American Catholicism in Public Life: An Interview with Cardinal Timothy Dolan
By Tiffany Stanley
April 12, 2016
Last month, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Catholic archbishop of New York, gave a public lecture at Washington University in St. Louis. It was a homecoming for the cardinal, who is a St. Louis native. The Danforth Center on Religion and Politics sponsored the event.
Over his 40 years in ministry, Dolan has served in Missouri, Wisconsin, Washington, D.C., and Rome. He has been the chairman of Catholic Relief Services and the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In 2012, Pope Benedict elevated him to the College of Cardinals.
During his visit, Cardinal Dolan sat down with Tiffany Stanley, managing editor of Religion & Politics. He discussed a range of topics—from Pope Francis and the presidential campaign to the late Antonin Scalia and the movie Spotlight. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
R&P: You’re a native of St. Louis. What do you miss about the city, now that you are in New York?
TD: Obviously, I miss family. I’m really close to my family, really close. My mom is still alive, thank God. She lives out in Washington, Missouri. That’s not where we were raised, but now she lives out there because my two sisters live there. My brother lives very close to here. I miss them, especially my nieces and nephews, who I really love. A priest’s family is really important. So I miss my proximity.
Secondly, I guess a sense of familiarity. It’s tough to describe it. Home is such a loaded word. As much as I love New York, and Milwaukee as well, you always know it isn’t where you grew up.
R&P: I want to dive into some politics questions. You and your church strongly support immigrant rights.
TD: You bet we do.
R&P: And I know you have spoken out against and criticized your fellow New Yorker Donald Trump for some of his rhetoric. So I wanted to ask you, what do you make of the anti-immigrant rhetoric going on in this presidential campaign?
TD: Because I am an historian, my shock level is not very high. Because I know there is a constant virulent strain in American history—a suspicion at best, a hatred at worst, of the immigrant, the foreigner. It is an unfortunate part of American history and it is completely irrational, because unless you’re a Native American, we are all immigrants or the children of immigrants.
For Catholics, it’s particularly timely because—more often than not—nativists like the Know-Nothings, the American Protective Association, and the Ku Klux Klan, were not only anti-foreigner but also anti-Catholic, because they would believe that Catholicism is at odds with American culture. So that gives [Catholics] a special sense of the dread on the horizon of nativism. Personally, all of us can remember the stories of how we were subjected to that. That would be very true in New York for instance; they can remember when they were shunned. They can remember when they were harassed.
So I think that’s the genesis of our aversion to persecution or harassment or bigotry against immigrants. Basically, it’s biblically based and flows from our faith. It’s one of the clearest teachings in the pages of Scripture. To welcome the refugee, the immigrant, is an extraordinary point in biblical virtue. So that resonates with us too. So that’s why we are so high on it.
You heard me today speak about John Paul II principles, the dignity of the human person made in the image and likeness of God. Our dignity does not depend on a passport or green card, it doesn’t depend on a stock portfolio, it doesn’t even depend on the diploma from Washington University. It does not depend on a resumé. It depends on who we are, not what we have or what we do. If we lose that, the whole American genius is at risk. That’s part of our real fear of this neo-nativism that’s rising up. Nativism was particularly strong in the 1830s, 40s, and 50s. Back then it was organized white Protestant hatred of the Catholic immigrant. Now, it has morphed into a more generic detesting of the immigrant. Now, it’s more organized resistance to Latinos and to Muslims. But whomever it is against, it’s not good.
R&P: Pope Francis makes headlines in the U.S. nearly every week, and people love his emphasis on the marginalized. What is it like being an American Catholic leader during this time?
TD: We’re not used to people having a spontaneous, innate openness to Catholicism. You would meet people who might have an intellectual openness to Catholicism; you might meet people who would have an interest sociologically. Most of all, you like to meet people who have a spiritual attraction to it. For the man and woman in the street, to have just a natural spontaneous interest in it, and a positive assessment of Catholicism, is something we are not used to. So, carpe diem, seize the day, it is time to make hay while the sun shines because it will end. It may end with him: He may say something that doesn’t resonate well with the American people. Or, as he keeps reminding us, he is not pope forever. So we need to make hay now because there is just widespread interest. Where I particularly sense it is among disaffected Catholics. They will often say, “This man has made me re-examine my roots and do a reappraisal of my faith in a good way. I had drifted from it, or intentionally distanced myself from it, and it is time to rethink that.” All you can say to that is alleluia.
R&P: On the other side, clearly the Catholic Church has weathered severe crises in the last few decades. The movie Spotlight just won two Oscars. What would be your word of encouragement today, in this time, for abuse survivors, and for the people that have fallen away in light of that?
TD: I spent time with them a lot. In one way it is very excruciating to talk about that, but in another way it is somewhat natural because I spend a lot of time doing it as any pastor worth his salt would. In general, I find them, on the one hand, extraordinarily blunt about the depth of their wounds. I find them, with some exceptions, eager for healing, and wise to know that the perverse nauseating action of a given priest, whose presence was due to the negligence of a particular bishop, should not ever extinguish one’s faith, or make one detest the church because of it. They are very wise in telling me they have been tempted to do that, but they realize that’s not the thing to do. So many of them move me to tears when the say, “We still love the church. We still gratefully remember the overwhelming majority of priests who are good to us.”
They simply want an assurance that they have been heard, and rightly so, and then most of all, they want the assurance that the Church has learned, and that things are in order. That’s why I think a lot of bishops often ask survivors to be part of our ongoing efforts, and many of them are happy to do so.
Secondly, you don’t want to start bragging about all the good stuff that the Church has done. But it is time, I think, to turn the spotlight on that, to use the word “spotlight.” I didn’t see the movie, but from what I understand it was very fairly and objectively reported in the movie. Apparently it was a very fair movie. We are talking about a historical event that is terribly sad, and now there has been a prolonged mea culpa on the behalf of the bishops to say, “Look, we’re not denying that, we did not handle that well.” We would like to propose that just as in the past we were an example of how not to handle it, that perhaps we could now serve as a model of how to respond to this. And people, with objectivity, have said we are doing a very good job.
R&P: The Supreme Court makes long-lasting decisions around abortion and life and contraception. After the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, do you have concerns about the future of the Court and some of these issues?
TD: I do. While the Church, as you know, has a broad array of concerns in the political and cultural arena, we have concerns in the areas of religious freedom, the defense of the life of the baby in the womb, and the defense of traditional marriage and family. Those aren’t the only concerns that we’ve got, but in that realm, we admit, practically, that noble cause has been served better by the conservative side of the Court, which has now lost not only its most articulate champion, but also now the balance of the Court is in jeopardy. It is not antagonistic to the president to worry that given his political beliefs, he would not share our view on those issues that I just mentioned. So there is an understandable anxiety among Catholic pastors. Those are the only ones of whom I can speak with any knowledge. There would be a legitimate anxiety that the candidate proposed by the president might have a record that would show her or him less than allied with us on those causes, if not downright opposed to them. So we do worry.
R&P: New York was one of the cities that hosted Pope Francis on his recent visit to the United States. I wanted to ask if you had a memory that you treasure from that week?
TD: Yes, I have a number of memories. For one, I remember the ecstatic enthusiasm of the people. I lived in Rome for eleven happy years. I’ve been part of papal trips in the past. But to have the box seat, to literally be next to the pope when all of this is going on, to see the enthusiasm and the ecstasy with which the people greeted him, to see how much his person, his touch, his gaze, his presence, his words, his blessing, his prayer meant to people, was extraordinarily inspirational.
A second takeaway is how surprised he is at that. What moves me is how surprised Pope Francis is that people are even interested in him. When we entered Central Park, he said, “Oh my Lord, look at all these people.” It’s almost like he couldn’t believe that they would have been there for him, because he has such an authentic humility and sense of modesty. That moved me very much.
People ask, “How he can be so winsome and effective?” And I say because he is not trying to. He is so natural and spontaneous. It wouldn’t be scripted; it wouldn’t be concocted. You know they’ll say, “Oh what a man that knows the power of an image to do this or to go there.” I don’t think he even plots it. He just does it. So that would be memory number two, his own awe at the enthusiasm with which people greeted him.
Number three would be his honest admission that he didn’t quite understand the United States of America or the Church in America. He asked very basic questions, and he wasn’t afraid to. He had never been to the United States before; he doesn’t speak English. I’ll give you an example. When we riding along in the car he would say, “What is this river?” “Oh Holy Father, this is the East River.” “So what’s that over there?” “That’s Brooklyn.” “So that’s not New York?” I said, “No, that’s New York,” and then I explained the five boroughs. And he said, “I met this bishop who said he was from New York but he is way up North in a place called Rochester or something.” I said, “That’s the state of New York.” He was very honest about asking. Then, we were in the car once and he said, “Oh my Lord, what is that monument there?” And I said, “Holy Father, that’s an apartment building.” He wasn’t used to these huge buildings. Again, it was refreshing. When he visited one of our inner-city Catholic schools, I had three of our top donors in. He said, “Now who are those good people? You told me one of them donated $40 million. What do you do with that money?” And I said, “We pay for our schools.” He said, “But why do you have to when the government pays for them?” I said, “No Father, let me explain to you the United States.” So I tried to, and he said, “But that seems unjust.” I said, “That’s for sure, can I quote you on that?” But his willingness to say, “Help me understand that,” or, “Explain this to me,” I found very refreshing.
R&P: In New York, what are the issues that you feel are the most pressing to address, right now or in the future? And what are the projects that you’re excited about?
TD: Here’s the temptation whenever anybody asks me, “What are the challenges? What are the dreams that you have?” We usually are tempted to speak about the institutional, and what you might call tangible things. And I could speak about that a lot. How we are going to keep our schools strong and accessible and affordable? How we are going to do a better job helping with housing and feeding the poor? What are we going to do about the parishes that are struggling and can’t make it any more, and probably need to be merged? Those are almost all organizational, institutional, extraordinarily valuable questions.
You see, though, the major challenge we have is the same challenge that the apostles had about 30 seconds after they received the Holy Spirit at the first Pentecost. How are we going to effectively, convincingly, colorfully, credibly, cogently, graciously present the person, the message, and the invitation of Jesus Christ? That’s our main work. All those other things must flow from that. We as Catholics sometimes get it a little backwards. We become so absorbed in what you might call institutional maintenance, that we forget the mission. Mission, must always trump maintenance.
If we are excited, enthusiastic and effective in the mission, we won’t have to worry about merging parishes because they will be filled. We won’t have to worry about keeping our schools open because there will be waiting lists to get in. We will not have to worry so much about how we can effectively feed the poor, clothe the hungry, heal the sick, and teach the ignorant because we will have such a committed core of people eager to do that, that nothing is impossible. That is what we have to recapture.