In a memorable 2011 appearance on CBS News’s “60 Minutes,” for example, Dolan amply demonstrated what anchor Morley Safer described as “that indefinable quality called charm.” Pressed on how he might translate his openness to dialogue into reform of the church’s conservative views on lifestyle issues, the cardinal was quietly forceful: “I don’t want to see changes in the church when it comes to celibacy or women priests or our clear teaching about the sanctity of human life and the unity of marriage between one man and one woman forever.”
This inflexible stance does not play well with broad swaths of practicing American Catholics, much less the disaffected. Yet Dolan’s self-deprecating humor and warm personal presence can be disarming. When asked recently, again on national television, if he would vote for himself in the upcoming papal election, he replied cheerfully: “No. Crazy people cannot enter the conclave.”
Before becoming archbishop of Milwaukee and then cardinal archbishop of New York, Dolan served as secretary to the papal nuncio in Washington and as rector of the Pontifical North American College, the American seminary in Rome. Along the way he honed his skills as a Vatican insider and became one of the current pope’s favorites. His fellow electors in the College of Cardinals have probably taken note of the new solidarity among conservative priests and laity in the U.S. church and no doubt give him credit for their renewed sense of mission.
But the rationale for an American sensibility at the helm of the universal church goes deeper. The church desperately needs an infusion of modernity — and where better to find the spirit of entrepreneurship, the corporate agility and the technical capacity to project influence than in modernity’s global capital?
Big word, “modernity.” Here, let it invoke a “modern” leader who is not overwhelmed by, but takes instinctive advantage of, an ever more rapidly globalizing world in which the Gospel must be proclaimed. One who would draw around him advisers capable of planning and implementing an institutional “aggiornamento” — updating — so that Rome could again shape attitudes and events rather than react (slowly) to them. One who understands the alienation of younger Catholics, and of young people in general, and can speak plainly and compassionately to their concerns. One who can get the creaky gears of the Vatican moving again, perhaps with the assistance of money and expertise from affluent and well-placed donors. Hmm, where might those types reside?
In his resignation statement, Pope Benedict hinted at this need for adapting Catholic institutions and initiatives to a global milieu in constant flux. “In today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith,” he acknowledged, “in order to govern the barque of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary.”
And, he might have added, a dose of good old American know-how.