, “that he would do nothing to impede the good work of the church in health care, education, and charity, and that he considered the protection of conscience a sacred duty.”

When Sebelius announced the regulations on Jan. 20, Dolan says he was shocked, and plainly felt betrayed. The only exemption from the administration’s mandate that employers provide contraception coverage was for actual houses of worship. To the church, this was a radical state intrusion, defining what constitutes an approved ministry.

Since Dolan doesn’t expect to work out the issue with the White House at this point, it will likely remain a political issue going forward.

Meanwhile, Dolan and the bishops will step up a public-relations campaign that will include informational bulletins distributed in churches. Parishes will be encouraged to conduct voter-registration drives and independent activists, such as Deal Hudson, who helped Karl Rove corral the Catholic vote for George W. Bush, are already conducting outreach training sessions in battleground states.

The ending to the profile is as colorful as the opening, but we can’t quote everything. Read it all.

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  • Mike O.

    I try not to repeat myself here, but because there have been 8,219 posts regarding the HHS mandate since I last asked these questions I’ll reask.

    1) Has anybody asked Archbishop Dolan if there is a lower limit to what employment laws even religious institutions can’t choose to not abide?
    2) Has anybody asked the U.S. Government if there an upper limit to what requirements they can impose on employers?

    Until these questions are asked and answered the merits of each group’s arguments can’t be determined and true compromise is unattainable.

  • John Pack Lambert

    It is not “the contraception fight” it is the “religious liberty fight” or the “religious exemption from laws that force violation of religious principals fight”.

  • Richard Mounts

    Mike O,

    I don’t know that I understand what those questions, or the answers to them, have to do with the quality of the journalism of the story in Newsweek. That said, I’d like to know what it will take to get the MSM do a better job of religion reporting, at least more often than not.

    Sarah, do reporters have any resources for learning specialty areas of their craft? (Beside this blog, I mean.) Are there organizations editors can send reporters to before they’re released onto the public?

    I’ll take my answers off the air. ;-)

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    This quote bothers me a lot:

    As archbishop of Milwaukee, he disagreed with those bishops who advised punishment of politicians (by denial of holy communion or parishioners’ votes) who supported policies the church opposes. … [Dolan says,] “I would be one that would much prefer to sit down with people, to say, let’s sit down and talk about this, let me try to be a pastor first, let me try a conversion of heart.” Since Dolan’s rise in the national church, “wafer watches,” such as that to which John Kerry was subjected in his 2004 presidential run, have virtually vanished…

    This is setting up a false opposition between two very good bishops — Cardinals Dolan and Raymond Burke. The idea here is that Dolan is criticizing Burke, which he’s not. People have the idea that Burke simply put the smackdown on the pols without saying anything to them first, which is not true, and Dolan knows that because he knows Burke. And none of this would have come into the public purview if a certain pol in Wisconsin had kept her mouth shut and not blabbed to the Journal Sentinel when she received a letter from then-Bishop Burke telling her that she must refrain from Communion. As evidence, even though he had Clare McCaskill in his archdiocese, not once did Burke bring the issue of her ability to receive Communion up in public. And I can assure you that he raised the issue with her in private.

    The other issue is the whole “wafer watch” deal (ignoring for now the use of the word “wafer”). The author seems to imply that it was Burke’s fault that it happened. It was not. It’s the media’s fault. If a bishop says, “You, public pol who supports abortion, may not receive Communion in my diocese,” that’s his prerogative, as long he does it within the limits of canon law (see tmatt’s posting below). That does not, however, mean that journalists must, therefore, of necessity set themselves up in churches where said pol is attending Mass in order to establish the “wafer watch.” For them to do this on their own so they can see if there’s going to be more juicy gossip for them to disseminate, thus selling more copy or airtime, and then to turn around and blame the bishop for allegedly starting it is the height of hypocrisy.

  • Mike O.

    Richard, my journalism quality issue is pretty straight forward. The reporter in the above article had access to Archbishop Dolan. Tim Dolan has repeatedly said that the Catholic Church should not be forced to participate in the HHS mandate and doing so would violate their freedom of religion. In order to gauge how accurate that statement is, his opinions on its limits need to be determined.

    Let’s take a non-religious example. Ray Kelly, the NYPD commissioner, is getting some flak for two things. One is the stop-and-frisk program and the other is the Muslim spying program. Both have serious fourth amendment implications. He says that the NYPD is allowed to perform these actions. But unless he can give a limit to what he believes the NYPD can do, no one can honestly say what civil liberties (if any) he is willing to defend along with our safety.

    The same sort of specification needs to be figured out from both sides of the HHS issue. Does Tim Dolan think that they are exempt for any and all laws that they disagree with, that freedom of religion is absolute? Does the U.S. government think freedom of religion can not supercede any federal legislation whatsoever? Journalism has to be more than noting that the first party wants A and the second party wants not A. What I’m asking for are very basic and very natural follow up questions.

  • MikeD

    Mike O.,
    When a case comes before a court on an issue like the HHS mandate, the court typically limits itself to the specific violation at issue and does not delve into the furthest limits of what a person or organization is willing to put up with. A journalist would spent far too much space asking hypothetical questions trying to get the specific answer you want (what about minimum wage laws, what about OSHA regulations, what about DOL posters, etc.). Most people, even Bishops, do not think about it in absolute terms but only see the conflict when a particular case presents itself. This is also why courts create balancing tests rather than bright line rules when dealing with these types of cases.

  • R9

    Mike O is asking the same question I have been pondering since this HHS thing blew up.

    Presumably most would agree there have to be limits somewhere, in terms of how much people can refuse to abide by laws for religious reasons. So where do the key players think the line should be drawn?

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    According to the information here the article “spotlighted” two types of Catholic leaders:those who evangelized and those who emphasized social justice.
    But there is a big hole there. Why no “spotlight” on the great Catholic leaders who would not bow to the coercive powers of a state moving toward a form of totalitarianism in its trashing of religious liberty?? I refer to St. John Chrysostom, archbishop in Constantinople; St. Thomas a Becket, archbishop of Canterbury; St. Thomas More, former chancellor for Henry VIII; Cardinal Wysinski and Pope John Paul II of Poland who faced down the Communist Empire; or Bishop Von Galen of Germany who took on Hitler.
    For that is the real issue at stake here—and is what the liberal-secular media wants buried.