Archbishop Dolan's First News Conference

By Sewell Chan
New York Times
April 15, 2009

Updated, 12:08 p.m. | Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan on Wednesday held his first news conference as the new leader of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York. Asked about Gov. David A. Paterson's plan to introduce a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage in New York, he said the church's position on the issue was clear, but he declined to specify whether or how actively he would lobby the governor and state lawmakers on the issue.

Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan displayed many emotions while answering reporters’ questions on Wednesday morning at the offices of the Archdiocese of New York in Manhattan.
Photo by Librado Romero

In the roughly 40-minute news conference, which began shortly after 10 a.m., Archbishop Dolan also spoke of the need for the church to embrace immigrants, to speak with greater "vigor and clarity" in its teachings, and to continue the process of reform that began after the sexual-abuse scandals that rocked the church this decade.

The news conference took place at the New York Catholic Center on the East Side, the morning after a prayer service welcoming Archbishop Dolan to New York, and hours before Archbishop Dolan is to formally take his position in a Mass of installation at St. Patrick's Cathedral. It started on a friendly, cordial note. "Part of the business of being a bishop is being a communicator," he told the reporters.

A New Style?

The first questioner, Tim Minton of WNBC, asked about issues like the ordination of women, prayer on Saturday nights and abortion. "Will you be, sir, an agent of change in New York or an agent of continuity?" he asked

Archbishop Dolan responded:

The most sacred responsibility that a bishop has, Tim, is to pass on the faith that remains changeless and has for 2,000 years. So in substance, Timothy, in the quality, no, I can't — I couldn't change things if I wanted, because they're not mine to change. I've often said our goal is to change our lives to be in conformity with Jesus and his church, not to change the teachings of Jesus and the church to be in conformity with what we want.

"That having been said," he continued, "sometimes and often, and I guess this would be the case, that a bishop would have changes in the style, in the method, in the how. So the what won't change, but the how, the style, might."

He added, "You might be able to let me know in a couple of months if you see changes in style, but I don't anticipate any changes in substance."

Declining Church Attendance

The second question concerned declining church attendance among Catholics New York City. "How are you going to get Catholics back to church?" Magee Hickey of WCBS asked.

"That's a bigee," the new archbishop answered.

He decried a phenomenon in which people want to be religious, but without a sense of belonging to a community of faith.

"They want to believe without belonging," he said. "They don't mind being the sheep, but without a shepherd. They don't have mind the family, as long as they're the only child. They don't see the need for a church. They don't see the need for organized religion."

Echoing a theme of his homily on Tuesday night, he said, "The church is at her best when we invite, when we appeal to people, when we call for what's best in them."

Elaborating on the family analogy, he added, "We're not used to our families sitting down and spending quality time together and gathering around the table in our natural families. We shouldn't too shocked that our supernatural families are experiencing the same downward trend. It's something we have to work on."

Same-Sex Marriage

The third question, from Gabe Pressman of WNBC, was this: "Do you regard your position as a bully pulpit where you can speak out on public issues, and are you going to do that, and an example would be the recent introduction of a bill by Governor Paterson here to validate same-sex marriages?"

"I don't know if I like the word bully –" the archbishop began.

"Teddy Roosevelt started it," Mr. Pressman interjected.

Archbishop Dolan continued:

– but I know what you mean, Gabe. Bully, of course, means aggressive and mean and sharp and bitter. I don't know if I want to use the word bully pulpit, but Gabe, I think there's no escaping the fact that the pulpit of the archbishop of New York has a particular prominence whether I like it or not. And I don't know if I'm going to do anything different than in the past when I've been a parish priest or an auxiliary bishop or an archbishop of a smaller, albeit important, archdiocese. So I'll still preach the truth, I'll still try to apply the immutable teachings of Jesus and his church to contemporary situations. I don't know if I'd tailor that to New York.

He continued: "The topic you raise — other topics that are controversial, that the church has a message to give — yeah, you'll find that I don't shy away from those things and I wouldn't sidestep them. And again, we're not — you might remember from Feb. 23 I made it pretty clear, we bishops aren't into politics, we're into principles."

(In response to a brief follow-up question, Archbishop Dolan said the position of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Vatican on same-sex marriage is clear.)

The fourth question, from Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times, concerned whether the new archbishop would directly lobby the governor and legislators on same-sex marriage or use the media and public statements to convey his position. The archbishop replied:

You can bet I would be active and present and, I hope, articulate in this particular position. Being still very new, my first day on the job, I would be eager to sit down with trusted advisers within this archdiocese, like Bishop Sullivan, and say: Tell me what we've done in the past. Tell me what's worked. Tell me what's been the most effective way to communicate the sentiments of the church on these controversial moral issues, and this isn't the only one. So I'd be the kind of guy that would probably trust what has been done and try to work those through those channels. I wouldn't be hesitant to talk about that in the future. I am, if you don't mind me saying it, confessing it, a little bit hesitant to talk about it today, not only because I'm new but given the timeliness of the moment, it might not be too appropriate to get into the particularities of some of these controversial issues…. I hope I can be more forthcoming in the future.

'Vigor and Clarity' in Preaching

The fifth question, from Lauren Green of Fox News Channel, noted the growth of evangelical congregations and asked Archbishop Dolan why Catholic tradition should be preferred over other interpretations of Christianity. Archbishop Dolan defended Catholic teachings, saying:

What we're doing is choosing what we have gratefully inherited from a supernatural point of view, in the same way we embrace and claim our families, eventually. Now I think the analogy carries in that just as sometimes a child when he or she grows up in the teenage years might grow rebellious, might lose their moorings with their family, and then they go back to it — very often when they go away to college, and the first time they have dirty laundry, they all of a sudden come home, and see mom, and all of a sudden and appreciate home and family.

I'm thinking, I'm hoping, that's the way it is with a lot of our people who have decided to depart from the church. It's very interesting what you raised, in that what we see, if you do a sociology of the people that leave the church, many of them, most of them, if I understand the stats correctly, go to the more evangelical mega-churches — you used that term that is popular today — where they find the truths of the faith, the preaching of the Bible, the Gospel, the teachings of Jesus, preached with particular vigor and clarity. And I wonder if we have to examine our conscience as a church to say: Have we done that? Have we passed on the truth to people, or have we gotten a little too subjective, and too much into diluting, watering down the essentials of the faith?

Young people want the teachings of the church preached convincingly, even if they don't embrace all of those teachings. And former evangelicals who have embraced Roman Catholicism, he said, speak appreciatively of the centrality of Christ, the holy sacraments, the role of the Virgin Mary and the Saints, and the office of the pope as a living protector of the faith.

The Sex-Abuse Scandals

The next question, from a Reuters correspondent, concerned the sexual-abuse scandals that have rocked the church. Archbishop Dolan replied:

Without taking away from the fact that we have made a lot of progress, and a lot of renewal in the church and that we can kind of take a deep breath and say thanks be to God, we've looked this straight in the eye as we've tackled it. We've made some very tough decisions and things are beginning to work. Our safety training, our protection of children, the rigor with which we have removed any priest who's been guilty of this in the past, those are all to our credit.

That said, he added, "I for one think we have to resist the temptation to say, Oh good, that's behind us. It isn't behind us. We've got a lot of credibility to regain. We've got a lot of trust to re-earn from our people. And we've still got a lot of victims, survivors, and their families out there, who are hurting big time."

To a follow-up question by a NY1 News reporter who noted that critics had accused Archbishop Dolan of not being forthcoming enough on the sex-abuse issue when he was archbishop of Milwaukee, Archbishop Dolan struck a conciliatory tone: "Some of those criticisms have been unfair," he said. "That said, those who said that I could have done more, that bishops could have done more, they may have a point."

He said the archdiocese's safety training and child protection programs had become much more rigorous, with annual audits by "outside forensic experts."

"Do you keep trying to refine it, do you keep making it better, do you keep learning new things? Yeah," he said.

He said he had talked with Boy Scout officials about sex scandals in their organization, comparing the "war wounds" experienced by both entities.

Religious Vocations

Rich Lamb of WCBS then asked Archbishop Dolan, "In an instant-gratification society, what's your argument for organized religion in the form of the Catholic church? … How are you going to persuade young men, young women, to take up the religious life? And are you holding your breath to become a cardinal?"

Archbishop Dolan sidestepped the last question, saying only that he hoped the St. Louis Cardinals, his hometown team, would play the Mets at Citi Field. (He did not specify for whom he would root.)

He said it was important to communicate the message that a religious vocation "is one of the most freeing, liberating, joyful styles of life that you can lead," and not burdensome, oppressive or dour as is commonly believed.

He recalled visiting, in Milwaukee, visiting cloistered, contemplative religious women who live an austere life devoid of worldly goods. "From a worldly point of view, these are obviously women who should be sad, should be crabby, should be dour, who should be oppressed," he said. Instead, however, "they are the most free, joyful, loving, happiest women you'd ever meet. And that shouldn't surprise us."

"True freedom is the liberty to do whatever we ought, not the freedom to do whatever we want," he said. "We are at our best when we give away freely what's most inside of us."

The experience of giving and sacrifice is what makes us most happy, he said.

The Church and Immigrants

Asked about the plight of undocumented immigrants in New York, Archbishop Dolan said the church and the archdiocese have long been sanctuaries for poor immigrants, like his own Irish ancestors.

"The first place they go is where? The parish, the church," he said. "The church became the spiritual version of the Statue of Liberty. As the Statue of Liberty kind of fostered a sense of worldly freedom, and a new start and promise, the holy mother church, that other woman, began to be this embracing, loving lady, welcoming the immigrants."

The challenge now, he said, is that the Catholic church in the United States is now a "settled, accepted religion."

"We've got to revive within the more settled Catholic people a sense of energetic solicitude for the immigrants that are coming today," he said. "The immigrants have got to be able to look to us for care, for support, for love."

Statute of Limitations on Sex-Abuse Cases

The next question, from Paul Vitello of The New York Times, concerned legislation in Albany that would lift the statute of limitations for sex abuse crimes — legislation that the church has opposed in other jurisdictions and that Archbishop Dolan testified in opposition to in Wisconsin. Again, the new archbishop of New York deflected the question:

This is an area where I gotta listen. I understand my brother bishops in the state of New York have already been rather clear in addressing this issue. I appreciate what's been done. I would anticipate I would be a partner and, after today, a leader, in that. If there's going to be any change in that, if there's going to be anything new in that, it's a little premature for me to say. Something tells me, Paul, I'll be eager to speak out on that issue in the near future. It might not be the best for me to say anything today.

Morale Among Priests

A reporter asked what the archbishop can do to "lift up" the spirits and morale of the priests of the archdiocese.

"The perception of a morale crisis among priests" is widespread, Archbishop Dolan said, while adding that many priests individually express satisfaction and happiness about their work.

"You've got an individual reality that priests report a tremendous satisfaction and fulfillment and joy in their ministry," he said.

Final Words

Archbishop Dolan made some warm remarks about his nieces and nephews and about his large family, many of whom have joined him in New York for his installation as archbishop. He expressed gratitude that his mother was able to come; his father died in 1977.

Archbishop Dolan said he was delighted to see parishioners, colleagues and friends from Missouri, Washington, D.C., and other areas where he had served travel to New York to welcome him. The duty now, he said, "is to make new friends here."


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