From conventions to Colbert, Cardinal Dolan plays on top stages

Catholic bishops in 2010 badly wanted to buff the Church’s battered image. So they ditched their usual succession system and picked the jovial Tim Dolan as their president.

Their investment has paid off in spades: Democrats confirmed Tuesday that the cardinal will give the benediction at their convention in Charlotte, N.C., next week — a coveted task Dolan had already agreed to perform for the GOP on Thursday.

Reviving the authority and status of the Catholic Church has been the focus of Dolan, the most visible and influential U.S. Catholic bishop in decades. At a polarized time when many bishops are feeling embattled and laying low, the 62-year-old historian is giving “Today” co-host Matt Lauer a chatty televised tour of Rome, writing a newsy blog and making jokes about his beer drinking. Next month he will join TV comedian Stephen Colbert for an event about humor and spirituality.

“He’s an extrovert on steroids,” said John L. Allen, a prominent Catholic journalist, who earlier this year published a book on Dolan. “Left to his own devices he would talk to anyone anywhere about anything.”

But even if Dolan is able to pull the Church back into popular culture, the days of a major Catholic power broker may be over: Catholics are perhaps too diverse and fragmented, and America too pluralistic to stomach a religious kingmaker.

“Do we now have a bunch of separate Catholic enclaves that don’t have much in common? That’s what makes Dolan fascinating — he is trying to promote this notion of a unified Catholic community. Can it work in the 21st century? It’s a real question,” said Allen.

The twin Dolan appearances come after a bitter year for Catholics over the fusion of religion and politics. The announcement that he would give the closing prayer in Charlotte followed a week of furious criticism from liberal Catholics about the optics of the American church’s leader literally blessing a GOP event. Also Tuesday the Obama campaign said Sister Simone Campbell, a controversial activist considered a celebrity to many liberal Catholics, would have a full speaking spot at the convention.

While many are worried about Catholicism being politicized, Dolan’s rocket-boost into the spotlight is still thrilling for many Catholics, especially those who fear their institution — and traditional religion in general — is losing its cultural power.

“Dolan sees the Church at a crossroads. Either we will try to reassert our traditional role as a community of believers with a public face in this country, or we’ll fade into obscurity. It can go either way, and it’s being decided right now,” said Russell Shaw, a former longtime spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, of which Dolan is president.

According to historians, the last bishop with national influence on a par with Dolan’s was Cardinal Francis Spellman, nicknamed “The Powerhouse.” Spellman was vocal in the mid-1900s on everything from public school funding to union issues and became an emissary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Middle East. Cardinal John J. O’Connor in the late 20th century was said to love the microphone but didn’t have Dolan’s prominence within the church.

In Spellman’s era, Catholics were still unified by the discrimination they experienced. They were a huge block of immigrant workers and voters, and politicians and busi­ness­peo­ple relied on him. Spellman, like O’Connor and Dolan, was the archbishop of New York.

“If the White House wanted a read on Catholics, or if Rome wanted something done in the United States, Spellman’s reputation was being the power broker par excellence,” said Allen. By the 1960s, Catholics entered the mainstream and spread out politically. “Today everyone knows bishops can’t speak for 67 million Catholics. It’s a myth,” Allen said.

Divisions among U.S. Catholics

The Church that Dolan attempts to lead now is roiling. Nothing has pummeled the status of Catholic clergy more than the sex abuse crises that began surfacing around 2000. U.S. Catholics, like Americans overall, are deeply divided today about questions including the literal truth of scripture and whether God cares about things such divorce or in vitro fertilization.

“For 20 or 30 years, the church has been preoccupied by internal issues,” said Shaw, explaining why no other leaders like Dolan have surfaced for so long.

Dolan is typical of today’s bishops, men picked by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI to restore orthodoxy to Catholic institutions — particularly around the issues of abortion and traditional marriage. But as bishops have become more aggressive on culture war issues, they have seen their standing fade. Dolan is meant to be a happier warrior.

“Dolan tends to joke, be folksy, while still being able to throw the punches. He’ll throw a punch but smile while he’s doing that,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit who has written several books on Catholic hierarchy. “There’s no question the bishops when they elected Dolan as president, knew exactly what they were doing.”

Classic Dolan was on display earlier this summer when he quickly agreed to have a public discussion with Colbert, who is Catholic, that was moderated by the Rev. James Martin, a liberal writer. And earlier this month, just before the announcement that Dolan would speak in Tampa, his office said they would invited Obama to speak at a prominent annual church banquet.

“If I only sat down with people who agreed with me, and I with them, or with those who were saints, I’d take all my meals alone!” he wrote on his blog about the dinner.

It’s common for a local Catholic bishop to appear at political conventions, but it’s highly unusual for an outside bishop — particularly the nation’s top bishop — to do so. Dolan has in recent days asked permission twice, of the local bishops near Tampa and Charlotte.

As a conservative former Wisconsin bishop, Dolan is close with Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, who is a congressman from that state, and the Romney invitation was not a surprise, even if it enraged liberals. It was also seen as a shrewd move by the GOP to connect with Catholics, who make up nearly a quarter of the population. In past presidential elections, the winning presidential candidate often got the majority of the Catholic vote.

When questioned about his speaking role at the GOP convention, Dolan said he’d be happy to pray in Charlotte, a comment that some saw as arrogant and others saw as a challenge to the Obama administration, which is locked in lawsuits over its contraception mandate with multiple Catholic institutions. Would the Democrats also give Dolan a spot? Did they have to? Guessing the behind-the-scenes talks has been a Catholic parlor game for the past week.

It took until Monday for the Democrats to accept. On the same day, Dolan called on the two candidates to sign a “civility pledge” agreeing to forgo personal attacks, an idea promoted by Carl Anderson, leader of the powerful Knights of Columbus with deep ties to the Republican Party.

‘Dad’s backyard barbecue’

Allen says Dolan’s ease with political maneuvering reflects his childhood in diverse, scrappy St. Louis, where his father held backyard barbecues to bring everyone together.

“Dolan, very much, has that in his head as a model. Basically he would like to make the U.S. Catholic Church his dad’s backyard barbecue,” he said.

Indeed, it’s hard to find a person who dislikes Dolan, or doesn’t recall a Dolan joke about his (wide) girth, or drinking, or how if he had to watch a baseball game between the St. Louis Cardinals and a New York team, “I’d be the first pro-choice archbishop of New York City.”

But joviality won’t satisfy a divided church.

Judie Brown, president of the anti-abortion giant American Life League, said she is “galled” by what she sees as Dolan’s political correctness - saying nice things about Vice President Biden, a pro-choice Catholic for example.

“He’d rather have a beer with someone than tell them they’re going to hell,” she said. Her organization slammed Dolan for inviting Obama to the Al Smith Dinner next month in New York.

Others say Dolan, who has a doctorate in American Church history from Catholic University, is taking the long view, and sees cultural engagement as the way in 2012 America to evangelize.

It’s not easy to assess the impact of Dolan’s strategy. The Church this summer launched its biggest campaign in a generation, an effort called “Fortnight for Freedom” to oppose what bishops see as curbing of religious liberty, most notably by the Obama-backed health-care mandate for employers to provide contraception access. Most dioceses participated and planned some kind of event, but attendance was typically in the hundreds with a few exceptions that included a Mass in Washington attended by thousands.

Whatever people think of Dolan’s style, the image of a player-bishop is hard to resist.

“It’s wonderful,” Brown said of Dolan’s appearances at the political conventions, moments after saying his praising of Biden felt “devastating” to her.

“He has an opportunity to evangelize,” she said. “Now is the time for people of faith to stand up and be stronger. In any way, it’s a good thing.”

Michelle Boorstein is the Post’s religion reporter, where she reports on the busy marketplace of American religion.
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