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.